House of Commons
Monday 29 January 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Research and Staffing
We have agreed with the EU that we will continue to benefit from EU programmes until the end of the current budget plan. We have also reached an agreement on citizens’ rights, allowing EU citizens to continue to live here broadly as now, which helps to provide certainty to current staff.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the comments made by Professor Andrea Nolan when she told the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs that Brexit
“will have a significant impact on the HE sector, on the staffing profile, and on the student profile, in Scotland.”
Does the Secretary of State understand those concerns, and does he agree with the convener of Universities Scotland?
Of course people working in the university sector in Scotland, as throughout the United Kingdom, will be thinking about the future in what will be a time of some change, but it will remain the case that the United Kingdom, including Scotland, has an exceptionally strong message to give to the world on the strength of our institutions, on the attractiveness of coming here to study and on the attractiveness of partnering with our institutions on research.
Scotland’s universities have so far been awarded almost €400 million from Horizon 2020, an 11% share of all funding secured by UK institutions. The University of Dundee in my constituency, for example, has received €21 million from the scheme. Given the scheme’s huge importance, when will the Government tell universities how they plan to square the funding circle after the current Horizon 2020 programme finishes?
These are indeed important matters, and officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have spoken to academics from Scottish universities—including, I think, from the University of Dundee—about the future. It is important that we have a guarantee until the end of the Horizon 2020 programme. Of course, what happens with future programmes will be a matter for us to agree with the other nations.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new position. Has he had a chance to read the Social Market Foundation report, published today, on the problems of snobbery between higher education and technical education? Does he agree that universities need to do a lot more to embrace technical education students and degree apprenticeships and that financial incentives should go towards those universities that encourage degree apprenticeships and encourage students with BTECs into technical education?
I confess that I have not yet read this morning’s report, but I look forward to consuming it when I have the time to do so with proper attention. My right hon. Friend mentions something on which he has consistently campaigned throughout his time in Parliament, and it is so important that we do not have some sort of wall between the academic and the technical and vocational. Things such as degree apprenticeships are a great opportunity for more people to benefit from certain types of education and to make sure that we widen participation as much as possible.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in echoing the phrase used by the BBC and, despite Brexit, welcoming this year’s record number of international students in our university system?
My hon. Friend is correct that the United Kingdom remains an exceptionally attractive destination for international students. As he says, the number of non-EU international students is at a record high, and of course we want that to continue.
What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary on the contribution made by international students and staff to our British universities and about their classification in immigration statistics?
I, the Government, the Home Office and everyone else totally recognise the value of the higher education sector to our country. The Migration Advisory Committee will be looking at the question of international students, as well as the question of migration in general, so that we can consider those things fully.
Since the introduction of Horizon 2020, Welsh universities have received more than €83 million in funding from the programme, enabling their participation in more than 2,000 international collaborations. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the UK Government intend to negotiate association with Horizon 2020’s successor programmes, so that universities in Wales can continue to benefit from and contribute to such programmes?
Horizon 2020 has worked very well for UK universities. In fact, we have the second-highest number of participants in those programmes of any EU state. Of course, it is vital and in everybody’s interest that we continue to work co-operatively with our near European neighbours on many things, including university research.
I welcome the Secretary of State and his team to their places. He will no doubt be aware of the challenges of getting young people, especially girls, into STEM careers. Given the importance of those subjects to our economic development, does he agree that the UK’s immigration policy for prospective academic and research staff from the EU should not be restrictive?
I alluded a moment or two ago to the Migration Advisory Committee and the work it will be doing. This country has always been clear that we want to remain attractive to and welcome the brightest and the best. We have a very successful and very international, outward-looking higher education sector, and I anticipate that continuing.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh said in its evidence to the Migration Advisory Committee that the UK risks undermining the Scottish Government’s efforts on developing interest in and the uptake of STEM subjects if restrictive immigration policies are put in place. What discussions has the Secretary of State had in this area with the Home Secretary and with university principals, to commit to looking at a tailored immigration policy for Scotland?
