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Westminster Hall

Volume 633: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2017

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 December 2017

[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

Sector Deal for Steel

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the steel sector deal.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and I thank the House for granting the debate.

Hon. Members will recall that there was a period of time when we had debates about the future of the British steel industry almost weekly. Since then, the media circus has moved on, and with it the Government’s apparent concern, focus and attention. Let us be clear: Government engagement with steel evaporated once the crisis had dropped off the front page of the newspapers. Back then, the Prime Minister was a guy called David Cameron. As we know, he was first and foremost a PR man, so when the steel crisis hit his PR instincts went into overdrive. He needed to manage the story and get it off the front page as quickly as possible. Did he ever have any intention of tackling the underlying causes of the crisis—his Government’s abject failure to push through the policy reforms so desperately needed to create a level playing field for the steel industry? No, he did not. As the debate will show, David Cameron’s successor has simply picked up where he left off.

Just over two years ago, the closure of the Redcar steelworks had a truly devastating impact on the town and community; 3,000 people were put out of work, and of those who have since found work almost two thirds have had to take a pay cut. Many other businesses in the area have struggled, because every UK steel job supports at least three more elsewhere in the economy. Three months after the closure of Redcar, Tata Steel announced more than 1,000 job losses across Wales, three quarters of them at the Port Talbot steelworks in my constituency. About a month later came the devastating news that Tata Steel planned to close or sell its entire UK business. While the then Business Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), was enjoying a nice little Easter recess jolly to Australia, I was out in Mumbai with Community Union to present the turnaround plan to the board of the Tata group.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Does he remember—he has missed it out of his chronology so far—the national steel summit held in Rotherham? It was not just the steel towns and their MPs that felt let down, but the leaders of Britain’s major steel companies and steel trade unions who were round the table that day as well. The promises of serious attention and action to follow, which were made two years ago at the national steel summit, have not been followed through.

My right hon. Friend is right. That was an important milestone, but there have been so many false dawns, and warm words matched by frozen actions.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the great work that he has done over a significant period to stand up for the steel industry. On the subject of broken promises, does he agree that investment in research and development is another big issue? Across the UK generally it remains stubbornly below the OECD average. The whole sector is now asking for increased R and D investment in steel, and the Government should deliver that.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think that in the minds of some Ministers, and others in the House, steel is seen as metal bashing and an almost primitive industry, but in fact it is at the cutting edge of many innovations that we desperately need to drive our economy forward. If we are serious about getting a broad-based manufacturing renaissance, it must start with investment in the steel industry.

It was clear that Tata’s initial preference was to close the business down rather than sell it, but thankfully we managed to persuade the company to shift its position from closure to sale. Thanks to the magnificent professionalism and dedication of the workforce and steel unions, the turnaround plan began to kick in. The performance of the business dramatically improved, and from a fire sale we got the slow burn that eventually morphed into Tata’s decision to remain. However, that happened only after the workforce, facing the prospect of either the closure of the Port Talbot works or the closure of their pension scheme, voted for pension restructuring. They put the future of their industry, livelihoods and communities before all else. Steelworkers and steel communities are like no others. If my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) were well enough to be here today, she would have told us of the incredible strength and resilience of her community, which has stood firm, united and resilient, just as she has fought tooth and nail for it since the closure of the works.

There have been many ups and downs in the British steel industry in the past few years, but three things remain constant. The first is the relentless passion and commitment of steelworkers and their communities, exemplified by the delivery of the turnaround plan and the vote on the restructuring of their pension scheme. The second is the Government’s indifferent and incompetent attitude, and the third is the key policy asks of the industry—business and workforce—which have remained fundamentally unchanged for well over two years. We have discussed those policy asks many times, but it would be remiss not to take the Minister through them, as this is her first time attending such a debate.

To take trade defence first, we asked the Government to stop blocking reform of the lesser duty rule, which means tariffs that we can impose on illegally dumped steel are capped at 16%, while the Americans can impose far higher duties. The Trade Bill is set to transfer the lesser duty rule to UK legislation after Brexit. We asked for meaningful action against illegal Chinese dumping, with proper trade defence instruments. However, as steelworkers were being shown the back door, No. 10 was rolling out the red carpet for Beijing. What was the result? We can now add the challenge of illegally dumped Russian and Turkish steel to that of Chinese steel.

Secondly, on business rates, there have been five Budgets in the past two years, and not one has acknowledged the industry’s concerns about the way business rates inhibit investment and hold us back from investing in plant and machinery; so of course no remedy has been proposed.

Thirdly, on the question of procurement, which I have been working on extensively with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), the Government have utterly failed to translate their rhetoric into reality. The public interest test that they introduced proved inadequate. Our calls for a longer lead-in time for central Government contracts have fallen on deaf ears. The Government have resisted transparency, dumping the idea of mandatory reporting and refusing even to gather and hold the relevant data, let alone provide it to us whenever we have asked. Foreign steel has continued to be used on iconic projects such as the repair of Big Ben, the new Firth of Forth bridge, the new Type 26 frigates and all sorts of smaller refurbishment and development projects around the country.

On the most vital of issues, energy prices, there has been some tinkering at the edges but no attempt at all to tackle the root causes of our ludicrously uncompetitive energy costs. The Government found a chaotic resolution to the EU emissions trading threat—something that would have cost the steel companies tens of millions of pounds, owing to the mishandling of Brexit—but they have singularly failed to clear changes to the feed-in tariff and renewables obligation opt-out. On the central issue of energy pricing, which means that UK producers’ energy costs are more than 50% higher than those of our European competitors, nothing has been done, and it appears nothing will be done.

That brings me to the very matter that we are here to discuss: the sector deal for steel, which hinges on the issue of energy pricing. After publishing the industrial strategy White Paper, the Government asked all industries to present their sector deals—comprehensive packages about how their industry would work within a national industrial strategy. The steel industry did just that, by presenting a sector deal to Ministers that met all the requisite criteria back on 7 September.

That deal would see a 50% increase in investment, from £200 million to £300 million per year—an additional £1.5 billion of investment over the next five years. It would increase production capacity by 40%, from 10 million tonnes to 14 million tonnes a year. It would create 2,000 jobs, and would see 200 more apprentices trained every year. It would develop a low-carbon roadmap, and help to deliver a more efficient electrical system, almost doubling the industry’s demand-side response. It would see the industry pump an extra £30 million investment a year into R and D, which is an area, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) pointed out, in which the UK is traditionally weaker than our rivals.

In return for all that value, all the steel industry asks is that the Government match the R and D funding, helping to establish the future steel challenge fund, which would bring together the steel value chain, from automotive to aerospace and from renewables to construction, to work in partnership towards a cohesive industrial strategy and a new kind of growth, unlocking exciting innovation and new opportunities. The deal asks for Government help in facilitating investment by providing access to commercially competitive loans, providing capital investment grants or innovative tax discounts linked to investment. Essentially, that would help the industry to unlock the monopoly on investment held by property speculators and quash the myth that investing in industry is risky.

Crucially, the linchpin on which all this untapped potential rests is energy prices. Our steel producers have to pay 55% more than their German competitors and 51% more than the French, which adds up to an additional cost of almost £50 million a year. As the sector deal makes clear, if the steel industry gets the help it needs, it will put every penny and more of that £50 million back into the industry, creating jobs, increasing capacity, innovating and creating new opportunities and value.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is wide support for the sector deal right across the steel sector? It makes sensible and innovative proposals. Why do the Government not simply adopt it?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The sector deal has been submitted under the umbrella of UK Steel and EEF, but with the full participation and support of Tata Steel, British Steel, Liberty Steel, Celsa Steel and a number of other key players in the sector. The steel industry really speaks with one voice on this.

Without a cost-competitive energy environment, steel companies cannot invest in the future, and the industry can survive only when it has the potential to thrive. Steel is too important a product for our economy, our security, our communities and our standing as a nation for us to have to rely on others for it.

The fact that the UK produced some 8 million tonnes of steel in 2016, while China produced 808 million tonnes shows a vast difference. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—I think he is basically saying this—that it may now be time for the Government to enter into negotiations with the companies and also the unions to ensure that we have a manufacturing base for steel in future? We will not have one unless the Government act. It is time that they did.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I will come on to explain, the sector proposal is the litmus test for the Government. We have had years and years of warm words, but this really is the moment to see whether the Government are serious about providing the support they say they want to provide.

Steel enables transport, construction, manufacturing, energy and consumer goods—you name it, Sir Henry, and if steel is not in it, it was almost certainly used to make, process or transport it. Steel is truly a foundation industry, and demand is growing. The report published last week, “Future Capacities and Capabilities of the UK Steel Industry”, showed that, by 2030, domestic demand for finished steel products will have grown by almost 2 million tonnes. That leaves almost 7 million tonnes of domestic demand to be met by the UK steel industry, which equates to a £3.8 billion opportunity per year.

That value is even greater if we consider all that steel goes into. Almost half the content of all cars built in the UK is British steel. In researching the “Steel 2020” report by the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal related industries last year—I have a copy with me; I am sure the Minister has already read it, but I would be happy to hand it over—we heard from leading figures in the car industry that the presence of a successful domestic steel industry is a key determinant of where steel is sourced.

Steel is vital to the future of UK car manufacturing and innovation. Take the much-vaunted electric and self-driving cars, which were championed by the Chancellor in last month’s Budget. Along with the normal steel content of any car, what do hon. Members think their batteries are cased in? Steel. If we are to invest billions in that new technology, why on earth would we not invest in the capacity to monetise those innovations? If we do not have the capacity to manufacture, or the capacity to produce the steel for the batteries and the machines that manufacture them, we will lose out. The steel will be Chinese. The manufacturing and machinery will be German, and we will have spent billions on an idea that sees profit not in Port Talbot, Sheffield or Redcar, but in IJmuiden, Tangshan or Duisburg.

Despite investment in R and D falling by 90% over the past 25 years, the UK steel industry is still at the cutting edge. More than two thirds of steel produced in the UK today did not even exist a decade ago, so we should not let anybody tell us that steel is a sunset industry. It is an industry that is building a Britain for the future, which is why a go-ahead for the sector deal is vital. It is also important because steel is the ultimate economic and social multiplier. For every £1 of public investment in steel R and D, the return averages between £6 and £16. That means the £60 million transformation fund in the sector deal could add up to £960 million for the UK economy. I do not know about you, Sir Henry, but investing £60 million for almost a £1 billion return feels like a pretty good investment to me.

On average, steel jobs pay 40% higher than the average in the steel heartlands of Wales and Yorkshire and the Humber. Every steel job supports at least three further jobs in the local community and the national economy. Losing the steel industry would devastate towns such as Port Talbot, but the knock-on effects would be equally catastrophic. If the Port Talbot steelworks were to close, it would cost 40,000 jobs across Wales and the UK, costing the Government a total of £4.6 billion in benefits and lost tax revenue and reducing household spending in the economy by £3 billion over 10 years.

If we were to reshape the energy market, as the steel sector deal calls for, the most it would cost would be the equivalent of 57p per household per year. That is 57p a year against almost £8 billion in lost spending, tax and benefit payments if things were to go wrong. Once again, Sir Henry, that looks like a pretty good return on investment to me. There is a golden opportunity, with huge potential for growth. We should all applaud the Government for crossing the Rubicon and accepting the need for an industrial strategy, but the fact of the matter is that, if the Government fail to support the sector deal, that strategy will not be worth the paper it is written on.

Speed is of the essence. Steel companies only have so much capital to invest. That capital is spread across their global businesses, and if they cannot invest it here and now, it will go elsewhere. That is the nature of the beast. We have already seen Liberty spend almost £1 billion in Australia, and there are reports that British Steel—formerly Tata Long Products—is looking at an Italian plant. The clock is ticking and time is running out.

With the uncertainties of Brexit, the Government should be biting the hand off of anyone willing to invest at this time. Instead, steel companies have been fobbed off with all sorts of excuses. They submitted the sector deal on 7 September, but were only granted a meeting with the Minister at the very end of November—hardly the behaviour of a Government serious about supporting this foundational domestic industry. The fact is that the Government’s failure to engage on the steel asks set the tone. The sad reality is that trust between the Government and the steel industry has been shot to pieces. Warm words are no good to anyone if they are matched only by frozen actions.

I must correct the hon. Gentleman on a factual point: one of my very first acts as Minister was to visit the steelworks in his constituency and close by. I met the council formally to discuss the shape of the sector deal and subsequently three times after the presentation of the sector deal, and I have met and spoken to the companies on numerous occasions. He really must correct the record, because it is simply not true to say I only engaged with the sector after the sector deal was submitted.

I thank the Minister for her intervention. Conversations, visits and meetings are excellent, but the fact remains that the sector deal was submitted on 7 September, and a meeting was not granted with the steel industry until the very end of November. As the clock is ticking, the decisions about investment next year are drying up. It would be great to see rhetoric matched with reality.

An industrial strategy is not built on good will. A business cannot be built on Whitehall bluster, and communities cannot be sustained on platitudes. We all understand that an industrial strategy cannot do everything for everyone, but if the Government are serious about rebalancing our dangerously skewed economy, they must surely start by investing in the steel industry. With the steel sector deal, all that is being asked for is a small amount of help to unlock tremendous potential, create thousands of jobs and add hundreds of millions of value to the economy. Instead, the Government seem to be more interested in investing in robotics, medicine, life sciences and driverless vehicles. I am sure that those emerging industries are vital, but they are all concentrated in the south-east of England. Is that really going to support the broad-based manufacturing renaissance that our country so desperately needs?

Steel workers the length and breadth of Britain have shown that they will make every sacrifice, and the industry has dug deep too. It is the Government who have been found sorely wanting. Steel communities are a hardy bunch, forged in the white heat of our industry and from parts of the country that are well used to being forgotten, neglected and ignored by successive Tory Governments. They know how to take bad news on the chin, and they certainly prefer to be treated like adults, with honesty and clarity as opposed to the obfuscation that has become the hallmark of this Government.

I urge the Minister to stop taking us for a ride. All the indications are that the Government really could not care less about the future of the British steel industry. If that is the case, they should just say so. Please stop stringing us along, and stop promising to do something about energy prices, dumping, procurement and business rates while in reality having no intention whatsoever to act. Please level with us today on the sector deal. Just tell us here and now whether or not the Government are minded to support it. If they are not, it is clearly better to know that now, so that no more of our time and energy is wasted. We know that the previous Prime Minister and Business Secretary only got involved when they realised they had a brewing PR disaster on their hands. We hoped that this Prime Minister and this Business Secretary would be different, but the sad reality is that the Government lost interest once the media circus moved on, so we are back to square one.

The toxic combination of complacency, indifference and incompetence is back with a vengeance. Eleven months ago, the steel APPG produced “Steel 2020”, which provides a road map for the industry’s future. Eleven months on, we are still waiting for the Secretary of State to give us a date for a meeting to discuss it. Over recent weeks, we have seen unscrupulous financial advisers swooping in like vultures to exploit steelworkers while the Government stand by and do nothing. Now we see a comprehensive, exciting offer from the steel industry, backed by the trade unions, sitting on the shelf and ignored for three months. I would say that that is shameful, but I wonder whether the Government are capable of feeling that emotion.

I implore the Minister again to level with us. If she will not help, she should just say so, and the Government should stop wasting our time and giving us false hope. Let us get on and fix what we can ourselves, because right now, the Government are only holding us back. I desperately hope that the Minister will stand up and prove all my suspicions wrong. In fact, I am praying for it, because it is my constituents’ lives and livelihoods that are at stake. I will finish by saying to the Government that they have a choice: they can either be part of the solution, or they can continue being part of the problem. Now is the time to choose, and this sector deal is the litmus test.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, it might be of interest to Members to know that I will call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.30 am sharp. By my calculation, that gives each person seven minutes if everyone is going to make a reasonable contribution. I call Mr Simon Clarke.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I was pleased to support the debate application from the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), with whom I serve on the all-party group on steel and metal related industries. He is a great advocate of the steel industry and was absolutely right to call for this debate. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.

Steel is part of the DNA of Teesside, and I represent the hugely impressive British Steel special profiles business at Skinningrove in my constituency. I visited the plant in my first month as an MP to meet managing director Peter Gate and see the operations for myself. It transformed whatever preconceptions I held about what a modern steelworks looks like. Simultaneously combining vast power with infinite precision, the special profiles unit has the machining capability required to manufacture special profiles. Those include unique reserved profiles that have been designed for individual customer needs and open roll profiles, which are available to all customers. Key products include bulb flats, track shoe profiles, crane rail profiles and mining components. Perhaps the most significant profiles made by British Steel at Skinningrove are those produced for the manufacture of forklift trucks, which include mast profiles, carriage bar profiles and flats for manufacturing the fork arms themselves.

The special profiles unit is co-located on the same site as Caterpillar, which is its largest single customer and is also a major employer in my constituency. These companies are great sources of not just jobs, but skilled jobs, and jobs that pay well above the median salary for people on Teesside. They are valued highly in East Cleveland, and we should celebrate that achievement.

In 2016, Caterpillar at Skinningrove passed the amazing milestone of 20 million track shoes produced at its plant, all made using profiles made by British Steel. British Steel special profiles also supplies Caterpillar operations in Brazil, the United States and China. It is a great example of how the UK steel industry remains such an asset to our economy and to our country’s standing as an industrial power.

Since my election, I have pledged my support for whatever can be done to help with what is perhaps British Steel’s foremost challenge: the cost of energy. British Steel special profiles is seeking redesignation from a high-voltage status business to extra-high-voltage status, which it calculates would reduce its energy costs by some £265,000 a year, and I have held talks with Ofgem about how that might be secured. The problem is not so much the cost of redesignation, which is estimated to be around £1 million, but the fact that British Steel would likely have to take on responsibility for the ongoing upkeep of what is already considered an unreliable electricity connection and for maintaining the easements and wayleaves across properties owned by some potentially difficult third parties. Whatever support the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy can offer British Steel on that issue would be invaluable, and I hope the Minister and her officials will follow up on that.

The purpose of this debate is to discuss the wider outlook for the steel sector. I know that the Minister, with whom I am in regular contact regarding such diverse issues as carbon capture and storage and the case for onshore wind, is absolutely committed to making a success of our industrial strategy. We have a friend in her as we seek to deliver a framework within which UK steel can thrive.

This is a critical issue for Teesside. I want to emphasise that UK Steel, the body that represents the industry, wants to convey the positivity and the optimism that also characterises this moment. This is as much about future opportunities as it is about the consolidation of existing strengths. The Government’s study on the future of the industry projects a £3.8 billion opportunity in steel demand by 2030, as the hon. Member for Aberavon said, which will need to be met by imports if we do not get this opportunity right.

With the right strategy, UK Steel estimates that the gross value added of the industry can increase from £1.2 billion today to £3 billion. That goes to the heart of the issue. Steel is an enabling technology, underpinning so many other parts of our economy. The sector places a premium upon innovation, which is what will be required if we are to continue to offer high-end products that our rivals in the world cannot easily match. That means investing not only in physical facilities but in R and D and training and skills, particularly of the next generation.

I often hear from my local employers that a big challenge on Teesside is how we address the age profile of our skilled workers, many of whom were trained in the ’70s and ’80s by the big industrial conglomerates that have predominated and contracted throughout the course of my lifetime. Those workers are now approaching retirement age. It is vital that we ensure that our education and apprenticeship models are fit for purpose, to supply young people with the skills and inspiration they need to grasp the opportunities that we all hope will be created for them. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, the SSI Task Force in Redcar has had considerable success. I praise also the huge potential of the South Tees mayoral development corporation. We all know the consequences that were felt in Redcar and that obviously had massive impacts also in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, but real, constructive action, money and hope are now flowing into our area. It is very important that we get that part of the equation on the record as well.

The key elements of the deal are clear. As the hon. Gentleman set out, that includes investment, boosting production capability, creating more jobs, employing and training more apprentices and working with the Government to create a future steel challenge fund, drawing together partners from the automotive, construction and renewables sectors. It is also vital that the Government play their part in ensuring that UK steel has the best possible chance to compete in relation to procurement options. I have already spoken to Defence Ministers about giving maximum notice when it comes to contracts for warships.

If the vision is to be realised, we need to ensure that maximum support is given regarding the cost of energy. We all know that the UK’s energy mix is undergoing a profound revolution. It is right that that is happening, so that we can not only future-proof our security of supply, but meet our carbon commitments. The market-led “test and learn” electricity strategy, set in motion under the coalition Government, has yielded startling and exciting advances in terms of moving renewable energy closer and closer to the point at which it will become competitive on a subsidy-free basis. That is great news, but our forward thinking on this issue has left the industry exposed to a competitiveness challenge. The simple fact is that it is difficult for our industry to compete when its energy costs are 55% higher than those of Germany and 51% higher than those of France. We are looking for bridging solutions that lower costs in the short to medium term while we wait for longer-term solutions to take effect. That is in effect the same principle as the Government have already accepted vis-à-vis renewable energy, so I hope that the Minister can consider it seriously, while acknowledging that this is in no way easy or straightforward.

I want to touch on the other levers within the Government’s grasp. They include supporting the proposed future challenges fund, looking at whether new plant and machinery can be exempted from business rates and ensuring that we get our post-Brexit trade framework spot on, because getting the right framework for trade remedies will be critical if we are to deal with the outrageous dumping of steel by the Chinese that has taken place recently. I urge every hon. Member present to join me after the Christmas recess in the debates on the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, which will be the vehicle for getting that right.

I thank the Minister for her time today and thank the hon. Member for Aberavon for calling the debate. Let us move forward together, as one, with a positive mindset towards delivering the right deal for our steel sector.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing the debate. I fully support the excellent case that he made for a steel sector deal. He rightly reiterated the policy asks and the fact that speed is of the essence. I wholeheartedly agree with that. My constituency is just down the M4 from his, and the social importance of steel is crucial to communities in my constituency too. Hundreds of people rely directly or indirectly—there are three or more jobs in the local economy for every steel job—on the steel industry. These are good jobs—skilled and relatively well paid jobs—in parts of the country, such as Wales, where that is not always the case. There is huge pride in producing steel. In areas such as mine, there is a real passion for and commitment to the steel industry, which is why all of us in the Chamber have spoken in many debates over the past few years calling on the UK Government to take more action to save our industry. However, on issues such as energy costs, those calls, as my hon. Friend said, have sadly gone unheeded up to now.

During these very hard times for steel, we should recognise, as my hon. Friend said, that the workforce, with their unions, have made huge sacrifices and done all they can to help our industry—most recently, through the painful changes to pensions. Let me also mention, as a Welsh Member of Parliament, the Welsh Government, who have done all they can with the powers and tools that they have in Wales to help. That includes the active work of Ministers such as Ken Skates, the Welsh Assembly Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport, who has supported the industry through Welsh public sector infrastructure and construction projects.

However, we do need more UK Government action, and faster. It is true that we have had warm words, but we need more action. The steel sector deal proposal has been put together by the existing six steel companies in the UK, coming together with the unions to look at ways of addressing the challenges collectively. Those individual companies have made specific commitments on jobs, investment, expanded capacity and an increase in innovation activity within the sector.

Some of the companies are in my constituency. There are Tata’s plants at Llanwern and Orb and the relatively new entrant Liberty, which is expanding fast. Those two companies were among the six involved in drawing up the steel sector deal proposal. With Tata’s Llanwern Zodiac plant in Newport East, the investment by the company in the auto-finishing line, and Orb’s electrical steel capabilities, there is a real opportunity for the UK to establish itself as one of the foremost suppliers of steel to the automotive industry, especially for electric cars. We therefore welcome the Government’s automotive sector deal conversations and their ambition to increase domestic content to 50% in British-made vehicles, but we in Newport are acutely aware that we need a thriving, competitive steel industry to do that, which is why a sector deal for steel is needed.

The GFG Alliance, which owns Liberty Steel, which also has a base in Newport East, has announced plans to create a total of 5 million tonnes of low-carbon steelmaking capacity during the next five years as part of a drive to develop a green and competitive future for manufacturing in the UK. That would equate to half the steel made in Britain at present. Currently, the UK exports more of its scrap for processing abroad than any other developed country, so Liberty’s aim is to recycle a large proportion of the 7.2 million tonnes a year of scrap steel here in the UK. That low-carbon secondary steel production would displace much of the 7 million tonnes a year of raw steel currently imported and is a huge opportunity for the country to drive clean growth by making low-carbon steel at home.

There is great ambition in the steel industry in my constituency, despite all the difficulties faced by the steel sector in recent years. However, although demand for steel is up, production has fallen and many of the underlying causes of the recent crisis are still there. Tata and Liberty in my constituency show what ambition is out there, but we need Government interventions to ensure that our innovation can keep pace with our international competitors. That is why we repeat and repeat the policy asks. That means Government action on energy prices—the most important intervention that the Government could make. As my hon. Friend said, UK plants currently pay more than 50% more than their German and French counterparts. It means action on the business rate regime. These companies are investing and want to invest more. They want to work with the Government to unlock further investment. For the steel industry to flourish, they need a route to market that includes things such as UK steel for infrastructure projects, help with access to finance and a future steel challenge fund. Addressing the barriers through a sector deal will help to unlock investment. I mentioned this a moment ago, but we also need to continue to see more commitment on procurement, including in subsidised energy projects. As a south Walian Member, I point out that we are still awaiting a decision on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon.

On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that, given that the Hendry review was completed almost a year ago, it is almost impossible to understand why we are still waiting for the Government’s answer on the recommendations in that review, which are vital to the south Wales economy, not least the steel industry?

My hon. Friend is right to make that point. The project has huge potential, not only for Swansea bay but for other areas of Wales—there is the potential for tidal lagoons in places such as Newport—so we must keep pressing the Government. We do not understand why the decision has not been made yet.

There has obviously been disappointment in the steel sector that its own proposal for a sector deal was not among those being talked about, especially given that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said, discussions have been ongoing since the crisis in 2015-16, when the Secretary of State invited the sector to work with him to come up with a vision for a modern, sustainable steel sector. We look forward to hearing from the Minister today about what she can do to work with the industry and all of us to ensure a sustainable future for steel.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this well-timed debate on the steel sector deal. It was good to hear the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) contributing so knowledgeably to the debate. He fills really big shoes on steel. Our former colleague, Tom Blenkinsop, was a tower of strength and had a real passion for this industry; I know that he continues to fight for it from outside this House and we all wish him well.

Two years ago local steelworkers and their families were worrying about their futures as Christmas approached. The same was true in steel communities across the UK. Horizons were short, confidence was low and, despite the marches, speeches and protests, Government seemed deaf to calls from the sector to level the playing field and stand up for steel. Jobs and livelihoods were at risk.

A lot has happened since the height of the steel crisis in October 2015, when the Government held the steel summit, which I had first called for in Prime Minister’s questions, in Rotherham on a day that saw yet more announcements of steel job losses nationwide, which were added to the nearly 2,000 in Redcar. The steel landscape now looks very different, with Tata no longer the dominant steelmaker in the market. Instead we have three major players: British Steel and Liberty, both with strong presences in Scunthorpe and elsewhere, and Tata with its main presence in south Wales. This change in ownership has brought new energy to the industry. Building on its proud heritage and today’s strong footprint, the foundation industry of steel is now well placed to become a strong strategic, innovative, entrepreneurial industry of the future. But to realise that ambition it needs to be allowed to compete on a level playing field, and that is where Government have a key role.

British Steel is an old name enjoying a new start. Headquartered in Scunthorpe, it celebrated its first year of successful trading in June. It is a leading European producer, making around 2.8 million tonnes per annum. The business faced challenging operational issues in the summer, including a blast furnace chill that impacted on results, but it expects to have a strong second half-year performance. The conclusion of a 4% pay deal with the workforce is both a strong vote of confidence in the fantastic men and women that make the business happen and an indication of growing business confidence. As well as achieving a significant turnaround of the business, British Steel continues to invest in future skills including, this year, the new starts of 70 apprentices, 43 graduates and 72 trainees. Next door, Liberty is breathing new life and new purpose into Caparo Merchant Bar. It is good news that the Scunthorpe site has been longlisted as a possible Heathrow logistics hub. That is a good example of proactive procurement by a major customer that others might learn from.

Indeed, while everything has changed in steel, nothing has changed, and the four asks of Government at the height of the crisis remain significant asks today. Procurement is a key ask. The Government need to do more to ensure that their December 2016 steel procurement guidelines are being actively pursued by all Departments, including the Ministry of Defence. When I asked for an update on delivering their ambition the Cabinet Office reply was: “We do not hold data currently on the quantity of UK steel procured.” Frankly, that is not good enough. While I very much welcome that published pipeline for future steel, it still begs the question of how the Government will ensure that their guidelines are delivered across all Departments. Perhaps the Minister—who I believe in, actually—will enlighten us in her reply.

Alongside better, fairer procurement, the other key asks were action on energy costs, business taxes and tackling steel dumping from China and elsewhere. Add to that the need to invest in research and development and workforce skills, and that is the context in which the sector deal is being wrought. We need a sector deal for steel sooner rather than later. I have been heartened by the consistently warm words of the Secretary of State and Minister responsible in response to these calls. They eventually managed to do a good job of putting something together on the EU emissions trading system, but things like that need to be done quickly and effectively so that confidence is not knocked. We need to learn from that so that things can be done well in the future, because the time for warm words will soon be over, and the time for action is nigh.

The Government recognise the value of the steel industry. Their recent study, “Future Capacities and Capabilities of the UK Steel Industry”, demonstrates the size of the prize in capturing more of our domestic steel market. UK Steel estimates that there is potential to boost sector GVA from £1.2 billion to over £3 billion. The study identifies the key role that supply chain engagement and R and D can play in enabling that boost to happen. Three core actions will unlock the sector’s potential: action to level the playing field on energy costs, investment in new research and development through a future steel challenge fund, and incentives to facilitate capital investment. The key commitments that the sector will make are outlined in the document. There are significant commitments from the sector, and the asks of Government are significant to match. The sector and the Government need to work together to deliver that.

To conclude, two years ago we felt as though we might be close to closing the book on steelmaking in the UK, but thanks to the wonderful men and women who work in the industry and the leadership shown by Community, Unite and the other steel unions, alongside steel communities and steelmakers, in the last two years this industry has navigated a difficult chapter, restructuring and repositioning itself. It is now time for Government to act with the industry to create the strong, innovative business that is needed to help to build Britain’s future as we move into a world outside the EU. The steel sector deal bid from the industry shows the necessary commitment to deliver for the future. The Government have welcomed this. Both sides must now forge a future together. All I want for Christmas is a steel sector deal!

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, but it is somewhat dispiriting to find myself rising to speak yet again about the importance of Government getting behind our steel industry.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for calling this debate. Time and again I, and many of my hon. Friends here today, have explained the importance of British steel and offered clear advice on practical measures the Government could take to champion this crucial strategic industry. Many of those requests remain unfulfilled. The Government respond with warm words but, to be honest, little practical support.

I am pleased, however, that despite this lack of commitment from Government, the future looks a little brighter for British steel, as my hon. Friends have said. In my own constituency, the takeover of Tata’s speciality steels division by Liberty House has been completed. Speciality Steels is a world-leading business with a global reputation, and its products are found in everything from airliners to Formula 1 cars. Far from the relic of caricature, this is a dynamic and growing business of which Britain should be rightly proud. Liberty has recognised this huge potential and we have received the welcome news that not only have existing jobs been secured, but investment will lead to a further 300 new jobs, the first of which are already being recruited. Liberty should be commended for its commitment to sustaining and growing British steel.

While the investment from Liberty is hugely positive, Tata’s main UK research and development centre, Swinden House in my constituency of Rotherham, faces uncertainty. Staff there have an uncertain future, with the facility scheduled to relocate to Warwick. Tata must make every effort to allow those who wish to relocate to do so, and to support those who do not.

The existential crisis that the industry has faced in recent years may have begun to subside, but many of the long-term issues that led the industry to the precipice remain. The steel sector’s proposals to the Government have their roots in that crisis, and discussions between the sector and Government have been ongoing for some time. With the huge uncertainty of Brexit looming, the Government must act now to safeguard steel’s long-term future. It was therefore hugely disappointing that the steel sector’s proposals to renew and support the industry have not been included in the group of frontrunners for individual sector deals.

That failure is just the latest in a long line of Government failures to safeguard the industry’s future. In particular, the continued lack of action on high energy costs leaves the steel industry with one hand tied behind its back. Despite British steel’s wealth of experience, skill and expertise, it simply cannot compete while it continues to face energy costs far in excess of those faced by its European and international competitors. British producers pay, on average, £17 more per megawatt-hour than competitors in France and Germany do. Over the course of a year, that means a massive £50 million. This colossal burden leaves British producers struggling to compete. We are not talking about handouts; all we want is a level playing field, which the Government have consistently failed to provide.

Energy intensive industries compensation was a start, but until the Government address and commit to reducing the vast burden on our industry these problems will continue to hold British steel back. The Government have claimed that state aid rules prevent them from taking action, yet they refuse to introduce measures already in place in the likes of France and Germany, such as allowing exemption from renewables costs up to the value of a company’s gross value added. Now is the time to take such steps and to support British steel’s recovery and growth as the cornerstone to a sector deal.

Business rates also continue to punish steel producers and penalise their investment in new facilities. Removing new plant and machinery from calculations would encourage much-needed inward investment. That problem, too, has been raised with the Government repeatedly, but they have consistently failed to act.

Requests to favour British steel in Government procurement continue to receive, at best, a lukewarm response from the Government. UK steel has the skills and capacity to deliver on large-scale infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2. Although it is welcome that the Government have stated that they expect 95% of HS2 to utilise British steel, they have stopped short of absolutely guaranteeing that figure. That commitment must be much clearer and stronger.

Britain’s exit from the European Union also leaves the industry vulnerable to further dumping of cheap Chinese-produced steel. The British Government have consistently opposed the introduction of stronger tariffs within the European Union. With the removal of that opposition post-Brexit, it is likely that the EU will pursue far stronger tariffs and domestic protections. The chief executive of UK Steel has expressed concern about the seemingly complacent attitude displayed by Government officials who have refused to commit to strengthening Britain’s own protections in line with those of our neighbours. Should the UK find itself bordering a European Union with far stronger protections than our own, the impact upon our industry could be catastrophic.

Furthermore, the Government’s failure to properly consider the impact of Brexit on the industry risks plunging steel into a new crisis. Not releasing an impact study on the effect of Brexit on steel was frustrating, but the revelation that they may not even have conducted an industry-specific study is simply staggering. It is the Government’s duty to ensure that the industry is as prepared as it can be to weather the inevitable turmoil that Brexit will bring, but they seem to be asleep at the wheel.

Although we must do everything that we can to secure the steel industry’s long-term future, we must also recognise that changes to the British Steel pension scheme have left many scheme members facing financial uncertainty and difficult choices. Disappointingly, my constituents tell me that they have not received sufficient advice and support. There are reports that in the absence of detailed, clear advice, scheme members have been targeted by unscrupulous advisers and might have been mis-sold unsuitable financial products. It is vital that we protect scheme members, provide appropriate guidance and support and ensure that they are not left behind as casualties of the crisis faced by the industry.

The UK steel industry can and should be central to a resurgence in British industry, but progress towards a comprehensive resolution to these problems has been painfully slow. The failure to progress towards an individual sector deal for steel is just the latest example of the Government offering warm words and little else. The industry’s proposals are clear and practical, and would lead to significant and sustained investment in British steel, with £1.5 billion invested over five years and a huge increase in production capacity from 10 million to more than 14 million tonnes. What the industry wants in return is for the Government to match its commitment and work with it to address the structural problems preventing UK steel from reaching its potential.

This is an opportunity for the Government to offer more than talk. They must engage positively with the industry and do everything they can to ensure that British steel once again leads the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate and on all the work that he has done on behalf of the industry. It is a superb demonstration of how effective a Back Bencher can be in shaping Government policy in key areas.

I rise as the representative of a constituency that is not a primary producer of steel but heavily dependent on steel. West Bromwich West has more foundries than any other constituency in the country, and those foundries depend heavily on supplying parts to the motor industry. It is interesting that each and every speaker who has contributed to this debate represents a steel-related industry that is vital to the core economy of some of the most deprived areas of the country. For that reason the issue should be considered, due to its impact on the wider regional policies of this Government.

Equally, we must consider the national contribution to the economy. Our £72 billion motor industry is recognised as a world leader, is vital to our exports and has a productivity level three times the national average at a time when the country is desperately seeking to improve its productivity. Any industry forming part of a chain that delivers that is worthy of special consideration, respect and a commitment that has hitherto not been afforded to the steel industry.

Other stated objectives in the Government’s industrial strategy, which I welcome, include a deal on autonomous and electric vehicles and construction, all of which are strategically dependent on a successful steel industry. The fact that an industry on which so many Government objectives and policies depend seems to have been neglected is a matter for concern and needs an urgent remedy.

In the short time available, I want to make two or three other points. First, the motor industry in my area and nationally has adopted a policy of reshoring. It makes sense, because it is cheaper to do so, it provides security of supply for the most part and, of course, it accords with low-carbon and energy-saving targets. Locally, Jaguar Land Rover has led the drive. I believe that there is a national target to improve the number of British-built cars for which British steel is sourced from 35% to 50%, and Jaguar Land Rover in particular is well on schedule to do so. However, the policy could be compromised without security of supply and an adequate supply of steel at a competitive price.

Secondly, I point out the Government’s objectives on electric vehicles, which we are currently world leaders in developing. We produce more than any other country with the exception of the US, which of course is a lot bigger. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon pointed out, all those electric vehicles are just as dependent on British steel components as our historic petrol and diesel-driven vehicles. The Government’s objectives could be blunted if we do not preserve the steel industry.

My last point, which I will not labour because my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) made it very well, is that we export more scrap than any other country, yet import raw steel. That seems crazy. Again, I join others in pointing out that Liberty Steel, which has a substantial presence in Oldbury in my constituency, is a potential game-changer. Liberty, seeing the implications of the current energy situation, has bought up renewable energy generators in Scotland and other parts of the country, with a view to getting a perfect combination and integrated supply of low-carbon energy to melt scrap cars and metal and reshape them into castings and hot stamping for the industry.

Steel is a core industry for so many of this Government’s wider economic and social objectives. It has come up with a series of solutions that would embed it in those policies and deliver on their objectives, and that are worthy of special consideration for adoption by the Government.

It is a pleasure to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party in this debate. It is also a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Henry, and to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), who made a very good speech.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing the debate via the Backbench Business Committee and on his speech. He has been determined for quite some time to see a sector deal for steel; his advocacy on behalf of the steel industry is to be noted and congratulated, and he continued that campaign with his usual fervour today. I hope that his efforts have brought the issue back to the attention of the media, and that we will get some answers from the Minister about what the Government will do for the industry.

The hon. Gentleman asked the Government to address matters such as steel dumping by Chinese, Russian and Turkish producers. He also spoke about procurement opportunities. However, I must correct one aspect of his speech, because what he said about the new Forth crossing, the Queensferry crossing, was not quite right. Of the £540 million of orders, 45% came from Scottish companies, and steel from the Dalzell plant is in the girders at either end of the bridge. Sadly, no bidder came forward from Scotland for the main contract, because the capacity to produce the required level of steel has been lost since Thatcher closed the Ravenscraig plant. Of course, we want to do more; we want that capacity to increase, which is why we are all here today. The hon. Gentleman also discussed energy issues, which I will address later in my speech.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) made a very good speech. He was absolutely right to say that with the right opportunities and support, we can increase the GVA of the steel industry from £1.2 billion to £3 billion. We need to get this right. He also said, rightly, that the steel industry is an enabler for other sectors to grow. His speech was constructive but probing, and I hope the Minister was listening.

The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned the importance of steel to other industries and Liberty’s exciting low-carbon proposals on green steel, which should reduce the need for imports and cut the industry’s carbon footprint. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) was absolutely right to pay tribute to Tom Blenkinsop, the former Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. In all the debates I have attended, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe has been a stout defender of the industry, and he was very good again today. He was also right to pay tribute to the workforce, who have been incredibly resilient, particularly in recent years.

The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) rightly raised the potential Brexit challenges that the sector faces. We are particularly concerned about the impact on the industry of leaving the single market. It is essential that we see UK Government action now. As I said, the hon. Member for West Bromwich West made a very good speech; he focused on the needs of the foundries in his area and highlighted the supply chain that the steel industry feeds, including the £72 billion motor industry.

As the Minister will be aware, Liberty Steel operates at the Dalzell works in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), which adjoins mine, and many of my constituents are employed there. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the efforts of the Scottish Government, the trade unions and the Scottish steel taskforce, which secured the future of the Dalzell and Clydebridge plants, the former Tata sites in Scotland. The SNP is clear that we would welcome a sector deal for the steel industry: we encourage the UK Government to get it done and we note with concern its absence from the industrial strategy. I have been in contact with Liberty’s management about developments and about the priorities that they and others have for future intervention and support from the UK Government.

Let me be clear. The steel industry is not some “nice to have” aspect of the manufacturing sector. It is crucial to all aspects of infrastructure projects in these isles: it supports huge numbers of jobs and feeds a supply chain that contributes even more to employment and economic prosperity. Further support for the sector could open significantly more opportunities for employment and growth, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland said.

What support could this Government offer? It has been well trailed by all hon. Members in this debate that help with energy prices would address the clear disparity with competitors in other countries, including France and Germany—a disparity that is estimated to cost UK steel producers an additional £43 million a year. The UK Government could look at helping to attract additional investment to the UK in a number of ways, such as by providing access to commercially competitive loans, a capital investment grant or innovative tax breaks or discounts linked to investment. They could also consider the proposal to establish a new innovation fund to boost research and development of steel products.

The executive chair of Liberty House, Sanjeev Gupta, said that he was “very impressed” with the efforts of the Scottish Government and the Scottish steel taskforce to save and support the industry in Scotland. It is now time for the UK Government to match the ambitions of the Government up the road and get on with the sector deal, delivering tangible support on energy, procurement and all the other asks from industry and from hon. Members across the House today. Let us hope that we will hear of such action from the Minister today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship today, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this timely debate and on his continued commitment and passion in advocating for the steel industry. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), whose passion and commitment would definitely have given her a lot to say in the debate, but who cannot be with us today.

The steel industry has gone through a tumultuous few years, but the sector has successfully managed to navigate its way back to a more stable position as it heads into 2018, although it is by no means out of the woods. I join other hon. Members in highlighting the industry’s positive economic and social impact. The sector provides well-paid, skilled jobs in areas such as south Yorkshire, where the average steelworker is paid 40% more than the local average wage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) set out, it is crucial to the social fabric of communities such as those in Wales or south Yorkshire. Indeed, the case for supporting and backing our steel sector in particular and manufacturing more broadly is more acute today than ever. A post-Brexit Britain will require rebalancing the economy, both by sector and by geography, if we are to embrace the opportunities of the future.

This is indeed a timely debate. Earlier this year, the Secretary of State issued an open-door challenge to industry to approach the Government with proposals to transform sectors through a series of sector deals. In September, the steel sector met that challenge when six chief executive officers of steel companies and all three relevant unions—Community, Unite and GMB—addressed key issues facing industry with a comprehensive plan and tangible solutions. Each company detailed the specific investment, jobs and research and development commitments that it could make. In turn, the sector made requests of the Government, notably to eliminate the electricity price disparity and establish a future steel fund with match funding of £30 million a year.

Unfortunately, the Government have failed at every opportunity to respond to the sector deal. On Friday, they finally published a report, “Future capacities and capabilities of the UK steel industry”, which revealed that the demand for finished steel products in the UK will increase from 9.4 million to 10.9 million tonnes by 2030, opening up an opportunity of £3.8 billion per annum. That is welcome news.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) made it clear that those opportunities can only be harnessed with full Government backing and support, which makes a steel sector deal more necessary than ever. However, for too long the UK steel industry has been neglected by the Government. Their industrial strategy merely paid lip service to the industry while failing to provide any tangible solutions and failing to respond to the steel sector deal proposal at all.