As I say, we will be looking at all aspects of this, with regard to both students and academics. More widely, the Migration Advisory Committee is looking at immigration and the role it plays in different sectors of the economy. We continue to discuss with our European neighbours what will happen in the future, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education will be speaking to EU Science Ministers later this week. It is in everybody’s interest that we work for the good of the whole United Kingdom to ensure that we continue to have such a highly successful higher education system.
Literacy and Numeracy
In 2013, we published a new primary school curriculum that significantly raised expectations in both English and maths, and promoted the use of phonics in the teaching of reading. In 2012, we introduced the phonics check for six-year-olds. The results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—showed nine-year-olds in England achieving the highest ever scores, moving England up from joint 10th to joint eighth out of 50 countries worldwide.
I am grateful for that answer. Thanks to some tough decisions by the Minister and sheer hard work by our teachers, reading standards are the highest for a generation. Sadly, disadvantaged children still lag behind, so what are he and the Department doing to address that issue?
The PIRLS survey links strong performance in the phonics check with high scores in the PIRLS text. Particularly pleasing is the fact that our rise in the global rankings has been driven by improved performance by low-ability pupils. We are now focusing on strengthening the maths, reading and writing elements of the early years foundation stage to help prepare children for year 1 of primary school. The attainment gap has closed by 10.5% at key stage 2, but we want to go further and close the gap altogether.
I do regular phonics practice with my children, which, as the Minister has said, is helping children get better at reading. However, there does not seem to the same focus on practising core maths skills in primary schools. What is my right hon. Friend doing to improve maths in primary schools, especially the learning of times tables?
I thank my hon. Friend for making sure her children learn their phonics, and she is right to emphasise the importance of children knowing their times tables by heart, up to 12 times 12 by the end of year 4 at the latest. That is why we are introducing an on-screen multiplication tables check for all pupils at the end of year 4 of primary school. The prize is to have all pupils leaving primary school fluent in their multiplication tables, ensuring they have the essential foundation for success in mathematics at secondary school.
The reality is that children can improve their literacy and numeracy only if they are in school. In North East Lincolnshire, children lost nearly 3,500 days of education last year alone. What will the Government do to make sure that another 825 children in my borough next year do not miss out on their education through exclusion?
We have made it clear that attendance at school is vital. We changed the definition of “persistent absence” from 15% to 10%, and we have increased the fines that would be applied to parents who do not send their children to school regularly.
The Minister will have seen independent research by the Education Policy Institute showing that Harrow is the best place to send children to school, so perhaps he will come to my borough to see what is working in terms of literacy and numeracy. If he does, he will meet headteachers who are very concerned about cuts to their budgets as a result of a lack of sufficient funding from the Government. What is he going to do about that?
I congratulate all the teachers and pupils in Harrow on their receiving that accolade from the Education Policy Institute. We are spending record amounts on school funding—some £41 billion this year. No Government have spent that level of funding on schools in our history. That will rise further to £42.4 billion next year.
The Minister will know that only 1% of children who move from mainstream to alternative provision during their GCSE years achieve good GCSEs, including in English and maths. What more can be done to support this important group of students?
I do not want the House to get the wrong idea; we seem to have gone from Harrow to Rugby, but that does not mean that others cannot take part. We are focused predominantly on the state sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) raises an important point. The standards of achievement in the alternative provision sector are not high enough. The children who attend those schools are vulnerable and we want to do more to improve the situation, which is why we have recently commissioned new research into the relationship between schools and alternative provision to find out what more we can do to raise standards.
Let us hear about the situation in Wirral.
The situation in Wirral is that we have fine teachers but insufficient Government resources. When it comes to literacy and numeracy, I want all the schools in my constituency to be good or outstanding. In the case of one rapidly improving school, Bebington High School, an administrative delay seems to be getting in the way of teaching and learning, and there is an issue with the resources for that. Will the Minister meet me to find a way to use our leadership to stop red tape getting in the way of children’s learning?