As I have mentioned, the industry is not out of the woods. There are fundamental issues hampering its competitiveness and innovation capability, and it is down to both Government and industry to work together to create a level playing field for steel. The UK steel sector faces excruciatingly high electricity costs compared with its EU counterparts, with an average electricity price disparity between the UK and Germany standing at £18 per megawatt-hour, which translates into a total additional cost for UK steel producers of around £43 million per year. The Helm review was published recently and it made some welcome recommendations, but the steel industry needs urgent action now if it is to be sustainable in the years ahead.

Furthermore, the industry is lagging behind in research and development spending, which is crucial to the growth and innovation of the sector. I am proud that the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) is very familiar with, is a world-renowned R and D centre. It is located in south Yorkshire, near my constituency. However, despite such pockets of excellence, the number of people employed in R and D in the steel sector in the UK have declined from around 900 to around 95 today—a 90% reduction—with closure or divestment of UK technology centres at Port Talbot, Rotherham and Teesside. The loss of locally based expertise and knowledge limits productivity development and innovation in the UK industry.

If the Government’s rhetoric on productivity is to be believed, why are we in a dire position when it comes to R and D funding? Last month, the Government committed £2.3 billion for R and D in 2021-22, but they failed to respond to a parliamentary question when I asked, “What proportion of the funding will be allocated to the steel sector?” Can I get an answer from the Minister today?

Beyond electricity prices and R and D, it is clear that there needs to be more proactive engagement with the supply chain if the sector is to capture the opportunities I have outlined, particularly in the construction and automotive sectors, where the big opportunities lie. As the report notes, these opportunities can only be captured

“if a comprehensive strategy and policy to reshore supply chains back to the UK is pursued.”

Given the strategic importance of the sector, it is absolutely vital that the Government, the steel industries, the trade unions and the workforce continue to work to resolve some of these key issues. Disappointingly, we have seen very little action to alleviate these issues. First, in the autumn Budget there was no mention of energy prices or an energy efficiency fund for industry. Although there was some money for R and D, as I have pointed out, there has been no detail about whether the steel sector can expect to benefit.

The Government’s recently published industrial strategy set back many hopes of capitalising on the opportunities ahead. It did not include any detail or offer any tangible solutions to the steel sector. What detail there was focused on a handful of elite sectors, in which the UK already has a competitive advantage. It also provided very little to those who do not live in the golden triangle made up by London, Cambridge and Oxford. The absence of the sector is telling. Months after the steel sector deal had been proposed, it appears that the Government have made no effort to ensure that there is progress on it. In essence, the industrial strategy dashed any hope of the Government and industry ever delivering a deal.

In what little mention of the sector there was in the strategy, on page 239 the Government said that they would develop a “commercially sustainable proposition” for the steel sector, but there were no other details. Can the Minister explain what a “commercially sustainable proposition” means? What progress has she made on developing such a proposition, and what is the timetable to achieve that?

I accept that we are short of time today, so I will conclude. It is clear that our steel industry is at the cutting edge of UK manufacturing, producing some of the best-quality products. The future of the industry should see it playing a central role in the transition to a low-carbon economy; continuing to lead the world in quality and innovation; and capturing huge opportunities to the tune of £3.8 billion annually.

However, that is only deliverable if there is a strategic and comprehensive sector deal to deliver on issues such as dealing with electricity price disparities, reviewing business rates, increasing spending on R and D, and ensuring that we have a robust procurement strategy that works for the steel industry. A post-Brexit trade deal and strategy are absolutely essential if the future of the steel industry is to be secure and bright.

As always, Sir Henry, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the hon. Members who are present today on securing an absolutely crucial and timely debate. I also echo the good wishes that have been expressed about the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), who is an amazing champion for activity in this sector, and we all wish her extremely well.

Listening to the speech by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), I was reminded of the many debates that I had with her late husband, who, like her, was a doughty champion of the activities of the constituency. I am sure that her constituents are very proud of her and I like to think that her son will get a council seat soon, because it is clear that he has also done an amazing job in representing the communities in that area. Evidently, they are a great political family.

I welcome the comments that have been made today. Everyone here is standing up for a foundation industry, a vital industry and an industry about which we should be incredibly proud, not only for developing the technologies that underpin it but for continuing what has been a highly productive trajectory. Given that we are discussing such an important industry, I hope we might get beyond some of the party polemics and the Nye Bevan rhetoric that we have heard today. I will just point out a couple of facts and then I hope that we can park the politics of this debate.

In 1998, 68,000 people were employed in this vital industry. During the next 16 years, largely under a Labour Government, that number dropped to around 30,000. Since then, we have seen an increase in employment, despite going through some very tough economic times—[Interruption.] These are the facts, I am afraid.

I will also point out that it was a Conservative Prime Minister who called the first steel summit, who set up the steel council, who has paid for the report on the “Future Capacities and Capabilities of the UK Steel Industry” with taxpayers’ money, because we think it is a vital investment, and who has Ministers who are absolutely committed to working with this industry, domestically and internationally. I hope that we can get beyond the party politics, for the sake of the people depending on this industry and for the sake of the thousands of incredibly highly productive jobs in the industry. I think it is time to get to a different place, where we focus on the long-term potential. So can we have a little less politicking and a little more focus on the future of the industry, please?

On my visit this summer to the constituency of the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), as I went round the steel plants and talked to the workforce, who have been there for generations, I was struck by the level of skill and pride of the workforce, as well as the impact that those plants have on the constituency and the innovation that they bring. I remember talking to a shift manager in the electric arc furnace nearby, who said, “My dad would never have thought I could do this job, but he’d be really proud of me today”, as he tapped out molten steel.

However, I was also shocked to see the conditions that we still expect people to work in. This is a very tough industry, and I know that people in the steel plants are incredibly proud of what they have done. I join all Members in paying tribute to the steel workforce, who have shown amazing foresight over the last few years. We are very keen to continue to engage with the unions, as we do with the managers and the investors, to drive this sector forward.

Let me just reiterate very quickly what the Government have done, because it is clear that in such a vital strategic industry Government involvement, both in the sector itself and in the other aspects of the demand and supply chain, is very important. Procurement has come up many times today. We are working very hard to ensure that, where possible, British steel is the steel of choice in public procurement. We have new procurement guidelines; we have published the steel pipeline, which looks out over the next five years; and we are setting out how we want to use more than 3 million tonnes of steel on infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2, Hinkley and on the upgrade of the motorway network. That is a pipeline that has been widely welcomed by the sector.

I thank the Minister for the tone that she is adopting, but does she not agree that it is important that the Government monitor performance on procurement? That was the intention when the guidelines came in, in 2016, but since then it appears to have slipped.

I will happily take away the hon. Gentleman’s point. Although we do not want to mandate supply, because we want the sectors to buy the best quality at the best price, we must ensure that, where we can, we pull forward and give certainty to the steel industry. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said, the work we do with other vital sectors, such as auto and construction, has a really important knock-on effect on supply for the steel sector. In the auto sector deal—I will talk about sector deals in more detail—we have set an ambition and the industry has committed to increase the share of UK content in the automotive supply chain to up to 50% by 2022—it has already gone up from 36% a few years ago to 41% now. That has to be important, given the reliance of the sector on our superb British steel industry. Also, through the construction sector deal, we see big improvements in productivity and in demand for British steel.

The point has also rightly been made about trade. We all know what global trading conditions are like. The Prime Minister has called on the G20 forum on steel excess capacity to agree concrete policy principles, and my Secretary of State was in Berlin just a few days ago pushing for agreement on them. The director of UK Steel said:

“The outcome of today’s meeting is enormously welcome, representing a significant step towards delivering concrete action”.

He also felt obliged to congratulate my Secretary of State on his personal efforts, which show that we are committed to solving the underlying challenges the industry faces. It is only a first step, and we must continue to engage, but it is an extremely important one.

On the post-Brexit trade arrangement, we are extremely focused on what that test looks like in a post-Brexit world and on how we can have a suitable trade protection system that enables us to respond based on the geographic impact of certain trading regimes in the UK. That is something on which we are working closely.

Energy prices have, of course, come up. I will say a little more about that, but I want to thank those hon. Members who have acknowledged that we have managed to head off any negative impacts of the so-called Brexit amendment. I laid the legislation before the House last week and I look forward to introducing it. We want there to be absolutely no negative impact. We have reimbursed the steel sector more than £200 million for its energy costs, and from 1 April 2018 we will introduce exemptions rather than compensation mechanisms, so that companies can have their bill reduced by up to 85% of their relevant costs rather than have to muck about submitting a claim. That is very important for cash flow.

The capacity and capabilities report, which the Government asked for and have paid for, with our taxpayers’ money, has really helped the sector, for the first time, to come together to understand what its challenges are. I chair the steel council, and a conversation we always have is about how we have never sat down as a sector and talked about our collective challenges. We have always competed; it has been a zero-sum game. But it is not a zero-sum game. If we want industries and Government to invest in research and development and think about how they might support other vital industries, collective activity is needed. The report has been warmly welcomed by, among others, Roy Rickhuss, who said:

“This will help us all better understand the opportunities and challenges facing the UK steel industries”.

The report points out the skill shortage. The average age of a steel worker is 45, and most of them are gentlemen. The sector has not invested in the skills of the future. Despite the employment losses, it is highly productive; we have asked workers to do more on a daily basis. The sector has invested, but we know we have to get the skills and the investment up.

There are challenges for the sector. The study sets out a welcome point, which is that there is a market opportunity of up to £4 billion by 2030 for our UK steel companies if they and the Government can align themselves for it. To capture that opportunity, the sector requires the kind of transformative investment that some of the companies have made in other parts of their European portfolio. On customer demand, the capability and capacities study shows that only 18% of that opportunity will be available if there is no investment, particularly investment in higher-grade and more speciality products, upgrades and additional facilities, and increases in research and investment. In fact, the industry itself acknowledges that it has not focused on customers. Many steel consumers in the UK continue to import because different product sources exist and sometimes, frankly, customer service is better. That is a problem that the Government and the sector must work on together.

Some countries such as Germany choose to up consumers’ energy bills and subsidise those of heavy industry. In this country, we have tried to hold down energy costs across the board, as we invest in the transition to cleaner energy, so we have some of the lowest consumer energy bills in Europe. However, as hon. Members have pointed out, although our gas bills are competitive for industry our electricity bills are among the highest in Europe. We have clearly set out the ambition to have the lowest electricity costs in Europe. We commissioned the review by Dieter Helm, which pulled no punches, the recommendations of which we are considering carefully. It is a welcome backdrop that renewables are getting to the point of subsidy-free generation, so the long-term investments we have made in that transition are starting to bear fruit. I am, however, very aware of the asks on energy costs and will continue to review them.

I want to turn finally to the sector deal. I reassure Members that the first draft of the industrial strategy had four sector deals in it, out of the 52 or so that had been submitted. That does not mean that they were the superior, priority or target ones. They were the deals that were closest to the line because they represented a joint industry and Government focus on driving up productivity in the industries in which we know we have to be successful to compete in the future. The steel sector deal, on which we have worked very closely with the sector, is one of the other deals we are actively engaging with and working on.

I will just try to get through this point and then I will be happy to take an intervention.

I have every intention and every expectation of bringing forward an attractive sector deal. We have held many meetings, and when the deal is in a good enough place and we have commitments on both sides to drive the transformation, we will do that. The deals are not, “Give us some money”, they are, “What can we do together, Government and industry, unions, apprenticeships, education institutions and our brilliant academic institutions, to create the industry of the future, to capture those opportunities and drive them forward?”

What the Minister is detailing about the sector deals is incredibly positive. Can she confirm how the UK Government will work with the Scottish Government on the deals?

We are working very closely with the devolved Administrations. In fact, the Administrations of Scotland and Wales have signed up to the industrial strategy and we are working cross-border with them because the industry is a vital national one.

To conclude, it is time to reject some of the tired political arguments we have had on the issue. There are hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent steel-producing areas and many more who represent areas where the steel supply chain is absolutely vital. We will continue to work on the sector deal. We understand the ask of the industry and the strategic challenges it faces. If I could have one Christmas wish, it would be for an end to the outdated party politics around this vital foundation industry for the UK, that we build a cross-party partnership and that we work with the industry, which is being transformed, to protect and grow it, not for the next 12 months or two years but for the generations to come.

I congratulate all hon. Members present on an excellent debate. We should remind ourselves of the purpose of the industrial strategy. It is about rebalancing the British economy, from services to manufacturing, from consumption to production, from debt to surplus. None of those aims will be achieved unless we have a thriving and productive steel industry, and for that to happen we need a radical remodelling of the energy sector, and to develop a post-Brexit trade policy and deliver on the sector deal.

Since I entered Parliament in 2015, Labour MPs have raised the issue of steel almost 300 times, and every time we have heard the same set of platitudes in response: “We’re continuing to review”; “We’re having meetings”; “We’re going on visits”; “We’re having roundtables”. Nothing ever seems to change. I hope, therefore, that we can be forgiven for allowing our concern and frustration about the future of our communities to bubble to the surface. That has nothing to do with party politics. It has to do with the future of an industry that will enable the industrial strategy. We hope, therefore, that in 2018 we can turn the page and move from rhetoric to reality.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the steel sector deal.

Environmental and Food System Education

I beg to move,

That this House has considered environmental and food system education in schools.

My reasons for calling this debate were twofold: to highlight some of the positive work already being done in schools and to call on the Government to go further and embed some of this work in the curriculum or support it across all schools. It is so important that our young people learn about the wonders of our natural environment and our wildlife, how we should respect them and how we should take care of them for future generations. Many are also calling for animal welfare to be taught in schools. If young people were taught respect for animals at an early stage, perhaps that would make a difference with some of the horrific crimes that we see carried out against animals.

Young people should also learn about climate change, the impact our behaviour is having on the planet and how we can address that. They should learn about where our food comes from and why what we grow and eat matters. It is not just about acquiring knowledge for the sake of it; it is about children’s mental and physical wellbeing and equipping them for life as adults, enjoying nature and living sustainably. The fact is that they love learning about these things, and I will come on to that later.

The last Labour Government took environmental education seriously. In 2000, education for sustainable development was introduced as a non-statutory element of the curriculum. That was followed in 2006 by the launch of the sustainable schools strategy, which encouraged schools to follow the recommendations in the eight doorways, which were: buildings and grounds; energy and water; travel and traffic; food and drink; purchasing and waste; local wellbeing; inclusion and participation; and the global dimension. Through that, they would have become completely sustainable schools by 2020. Unfortunately, the strategy was scrapped by the Government in 2010.

In 2006, the Government launched the “Learning Outside the Classroom” manifesto, which promoted outdoor learning as an essential part of education, whether that was in school grounds and the local area or visits further afield and residential trips. The manifesto highlighted the value of hands-on, experiential learning as a way of enhancing and supporting work back in the classroom. It is a shame that the current Government have not built on that. As I said, the sustainable schools strategy was scrapped in 2010.

The environmental science and environmental and land-based science GCSEs were recently discontinued. The Government told me that was due to a lack of confidence in new content being developed, but it leaves a vacuum. The environmental studies A-level is currently at the tail end of being phased out, with the final set of exams being sat in the next six months. It will be replaced by a new environmental science A-level that started teaching this year, but the shift to stripped-back, science-only learning will deter many pupils from taking it up. Pupils have told me that is the case.

The national curriculum references the environment and climate change only in science and geography, and even then mostly in relation to the technical causes and processes, rather than the impact of climate change on individuals and communities. Key stage 3 science only includes reference to

“the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate.”

Key stage 4 science only mentions the effects of increased greenhouse gases on the Earth’s climate system and supposed “uncertainties” in the evidence for climate change. The geography syllabus has only passing reference to the changing climate from the ice age to the present day and how human and physical processes can change the environment. The parliamentary digital engagement service put something out on Facebook and Instagram over the weekend, and people came back to say that although there is the option to study climate change in geography, it is not always taken up. Geography GCSE is optional, so young people will not necessarily learn about that aspect of the curriculum unless they are studying that GCSE and the teacher decides to focus on climate change.

The situation is piecemeal and insufficient. We are failing to teach young people about the real-world impacts of climate change or the action that can be taken to mitigate it. The previous syllabus covered environmental issues much more comprehensively, but the then Education Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, tried to remove those things from geography altogether and have them in science only and not talk about the human role. I appreciate that he would dispute that that was his role in events. The former Energy and Climate Change Secretary, the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), who recently returned to the House, takes credit for forcing a U-turn on the then Education Secretary. I appreciate that there is some controversy, but there was a huge pushback against what were perceived to be the Education Secretary’s plans at the time, and there was a partial U-turn.

Academies and free schools are not obliged to follow the national curriculum, so they are not required to teach environmental or climate change issues at all. The London School of Economics aptly summarised this in its response to the Government’s consultation in 2013. It said that

“there can be no justification for omitting climate change from the National Curriculum, and the education of pupils would be deficient if they did not receive teaching about it…If core climate change teaching is not included as compulsory learning…there is a risk that some students would not acquire essential basic knowledge about climate change. As the UK Youth Climate Coalition points out, ‘climate change is too important to be left to individual teacher choice’.”

As the Government’s enthusiasm for environmental education has waned, many third-sector-run initiatives have risen to fill the gap. One great initiative is the Eco-Schools programme that has been run by Keep Britain Tidy for more than 25 years. It aims to help students embed sustainable development into their schools’ daily lives. In England alone, 17,000 schools are registered on the scheme. Eco-Schools is based on pupil-led, real-world learning, empowering children to create change and environmental improvements by forming eco-committees, conducting environmental reviews of the schools’ practices and drawing up environmental action plans. I have seen that in some of the schools in my constituency. The kids get really engaged in it.

Farming and Countryside Education has a countryside classroom online portal for teachers. It includes materials to allow children to discuss what they deem to be controversial issues, such as badgers, bee health, migrant labour, food waste and flooding.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the debate to the Chamber. There is a great deal of interaction through visits to farms by school pupils. I am sure she will agree that commercial farming is making a huge contribution to protecting the environment. It is important that young people understand that modern farming can play its part. Does she agree that it would be good if school pupils and university students could visit modern farms to understand that farms have moved on and are making a contribution?

I think that is important. It is something FACE encourages. There is also the “FaceTime a farmer” scheme, which was started by Tom Martin, a Cambridgeshire farmer. It teams farmers up with schools. They use FaceTime or Skype to make video calls to classrooms. That is obviously no substitute for getting out on the farms, but it is a good initiative.

The Woodland Trust has flagged up with me that it has the free trees programme and the Green Tree School Awards. It is taking those things into schools, and they are incredibly popular. Another great initiative is the Soil Association’s Food for Life catering award for food quality, which more than 10,000 UK schools currently possess. To become accredited, the school is required to use locally sourced and seasonal produce, maintain in-school gardens and develop students’ practical green skills. It also encourages schools to visit farms. It has Grandparent Gardening Week from 19 to 23 March. It gets local allotment holders, grandparents and so on into schools to help set up school gardens for the growing season. That is a great way of engaging the community in what goes on in schools.

In Bristol, where the Soil Association is based, I went along to Bristol Metropolitan Academy, which is a secondary school. It had the local primary schools come along to take part in something that showed the circle of life of food. The younger kids turned up having grown basil in their schools. They were then shown by a food waste chef, Shane Jordan, how to cook pasta and make a sauce with the basil. The leftovers were then fed into a wormery and they were shown how that worked, which was the bit they loved, of course, with all those squirming worms coming out of the bottom of it. They were then shown how the compost for the wormery helps to grow more basil. It was brilliant to see the kids so involved and learning things about food that they had never heard before.

A project in my constituency, Growing Futures, has a campfire where kids can sit around and talk. People with mental health issues go along as well. The project is also about growing food and it teaches young children about it in a fairly informal setting. We very much want to incorporate that into the Feeding Bristol project that we are running to tackle food poverty in the city.

The Food Growing in Schools Taskforce’s March 2012 report found that green activities in schools result in

“significant learning, skills, health and well-being outcomes for children”.

Surveys conducted by the Learning through Landscapes organisation found that 73% of teachers reported improved pupil behaviour, and 64% reported reduced bullying.

Another initiative that has enjoyed huge success in the UK recently is forest schools, where young children attend lessons in woodland environments. Forest schools have flourished in Bristol. We have had one since 2004 and it has its own woodland to use for sessions. Earthwise, an organisation focused on reconnecting young people with food, farming and the natural world, runs a forest school locally and works with the community farm in Chew Magna in Somerset to deliver educational visits, seasonal cookery days and holiday activities throughout the year. I do not have time today to go into the need to teach young children how to cook the food, but that is important, too.

A report by Forest Research, “A marvellous opportunity to learn”, found that children who regularly attend forest school sessions noticeably developed in confidence and independence, with social and team-working skills, better motivation and concentration and better physical skills and fine motor skills. It is a wonderful programme.

Even small physical changes can have a huge positive impact on children. The Carnegie Mellon school reported up to 26% higher test scores in classrooms with ample natural light, with the addition of plants leading to score improvements of 14%. That seems a strange connection to make, but that was the result of its survey. The 2005 report by the National Foundation for Educational Research, “The benefits of a forest school experience”, stated:

“While watching their children explore the woodland, the parents expressed their wonder at the level of independence and confidence their children were showing”,

and would in the future encourage more freedom outdoors,

“perhaps out of sight in a secure environment, leave the busy paths and let their children lead the way.”

So it is not just something that takes place in the classroom; it is outside the classroom as well. A great quote from one forest school leader summarises this:

“Children have fun during forest school, and so the place in which they have fun becomes important to them—keeping that environment cared for matters to them.”

It has also been shown to have a particularly remarkable impact on the development of students with special educational needs.

Sulivan Primary School in Fulham maintains a reading forest for its students, where children can find books “growing” on trees and in tents, as well as a wildlife garden, pond and vegetable plot. The school describes how children with special education needs, many of whom do not normally enjoy reading, benefit from the way that being in the outdoors relieves stress and anxiety, develops their social skills, motivates learning and allows them to be practical, responsible and productive members of the school’s community.

I am aware of the time, so I will skim over this quickly. The skills, knowledge and enjoyment benefit children when they become adults, too. In 2014, Lantra estimated that there were 230,000 businesses and 1.3 million employees working in the land and environmental industries, and that many more would be required by 2020. The horticultural and agricultural sectors are currently experiencing a skills shortage. The food sector is a huge part of the economy, and innovative, value-added products are the future of that industry. Innovation is going on at Harper Adams University. We need to engage young people and get them interested in careers in that field. There is the waste sector, energy sector, many high-tech engineering jobs, and renewable energy and eco-housing sectors. There are so many things that young people could be inspired to do.

It is almost obligatory in environmental debates these days to mention “Blue Planet”. The BBC natural history unit, based in Bristol, is behind amazing series such as “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet”. In 2012, it teamed up with the University of the West of England to co-design a masters course in wildlife filmmaking, which is certainly something for young people to aspire to. Who knows? The makers of future “Blue Planets” could be in schools just waiting to have their imaginations fired.

In conclusion, we need to go further and not simply leave initiatives to the schools that have decided to run with them. We must embed them in the curriculum across the board. It could take the form of embedding the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals into lesson plans. It has been disappointing so far that when the Environmental Audit Committee has taken evidence from the Government, they still seem to see the SDGs as something that we do in developing countries rather than something that we are embedding into the way we do things here. School procurement decisions could be used to teach children about healthy eating.

I want to flag up a few countries that have gone further than the UK. I hope we can look at them as examples. The Dominican Republic, which is at great risk of climate change, established mandatory climate change education in schools in 1998. Australia introduced its national environmental education plan in 2000. Brazil’s educational guidelines required climate change to be taught in all subjects from 1998. The Philippines introduced climate change into the curriculum in 2009. Vietnam did it in 2008. Costa Rica has been doing it since the 1980s. If those countries can do it, we ought to do it in the UK, too.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Henry. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to her work. I know she feels passionately about this subject, as was clear in her speech. She is right that it is important that our children are taught about all the issues she mentioned. She mentioned animal welfare—she did not have time to expand—which is an important part of this. I want to stress that we are doing possibly more than she is aware of.

Let me look at primary education first. As part of the science curriculum, children are taught about the scientific concepts that relate to the environment from key stage 1. Under the national curriculum, five-year-olds will be taught to identify a variety of common and wild plants. They can do that by going out with their teachers. What better way to do it? Pupils at age 5 will also be taught to observe changes across the four seasons, including weather associated with the seasons. They start looking at the climate and how it is changing.

In the following year, pupils look at how seeds and plants grow, including the importance of water, light and the right temperature to keep them healthy. They are encouraged to ask questions about plants and animals in their local environment and observe how living things depend on each other, such as plants serving as a source of food. Such topics are built on at key stage 2, where pupils explore the requirements of plant life and growth. They will learn that environments can change and that that can pose dangers to living things. That includes exploring positive and negative impacts on environments, such as the negative effects of litter or urban development. Pupils are taught about the properties and changes of different materials such as metal, wood, paper and plastic, and that can provide an opportunity to consider how the materials are used, including their impact on their lives.

In key stage 1 geography, pupils are taught about seasonal and daily weather patterns in the UK, and the location of hot and cold areas of the world. In physical geography at key stage 2, pupils will learn about climate zones, biomes, vegetation belts and the water cycle. They will need to understand where food comes from as part of what they are taught in design and technology about cooking and nutrition. That will include seasonality and knowing where and how a variety of ingredients are grown, reared, caught and processed.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and to you, Sir Henry, for allowing me to intervene. On the point about the importance of observation in science and geography lessons, does the Minister agree with me that observation skills have made a great contribution to the development of science in this country? I think of the work of Charles Darwin and his observation of finches and evolution on the Beagle voyage, and of Sir Alexander Fleming and his work on the discovery of penicillin. Would she also agree with me about the importance of climate change education, specifically as part of the geography curriculum? She has dealt with that in part in her speech; I would love to hear more details and gain her support for the principle.

I will certainly give the hon. Gentleman more detail. He is absolutely right: observation is critical. I do wonder whether we spend too much time on our mobile phones walking down the street; we observe very little these days about what is going on around us.

Much can also be done at home. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned David Attenborough. He is specifically mentioned in the key stage 2 curriculum—I am sure he has inspired many children with the breadth and wonder of his “Blue Planet II” series. Much can go on beyond the classroom.

In key stage 3 science, pupils cover the composition of the atmosphere, the carbon cycle and the importance of recycling. Ecosystems and biodiversity are covered again in more depth. Crucially, pupils will also be taught specifically about the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the effect that that has on the Earth’s climate. Key stage 3 geography covers how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environments and the climate, and the fact that human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems. 

I could mention the Government’s 25-year environment plan; I possibly do not have time to do that. It will be published shortly and will set out a vision for how we will improve the environment.

Our new citizenship curriculum can support people with that. For example, at key stage 4, pupils are taught the different ways in which a citizen can contribute to the improvement of their community, including having the opportunity to participate actively through volunteering as well as other forms of responsible activity. The hon. Lady mentioned a number of organisations doing good work, which can form part of that work.

As part of the new science GCSEs introduced in September 2016, pupils will need to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the evidence, and the uncertainties in evidence, for additional anthropogenic causes of climate change. The GCSE also includes the potential effects and mitigation of increased levels of carbon dioxide and ethane on the earth’s climate, and more about ecosystems, including positive and negative human interactions with ecosystems.

Geography GCSE enables students to become globally and environmentally informed. It includes, for example, the UK’s physical and human landscapes and environmental challenges, the characteristics of climate change and the evidence for different causes, including human activity.

As part of the new food preparation and nutrition GCSE, students are required to understand the economic, environmental, ethical and socio-cultural influences on food availability and production processes, as well as diet and healthy choices. Other GCSEs touch on environmental issues, including the new design and technology GCSE, which provides opportunities for students to consider the environmental issues of designing and making products, for instance by investigating factors such as environmental, social and economic challenges. Geology GCSE requires students to look at and consider evidence for climate change. Business GCSE requires students to know and understand the impact of ethical and environmental considerations on business, including sustainability.

It is important to say that teachers are free to teach beyond the curriculum content. For example, teachers can discuss the global development goal on climate action as part of lessons on climate change. They can also draw on the wealth of resources that are out there to support and enhance what they teach. Teachers are professionals and I know they will use every opportunity to do that.

There are many charities and organisations—the hon. Lady mentioned a few—that provide additional support, for example, the Eco-Schools programme run by Keep Britain Tidy. It is pupil-led and involves hands-on work; it gets the whole school and the wider community involved. I believe St Patrick’s primary school in Liverpool has received a green flag school award for doing that. Schools are also free to follow the forest school approach, where pupils can be taught in a woodland or natural environment with trees.

Of course, it is not just what is taught in the curriculum that matters; it is how it is taught. The quality of teaching is vital, and we are offering generous bursaries of up to £26,000 and scholarships worth up to £28,000 to attract science and geography graduates into teaching. We also fund the national network of 46 science learning partnerships to provide science teachers with access to high-quality continuing professional development that aims to improve how they deliver the science curriculum and qualifications. STEM Learning, which delivers that programme, has worked with the Royal Horticultural Society to develop a CPD programme on plant science for primary teachers, including practical sessions on outdoor teaching. STEM Learning also houses a considerable library of teaching resources that schools can access online, many of which will help support the teaching of environmental topics in the curriculum.

At post-16 there will be other opportunities for pupils to study all those issues. The new environmental science A-level replaces the old environmental studies—I think it is crucial that it is called environmental science. It was introduced in September 2017 and provides its students with the opportunity to develop their knowledge and understanding across a range of related topics. The content has been brought into alignment with content for other new science A-levels, to better prepare students for higher education, and that is reflected in the change of name from environmental studies to environmental science.

The new reformed geography A-level enables students to participate critically with real-world issues, grow as independent thinkers and understand the role and importance of geography as one of the key disciplines relevant to the understanding of the world’s changing peoples, places and environments. It includes recognising and being able to analyse the complexity of people-environment interactions and appreciating how they underpin an understanding of some of the key issues facing the world today.

I would add a word about T-levels. The Chancellor allocated additional funding of £500 million for their delivery, and the first teaching of T-levels by a small number of providers will start in September 2020. The agriculture T-level and the environment and animal care T-level will be rolled out in the second wave, to be launched in 2022. That will be of particular interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark).

As with all routes, the content of T-levels will be determined by advisory groups of employers, professionals and practitioners, which will mean that T-level programmes have real market value. We recently launched a public consultation on the implementation of T-levels and want to hear from all stakeholders; the hon. Member for Bristol East might want to contribute to that.

The importance of observation and of embedding a true understanding of science within the curriculum was raised. This is not a subject that can be placed in one little box. What is really important is that the issues the hon. Lady raised are touched on in many different subject areas—one of the problems is that education has been very siloed—and we need good maths, English and digital skills as a foundation. I am sure the hon. Lady is aware that 49% of adults have the maths capability of an 11-year-old or less. It is important that we get the fundamentals right, so that young people grow up to understand exactly the impact that they have on the world around them, the environment in which they live and their local communities. When they drop a piece of litter, they should understand the impact that can have.

I am enormously grateful for the support that the hon. Lady has given to this crucial subject. She has raised some important issues and I know she has campaigned on this. I am sure that, with the Speaker’s leave, she may well secure another debate on this matter—perhaps even a Backbench Business debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Social Mobility (Wales)

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered social mobility in Wales.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, in my last debate in the House before the Christmas recess, as you are our constituency and county neighbour.

Social mobility should be at the forefront of political discourse, and in Wales that should be particularly the case. Given our industrial history and the fact that nearly a quarter of all individuals now live in poverty, we are in desperate need of a social mobility revolution to ensure that every child is afforded the same opportunities in life. The widening gulf between classes means that even the brightest and most talented children can struggle in life as a result of their background. It is of deep concern to many in our nation, and until removed it obstructs any pretence that we live in a fair and just society.

We should not forget the progress we have made on this issue. Under the Labour Government, absolute child poverty was cut in half and the fight to cut child poverty further was enshrined in law, only to be scrapped by the coalition Government, who went on to change the definition of child poverty altogether in 2015. It is high time that Ministers tackled the root causes of poverty, rather than moving the goalposts to improve their weak record.

The children who were lifted out of poverty by the Labour Government grew up having led a better childhood, and as a result are more likely to succeed in life. The Labour Government also introduced more than 3,600 Sure Start centres in England and set the ball rolling for Flying Start in Wales. The benefits of Flying Start can be seen in every constituency across Wales. It improves early-years education and helps parents and families in non-working or low-income households through parenting support groups. Across the UK, the Labour Government also increased the number of young people aged 18 to 24 in full-time education by 60%.

In June 2014, the then hon. Member for Torfaen—now Baron Murphy of Torfaen—produced an influential report showing that a student from the Welsh valleys is five times less likely to apply to Oxbridge than a student from Hertfordshire, and is 10 times less likely to receive an offer. Does my hon. Friend think that is a terrible indictment of the lack of social mobility in Wales? Since then, the situation has not improved.

I wholeheartedly agree. As the only one of three siblings to go to university, I think there is a real issue with social mobility—never mind going to Oxford or Cambridge—and the impact that child poverty has on young people’s opportunities to go on to higher education or even, in some cases, further education.

Education became the greatest tool for advancing social mobility, and the Government would do well to remember that. Labour also introduced the national minimum wage—a fantastic achievement for a number of reasons, not least for its impact on social mobility. Since the foundation of the Welsh Government, much effort has been put into ensuring we make strides to improve equality of opportunity across our nation.

As a result of various initiatives introduced by successive Administrations, unemployment in Wales is falling faster than it is in the UK as a whole, and it continues to be lower than the UK average. Last week, the Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates, launched Wales’s economic action plan, which sets out to deliver a dynamic new relationship between the Government and business as partners for growth. It will ensure that public investment fulfils a social purpose. That new economic contract will require the Welsh Government to support the conditions for growth. In return, businesses seeking direct investment must demonstrate, as a minimum requirement, growth potential; fair work, as defined by the Fair Work Board; and the promotion of health—including a special emphasis on mental health—skills and learning in the workplace. Through such strategies, the Welsh Government are committed to working with business to provide skilled jobs for people across Wales. That is particularly welcome, given the impact of deindustrialisation across Wales.

The UK Government need to take note of that kind of innovative and progressive thinking when starting to take action on social mobility across the United Kingdom. The Government finally announced the start of discussions on a north Wales growth plan, which is a good opportunity for them, as part of their negotiations, to support the communities and industries across the region with a focus on skills and jobs.

There has been considerable investment to close the education attainment gap and improve skill levels, and the Welsh Government are making tremendous efforts to increase the number of apprentices to 100,000 before 2021. To do that, they will increase investment in apprenticeships from £96 million to £111.5 million for 2017-18 alone. On top of that, they are focusing on the early years of children’s lives—the stage when we can have the most impact on improving their health, education and other outcomes later in life. In 2015, the Welsh Government launched a child poverty strategy with five key objectives to tackle the underlying causes of child poverty and provide more equality of opportunity for low-income families across Wales. It includes strategies such as free school meals, the Healthy Child Wales programme, the Business Wales services, the Wales economic growth fund, support for the work of credit unions, the Skills Gateway service, the Lift programme and many more initiatives targeted at enabling individuals from less wealthy backgrounds to access opportunities from an early age.

Recently, it was announced that there will be a fresh approach to improving prosperity in the south Wales valleys, led by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, Alun Davies, and driven by his ministerial taskforce. It will ensure that no communities are left behind. The “Our Valley, Our Future” plan will foster good- quality jobs, better public services and community cohesion in some of our poorest towns and villages.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Welsh Government’s new policy, will he confirm that it will be a more effective use of public money than the £500 million that was wasted on Communities First?

I do not think for one second that Communities First funding was wasted. In fact, as a county councillor, I did work through some of the Communities First schemes in my county. Communities First has had positive outcomes across Wales. The Welsh Government have admitted that they now want to review how that funding will move forward, but the Minister cannot say that investing in our communities is a waste of money. It is nice to know what the Tories think of investing in communities up and down Wales.

We face real and deep challenges, but it is positive that Welsh Government Ministers are genuinely committed to addressing these complex societal issues. There are social mobility problems for us to reverse, but we should not forget that progress has been made. Unfortunately, that progress is grinding to a halt as a result of UK Government policy. The Welsh Government are working hard to increase prosperity and to help people out of poverty, but a continued agenda of cuts from Westminster and the severity of UK Government austerity is putting progress at risk. It is not simply that there is inaction on improving social mobility; there is an agenda that is taking us backwards.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 37% of children in the UK will be in relative poverty by 2022, which represents a reversal of all progress made in the past 20 years. On top of that, Shelter said that 128,000 children will wake up homeless in Britain on Christmas day. That fact alone should bring shame on the Government. If children grow up homeless or in poverty, their chances of success in life are greatly reduced, which puts a roadblock in the way of social mobility. Unfortunately, the Government in Westminster have shown no intention of focusing on social mobility and improving equality of opportunity.

Wales’s Children’s Commissioner and her three UK counterparts recently called on the Government to take action on the roll-out of universal credit, which is plunging the poorest children into poverty and will surely leave lasting marks on their life chances. Unfortunately, the rampant roll-out of universal credit is not the only Government policy that has led to children being plunged back into poverty. The bedroom tax, cuts to tax credits and the knock-on effects of cuts to Welsh Government block grants, which are leading to cuts in children’s services and youth services across the board, are having a detrimental impact on children’s life chances. If the Government carry on with their dogmatic cuts agenda, the impact on young people, and in turn social mobility, risks leaving a generation behind. Each of those policies is hitting children hard. As a result, one in three children in the UK is now growing up in poverty, and more than 1 million people are reliant on food banks.

The “Good Childhood” report published in August 2017 by the Children’s Society highlighted the fact that children and young people’s happiness is in decline, which has implications for attainment and social mobility. I am sure I do not need to remind Members that only a few weeks ago Alan Milburn and the entire board of the Government’s social mobility commission resigned in protest at the issue being “an afterthought”.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the resignation—I agree that it was hugely significant—included a former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Gillian Shephard? Social mobility is not a partisan issue; it is something we all need to be worried about if we care about the future of our countries of Wales and Britain.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The baroness in question is a former Secretary of State for Education and Employment. When a Conservative of that stature says, “This is not acceptable,” and that social mobility is now “an afterthought”, it is hugely concerning, so that mass resignation was worrying.

The commission’s “State of the nation” report and its focus on Wales are what I would like to draw to the attention of Members. The commission found that the percentage of individuals living in poverty in Wales is higher than in all regions of Great Britain except London and the west midlands, and that 26% of people earn an income below the living wage. Much of that seems to be due to the UK Government’s implementation of a public sector pay cap in Wales, which has denied our hard-working public sector employees a fair pay increase in seven years.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech. Much of what he is saying about Wales applies to Scotland. With reference to the public sector pay cap, he will share my appetite to see it lifted throughout the UK so that the worst decade for wage growth in 210 years can finally come to an end.

I agree. The Royal College of Nursing, Unison, GMB and the trade unions across the public sector have all said that they expect the UK Government to raise the cap—or to scrap the cap, to borrow the hashtag on Twitter—because they do not see it as the responsibility of the Administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast to scrap it. I am aware that the Scottish Government have introduced some changes, but those should not be at the cost of other public services. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the emphasis is on the UK Government to step up and to give public sector workers a pay rise.

There is also reason to be concerned about higher education figures in Wales: the entry rate is 37.5%, compared with 42.5% in England. Such matters are being addressed by the Welsh Government, but with a UK Government reluctant to concede the scale of the problem and offer appropriate funding, the problems come as little surprise.

At Bridgend College in my constituency—and in yours, Mrs Moon—at the Pencoed campus in Ogmore, a huge amount of work has been done to encourage people into higher and further education. I have met truly inspiring students, many of whom are the first in their family to stay in education beyond the age of 16, and some of whom now have aspirations to study at university, including Oxford, Cambridge and beyond—to go back to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). Thanks to the Welsh Government, Wales will soon have the most generous student finance support package in the UK, helping more people from all backgrounds to reach their full potential.

Each week, as Members, we see the true lack of social mobility as we help vulnerable people through our surgeries and casework, and all the while there are more billionaires in the UK than ever before. I have no problem with success or business; I have a problem with the widening inequality between the poorest and the richest across this country. The situation could be addressed via an increase in the block grant and, if the Minister talks about the floor or whatever, the reality is that all those things can be implemented—but the Barnett formula needs to be reviewed and changed. In case he wishes to remind me, I am well aware that throughout the 13 years of Labour government the formula was not reviewed, but I make the point strongly that in every single year of a Labour Government the block grant was increased, only to be cut and cut by the current Government.

I have nearly finished my speech, but I am sure the Minister can come back on this in his response to the debate.

If the Government here in Westminster were to reassess their block grant to the Welsh Government, that could open up opportunities to create more targeted and direct support to tackle poverty and increase social mobility. In real terms, the Welsh Government budget will be 5% lower in 2019-20 than it was in 2010-11. Cuts have consequences and we can see the impact of austerity in each and every one of our communities, no matter which party we represent in the House.

We should remember that progress has been made, and I have been fortunate enough to see the benefits in my community. Unfortunately, across Wales it is still overwhelmingly the case that a person’s opportunities in life are determined by their background. I sincerely hope that the UK Government will give consideration to the obstacles in the path of social mobility in Wales and act to make it easier for everyone in life to succeed, regardless of who they are and where they come from.

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mrs Moon.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing the debate and on the very considered and thoughtful way in which he opened it. He covered a number of the issues, and I propose to focus my remarks on early years, vocational qualifications, and the academic sphere and our elite universities.

The early years are without doubt extraordinarily important. A lot of data suggest that by the age of seven people’s likely GCSE results can be predicted, which suggests that the biggest difference can be made in those very early years of life. In that regard, I praise the important work of the Welsh Government focusing on the early years. As the years go by, clearly that investment will feed through.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about Wales’s performance in the PISA—programme for international student assessment—tables? Endeavours to improve teaching and learning in Wales should be concentrated on releasing teachers to be trained, unlike some of the temporary initiatives we have seen in the past.

I do not for a moment underplay the wider challenges. I agree with the hon. Lady about a holistic approach that involves support for teaching, but at the moment I am merely remarking that all the data suggest that those early years are important to the results achieved later, in particular at age 16.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore mentioned the achievements of the previous Labour Government on child poverty, which are extremely important. It was the greatest of disappointments, to say the least, that in 2015 the UK Government chose to change the definition of child poverty, which seemed to me simply a way of escaping the problem, not facing it.

There seems to be a historical problem with vocational qualifications. Most people understand that in the post-war era the Butler Education Act 1944 created a system of grammar schools and secondary moderns, but it was never intended to be bipartite; it was meant to be tripartite and to include technical schools as well. In post-war Britain, we have not developed those technical schools as perhaps we should have done. That is not to neglect fine work on apprenticeships. In my constituency and elsewhere I have seen the work of the Welsh Government in that regard, but without doubt there is still more to do to promote apprenticeships as a career path and give them parity of esteem with academic qualifications.

Last summer I visited an ITV apprenticeship scheme. It was outside Wales, in Leeds, but none the less what I experienced there makes the point. I saw a very fine apprenticeship scheme in which people worked around television sets and so on, gaining skills that could be used in that environment or in a broader trade. The problem was that most of the apprentices told me that they had had to find the information about the opportunity themselves, on the internet; they did not hear about it from their career advisers. We need to promote the apprenticeships route at a far younger age throughout the United Kingdom.

University is not for everyone, but the fact remains that many of those in top public and private sector jobs around our country have attended Oxford, Cambridge or other universities in the Russell Group. A lot of recent statistics should alarm us. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has produced a report showing a geographical domination of all those elite university places by students from the south-east of England. Freedom of information requests to local authorities paint a stark picture. From 2010 to 2015, eight students from the bottom eight local authorities, which includes Torfaen, received offers to go to Cambridge University. Contrast that with the top eight, which includes Surrey and Kent, where 4,800 offers were made in the same period. That division has to be dealt with. Frankly, it is not sustainable in the long term.