I share the hon. Lady’s ambition. We want all schools to be good or outstanding and we want parents to be confident that their local school is a good school that will provide a very high standard of education. I am pleased that there are now 1.9 million more pupils in good or outstanding schools than there were in 2010. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the particular circumstances at Bebington High School.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Greenfields Primary School in Kettering? It has just been ranked in the top 1% of schools in England for progress in reading and writing. Prior to becoming an academy in 2013, it was one of the most challenged schools in Kettering, with progress levels significantly below average.
I am delighted to congratulate Greenfields Primary School in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am almost certain that I have very recently signed a letter to its headteacher to congratulate them on the superb achievement at the school.
Evidence from last year’s key stage 2 SATs shows that the attainment gap between children on free school meals and their peers has widened since the year before. The results for the Minister’s precious key stage 1 phonics for kids on free school meals actually went backwards last year. At least the previous Secretary of State talked the talk on social mobility. Is it not clear that the Government do not walk the walk?
The hon. Gentleman is not correct. The attainment-gap index at key stage 2 has closed by 10.5%. We have seen a significant increase in the proportion of children who achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths: it rose from 53% last year to 61% this year—an increase of 8 percentage points—and the SATs are significantly more demanding than they were in previous years. We are producing a cohort of primary school leavers who are far better equipped in maths and English, ready for the demands of secondary school.
Schools can teach about LGBT issues within the curriculum and they must comply with the Equality Act 2010. We have established a £3 million programme to prevent and address homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, and we are making relationships education and relationships and sex education compulsory and engaging thoroughly with stakeholders to inform the design and content of the curriculum in those subjects, ensuring that they are both high quality and age appropriate.
With the change in leadership at the Department, may I ask whether the new Secretary of State shares the commitment of his predecessor that relationship and sex education lessons must be lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusive and reflect the needs of all young people?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are clear that the new subjects should ensure that young people learn that there are different types of relationships. Schools should ensure therefore that RSE is inclusive and meets the needs of all young people.
Can the Minister provide detail of how schools will be assessed to ensure that they are providing LGBT-inclusive relationship and sex education lessons, and what benchmark will be used to measure this?
These are the issues on which we are engaging with subject experts at the moment. We have issued a wide call for evidence from parents, pupils, teachers and young people, and we will assess that call for evidence before we issue further guidance on the matter. There will be a full debate on the regulations in this House when we draft those regulations.
The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 gave universities a duty to provide additional support to students with special educational needs and disabilities. However, the Government provided no general guidance or any means for students to ensure that their rights are met, apart from taking the universities to court. Does the Minister agree that that is justifiable?
The hon. Lady is thinking of a matter of great importance, but its relationship to the question under consideration is not clear. We are grateful to her, and she may be able to unburden herself further at a later stage if she is lucky.
Further Education Provision
We have done a number of things in this area. The area reviews have been an opportunity for every college to reorganise and merge, and we have approved £300 million of restructuring money. Plus six grants have been made from the new £15 million strategic college improvement fund. We have appointed seven national leaders of further education, and the work of the FE commissioner, a vital role, has also been extended.
I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. Colleges such as East Coast College are doing great work that will improve social mobility and productivity, but they need to be properly funded. Will my hon. Friend outline the steps that have been taken to ensure that that is the case, so that colleges can deliver a high-quality, rounded curriculum?
Funding is important, which is why I mentioned those figures. The strategic college improvement fund will be very important. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth merged to form East Coast College, which is a much more financially independent institution. We are also putting £500 million a year into technical education to increase the hours of learning for more than 50% of those on technical routes; providing £20 million to help teachers prepare for those routes; and continuing to protect £4,000 a year for 16 and 17-year-olds. I am very aware, however, that this is a complex sector delivering a wide range of courses in quite difficult financial circumstances.
I thank the Minister for her efforts on behalf of Exeter College, which, as she will know, was inexplicably not granted the contract by the Skills Funding Agency to provide apprenticeships through small firms. I would like her to continue those efforts, working with officials from her Department and the agency, because if this is not rectified, or a way through found for this, it will do serious damage both to the provision of apprenticeships in the Exeter area and to Exeter College, which is one of the top performing colleges in the country.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman has worked very hard on behalf of Exeter College. I praise my officials who continue to work with individual Members to ensure that these problems are ironed out.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the input of businesses is key to delivering high-quality further and technical education?
Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that further education colleges—seven out of 10 have been graded good or outstanding—are absolutely critical in drawing together businesses from the local area. Along with local authorities and local enterprise partnerships, they can have a significant impact on the education and training that young people get.
Wakefield College opened its advanced skills and innovation centre late last year. It is a brilliant new centre to help entrepreneurs start up their own businesses. The one cloud on the horizon is the excellent work done by the college through the national collaborative outreach programme, which is still up in the air following the fiasco of the Minister’s Department over the setting up of the Office for Students. When will she announce the funding for the years going forward and when will my excellent staff be able to continue that good work?
The hon. Lady is right to praise the work of Wakefield College. Such colleges are real exemplars of what can be achieved. I appreciate the importance of outreach work, and that is particularly important when we consider social mobility. I am happy to discuss the matter further with the hon. Lady at any time.
Does the Minister agree that sixth-form colleges, such as Richard Huish College in my constituency, are an extremely valuable part of our education system, making the great link between education and employment? Will she kindly meet me to discover whether, in the tertiary review, funding might be available from age 16, rather than starting at 18?
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend; it would be a pleasure. I was recently at the conference of the Sixth Form Colleges Association. Sixth-form colleges do an excellent job, and I will do everything I can to support them.
Twenty-one per cent. less—that is what a student aged 16 to 19 gets compared with what they get between 11 and 16. This tertiary review needs to start with tertiary education at 16 to 19. Will the Minister confirm that tertiary education for 16 to 19-year-olds will be included in the review?
The review is currently under discussion. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have my tin hat and battledress on, and I will always battle on behalf of the FE sector and independent training providers for the 50% of young people who do not go to university.
How can the Minister talk confidently about FE provision when the Government’s whole record on the sector is a mess? In the last 10 days, we have seen apprenticeship starts down by 41% since the levy began; traineeship starts down by 16%; the FE commissioner telling the Select Committee on Education that funding is “unfair” and “sparse”; the Public Accounts Committee roasting the Government over learndirect; and five sector leaders calling for a major levy rethink in FE Week. Will she get a grip on the levy? Will she also ensure that she does not claim that those concerned are running FE down? We are passionate about FE and apprenticeships; it is her party that is split on HE and FE policy.
I utterly reject the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the situation is a mess. This is the first time that a Government have really got to grips with this issue. I will be running a training session for Members from all political parties. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman come along to discover that it is very easy to get apprenticeships if we do not care about the quality, but I do care about the quality. It is really important that we raise the quality and raise the numbers, ensuring that young people have the skills they need for the future.
Foreign Language Teaching
Since 2010, the proportion of pupils taking a language GCSE has increased from 40% to 47%. In December, we outlined plans to improve the quality of language teaching in England, where schools with a good track record in teaching languages will share best practice and pedagogy.
I also welcome the Secretary of State to his place. I listened to his answer with great interest. North of the border, Scotland’s future economic prosperity will clearly be dependent on young people having the very best language skills. Would the Secretary of State’s Department be good enough to share—[Laughter.]Would his Department share best practice with the Scottish Government? I think that the Scottish Government would be very grateful.
Language skills are important for young people in Scotland, as they are for those in England. In England, we have looked across the world for examples of best practice in various subjects, and we are happy to share that information with others. I am keen to work collaboratively with the Scottish Government, so that we can both see what we can learn from one another.
I call Michael Fabricant.
Vielen Dank, Herr Sprecher. Do you not agree with me—[Interruption.] I should not have said, “Vielen Dank, Herr Sprecher”; I have completely thrown myself. I should have asked, does the Secretary of State agree that German is an important language to learn? Not only does German give us the grammatical structures that would otherwise be learnt from Latin, which is rarely taught in schools nowadays, but it is easy for British people to speak German with a convincing accent.
Thank you, “Herr” Fabricant. [Laughter.]
Order. May I remind Ministers that there is no obligation to provide multi-sentence replies? There is no prohibition on single sentence replies. In fact, some people think that they are quite desirable.