I worked as an Oxford University tutor and lecturer for 14 years from just after I graduated in 2001 until I was elected to Parliament in 2015. I had a great deal to do with the admissions process during that period, and I learned three clear lessons. Aspiration is of course vital. Whether we are talking about Oxford and Cambridge or about other elite universities, it is critical that people actually want to apply and are able to think, “This is something for me.” However, that is not enough in and of itself—there needs to be support around it. It always seemed to me that what marked out successful interviewees was their confidence and their ability to sell themselves. In the cases of Oxford and Cambridge, that applies to interviews, but it also applies more broadly across the university sector to personal statements and people’s ability to express what they have done.

The third lesson was about networking skills, which were always demonstrated in people’s personal statements by their extracurricular activities and work experience. People who existed in fine networks to begin with always had far more opportunities to use in the university admissions process than those who did not. We need to teach those skills right across our schools sector so that people have them at ages 15, 16, 17 and 18.

There are some chilling figures about that. I appreciate that it is quite a long time since I was at university, and I know that my old university, the University of Bristol, has improved considerably in this regard, but when I was there more than 70% of students in my faculty were independently educated. In one department in the faculty that figure was 91%, which is staggering.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. On average, around 7% of each cohort goes to fee-paying schools, but that percentage is far higher at our elite universities. Why might that be? My experience was that there were never enough applicants from the state sector in any cohort. As I indicated, we have to tackle that by demystification—by making things clear by saying to people: “There are no places that are not for you if you have the talent to get there.” That sounds easy, but I appreciate that it is a huge challenge.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) mentioned the report of the Oxbridge ambassador for Wales, which I was pleased to play a small part in producing before I entered the House. Its author was my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Torfaen, Lord Murphy. The report, which, as my hon. Friend set out, was published in 2014, sought to address the scale of the problem and suggested a series of practical measures, which are being rolled out across Wales. We probably will not see the results of those measures immediately—we will have to see how they pan out in the years to come—but central to the report’s recommendations is the idea of having regional hubs in Wales. The skills that I have talked about—networking skills, and the ability to sell oneself in an interview and on paper—can be looked at on a regional basis. Schools can identify people who have the potential to go to our elite universities, and those people can go to hubs to be provided with that support. I firmly believe that that can make a difference. It has to, because the report highlighted that parts of Wales—incidentally, this applies not just to Wales but to other parts of the UK—are, frankly, deserts for Oxbridge applications.

We talk about university applications. Of course we want our universities to continue to be world leading. This is not about some sort of social engineering occurring at age 18; it is about the interests of our country. We must not lose some of our most talented people simply because they do not apply to universities because they think they are not for them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing this debate and on the considered way that he introduced it.

As chair of the all-party group on social mobility and a Member who represents a constituency that has not only a border but many economic, cultural and political links with Wales, I have two reasons for participating in the debate. As we all know, it does not matter whether someone lives in Bangor, Buckley or Birkenhead; in too many parts of this country, their place of birth can override their ability and potential, and generation after generation struggles against entrenched disadvantage that should put us all to shame. We have mistakenly and unquestioningly accepted the myth that greater economic growth leads to increased opportunity for all, despite overwhelming evidence that tells us otherwise.

Earlier this year, my APPG published a report entitled “Increasing access to the leading professions”. It looked at opportunities in law, finance, the arts, media, medicine, the civil service and politics, and found that, whatever the profession, there is a similar lack of opportunity and similar reasons for that. Privilege and opportunity go hand in hand across the board. For example, Sutton Trust research shows that three quarters of senior judges, more than half the top 100 news journalists and more than two thirds of British Oscar winners attended private schools.

The APPG recommended that there should be a legal ban on unpaid internships lasting more than a month. We found that their unpaid nature was not the only barrier: many of those placements are in London, which means that unless someone is from that area and has parents who can support them for an extended period, there is no prospect of them being able even to consider such an internship.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the excellent Speaker’s internship scheme should consider providing means for people to afford accommodation in London, so that we can reach out to people who could not otherwise gain from such paid experiences?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We took evidence from several successful applicants to the Speaker’s internship scheme. The geographical challenges were certainly very apparent, and that ought to be fed back.

How can anyone from outside London—from the north-west of England, Wales or anywhere else in the UK—go and do unpaid placements in London for months on end? There also need to be fair, transparent and open recruitment processes for such placements, which we found are often determined by existing connections, be they family or business contacts. The same rigour needs to be applied to those placements as would be applied if they were permanent jobs, otherwise we may just ease the path for people who are already on it.

One simple change could make a big difference to improving social mobility. There is a private Member’s Bill in the other place that seeks to end unpaid work placements. However, given what we have seen so far in terms of Government action, that does not seem easy to deliver in practice. Although I understand that responsibility for social mobility rests primarily with the Department for Education, any action on unpaid internships must be taken by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There has of course been no action, which proves Alan Milburn’s recent point that commitment to social mobility does not spread out across the whole of the Government. It needs to. Yes, it is to do with early years, schools and universities, but it also involves the world of work, housing and health. The Social Mobility Commission provided us with a wholesale national analysis of all those issues, but the Government’s response is too often constrained by Departments’ silo mentality, which is sometimes exacerbated by devolved responsibilities getting in the way.

I am sure that if I asked a group of young people from many of the constituencies represented in the Chamber what they wanted to do when they are older, they would not say they wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer or an actor. For too many young people, the very notion that they should even consider such careers is almost universally absent. They need role models, mentors and inspirers—people from their communities who have been there and done it. We need to inspire young people from an early age to aim for wherever their abilities and interests take them. We should not accept that coming from the wrong part of town means low horizons. Getting a job should mean following dreams and forging a career, not simply working to survive.

In keeping with the Welsh theme, we were fortunate to have Michael Sheen give evidence to the APPG. There is no doubt that he is an inspirer and mentor for the kids of Port Talbot. We are not going to get a Michael Sheen in every constituency, but I hope there will be others in every other town who will provide similar inspiration.

Mentorship and inspiration are important, but without academic equality they will not be sufficient. The Sutton Trust report, “Global Gaps”, looks at attainment gaps across 38 OECD countries and as a result can pinpoint how each of the devolved Administrations is performing. Unfortunately, it showed Wales performing rather poorly compared with other industrialised nations, in particular in reading and mathematics, where the skills of the most able pupils are some way behind those of pupils in comparable nations. On a more positive note, it did say that the gap between the most able, advantaged and disadvantaged pupils in Wales was relatively small compared to other industrialised nations. However, sadly, the report concludes that the situation for high-achieving pupils across the whole of the UK is “stagnant at best”.

Stagnation is a good description of where we are now. I urge all Members, if they have not already done so, to read the Social Mobility Commission’s latest “State of the Nation” report, which paints a bleak picture of a deeply divided nation in which too many people are trapped in geographical areas or occupations with little hope of advancement or progression. It talks about an “us and them” society, in which millions feel left behind. Specifically, the report talks about major changes to the labour market in recent decades, which have imprisoned 5 million workers in a low-pay trap from which there appears to be no escape. The report highlights places that offer good prospects for income progression and those that do not, showing that real social mobility is in fact a postcode lottery, with the worst problems concentrated in remote rural or coastal areas and former industrial areas—that description will be familiar to Members in the Chamber today—not only in Wales but in England.

Encouragingly, the report finds that well-targeted local policies and initiatives adopted by local authorities and employers can buck the trend and positively influence outcomes for disadvantaged residents. In short, where there is a will and strong leadership, things can be done.

This country is too closed. It is a country where too often people’s life chances are defined by where they are born and who they are born to. We are now in a world where many parents believe their children will have less opportunity than they did, and I deeply regret that. Automation and artificial intelligence will only exacerbate the problem, and we are miles away from even beginning to understand the social impact that will have. The only way we will be able to meet those challenges in the future is by intensive, long-term Government intervention, not just at the ages of five or 15, but at 35 and 50 and so on. The world of work will change more rapidly than ever before, and we need to recognise that opportunity will need to be addressed not just in our younger years, vital though that is, but throughout our lives. We have to invest in ourselves through all of our working lives, but we cannot do that without Government support.

We have heard about the geographical divide, and the APPG is looking at that, but there is also a generational divide. I do not believe that the recent election was a ringing endorsement of the status quo. What we saw was that the more young people engaged with the question of what they want from their Government, the more they turned away from the existing set-up, and who can blame them? Do they want to better themselves and study at university? Yes, there are opportunities, but they come with eye-watering debt that may never be paid off. Want to own a home? Unless the bank of mum and dad is there to fall back on, there could be a very long wait. Want to build a career in a profession doing something rewarding financially and intellectually? Those opportunities exist for the few, not the many.

The more likely experience for our young people in the job market is casual work, low pay and chronic insecurity. It is time we offered them hope. Across the years, across the Government and across the nations, we need total commitment to delivering opportunity for all.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mrs Moon. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this important debate, and I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who made a considered and quite inspiring speech.

To speak plainly, responsibility for social mobility lies with the National Assembly. The Welsh Government have a crucial role to play in reducing inequality in Wales, but it is also true that every decision taken in Westminster has a very real impact on people’s prospects in Wales, whether it be on social security, digital connectivity or infrastructure, to name just those areas I intend to concentrate on today. I have to return to my expertise in a former life—I was a director in a large further education establishment—and I must reiterate the integral role that education plays in promoting social mobility.

In one of the earlier speeches, early years, vocational education and higher education were mentioned. Those, in terms of funding, targets, quality of achievement and the curriculum, are entirely within Labour’s remit in Wales. It is important to emphasise that in the role that we expect education to play. I have seen how the effects of the political choices made in different areas of Wales have played out, and it would be extremely disingenuous of me not to remind the Chamber of the role of Labour in that respect. However, today I intend to be “on location” and direct my arguments to the Minister.

One other thing I would like to question slightly is using Oxbridge as our measure of success. It is interesting that so many people here attended Oxford and Cambridge, but we should be building a society where someone can gain that capability and confidence without having public, or private, school education and Oxbridge university education behind them. We should be building that in Wales for our young people to achieve near to their own homes.

In the effort to champion social mobility, redistribute wealth and provide opportunity, every socioeconomic pillar must carry its load. The Government are failing to raise the people of Wales through the measures in their remit of social security, infrastructure and digital connectivity in particular. Changes to social security made by the Government will hit the poorest areas hardest. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has revealed that Westminster’s benefit cuts will trigger a rise of over 5% in child poverty in Wales, compared to 1.5% in London. Wales remains the only country in western Europe without an inch of electrified railway, and all the while Welsh taxpayers are contributing towards High Speed 2. We hear disingenuous arguments as to how HS2 will benefit us. Frankly, I have concerns about how it will affect services from Cardiff to Manchester via Crewe and services along the north Wales line as well.

Only yesterday, we read reports in the Financial Times that the Westminster Government are having cold feet over the Swansea bay tidal lagoon project—we already had that impression—which is an investment that would bring £316 million of gross value added in its construction alone. What about digital connectivity? Recently, the Westminster Government invested significant sums to improve broadband infrastructure in three of the four UK nations—but not in Wales. They found £20 million for ultrafast broadband in Northern Ireland and £10 million was found for full-fibre broadband in six trial areas across England and Scotland, yet nothing for Wales. According to Ministers, the decision on where to invest the money was based on how likely they believed it was that the investment would stimulate short-term economic growth, effectively to boost headline statistics. That is where the fundamental problem lies and where the link between social mobility in Wales and Westminster’s priority is at its weakest.

It is not the Government’s job to pick who wins and who loses in the British state; it is their job to provide equality of opportunity. There is of course a complex link between regional inequality and social mobility. Poverty in the UK is particularly concentrated in Wales, affecting nearly one in four people, while the UK poverty rate remains at 16.8%. Median weekly salaries stand at £393 in Wales, compared with £434 in England. When I hear about the employment rate, yes, I am delighted that people are in full-time worthwhile work, but I also know of people in my constituency who are holding down three or four jobs in order to make a living. There must be a question about salaries and regional inequality in the United Kingdom.

In the past 10 years, under successive Westminster Governments, productivity in my county of Gwynedd has fallen by 10% while productivity in central London has risen by more than 5%. Unlike the Westminster Government, the EU recognises wealth inequality as a problem to be addressed, and attempts have been made to make up for Westminster’s neglect and to strengthen Wales’s economy by redistributing wealth. I know we discussed the effects of European structural funds. Could we take a step back and consider where Wales would be if we had not received those funds? They were there for the noble principle of addressing inequality and poverty.

The hon. Lady is somewhat unreasonable in her comments. The European structural funds were provided to ensure that GDP levels in Wales were comparable with the average of the European Union. That measure failed significantly in the Welsh context, and I want to stress that that was not the fault of the European Union. It failed as a result of the way in which the projects were designed in a Welsh context. That has been the problem.

Again, what would the position of Wales have been if we had not received those funds? We may not agree on the way they were used, but I am truly concerned that we are moving to a future in which there is no principle on addressing and raising those funds.

I am coming to a close.

At a time when we are being pulled out of the European Union, the Westminster Government must stick to their promises at the time of the referendum and ensure that Wales will continue to receive every single penny that it received thanks to the EU’s redistributive wealth policies. I beg to ask the Minister to say what Wales’s fair share will be.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Moon. You are a former social worker of course, so nobody has to tell you about the problems of social mobility in Wales. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I must improve my Welsh pronunciation—who is quickly becoming, like her predecessor, a very well respected Member of this House.

I wish I could stand here and say that there is a magic bullet to bring about true social mobility in Wales. Sadly, there is not. For many people living outside Wales, this year’s findings in the State of the Nation report on Welsh poverty will come as a shock. For those of us who have lived and grown up in Wales and are proud to represent constituencies there, it comes as no surprise.

According to the State of the Nation report, 23% of people in Wales live in poverty. That is almost 700,000 people, and more than half are in working households. Further research has found that children born into working-class families are significantly less likely to move up the socio-economic ladder than their peers from middle-class, financially stable households. Children living in the poorest households are less likely to enter further education post-GCSEs, are less likely to go to university, and in turn are less likely to find skilled employment later on in life.

Quoting figures is all very well, but the reality is that many of our children have woken up this morning in damp, cold, sub-standard accommodation. Many have gone to school hungry and without the right equipment for school. To put it bluntly, those born into poor households are failed before they even start. Poverty is not just an abstract problem. It is not something we speak about to feel good about ourselves. It is something that affects our society. It is a drain on resources. It stretches our welfare state. It clogs up our health service. It is man-made and can therefore be changed. In all candour and in all honesty, what has gone before clearly has not worked. It is damning of every one of us in this place that nearly a quarter of people live in poverty in Wales. The decisions we make have clearly not worked. Tinkering around the edges is no longer any good. We have to have a fundamental change in the way we do things.

In my own constituency of Islwyn, which is based in the Caerphilly county borough, the attainment gap between key stage 2 and 3 pupils who are eligible for free meals and those who are not is significant. Only 28% of those pupils eligible for free school meals achieve the equivalent of A* to C GCSE in the core subject indicator. Caerphilly county borough is also middling in terms of its youth indicators for destinations for year 11 leavers, ranking 12th. Some 1.9% of students in the borough are not in education, employment or training, and it gets worse at a national level.

In Wales, 37.5% of people will apply for university compared with 42.5% in England. Added to that, in each and every one of our constituencies there is a poverty that has no measure and cannot be talked about. Mrs Moon, you know about it in your constituency of Bridgend. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) knows it as well. You walk up to the brightest child and say to their parents, “This child can go all the way to university,” and they say, “It’s not for us. You’re off your head. It does not happen to people round here.”

I can still remember—this is a true story—a careers teacher saying to me, “I have one piece of advice for you: have no ambition. Nobody from round here becomes anything, anyway.” That was the attitude then, and I fear that for so many people that is the attitude now.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I, too, have heard those absolutely tragic comments in my own constituency. However, it is clear that things can turn around if the right interventions are made. We have seen a remarkable turnaround in Eastern High in Cardiff and also with the fantastic investment in Cardiff and Vale College. We have seen a turnaround in results, in aspirations, in ambition. That is making a real difference in young people’s lives, thanks to the investment from the Welsh Labour Government.

I absolutely agree. In some cases we have to intervene family by family, but it is a huge undertaking in terms of human resources and financial investment. As we saw under Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010, when we have the will we can reduce child poverty, and we did. I do not want to paint a picture of my constituency as all doom and gloom. I absolutely hate it when people talk us down. How can we attract high-quality jobs when we keep telling people we are dependent on soup kitchens? In Islwyn—Mrs Moon, you will know as a member of the Defence Committee—we have General Dynamics creating high-quality, high-skilled jobs. That is the future, but we have to do three things.

The one thing we have not talked about in this debate is entrepreneurship. Our future will not depend on the public sector. If we are to create high-quality jobs, they have to come from within Wales. But I will say this. How many people in this room—will the Minister accept this?—know how to go about setting up a business and how to deal with VAT and human resources? How many people spoke to anybody in school who said to them, “Business could be the way forward for you”? Think about it. We talk all the time about academics. The most famous entrepreneurs in this country—Lord Sugar of “The Apprentice”; Duncan Bannatyne of “Dragons’ Den”—share one thing in common. Not one of them has a single qualification between them, but they all managed to build companies that employ thousands of people, bringing wealth to this country.

I have talked to the Federation of Small Businesses. Business is vital. We have 250,100 active businesses in Wales with a combined turnover of £117 billion; 95% are micro-businesses employing no more than nine people. Large businesses make up only 0.7% but employ 38% of the workforce. We need to go into schools to encourage enterprise. We need entrepreneurs to talk to our schoolchildren. If we think that that cannot be done, just look at the viewing figures for “Dragons’ Den” or “The Apprentice”. One of the most viewed programmes at the weekend was the final of “The Apprentice”. People see business as something exciting that they can get involved in, but it cannot be on the other side of a television screen. Someone, whether it is Lord Sugar or a local entrepreneur or employer, needs to come to schools to tell people about their experiences.

We should ask ourselves about the way we teach children. It is no good saying we have a GCSE pass rate of 60%. What about the other 40%? I have to ask about the way we teach our children not only in Wales but all over the country. We know from academic studies that people learn in four different ways, yet we teach people only in one way: the teacher in front of the class teaching the kids. Some kids will flourish, but others will not. We therefore have to look at the way people learn. We have so many opportunities. In years to come, traditional exams will not be the measure.

I recently visited the Man Group, an investment company that is investing in artificial intelligence. It told me that it now wants graduates with degrees in machine learning. The graduate entry level salary for that is £60,000. Most of its graduates will have been to Oxford. We should teach kids coding and similar skills from an early age, because the future will be automation and artificial intelligence. My son Zachariah is 10 months old, and he will probably do a job that I have never heard of. We must start teaching kids the core skills in school. The issue goes back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said: we need mentors in schools, to teach people about those things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) talked about the 1944 Butler report and the tripartite system. We have neglected technical skills. I believe that people voted for Brexit because of fear of immigration. Those migrants will not now come in. We need to invest in technical education, and that needs to come from the Government, but we need to make sure that technical qualifications involve the same level of attainment as a degree. Not everyone is academic; some people are good with their hands.

I applaud the hon. Gentleman on a fantastic speech. The attainment levels in those General Dynamics apprenticeships, which are being supported by Y Coleg Merthyr Tudful, are really quite inspiring. Does he agree that the fact that those opportunities are available in valleys communities will make the difference and show that young people can have a future in those communities?

I congratulate the Minister: I am quite shocked—I have been in the House seven years and he has never said anything nice about me before, so I can only think he must have been visited by the same Christmas spirits who haunted Ebenezer Scrooge all those years ago. The worst thing is that I agree with him. I should stop and move on.

If we are truly to tackle social mobility we need a change in our mindset. We need radical solutions. We cannot go on as we are. If one person fails, we all fail. Together, if we are radical and think outside the box, we can ensure that the next generation will have better opportunities than the present one.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who made a passionate speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this important debate.

Crippling austerity, welfare cuts, unfair and disorganised welfare reforms, plummeting productivity, stagnant wages and increased living costs will only increase under the Tory Government as a result of their shambolic Brexit negotiations. Is it any wonder that social mobility is suffering? Only two weeks ago, as we have heard, Alan Milburn, the chair of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission, and the entire team resigned, citing “lack of political leadership”. The findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that almost 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners have been impoverished in the UK since 2013, are shocking. The Tory Government should be ashamed, despite the rhetoric of the Prime Minister, who promised when she was elected to heal social divisions and bridge the gap between the classes. Her Government have done nothing to improve social mobility. On the contrary, she and her predecessors have presided over the first sustained increase in child poverty in 20 years. They achieved that by adopting anti-welfare policies, cutting in-work benefits and freezing housing and children’s benefits in an economy that is already squeezing family incomes.

The latest figures show that 30% of children in this country live in poverty: that is 4 million children, 67% of whom come from working families. That means that children do not have enough food to eat. It means parents having to decide between putting their children to bed at night either cold or hungry. That is not because their parents do not love them, or are not working long and hard enough at many different jobs; it is because of the Government. Wages are getting lower while prices for everything else get higher.

How do those children have a chance of getting out of the poverty cycle? Only a generation ago, a Labour Government provided people from low-income backgrounds with full grants to go to university. Most of them went on to become teachers, nurses, social workers and doctors. They were given good-quality training and education to provide us all with high standards of public services and a reliable, respectable career with opportunities to progress. My father spent his life teaching children, many of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a leader in outdoor education he equipped them with the skills and knowledge to gain confidence, achieve and succeed. Many of them returned years later to tell him the difference that he made, and that education made, to their lives. Now, thanks to the Government, a young person must decide whether to take on up to £50,000 of debt to get a degree, knowing that there is no guarantee of a job at the end of it.

On the issue of tuition fees, is not the participation rate in England higher than in Wales and Scotland, even though until now there has been a reduced tuition rate in Wales? If the hon. Lady thinks the level of debt is a barrier to going into further education, has she made representations to the Welsh Government about their proposals to increase tuition fees for Welsh students?

The Welsh Government are keeping tuition fees at a lower level than the UK Government; I have had conversations with the UK Government about it. The Welsh Government are keeping them at a much lower level and supporting our students in Wales.

No, I will not give way; I am going to continue.

Perhaps the Prime Minister’s idea of social mobility is the Conservative ideal of a select, lucky few doing that much better than their parents while the rest fail to get on in life and are left behind. When I turn on the television or read a newspaper, I see a structured class system representing a specific, small part of society. I see all those with the same names, who went to the same schools and universities and who now hang out in the same private members’ clubs, representing perhaps 1% of our society. I see them speaking out and trying to represent us; they deign to represent us all. It is not that children in my constituency, or people anywhere who go to local schools and universities, are not good enough; they just were not born into the right background. We are lucky in Wales that we do not have such a rigid class structure, but the entrenched class system is pervasive and prevents many from succeeding. The barriers need to be broken down. How are we to do that if many UK civil servants are from those same privileged backgrounds? It is up to the UK Government to start breaking down those barriers.

Upward mobility involves an assumption that some jobs are better than others; and in fact many jobs, available only to those able to get on with their education, are more secure, and offer better conditions and benefits. Instead of continuing with their empty rhetoric, the Government should consider social equality. Our Government in Wales are pursuing that with investment in education, skills, growth and better jobs closer to home. To make a difference, I ask the Government to set change in motion.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the general point that the rigid class divisions that she accurately described are not just wrong in themselves but totally inappropriate for the modern, dynamic society that we in Wales and Britain have to create?

Yes, absolutely. Those class divisions are damaging to society and they pervade every part of life. They do not represent us. As I said, when I turn on the television to watch the news and I see reporters representing broadcasters, or when I see Foreign Office statements—all these are people from privileged class backgrounds, and those systems must be broken down. To make any difference I ask the Government to set change in motion. We must break down those barriers, lift the public sector pay cap, reverse the welfare cuts, and end austerity in all sectors. Let us deliver real opportunity and equality.

I pay tribute to my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this debate. He spoke about the positive impact of Labour policies such as Sure Start and the national minimum wage on social mobility. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) spoke about the importance of early years education, and about the Government changing the definition of childhood poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), which borders north Wales, spoke about cross-border issues that pertain to social mobility, and I pay tribute to his work as chair of the all-party group on social mobility.

The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) spoke about infrastructure, railways, the digital divide and EU funding. I will touch on some of those issues in my short speech, although hopefully there will be no repetition. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke passionately about promoting ambition and enterprise across Wales, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) spoke about child poverty, and about how we have a more equal society in Wales. I congratulate all my colleagues on their contributions.

In its report into social mobility, the London School of Economics highlighted 1958 as the golden year. I was fortunate to be born in that year, and I was one of only 8% of children who, 18 years later, went on to university. Many of my close friends did not manage to go to university, although they were still successful. Some pursued careers as businessmen, some worked in construction and recruitment, and some moved away from the town, and indeed the country—one of them lives in New York, one in Sydney, and one in Amsterdam. One of my friends went on to become vice-president of 21st Century Fox in Europe, Africa and the middle east, and two of the lads from my council estate went on to become multi-millionaires. All came from humble backgrounds. Our parents were labourers, dinner ladies, waitresses, plumbers, and cleaners, but they had a burning desire that their children would do better than themselves, and most of us did.

Sadly, and increasingly, that is not the case today, and prospects do not look good for the future. The Social Mobility Commission’s latest report is a scathing indictment of the lack of social mobility in the UK, and it predicts an even bleaker future. The full report is too big to address today in the eight minutes that are left for me to speak, so I will confine my comments to issues such as transport, digital connection, leaving the EU, and regional policy, over which the Minister and his colleagues have greater influence.

First, I want to consider the question of whether work pays in the UK in the 21st century. The quantity of jobs is not the issue; it is the quality of those jobs, because they simply do not pay enough to allow workers to bring up a family. In 1997, 43% of children living in poverty were in working households, but today that figure has shot up to 67%. Overall, 57% of people living in poverty are in households with a working adult. Work should be a pathway out of poverty; it should not lead to a worker being imprisoned by poverty.

As many of my colleagues mentioned, gains were made under Labour. The national minimum wage was brought in, despite vitriolic opposition from the Conservatives. In 1996, I conducted a survey of low pay in my constituency, and found a taxi driver earning £1 per hour. Women were working 12-hour shifts through the night in care homes on just £2.50 an hour. The Social Mobility Commission points out that since 2008, young people’s wages have fallen by 16%—they are now paid less than they were 20 years ago—and a national living wage could help overcome many of the defects in our current system.

I mentioned the digital divide in a recent speech on rural Wales in Westminster Hall, because only 43% of the country is connected by 4G. Rural areas of Wales are losing out, and the majority of my constituency—indeed, the majority of Wales—is in a rural area. If we do not address the digital divide, our children and young people will not have access to a modern means of accessing information and will not be able to work remotely in our rural communities.

If we cannot take the work to the people, we should at least make efforts to take people to the work. That should be the case in Wales, but we need to update our rail system. I feel that we in Wales are being left behind—electrification proposals for the line from Cardiff to Swansea have been withdrawn, and the electrification of the north Wales line has still not been clarified. I hope that the Minister will provide some clarification when he sums up the debate. Last weekend, The Times stated that at 51p per track mile, the UK has the highest rates in the whole of Europe. That compares with 33p in Austria, 31p in France, and just 5p in Latvia.

In north Wales, the majority of unemployment blackspots are on the coast—Holyhead, Bangor, Colwyn Bay, Rhyl, Flint, Shotton. If rail prices were more affordable that would make accessing job opportunities along the entire north Wales coast, and indeed in north-west England, far easier. Enabling young people to gain access to those jobs would also lead to greater social mobility, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), who has done so much to raise the issue of rail connectivity with the Mersey Dee Alliance across the Welsh-English border. London has already benefited from excellent infrastructure projects such as the Jubilee line and Crossrail. High Speed 2 will start from London. Will it suck in more jobs to London? Should it start from Manchester so that we can rebalance our national and regional economy? I call on the Minister to do his job and ensure that we in Wales secure parity with the rest of the UK on rail investment.

My next major concern is the impact of the loss of EU structural funds on social mobility in Wales. Wales has gained £9 billion in private and public sector funding over the past 17 years. It is the only area of the UK that is a net gainer from those structural funds, and we must ensure that an equivalent to those funds is kept in place in Wales. The Minister, and Conservative Members, gave reassurances that Wales would not lose out as a result of Brexit, but I think there is a real danger that we will, and those who will suffer the most are the poorest people and those who need that social mobility.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just important that the same level of funding continues, but that it is allocated on the basis of need and not redefined for other purposes by the Government?

Absolutely. EU structural funds were allocated around Europe on the basis of need, and four of the six counties in north Wales—including the Minister’s own area of Conwy—are some of the poorest areas in Europe. As a north Walian and a Welsh MP, the Minister should be campaigning with us to ensure that Wales does not lose out.

I am afraid I have almost taken my 10 minutes, but I thank the Minister for the work that he has done on the growth deal.

Order. I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech, but he does in fact have 15 minutes, should he require them.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because on this occasion I was going to make a constructive point. He makes the case for EU structural funds, which I will discuss in due course. However, a strategic approach for the whole of north Wales was precluded under European structural funding, because it was confined to the four counties in the west, rather than a strategic approach across the whole of north Wales. There will be some advantages to being able to hone our own response when putting funding into north Wales.

Those funds were allocated on the basis of need for the whole of Wales. I was very fortunate in managing to persuade the then junior Minister at the Wales Office, Peter Hain, to accept European structural funds for the Minister’s county of Conwy and the county of Denbighshire. Thirteen counties had been chosen, and those two had been left out, but as a result of representations made by myself, Elfyn Llwyd, Gareth Thomas and Betty Williams, along with council leaders, we were able to ensure that those counties were included.

As a result, there are many projects in the Minister’s own constituency and county—I think Venue Cymru is one of them—that have benefited massively from that investment. The Minister quite often intervenes on other Members and pooh-poohs that £9 billion, saying we do not need it. Maybe he wants to send it back. Perhaps he should go to Venue Cymru and say, “All of this is a waste of time; we don’t really need this.” Perhaps he should consult those workers and ask them if the jobs created in his own community are a waste of time. Perhaps he would like to put them back on the dole.

My wider point is that we have benefited from the structural funds. In my constituency, we have the OpTIC research and incubation project—a £40 million strategic project that looks at the opto-electronics industry in the whole of north Wales, which comprises about 35 companies and 2,000 workers. The projects builds on that strength, hothouses new companies on the back of that and creates excellent opportunities for local people to progress without leaving north Wales. Some will want to leave, and some will want to leave the country, but we should give those young people the opportunity to be socially mobile without being geographically mobile, so they can stay in their communities.

The OpTIC project in my constituency would not have taken place if it had not been for the additional money sent into the county from Brussels. The point that many of us have made today is that we want that additional money to carry on coming to our areas of Wales, not out of favouritism but because of need—need that was recognised and rewarded by Brussels. A big dollop of jam came to us, and we do not want it to be taken away and spread thinly over the UK. We want that money where it is needed, which is in west Wales and the valleys.

On the growth fund, which I mentioned before, I am grateful to the Minister for inviting us, on a cross-party basis, to meet him, his civil servants and north Wales council leaders in the Wales Office the other week. I hope that that additional funding, which we desperately need, will be allocated or reallocated through that north Wales growth fund. I also welcome the announcement of the mid-Wales growth fund, but I do not want to see the funds that were to be allocated to north Wales halved, with the other half being sent to mid-Wales. [Interruption.] The Minister laughs, but will he give us a categorical assurance that the funding that we get for those funds will be comparable to the best England has had? Areas such as Manchester received £238 per head. I tabled a parliamentary question on the amount of growth deal funding for each of the city deals in England, which was answered yesterday. That information was not given to me, but I want to make sure that the money that we get in Wales matches the best they have had in England.

The growth deal is a perfect vehicle to make sure that that additional investment that we had from Europe is maintained, and that we are able to improve the social mobility of our young people. On the growth deal funding, what percentage will be new money? What is the balance of funding between central Government, the Welsh Government, local government and other funders? What will the likely level of funding be?

Some progress has been made on social mobility over the past 20 years, and many of those gains were made as a result of the actions taken by the previous Labour Government. The Social Mobility Commission commends the centrality of early years services, which have been embedded in the UK. It was not there in 1996; it is there now because of Sure Start and other early years programmes across the whole of the United Kingdom. The commission calls early years services

“a new arm of the welfare state”,

so that has survived. However, it mentions a lack of progress on many other fronts; indeed, there has been a retrenchment in areas such as young people’s services, work and divisions in society.

The Minister is here, and he has heard representation from Members from across Wales, and even from across the border in England. I ask him to listen carefully to what has been said, to do his job and take that back to his Government, and to make sure that Wales gets the fair deal it deserves, to make sure that we have social mobility in future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to follow the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). I want to ensure that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) is not only congratulated on securing the debate but also has a few minutes to respond at the end of the debate, so my contribution will be somewhat curtailed.

It has been an interesting debate, and I argue that it has been at its best, and the speeches have been at their best, when they have not been partisan. I know I am guilty of being one of the most partisan Members in this place when I want to be, but I will try to respond in a manner similar to most of the speeches we have heard, rather than those with a “Money, money, money” theme, which seemed to be the message from some hon. Members. However, on the whole, the debate has been thoughtful, useful and constructive. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Ogmore, as I have said, for securing the debate and for the majority of his speech, which looked at the core issues at stake. On the whole, it was a constructive speech, although it occasionally fell into supporting the Welsh Government come what may.

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) made an impassioned speech on the importance of people being aware of whether they can or cannot take their opportunities for further education. While I would describe the universities in Wales as the elite universities—not least Aberystwyth University, which I attended—the hon. Gentleman made an important point about aspiration. When looking at some of those giants of recent Welsh history, who came from valley communities, slate quarrying villages and farming stock, and who actually aspired to education, we have to ask why we have lost that in the Welsh context. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are well worth further consideration by those who actually take an interest in the goings-on of this place.

I also welcome the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) to the debate. I congratulate him on his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility, and I appreciate his interest in the cross-border work of the Wales Office. He made some really important points about the London-centric nature of the UK economy, which I subscribe to. I believe that one problem we have, not only in the Welsh context but throughout the UK, is that we have a London-centric view of the world, which needs to be challenged. The hon. Gentleman is clearly doing excellent work as part of the all-party parliamentary group system here in Westminster. I would argue that most of my constructive contributions in this place between 2010 and 2015 were made through all-party parliamentary groups, so I encourage the hon. Gentleman to carry on with his work and to keep on being involved with us in north Wales, in relation to the potential of the north Wales growth deal.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), who highlighted that many of the issues we have talked about, including educational attainment and training and so on, are devolved to the Welsh Government. That point was worth making. However, at the same time, she was quite happy to challenge me, as the Wales Office Minister representing the UK Government.

At this point, I think I need to once again clarify my point about EU structural funds. I congratulate the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd and for Caerphilly (Wayne David), and all politicians who ensured that Wales received EU structural funds at the highest level, on their involvement at the time. I have said that on the record time and again. The point I have also made, which is still worth reiterating, is that the reason Wales achieved the highest level of EU funding intervention was to ensure that our GDP was comparable to the EU average.

That was not achieved, so before we ask for more money, we need to ask ourselves why that investment did not achieve the desired goals. It is simply not good enough for the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd to claim that the situation would have been even worse without that intervention; we need to ensure that in the future, if we have intervention through a UK Government shared prosperity fund, that intervention improves the GDP of Wales and the life chances of all people in Wales. We should be willing to learn lessons from the fact that the whole purpose of EU structural funds in Wales did not deliver the growth we were hoping for.

In the spirit of planning ahead, much mention has been made of apprenticeships today. I represent an extremely rural area, where we have a shortage of skills when we are looking at developing, say, the Wylfa site. We need workplaces in which people can undertake apprenticeships. We do not have those workplaces in north-west Wales in sufficient numbers. Will the Minister commit to looking at creative ways of finding workplaces that will enable young men and women to be trained for engineering and construction in the future?

The hon. Lady makes a point that I fully subscribe to. The Wales Office stands ready to support any initiative in a Welsh context that extends the number of apprenticeship places available. We are certainly of the view that the financial contribution made by the UK Government to the Welsh Government through the apprenticeship levy has been significant, and that money should be spent.

The opportunities that exist in north-west Wales include the development of a new nuclear power station in Wylfa and the work going on in Airbus, with the apprenticeship schemes available at RAF Valley. Those schemes are strong. They are making a difference and showing young people that there is an alternative to going to university. I have seen the success stories in north Wales of Coleg Cambria and Grŵp Llandrillo Menai replicated in south Wales with Coleg Merthyr and other colleges, as a result of my role as a Minister in the Wales Office.

I highlighted, for example, how impressed I was with the enthusiasm and commitment of apprentices when I visited the General Dynamics site in Merthyr Tydfil. That is the way to show young people that educational achievement does not necessarily mean aspiring to Oxbridge. There is no reason why anybody in Wales should not aspire to improve themselves from an educational perspective, but that improvement can happen in their local communities. Opportunities should be enhanced for people to get qualifications in the workplace, ensuring that they are earning while learning.

In Wales, we have some of the better further education institutions. They are doing great work, but they should be fully supported by the Welsh Government in delivering more for the people of Wales. I genuinely thought that the comments from the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) were inspiring. Colleagues have said clearly that we need to sell the concept of going further in education. We need to sell the ability of young people to see themselves attending some of our finest institutions.

We need to be proud of the fact that we have a significant entrepreneurial spirit in Wales. How often is that sold in local schools? The biggest success in my constituency since I was elected has been Sean Taylor, a veteran who left the Army and decided to set up a high ropes training and outdoor pursuits centre. He subsequently created the Zip World business, which now employs 240 people in my constituency and the constituency of the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, 75% of whom are local Welsh speakers. Those people have had an opportunity to work, develop skills and gain qualifications while seeing that setting up a business in their community can make a real difference. I am proud to say that Sean Taylor is the type of entrepreneur who is willing to go out and explain to young people, “You can aspire to university and to a medical or legal profession, but you can also make a big difference in your community.”

I am proud to represent a constituency with one of the highest levels of self-employment. It has been said that in rural Wales, self-employment is often a case of doing anything to earn a living because of people’s pride in themselves and their community, and because no other opportunities are available. We need to make setting up a business and being entrepreneurial a key opportunity for young people to move forward in their communities. Nothing gives me greater pride than when, in my role as a Minister in the Wales Office, I meet young people who have set up businesses in my constituency and across the length and breadth of Wales.

While I thought the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) was somewhat partisan in her comments, I am happy to agree that we need to deal with the lack of social mobility. I want to allow the hon. Member for Ogmore a few minutes to respond, but before I finish my comments, I need to touch on some of the issues raised in the debate. Clearly social mobility is important for this Government. It was said in some of the most thoughtful comments by Opposition Members that nobody in the Chamber can be proud of our record on that issue. If, as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd said, the highest point of social mobility in our history was achieved in 1958, that is a stain on all of us. If, 10 years before I was born, we reached the high point of social mobility in our communities, we genuinely need to ask ourselves what went wrong. No amount of finger pointing between Westminster, the UK Government and the Welsh Government will change anything unless we are willing to acknowledge where we have a weakness.

This debate is entitled “Social mobility in Wales”. We have agreed that education is crucial, and we need to acknowledge that in Wales we are not performing as we should. I am not going to say anything more than that, but we all acknowledge that we are not performing in Wales to the standard of the UK as a whole or the rest of our competitors in the European Union. We need to be very clear about that. When Germany found itself failing under the PISA regime, it acted, and in 10 years it managed to get itself from a very low level to once again leading. The report on PISA in Germany sent shockwaves through the German political system, and the question I ask is: why are those shockwaves not resonating through the corridors of the Welsh Government in Cardiff? We need to do a lot of work on education. It is not perfect in England, but it is certainly not as good as it should be in Wales, and Members should acknowledge that.

Members have highlighted the need to ensure that the concept of lifelong learning is understood. That is why investment in our further education colleges is crucial. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston made the crucial point that education, and certainly education in the workplace, does not end at the age of 18 or 21. It is increasingly the case that 35 to 50-year-olds are looking to retrain. As we are all living longer and expected to work longer, we have to acknowledge that we need to adapt to the workplace. One of the key things I have seen at further education colleges that I have visited in Wales is their commitment to take on apprentices regardless of their age.

Another issue that we need to be aware of is the importance of making work pay. We have seen in Wales since 2010 a significant reduction in the number of children in workless households. That is very important. The Office for National Statistics has highlighted that families in which members are in work are, on the whole, in a position to make more of their lives and have better outcomes than those where that is not the case. Interestingly, the ONS statistics also highlight that, regardless of a household’s income level, where there is someone in employment, outcomes are better. I often hear complaints from the Labour party about the type of jobs being created, but we should always take pride in any jobs that are being created and in allowing people to take care of their own future.

One thing that has come out of the debate is that poverty can be measured in financial terms. I acknowledge that. The hon. Members for Torfaen and for Islwyn and others highlighted the importance of dealing with poverty of ambition. We need to be champions within our communities, highlighting to young people that there are financial difficulties in terms of ensuring equality of opportunity, but also challenging the poverty of ambition that blights too many of our communities in Wales and across the United Kingdom.

I want to start by thanking hon. Members for their contributions, including my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for his passionate speech and my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), for Caerphilly (Wayne David), for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), as well as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts).

In the spirit of consensus in the room on the need to tackle social mobility in Wales, I thank the Minister for what he said. Although he made the odd political dig, which of course he is not famous for, he knows there is more to do at all levels of government, including local government, which must play a part in the Welsh and UK context.

I thank Members for their contributions. I look forward to UK Government Ministers trying to address the issues of social mobility under the functions that are still reserved to the UK Government, while we continue on all sides to try to improve and be aspirational for our young people in our constituencies up and down Wales.

Question put and agreed to.

That this House has considered social mobility in Wales.

Blue Belt Programme: Marine Protected Areas

We now come to an important debate on the Blue Belt programme. I should advise the Chamber that we expect a Division imminently, in which case I shall have to suspend the sitting for 15 minutes.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Blue Belt programme for marine protection.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. You and I share a birthday, 7 November, although we were not born in the same year. Thank you for undertaking to chair this debate.

I am told that Sir David Attenborough’s one great regret in life is that he has not done enough to protect the world’s environment. Well, he does not need me or anyone else in this House to reassure him that he has probably done more than any other human being to protect the world’s environment, and I cannot think of a better way of marking that contribution than the very welcome decision to name the Natural Environment Research Council’s new polar research ship, to be launched next year, not Boaty McBoatface, as some people had predicted, but the RRS Sir David Attenborough. That is a fitting tribute to a very great man.

The BBC’s “Blue Planet II” and Sir David’s stark warnings about the threats posed to the world’s oceans from over-fishing, plastics and, of course, climate change will stand for a very long time as a beacon of all that is wrong in our oceans, but it is also a clarion call for “action this day”, as Churchill would have put it. It is a call to all of us in this House to do what we can to lead the world in a variety of environmental initiatives, including taking steps to protect the waters around Great Britain, Northern Ireland and our 14 overseas territories.

However, before dealing with that, it is worth noting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently reaffirmed our commitment to tackling climate change and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committed us to taking action on plastics in the oceans. Both those initiatives are very much to be welcomed. The Wildlife Trusts, among others, have called for the Government to develop a national marine strategy to safeguard the cleanliness and biodiversity of our own territorial waters after we leave the EU.

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying. I congratulate him on securing this debate and remind him that we recently had a long debate on marine conservation. I hope that he will join the all-party group that a number of us are setting up—it is a cross-party group—on marine conservation.

I will be glad to do so. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing the group to my notice, although I do have one caveat, which I will come to later.