That is very fortunate, Mr Speaker, as I do not quite know where to go after that. My hon. Friend makes a very good and interesting point about the value of languages.
We were all suitably impressed when Emmanuel Macron spoke flawless English in his candid interview with Andrew Marr the other week. That is no surprise given that 80% of children in EU member states start learning a second language in primary school. What is the Secretary of State going to do to ensure that children in the UK do not fall behind their European counterparts?
It starts with an international outlook and learning about other countries. Of course, it is also about encouraging more teachers to go into teaching modern foreign languages, and we are working hard on that.
The number of entries for GCSE Mandarin has increased by nearly 50% since 2010. Will the Secretary of State continue to support that language and other languages spoken in the world’s fastest-growing economies?
My hon. Friend is exactly right about the importance of Mandarin. Of course, this is a hugely important economy. That is why things like the Mandarin excellence programme are so much in focus at the Department for Education.
By 2019-20, we will be spending about £6 billion a year on childcare support, including £1 billion to deliver 30 hours of childcare and pay the higher funding rates that we introduced in April 2017.
A recent survey by the Pre-school Learning Alliance has found that one fifth of nurseries do not think they will be financially viable in a year’s time. Will the Minister—I know he likes his parties—therefore commit to review the funding rates before more places rated “good” and “outstanding” by Ofsted close down?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Government have always been clear that providers can choose whether to offer parents 30 hours and what pattern of days and hours they offer. Our evaluation indicated that a higher proportion of providers were willing and able to offer 30 hours, with no evidence that financial implications were a substantial barrier to that.
May I welcome the Minister to his place? The Government promised 30 free hours of childcare for all working parents of three to four-year-olds, yet it has been revealed that only a third of providers can offer all the hours for free and that four in 10 do not think they will be able to offer the scheme at all next year. The situation will only get worse if Ministers go ahead with the real-terms cuts in funding of up to £600 a year per child. Will the Minister rethink these cuts, pay providers fairly and keep the promises made to families?
We have seen no significant issues with parents gaining places with providers for 30 hours. Of course we keep monitoring the situation, but there are no significant issues. Actually, the numbers are very promising at the moment.
Primary Schools: Academies
Since 2010, the number of open academies and free schools has increased from 203 to almost 7,500. The numbers of primary schools converting to academies has grown significantly. As of the first day of the year, there were 4,592.
Herts for Learning is the only local authority-controlled multi-academy trust in the country. Records at Companies House demonstrate that the local authority has more than 25% of shares in it and is an organisation of significant control. It has been converting primary schools in my area since September. Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s position with regard to local authority-controlled multi-academy trusts?
Our position is that we limit local authority representation on academy trust boards to 19.9% to help maintain the independence of academies, while ensuring that boards can benefit from the right mix of skills and experience. I am of course very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss whatever concerns and wishes he may have.
May I welcome the new Secretary of State to his position? Since taking up office, has he had a chance to read and reflect on a letter that the Education Committee wrote to the Minister, Lord Agnew, following our evidence-hearing session with the Minister and the National Schools Commissioner about what we feel is a lack of oversight, accountability and, critically, transparency with regard to multi-academy trusts?
We have a framework in place around multi-academy trusts. Academies have been a fundamental part of the improvements that we have seen in schools. Multi-academy trusts, in turn, are a fundamental part of making sure that good practice can be spread more widely across the system. We have the good practice guidance that is published. There are audited accounts and various processes. Ultimately, as Secretary of State, I am accountable to Parliament for the performance of the schools system. In turn, the regional schools commissioners are accountable to me.
Will my right hon. Friend, in promoting multi-academy trusts, also show the role that secondary schools can have in leading primary schools that become part of those trusts? That is very important for people attending primary schools and then going on to the secondary school in due course.
My right hon. Friend, with his great experience, makes a very important point. The different phases of education, working together, can share a great deal of expertise.
All the focus on structures is taking us away from the real issue, which is that this weekend even Tory party donors and academy chain heads were talking about real-terms cuts to funding. That is what I am seeing in the schools in my constituency. Will the Government face up to the real crisis, which is the real-terms cut in school funding?