The important point about Brexit is that it must not mean a lessening of any of the environmental standards in our oceans. Her Majesty’s Government must commit to ensuring that they are all higher than would have been the case had we remained a member of the EU.

A full commitment to marine protected areas and the Government’s Blue Belt programme is of course central to all that. The Conservative party manifesto for this year’s general election committed us to working with the overseas territories to create a network of MPAs covering more than 2 million square miles of the waters for which the UK is ultimately responsible. That is a fantastic opportunity for us to do what is right in our own waters, but also to lead the world by example across the whole spectrum of ocean conservation.

I salute the great many people who have called for the Blue Belt programme and are active in seeking its implementation, especially my right hon. Friend the Minister here today, my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation—together with his father and brother, if I may say so—and, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), whom I am very glad to see here today, and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). They have worked incredibly hard in advocating the Blue Belt programme. As a result of it, we have already seen the UK designate new MPAs around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, St Helena and Pitcairn. We are further committed to designating MPAs around Ascension and Tristan da Cunha by 2020.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, I take a particular interest in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which sit on the cusp of the Southern ocean and Antarctica. There, the UK has a real responsibility. After all, it was largely our whalers and sealers who wrought so much of the appalling environmental damage there in the 18th and 19th centuries. They left behind something of an environmental catastrophe, particularly on South Georgia. We also have a huge responsibility because South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is an area of such outstanding scientific importance, both for the study of marine ecosystems and for monitoring the effects of climate change, sitting as it does on the cusp of two great oceans.

I particularly look forward, therefore, to further news on the exciting project to be called, I think, Discovery 100, which would result in a huge investment of private funds in the further preservation of the heritage of South Georgia, as well as its biodiversity following the enormously successful rat eradication programme over the past few years. I hope that Discovery 100 might also make provision for international scientific research facilities on the island. 

The establishment of an MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in 2012 and its strengthening in 2013 were important steps towards correcting the damage previously done and preventing anything similar from happening in the future. The Blue Belt programme is now driving forward efforts to establish MPAs around Antarctica, although quite rightly that has to be done through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The CCAMLR agreement is incredibly important from a conservation standpoint and is a critical pillar of the Antarctic treaty system, so we must do nothing that risks undermining it. Because the Antarctic treaty suspends all territorial claims to Antarctica, including our own claim to the British Antarctic Territory, it is only through international consensus that MPAs can be established around Antarctica, including the British Antarctic Territory.

In 2009, the UK helped secure the consensus for the first Antarctic MPA, covering an area south of the South Orkney Islands. Last year, CCAMLR agreed an MPA for the Ross Sea region, and I am delighted that, despite a few setbacks this year, the Government remain committed to working towards securing international agreement on designating additional MPAs in East Antarctica, the Weddell sea and the Western Antarctic peninsula.

As a Member who represents a coastal constituency, I well understand the importance of marine conservation, and I am very happy to support the Blue Belt programme. Is my hon. Friend aware of the Sky News Ocean Rescue campaign, which is today highlighting Antarctica and the challenges that it faces as a consequence of overuse of plastics and other pollution around the world?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to my notice. In his short time in the House so far, he has been assiduous in championing the interests of the oceans off his own constituency and elsewhere around the world. I am most grateful to him for that. If I may, I will come back to the Sky television programme in a moment.

There is more to be done. For example, there are—I think that my hon. Friend referred to this briefly—current debates about whether the MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is sufficient and whether the protections already in place could or should be further enhanced. I think that the Sky TV programme is about that. A review of the MPA is under way at the moment, with recommendations due to be published next year.

An organisation known as the Great British Oceans coalition, which consists of six major environmental conservation organisations, has said that it wants to see protection of the area around the South Sandwich Islands in particular enhanced to the fullest degree. Doing that, it argues, would help the UK to reaffirm our ambition of becoming a global leader of efforts to protect the world’s oceans. It would also send a strong message to other CCAMLR members that the UK is committed to driving forward international efforts to establish MPAs around Antarctica in particular. Those are of course extremely laudable aims that broadly reflect the intent of the Blue Belt programme, and it is vital that we should not fail to capitalise on the momentum generated by “Blue Planet II”, so I am broadly supportive of the aims and efforts of the Great British Oceans coalition. We all want the UK to be a global leader in marine protection, but there is a debate to be had about how best to achieve that, particularly without disturbing the delicate CCAMLR discussions on MPAs around Antarctica.

Unlike with other overseas territories, for the past 35 years or so the UK has allowed South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands to be covered by CCAMLR rules on fisheries management. The reason for that is simple. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands lie within the Southern ocean convergence and share the same wildlife as Antarctica. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are also, however, counterclaimed by Argentina—a matter that we are well aware of in this House. By allowing the islands to fall under CCAMLR, the UK is able to manage those waters effectively within the international consensus of CCAMLR. Working through CCAMLR therefore underpins British sovereignty of the waters, which seems to me to be extremely important. It also helps to foster greater international co-operation around Antarctica and the Southern ocean, and, as I mentioned a moment ago, that co-operation promotes conservation efforts across the entire white continent and its surrounding waters.

After all, since 2012 the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands MPA has managed the local fishery and protected globally significant wildlife very adequately indeed. There is just one small commercial fishery licensed by the UK, which amounts to no more than two vessels fishing for one month a year and taking around 60 to 80 tonnes of fish in the waters. Those two boats also supply scientific data to CCAMLR, which is no easy task. Were it not for the fact that we allow those two vessels to fish for profit in the highly regulated South Georgia fishery, it would be too expensive for them to go there and we would therefore lose the scientific data we currently provide to CCAMLR. In other words, were this fishery to be closed, as some are calling for and the coalition seems to be calling for, the UK would no longer be able to control fishing in the area as effectively.

It is clear that the hon. Gentleman feels passionately about this issue, but the campaign that he refers to for the South Sandwich Islands has made it clear that a scientifically credible stock assessment is not incompatible with a fully protected reserve. Does he agree, therefore, that there is an opportunity to retain a small scientifically robust stock assessment alongside the full protection that the coalition is calling for?

That is a matter that needs to be discussed, and it will be interesting to hear how the Minister responds to that point later in the debate. Of course it would be possible for the two fishery vessels to continue to do their scientific research there at the same time as there being full protection, but we have already got full protection of those waters under the long-standing MPA that is already there. I am not certain that what is proposed by the coalition would necessarily add anything to that. However, it might well undermine our ability to provide that scientific data and it might invite other CCAMLR members to say that it is not being done properly and therefore they—the other CCAMLR members—have some kind of right to do that scientific fishing research in the area. I therefore think there are downsides, as well as upsides, to what the coalition proposes. It is a delicate political decision, which the Minister might refer to in his response.

There could, therefore, be a perversity in what the coalition demand—namely, that more fish will be caught in the area as a result, rather than less. That is something that we have to be extremely careful about. There may be innovative solutions to the problem, particularly surrounding enforcement of the MPA, perhaps using the latest satellite technology, and further discussion may well be warranted about how the UK can best protect the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and revitalise international efforts to increase protection around the world.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate. As I understand, one of the Foreign Office’s concerns about the new larger reserve around the South Sandwich Islands is that it might result in a displaced krill fishery, but no krill have actually been caught around the South Sandwich Islands commercially for 25 years. I am concerned that those concerns have not been properly thought through, and that the opportunity to create a 500,000 sq km exclusion zone in this pristine water, with the conditions that my hon. Friend refers to, will be missed.

My right hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about these matters, makes two points. One is that there will be some interference with the krill fishing, which has not actually occurred for many years. That is not one of our concerns: there is no such fishing, therefore it is not something we would necessarily be concerned about. His second point is that we might somehow be sacrificing the opportunity for this fantastic protected area. That protected area already exists under the MPA. We already have that protection for the waters around the South Sandwich Islands, and therefore I am not certain that what is being proposed would necessarily add very much to it.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Foreign Office. I pay particular tribute to the department in the Foreign Office that runs these matters, in particular the outstandingly good Jane Rumble, who has done this work for many years and knows more about Antarctica than most of us know about anything else. I certainly do not want to be thought to be blocking efforts to enhance marine protection around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Antarctica or anywhere else in the world, but we do need to be aware of the law of unintended consequences. I think that what my right hon. Friend proposes may suffer from exactly that law—in other words, protection for the South Sandwich Islands may be the worse if what he proposes is allowed to occur.

The public reaction to “Blue Planet II” offers us one of those rare opportunities to make a real difference in the world, and that must now be seized. We must remind audiences at home and in the world of our utmost commitment to the Blue Belt programme. The Government must listen carefully to the latest proposals for the South Sandwich Islands, but they must never forget that those also form part of a bigger picture of environmental protection and marine conservation in Antarctica and the Southern ocean. The Blue Belt programme of marine protected areas around the 14 British overseas territories is world-leading. I hope that in his response the Minister will reassert our commitment to it and our determination to lead the world in the ocean protection so passionately demanded, most notably by Sir David Attenborough, and now by a fast-growing percentage of the British electorate as well.

If we have the consent of the Member in charge, we are in receipt of an extraordinarily generous offer from Her Majesty’s Government. The Minister has agreed to confine his remarks to eight minutes, which means that we have five minutes of time if anyone else wants to make a contribution. If no one wishes to take your offer, Minister, the floor is yours.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) on securing this highly topical debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, he brings a wealth of experience on the Arctic and Antarctic, and a close interest in the health of their marine environments, as do all the other right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who has taken an acute interest in this issue.

I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to highlight once again the Government’s Blue Belt initiative. This is one of the most ambitious programmes of marine protection ever undertaken. Of the approximately 6.8 million sq km of ocean surrounding the UK and our 14 overseas territories, we have committed to developing measures to ensure the protection of 4 million sq km by 2020. I personally announced that commitment at the Our Ocean summit in Washington in September last year, and am delighted to confirm that the delivery of the commitment is on track.

Over the past few weeks much of the country, and audiences across the world, have been engrossed in the BBC’s brilliant “Blue Planet II”. Sir David Attenborough and his team have expertly shone a light on our incredible oceans and how diverse, important to the health of our planet and vulnerable they are.

If I may pray on some of the generous time that the Minister has offered, I just ask him to consider, as part of the very exciting Blue Belt policy, that certain problems exist not only for marine ecosystems and the species we want to see recover, but for the people who live on the islands and on whose support we depend. In particular, in Ascension Island there are very real difficulties with the prosperity of that community as a result of the failures to make the runway safe for use. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister assure us that investment is being made in Ascension Island? That will ensure that the people of that island can really support the marine protected area because they have a viable existence on the island.

Air access to Ascension Island resumed on 18 November, and a monthly air service has begun to and from neighbouring St Helena. Most workers on Ascension are from St Helena; as a Minister for the Department for International Development, I was largely responsible for building the airport there, which I am pleased to say now works. Employers on Ascension confirm that the monthly air service meets their current needs.

To return to “Blue Planet”—I risk being pressed for time if I do not get through what I need to tell the House—the series highlighted the many pressures that we are putting on our oceans, including the scourge of plastic waste, the unpredictable effects of global warming and atmospheric pollution and the danger of overfishing. Many of those challenges—perhaps most of them—must be addressed at the global level, and the UK will play a full and active leadership role in that work. Yet there is also good evidence that establishing well designed, effectively managed and properly enforced marine protection measures can help parts of the ocean withstand some of those pressures.

Our Blue Belt initiative is committed to doing just that. We have already declared large-scale marine protected areas in five of our overseas territories—St Helena, Pitcairn, the British Indian Ocean Territory, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the British Antarctic Territory, representing a total of 2.9 million sq km, or more than 40% of British waters. Of this, 1.5 million sq km, or more than 20% of our waters, are now designated as highly protected and closed to all commercial fishing.

At this point I feel obliged, as I always do when “Blue Planet” is mentioned, to say that the BBC natural history unit is based in Bristol and does tremendous work. The Minister touched on the issue of plastic pollution. Is he aware of the recent study by the University of Hull and the British Antarctic Survey, which found that plastic pollution in the Antarctic was five times as bad as predicted? To deal with the problem, it is not enough to create marine protected areas; we must do much more to tackle the problem of microplastics at source.

I fully accept what the hon. Lady says. We are focusing primarily on fishing in this debate, but the issue of plastics is of growing significance, and I hope that tackling it can be a cross-party endeavour. It is not a party political issue; we all want the same objectives, and the more that we work together across the party divide with one loud voice for the United Kingdom, the better we can make improvements for the world.

To return to what I was saying, we are not stopping with the efforts that I just described. Two further overseas territories, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension, have committed to declaring marine protection measures across their waters by 2020. Working with our two main Blue Belt delivery partners, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Marine Management Organisation, we have been supporting those territories to ensure that each marine protection regime is well designed, managed, monitored and enforced. Each territory has its own unique environment and particular needs, so there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. Each territory must feel a sense of involvement and ownership if we want the Blue Belt to be a lasting legacy.

The Blue Belt is already delivering results: for example, real-time analysis of satellite data has helped build intelligence on illegal fishing and inform long-term enforcement solutions. Overseas territory Governments have received advice and support to strengthen fisheries legislation and licensing and enforcement regimes. Targeted scientific cruises have been undertaken or are planned to assess biodiversity and analyse fish stocks. Also, links between the territories and appropriate regional fisheries management organisations have been strengthened.

The Minister has another five minutes so can I ask him, as he is an influential member of Government, to ensure that we have the right resources and investment in the research that is desperately needed to tackle the problems that he just mentioned?

The hon. Gentleman has hit on an important point. It is not just about being in these areas; it is about what we do while we are there. The scientific effort that we make, in which we are a world leader, is important to preserve; I had a meeting about it this very morning.

Of course, as with any Government initiative, we are not immune to critics. While watching “Blue Planet”, many Members of this House will have received direct tweets and messages encouraging them to sign up to the Blue Belt charter, or “back the Blue Belt”. I am delighted that in this debate, we have demonstrated the broad cross-party consensus on the importance of protecting our marine environment.

Although the Blue Belt Charter mainly includes already-announced Government commitments, it also focuses on the designation of large-scale no fishing areas. That is not always the most appropriate or most effective approach. We are also not willing to sacrifice the livelihoods and wellbeing of those in our overseas territories who depend on a healthy fishery, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) mentioned a moment ago.

The charter includes a call for the South Sandwich Islands in the far south Atlantic to be designated a complete no-take marine reserve. Those waters are already part of a marine protected area declared in 2012, which includes some of the strictest fisheries management rules in the world. The UK is proud of its effective management of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; since the bleak outlook of the 1970s and 1980s, caused by significant over-fishing, the territory is now internationally recognised as having one of the best-managed fisheries in the world.

It might seem, as was said earlier, counter-intuitive to argue against a total ban on fishing when our objective is to protect the oceans. However, sometimes a small footprint of extremely well managed and controlled fishing can help safeguard waters against illegal incursions and provide valuable scientific information about the health of the wider ocean. Simply prohibiting fishing in one area, only to see vessels concentrate somewhere else, is not always the most appropriate conservation approach. Let me reassure the House that we are by no means complacent on this issue. We do not wish to see a return to illegal fishing in our waters.

Given the campaign for a complete closure of the South Sandwich Islands fishery, we are urgently considering it, including through consideration of the scientific advice prepared for the current five-year review of the existing MPA. We are also assessing what implications such action would have for the UK’s leadership role within the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, within whose remit the waters of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands lie.

The information that we have on krill stocks is that the quota given is 130% above the scientifically advised level. Surely there is no real case to make for the displacement of fisheries.

That is exactly the kind of expert advice that we are assessing at the moment. We want to ensure that any policy decision is founded on scientific advice of the highest possible quality and a sensible understanding of possible unforeseen consequences in the practical world, so that we can bring all the threads together to take the most responsible decision. As I said earlier, there are no party politics involved. We just want to do what is good for the world, the waters and the islanders, and what is good for conservation and the preservation of our planet.

I am proud that this Government have been in the vanguard of marine protection. We recognise our essential role as custodians of one of the largest marine areas on the planet, and we understand the importance of protecting our oceans, as well as the magnitude of the challenge. Our commitment to delivering on the promises that I made in Washington last year is absolutely steadfast and enduring. I am grateful for the support of those who have engaged in this debate, and I hope that we can all work together for a better planet in the years and decades ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Childcare for Fostered Children

I beg to move,

That this House has considered childcare for fostered children.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Hollobone. In September, the Government extended free childcare for three and four-year-olds. The policy, which was widely welcomed, applies to all children whose parents work more than 16 hours a week and earn less than £100,000 a year—all, that is, except foster children, who are the only group of children excluded in this way.

When we ask any child what matters most to them, they tell us that it is their family and friends. A decade of working with children in care before I was elected to Parliament taught me that protecting and nurturing relationships is everything for them. The Fostering Network has already learned of children who have lost their nursery places as a result of the policy, because when they went into care they were no longer entitled to the additional funding. For so many children, their wider relationships with trusted adults and friends in a familiar setting are what sustains them most at the most difficult time in their lives. It is unthinkable that we should allow a policy that destroys those relationships to continue.

At the risk of being a spoiler, may I let the hon. Lady know that she will hear what she wants to hear when I make my speech?

It is not very often that I am speechless, but I am extremely pleased to hear that. My hon. Friends and I will await the Minister’s speech with great interest.

The Government’s policy has created a terrible disparity. Under the scheme, foster carers have been able to claim for their birth children but not for the foster children in their care, meaning that of two children growing up in the same household, one can attend nursery and one cannot. A common thread running through the stories that children tell about the pain of growing up in care is the feeling of being marked out as different from other children. The exclusion of foster children from the scheme enshrines that difference and discrimination in Government policy. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), has rightly said, that is indefensible.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent argument. Does she agree that one of the serious problems with the exclusion of foster children from the scheme is the impact on relationships within a family, between the foster child and the other children? The foster child may get to spend more time with the parent, which can exacerbate tensions with the other children.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point about the problem with treating foster children as different from other children in a family unit. I know she is very aware of the issue as a result of her previous experience and her constituency work.

For children who have experienced trauma and upheaval, the early years are critical. Some children’s best interests are served by being at home with their foster carer, but others—particularly those who have had limited social interaction—absolutely thrive around other children of the same age. The Children Act 1989 makes it very clear that a child’s best interests must be the primary consideration in all decisions affecting them. At the moment, the policy simply does not meet that test.

One foster carer from Norwich expressed it very well when he said that

“we currently foster the youngest two siblings from a large family. They came from a chaotic background where their only examples of behaviour and relationships with peers were those experienced in a very poor home environment. The youngest is now attending Pre-School, but anything over 15 hours has to be funded by ourselves, whereas a child from any other home would have 30 hours free. It is essential that he experience as much contact with his peers as he can comfortably manage, to enable him to learn how to behave appropriately before he starts school in September next year. To this end we are increasing his hours at our expense over the next few months which eats into the allowance we receive to feed, clothe and generally look after him.”

Such hardship is a common story among foster carers, as the GMB has highlighted. Foster carers are under immense financial pressure; barely 10% earn the equivalent of the national living wage.

Given that only 10% of foster carers earn the national living wage, does my hon. Friend agree that excluding them from the 30 hours of free childcare seems only to reinforce the spiral of poverty that many of them face?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. As my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) pointed out, we need to think about the impact not just on the foster child, but on the other children in the family. When the Earl of Listowel, a great champion for children, raised the issue in the other place, the then Minister Lord Nash said:

“The local authority must provide a fostering allowance which covers the full cost of caring for the child. For this reason, foster carers are not eligible for additional support through tax-free childcare or child tax credits for children who have been placed with them.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2015; Vol. 762, c. 2124.]

The Government are right that foster carers are eligible for a national minimum fostering allowance that covers food, transport, clothing, toiletries and other items such as furniture. However, having been among those who lobbied the last Labour Government for the introduction of that allowance, I can tell the Government that it does not contain any element that covers childcare.

In any case, as The Fostering Network points out, around one council in seven pays a rate that is below the national minimum. Its report, “State of the Nation’s Foster Care 2016”, found that the proportion of foster carers who believe that their allowance is sufficient to cover the costs of fostering has halved in recent years. It told me that

“when we asked this question two years ago 80 per cent of respondents felt their allowances did cover the costs of fostering. In 2016 this figure has fallen sharply to only 42 per cent.”

That starkly illustrates the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker).

The situation for “family and friends” carers, particularly grandparents, is very stark. Hardship is a real issue for many families. One family in my constituency recently faced a heartbreaking choice when their sister died: they had to choose between experiencing real hardship or seeing their two children taken into care and probably placed quite far away from their school, losing all the relationships that matter.

Has my hon. Friend considered the effect of the policy on the nearly 9,000 children who are in kinship foster care of the kind that she has described? Kinship foster carers do not have the luxury of assessing their finances before they decide to foster; keeping the child in the family is not a choice, but a necessity. Childcare is really important to them. Does she agree that the policy is particularly unfair on the children?

I could not agree more. The policy is particularly difficult for the family I have been supporting back in Wigan, because all the other siblings who might take care of the children face exactly the choice she describes.

As Edward Timpson—the former Conservative Minister for Children, Schools and Families, who I rated very highly—wrote recently, foster carers who need it should be

“offered flexibility and support to enable them to combine fostering with other work.”

There is a precedent for foster carers to receive additional support, although the Minister has previously suggested that they were not eligible for it. For example, foster carers in receipt of universal credit can claim free school meals for the children they foster, so it is wrong to suggest that there is no way round the problem. With record numbers of children in care—The Fostering Network estimates that we need to recruit more than 7,000 additional foster carers to meet children’s need—the Government are instead pursuing a policy that will make the situation worse, leaving more children stranded in unsuitable placements or forced to leave their siblings or grandparents behind because no local placements are available.

For some of the most vulnerable children in this country, the human cost of that oversight is beyond measure. What makes it even more difficult to accept is that the state is their corporate parent; we hold collective corporate responsibility for them because their parents cannot or will not be responsible. No parent would allow their children to become an afterthought in critical decisions that affect them or to remain unresponsive to their needs or best interests, and quite simply we should not do so either. For that reason I warmly welcome—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

As I was saying, for that reason I warmly welcome the Education Secretary’s statement that Ministers are “actively looking at” the issue, and I particularly welcome the Minister’s intriguing intervention during my opening remarks. In his response to my written questions, the Minister rightly reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to promoting the best interests of the child and told me that he will

“work with local councils, fostering service providers and others in the sector to ensure we get the balance right.”

When he responds, will he tell us whether he still intends to consult on the policy and, if he does, whether it will be a formal consultation that includes The Fostering Network and other fostering organisations?

If the Minister does intend to consult before making a further announcement, will he commit to beginning the process in January and to ensuring that it is not delayed by the foster care stocktake? Will he also give us a commitment that it will have concluded with a view to implementation at least by September, so that foster children do not have to face another year of exclusion from the policy? Does he intend to amend the legislation and, if not, will he commit to putting in additional funding now? Suggestions for how that might be achieved have been proposed by a number of different organisations and Members of Parliament, so will he commit to considering those? Given the problems that the overall scheme has faced, will he heed the concerns of the National Day Nurseries Association and ensure that the funding provided is sufficient to meet the true costs of the scheme?

Finally, the Minister in the other place said in a written answer in November:

“As of March 2017, there were 3,030 three and four year olds looked after in foster care and subsequently excluded from receiving the 15 additional hours of free childcare.”

Given the relatively small number of children and the fact that not all of them would take up the offer, does the Minister accept that the cost of righting this wrong is relatively low but that the cost of not doing so for foster children is far, far too high?

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate and on enabling us all to make a contribution if we so wish—I clearly wish to do just that.

I am pleased to see the Minister in his place and to have heard his early concession—if that is what it was—to the hon. Member for Wigan. We will wait to hear what he has to say at the end of the debate, but I am sure, as is always the case, that he will be most helpful to us, the Members of this House.

This is a worthy debate, and one to which I certainly wish to contribute. I am the proud grandparent of the most beautiful little girls in the world—Katie who is eight and Mia who is three. Thankfully, they do not look anything like me; they are lovely young girls and will have probably all the boys in my part of the country chasing them when the time comes. When I look at those feisty little girls, who take no nonsense from anyone and are so wise for their age, I am thankful for the home life they have, which sees them so well adjusted. That is something we are very thankful for; indeed, all of us, as parents, would be thankful for that. I am so very aware that not all children have that stability, and I believe it is our duty to do the best we can to intervene here, which is why the hon. Member for Wigan has introduced the debate.

I want to place on record, if I may, Mr Hollobone, some remarks about Northern Ireland. I understand very well that this is an England-based debate, but I want to have on the record where we are on foster care in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), sitting here on my left, made representations to the Backbench Business Committee to ask for a debate on foster issues, and we look forward to contributing to that debate in the new year.

While I understand that this is clearly an England-based debate, as the childcare hours apply only in England, I want to set the scene in terms of need in our society. In Northern Ireland 2,212 children were living with foster families on 31 March 2016. That is nearly nine tenths—some 88%—of the 2,500 children looked after away from home. There are approximately 2,095 foster families in Northern Ireland. The Fostering Network estimates that fostering services need to recruit a further 200 foster families in the next 12 months. That could be dealt with in answer to the hon. Lady’s debate, and we look forward to that.

In England, 53,420 children were living with foster families on 31 March 2017. That is nearly four fifths of the 68,300 children looked after away from home. There are 44,625 foster families in England. The Fostering Network estimates that fostering services need to recruit a further 5,900 foster families in the next 12 months. The hon. Member for Wigan mentioned a figure of 7,000. The figures I looked at were slightly different, but whether it is 5,900 or 7,000, it clearly tells us one thing: there are not enough foster families.

You may wonder why I am raising the issue of foster care places and need, Mr Hollobone. If good, hard-working people who worked two jobs and had love in their hearts but not necessarily the time to be there straight after school and so on could access childcare places, we may well find more people were able to foster. They could do their day’s work like so many other families and offer support and help to children who need it. That is how I see it, and it is what my contribution will focus on. I hope it will support what the hon. Member for Wigan said, what every one of us will say in our contributions and what the Minister will say in his response.

Many of these children crave the routine that living in a busy functioning household entails. While some people may believe that their normal working hours may preclude them from providing a loving home for a child, that is not the case. When my two grandchildren come to our house—I am not there all the time to see them—it is great because at 7 o’clock we can give them back. It is fantastic. It is one of the wonders of being a grandparent. We get all the fun, but when they get a bit rowdy or tempestuous at night when it is time to go to bed we can return them to their mum and dad with great pleasure. When my wee girls come, they love the busyness of the house. They love the fact that their grandmother and perhaps their grandfather are busy around the place. Whatever we are doing, they want to help. If I am doing repairs in the workshop, they want the hammer. That is not a good thing, but sometimes they want to have a hammer in their hands. I am always very careful with what they are doing. It is that busyness that they want. I believe in my heart that young people want to be part of a busy functioning household.

The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) asked the Secretary of State for Education about the extension of additional child care hours to foster carers—I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand and told him I was going to mention this—and I was heartened to learn that the Department is minded to consider that extension. I hope that the Minister will tell us that, too. I add my voice to the calls of my colleagues and ask for consideration of the benefit that the extension could produce, with more people willing to add a foster child into their family while being able to work part-time and keep their career in place.

In 2015, only one in 10 mothers were able to be a stay-at-home mum and only one in 100 fathers were able to stay at home. The family has changed and more people need to work, but we need to ensure that those who have the ability and desire to foster children in a warm and loving home are not put off by worrying about needing to put the child into some form of day care. That does not mean they are unable to meet the needs of the child. As long as there is a routine for children, I believe that the scheme and change to childcare that the hon. Member for Wigan clearly outlined could encourage more people to realise that they can have it all.

The hon. Lady’s name is on my list, but she does not have to speak; it is not obligatory.

We now come to the Front Benchers. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, but we are well ahead of time. As long as those guidelines are not hugely abused, I think the Front Benchers can speak for as long as they are comfortable speaking.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, especially when time limits have been removed. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this important debate, but also on the tireless work she has done in this House in highlighting the need for foster parents and the needs of foster parents. We are now eagerly awaiting the Minister’s comments, because it appears that he may have an early Christmas present for her—that is something we would all enjoy.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about his role as a grandparent, but he also spoke about his grandchildren growing up in a nurtured and loving household, and that is what we would wish for every child, whether they are in the care system or live in their own home. Fostering makes up an important part of the care system. When families are in crisis, fostering can offer the stability needed to keep a child’s life on track. At present, the system puts very little investment into foster families and depends on people being willing to make financial sacrifices to take a child into their home. It can also require career sacrifices, as many children who go into care often have high needs that mean a foster parent must reduce their hours of employment to cater for them, but this form of care is far more cost-effective than other types of care. Foster parents in a loving foster home can provide many great benefits to the young person as they go through life, but they require some help to carry on with their vital duties.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this debate is about childcare in England. The situation is different in Scotland, but I will keep my comments to England. Many have concerns that foster children are exempt from the extra 15 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds. That childcare can make a vast difference to their life chances and in reducing educational inequalities. The CEOs and directors of 13 child welfare charities have written to the children’s Minister to ask for the policy to be reconsidered. The charities also say that grandparents and others who foster members of their own families would particularly benefit from access to the additional 15 hours a week of childcare, as would long-term carers.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) is no longer in her place, but she mentioned the importance of kinship carers. That is recognised, but it is often overlooked. We also have people fostering on extremely tight budgets, and they need all the help they can get. There is no reason for foster families not to receive the same level of support as any other family.

A survey by The Fostering Network this year found that the majority of foster carers across England are unpaid or underpaid. The hon. Member for Wigan has already mentioned that only one in 10 was reported to receive the equivalent of the national living wage for a 40-hour week, and we know that fostering takes far more time than those 40 hours. On top of that, fees charged by nurseries have risen in recent years. That makes it extremely difficult for people to consider fostering as an option. There are people who would make excellent foster parents who cannot take in children in need. That has a great impact on young people’s life chances.

I want to talk a little about the bedroom tax and its impact. In Scotland, all social housing tenants are exempt from the bedroom tax due to mitigation by the Scottish Government, but it must still be paid across England. It disproportionately affects foster carers because, by nature, those planning to foster a child must have a spare bedroom in which to house them.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that outstanding issue, which many foster families face. In my view, the problems with the bedroom tax were created because too often looked-after children are simply invisible when it comes to policymaking; they are an afterthought. Would the hon. Lady welcome hearing the Minister’s views on how we can make sure that when decisions are taken that may affect this group of children, by not just the Department for Education but other Government Departments, they are considered first, so that we do not have to constantly keep trying to put the situation right afterwards?

The hon. Lady speaks with great experience and insight on this matter. We see here how a policy area can have a great impact, sometimes unintended, in another area. The issue for these young children is that potential foster carers—people who desperately want to play a part and certainly have the skills and experience that would make them ideal—simply are not able to consider it. It has put many eligible people off the idea of fostering, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that aspect.

The other area where this policy does not work in reality is where children requiring foster care have brothers and sisters in the same situation. Exemptions for single spare rooms mean that siblings are needlessly split up across the care system. That is in nobody’s interest, least of all the child’s.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to offer today. It is an opportunity to right something that was—I will be generous since it is Christmas—unintentionally written into policy. The Minister now has the opportunity to right that and do the best he possibly can for the children who need the best out of the care system.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for securing this debate, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), and thank them for their contributions. I wait with bated breath for the expansion of the Minister’s initial comments; without confirmation, I will proceed as planned.

The discriminatory exclusion of fostered children from 30-hours childcare is something I and colleagues have been working on for a number of months. I am very grateful that we have the chance to raise the issue with the Minister. The 30-hours childcare policy is a flagship one for this Government, proudly spoken about by Members from Back Benchers to Prime Minister. Although my concerns regarding funding and other elements of the policy are known, it has always been clear to me that excluding fostered children from a flagship policy is cruel and unfair.

Back in September, when I first brought this discrimination to the attention of the Minister, he was clear that 30 hours should not be made available to fostered children. In fact, he told me by way of a written answer that there were existing policies in place for foster parents that should cover the full cost of caring for a child.

I am pleased that through political pressure from colleagues, as well as from the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and others, we have seen the Minister’s stance soften, and he has pledged to look into it—a commitment reaffirmed by the Secretary of State for Education only last week. We are looking forward to his upcoming statement.

We cannot bank on the promises of this Government. Let us take the long-awaited consultation into the future of children’s centres. Announced in July 2015, it has recently been revealed that work never started and it has been kicked into the long grass, probably cancelled for good. Mr Hollobone, I am aware that I have made a slight digression, but I use it to emphasise the point that a promise from this Government is not enough.

Recently, I held a roundtable to hear directly from foster parents how the situation affects them. Keith, a foster carer, puts it much better than I can. He said, “If I had a birth child and foster child of the same age, it would be like telling them they can both go to school, but the foster child can only go for half the day.” That eloquently sums up why the exclusion must be rectified.

More than 500 new child protection orders are being issued every day in England. We have more children in care since the 1980s. Some of them have experienced things we could not wish on anyone, let alone a child under the age of four. Fostered children often have complex needs and have all experienced some element of trauma in their lives. Good-quality childcare can be transformative. Sadly, of those children, 3,030 fostered three to four-year-olds are not eligible for the 30 hours of free childcare. Of course I am not saying that more hours will be the very best for every child; I am simply advocating putting the choice into the hands of those who know best and have the interests of the child at heart—the foster parents.

I have been shadowing the Minister for some months and he seems to be a great believer in decision making by others. If someone were to look through our exchanges, they would see him advocating and deferring to the decision-making powers of local authorities, nurseries and parents. Oddly, on this one, he thinks the Government know best, not our incredible foster parents. They are people who give so much: a stable home and the opportunity to thrive to children who might not otherwise have that chance. As we know, foster parents do not give so much for financial reward. Only one in 10 receive the equivalent of the minimum wage and, for many, paying for extra hours at nursery is simply not an option. Children, often the most vulnerable, being looked after by hard-working foster carers, should not be discriminated against.

My message to the Government is a simple one. This exclusion of fostered children is not fair on foster parents, it is not fair on children and it is not fair to delay any longer. I know the Minister is a proud, straight-talking Yorkshireman. As a proud, straight-talking Yorkshirewoman, I say to him to please think again. I really look forward to his closing remarks and ask him to end the exclusion today.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this debate on the vital issue of ensuring that foster carers and families with small children have access to high-quality, affordable care. I expect there will be time for her to make some closing remarks when I conclude.

First, let me be clear that children in foster care should have access to the same support and opportunities that all children have. Our ambitions for children and young people during and after being looked after are the same as for any other child: that they have access to good health and wellbeing, fulfil their educational potential, build and maintain lasting relationships and participate positively in society. The role of the foster carer is central to achieving those high ambitions for the children in their care.

Around three quarters of looked-after children are in foster care. Fostering provides stability, a home and an alternative family. I have heard at first hand how children and young people in foster care want to feel part of a family and have a normal family life. We need to support foster carers and local authorities in a way that achieves that.

To meet the diverse needs of all looked-after children, we need to ensure that there is a wide pool of high-quality foster placements. Foster carers play a vital role in supporting some of our most vulnerable children, as we have heard, and this Conservative Government are committed to ensuring that foster carers get the appropriate recognition and support to ensure every looked-after child receives the high-quality care that they need. That includes foster carers being able to work outside their caring responsibilities if it has no impact on the child.

We have introduced the foster family-friendly employer policy, with the Department for Education leading by example in ensuring support and flexibility for its employees who foster. We have also commissioned the national fostering stocktake, a comprehensive review of the fostering system, which is now nearing completion. The stocktake is looking at a wide range of issues, including the recruitment and retention of foster carers and the support they receive, and the reviewers will report to me with recommendations this week.

Since the current exclusion from the 30-hours policy for children in foster care was brought to my attention, I have been looking at it carefully. I have instructed my officials to work up plans to allow children in foster care to take up the additional hours when it is right for the child to do so. We will work with local authorities, fostering service providers and others in the sector to ensure we implement this change in a way that promotes the best interests of the child. I will set out more detail about how we will deliver that shortly.

Many hon. Members referred to the 30 hours of free childcare, so it might be useful to give the House a short update about where we are on that. We are looking at January for the next intake.

Before the Minister moves on to that very important issue, may I ask him about the timescales for this work? One of the great concerns that foster carers have is that if this is not begun immediately and implemented quickly, foster children may face another year of being excluded.

We have already begun to engage with councils and The Fostering Network, and we will continue to do further work on the detail in January. We will involve fostering organisations and foster carers.

Does the Minister have a date in mind for when all excluded fostered children will be able to use the 30 hours?

I was just coming to that. We were planning to announce this in January, which would have given us a bit more time to do some of the preliminary work. The Secretary of State and I made the decision a couple of weeks ago that we should do this. We need to look at whether we need secondary legislation—I hope not. We also need to look very carefully at the role of social workers, because in some instances it may not be appropriate for the child to go to a nursery or a child minder. As we have heard, some children are deeply damaged, so it is important that we look at how we involve the social workers working with those children when we make that decision. There may be a small number of children for whom it is not the best possible way forward. September is a realistic opportunity. If there are no glitches along the way, I would like to think that we will have this in place by September.

I am grateful to the Minister for being forthcoming with that information and for giving way so generously. May I urge some caution in relation to the role of social workers? Foster carers are under great pressure at the moment because of the financial constraints on local authorities, and I am extremely worried that the Government will inadvertently create a system in which there is financial pressure on social workers and an incentive to ration access to a scheme to help foster children. I worked with social workers in my career before coming to Parliament, and I say that in the knowledge that the vast majority of social workers have the best interests of the child in mind. Obviously, when they have a limited pot of funding, they have to be mindful of all the children they are trying to help. It is really important that the funding for this scheme is allocated according to the best interests of the child, not on the basis of rationing at a time when resources are scarce.

I hope what I said was not ambiguous. I was certainly not talking about rationing access to the 30 hours in any way. The way we fund it is to do a headcount of children in January, so social workers will not see it impact on their budgets. There may be—or there may not, depending on how the consultation and conversation turn out—some specific situations where it is not appropriate because of the child’s experiences. It is important that we involve everybody, including the foster carers and the social workers, to check that it is in the best interest of the child in every case. In a small number of cases it may not be appropriate, particularly if the children have disabilities, unless the fosterers have been upskilled.

I talked to staff at a children’s services department in south London last week, and they are talking about upskilling some of their foster carers to look after children with particular difficulties or disabilities. In those cases, it may be appropriate, given that those foster carers are paid over and above the allowance they are normally paid. It is a limited number of situations. This is not about excluding children from access to the 30 hours; it is about including as many children as possible and ensuring the best interests of the child are always respected.

As expected, 30 hours has been popular with parents across the country since being rolled out nationally in September. I am pleased to be able to update the House that we have published new statistics for 30 hours, which show that about 202,800 children are in a 30-hours place. That is great news, and means that tens of thousands of families are benefiting from the additional hours of childcare we have made available to them. Demand remains high as we approach the next school term. I can also update the House that, as of last week, more than 305,000 codes have been generated for the spring term, and that 74% of them have already been checked by a provider. As with the autumn term, I expect those figures to continue to rise over the next few weeks. I ask hon. Members to encourage their constituents to take their code to their provider as soon as possible to secure a 30-hours place in the spring term.

I appreciate the Minister’s generosity in giving way. I, too, have just seen the data that was released today. What has been put in place to encourage parents to register and get their code by 31 December in readiness for the spring term? One of the problems we encountered was that parents were missing the deadline. With Christmas and new year coming up, it is not always going to be the priority for parents, given that it is so far in advance. Will the Minister elucidate that situation?

I am happy to. There are two situations here. There are the parents whose child is already in a nursery and who need to update and renew their code. We have engaged in communication, including by sending text messages to parents, to encourage them to do that. The nurseries themselves have been on the frontline of getting this to happen. Many of the children starting in January are already in paid-for places at the moment. It is very important that we continue to stress to parents that this is available to them. I am pleased that the uptake is in line with—and, indeed, exceeds—our expectations.

Hon. Members raised the issue of whether foster carers will fall foul of the spare room subsidy, as we like to call it on this side of the House. Foster carers are permitted to have a spare bedroom for the year following their approval or where they have a foster child within a year. That is not something that foster carers should worry about. I hope that allays the fears of anyone who has heard that.

It is useful to hear that from the Minister, but I talked about when there are siblings involved. There are sometimes two, three or four children. How will that impact foster carers if they are allowed to have one spare room?

Some foster carers specifically specialise in taking sibling groups. That is taken account of, in terms of the bedrooms that are available, to allow that person to take up their fostering places.

The hon. Member for Wigan, who instigated the debate, made a point about the cost of delivery and how many would benefit. I agree that the number of children who may be eligible is likely to be relatively small, given that we are talking about three-year-olds only. It would not be appropriate in every case and we want to ensure that our discussions with local authorities, The Fostering Network and others help us understand that further. We want to move as quickly as possible to delivery, which is why we will be continuing engagement in the new year.

A very important point was made about foster carer recruitment. It is right that foster carers get the support they need to meet the needs of the children they look after, including flexibility to work when that is right for the child. As I mentioned earlier, we have introduced a foster family-friendly employer policy, and the national fostering stocktake will look at recruitment and retention and will report at the end of the year. The message I get from social workers up and down the country is that when we look at the numbers of foster carers, we appear to be in a reasonably good position, but for certain specialisms—large sibling groups, children with particular needs or disabilities—we need to ensure that we have the foster carers in the right place with the right skills.

I will talk a little about the kinship care children, who were mentioned by one contributor to the debate. We want children in foster care to be able to take up the additional hours when it is in their best interests to do so. That may well be appropriate in kinship care arrangements with approved foster carers. However, it would not be appropriate in every case, which is why we have said that we need to do further work on how we deliver this, as in the other cases.

Just to be clear, is the Minister saying that some children with kinship carers will not be eligible for the expansion from 15 to 30 hours?

The point I am trying to make is that in some cases with kinship carers, as with children in foster care, it may not be appropriate for the place to be taken up. That might be as a result of particular needs or a trauma that the child has gone through, so it is important that we ensure that if the best interests of the child are served by not taking up the place, we can deal with that in different ways. Indeed, tremendous support is given to foster carers in cases where they have to deal with such specific problems—I pay tribute to the dedication of foster carers dealing with some of those very damaged and difficult-to-help children.

I am pleased to see the real impact that 30 hours is having on families’ lives. For example, a parent from Bolton who is starting 30 hours from January told us:

“I applied through the online system to get my code, it was really easy to apply…I got my code straightaway. If I wasn’t getting 30 hours, it wouldn’t be worth me going back to work—most of my wage would’ve been spent on childcare.”

Building on the positive findings from the early delivery area evaluations, published in July and August, I am looking forward to next summer, when the evaluation of the first year of delivery will be published to understand further the impact of 30 hours across the country.

In conclusion, as can be seen, the Government are investing in the early years to ensure that our country’s children are given every opportunity to fulfil their whole potential. I am proud of how the 30 hours is transforming families’ lives. Parents up and down the country are enjoying more time with their children, more money in their pockets and less stress because the 30-hours programme is cutting the cost of their childcare. I am also delighted with our ongoing work to improve the support available to foster carers. As I have said, my officials are actively working with local authorities, fostering service providers and others to ensure that children in foster care are able to take up the additional hours where it is in their best interests to do so.

I am very grateful to the Minister for what he has just said and, in particular, for the child-centred nature of his approach, which will reassure many people outside this place that he has the best interests of the child at heart. In particular, I welcome the commitment to get the matter resolved by September, the willingness to engage with The Fostering Network, social workers, local authorities and others, and his very strong statement about the intention not to ration the care, but to include as many children as possible. I was also interested in what he said about kinship care.

We will of course watch what happens next with interest. My hon. Friends and I will hold the Minister to his promises today, as I am sure he knows. Finally, I place on the record my sincere thanks for his constructive and thoroughly decent approach to this issue and to today’s debate, which shows clearly that there are many of us in this House who are capable of working across party lines in the best interests of children.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered childcare for fostered children.

Sitting adjourned.