There is more money going into our schools in this country than ever before. We know that real-terms funding per pupil is increasing across the system, and with the national funding formula, each school will see at least a small cash increase. [Official Report, 5 March 2018, Vol. 637, c. 2MC.]
As with all policies, we continue to monitor the pupil premium for effectiveness and value for money. Through the Education Endowment Foundation, we seek to ensure that schools are confident in using that evidence.
Wiltshire teachers consistently stress their concerns that many parents fear the potential stigma of registering for free school meals, meaning their children do not get the pupil premium. I have stressed that for years. Will the Minister consider introducing an automatic link between the pupil premium and the benefits system, to ensure that all children who need additional funding get it?
Let me be clear: we should not allow any stigma to get in the way of parents seeking the best for their children. We will continue to highlight effective practice by schools that have made a great effort to get children registered for free school meals and share that practice with all schools and local authorities.
I share the opinion of the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan). In rural areas, there is still stigma, and people will not put their children forward for free school meals and, therefore, for the pupil premium. Will the Minister look again at the criteria, to ensure that those children are not losing out?
We want to make it as simple as possible for schools and local authorities to determine eligibility for free meals, and we are exploring opportunities to make the registration process more efficient.
In my constituency and across north Northumberland, the pupil premium and the service pupil premium for my military children are valuable additions to the school budget, as targeted interventions for those pupils. However, they are used more effectively in some schools than others. Will the Minister tell the House what plans the Department has to get Ofsted to look more closely at usage and drive best practice across our schools?
There are unique challenges for servicemen and women who move around, and the Education Endowment Foundation is looking at that very seriously.
The pupil premium is there to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds and to address poor attainment. Is the Minister as concerned as I am that the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has identified that there is a growing north-south divide, which is impacting on attainment, too?
Everything we are about is narrowing that gap.
I also welcome the new Secretary of State to his place. I wonder whether he will join me in getting a copy of the Conservative party manifesto from the Library, where it is filed under “Political fiction”. He will notice, under the heading “Fairer funding”, a pledge to protect funding for the pupil premium. Instead, it has been cut by more than £100 million in real terms this spending period. Will he now act to keep that promise?
I confirm that the figures are the same.
The Year of Engineering, this year, is a cross-government national campaign to raise the profile of jobs in engineering for all young people. More than 980 partners have signed up to be part of the year, which includes workshops, toolkits for use in schools and site tours.
Yes, but the Minister was seeking to group this question with number 15, from the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch). Ministers seem a tad discombobulated this afternoon.
Mr Speaker, my very sincere apologies. I believe I did that on another occasion, too. I was answering questions 11 and 15 together.
Students from Collyer’s in my constituency came first in the UK national robotics competition and proceeded to represent their country in Washington. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is exactly the kind of innovative initiative that gets people interested in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects and will persuade them to take them up as careers in later life?
The national robotics competition must be the subject of young people’s dreams, and I do indeed congratulate Collyer’s. The £406 million put aside in the autumn Budget to improve skills—particularly STEM skills, including a maths premium for 16 to 19-year-olds —will also drive up the interest in engineering.
I am an engineer, and I started my career as an apprentice. It is the year of engineering, but the industry is facing a shortfall of 20,000 places. Does the Minister agree that apprenticeships are a good, cost-effective way to study engineering, and if so, will she tell me what the Government are doing to promote them?
They are an excellent way to study engineering, and I would point my hon. Friend to degree apprenticeships. The first graduates in digital and technology solutions graduated from Aston last year, as did those in quantity surveying from John Moores in Liverpool. We have put aside £10 million to help with the development of degree apprenticeships, which is a brilliant way for young people to get skills.
Engineering is a fantastic career, as I know very well, but because there are so few women engineers—just 8%—it is much harder for girls in particular to see engineering role models. Will the Minister tell me who specifically is responsible for getting more engineers into schools to share their experience and more schools into engineering companies, and how is their success being measured?
Some 980 partners have signed up, and I would point to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) is the Government’s envoy for the year of engineering. It is absolutely critical: we are putting real money—I repeat, we are putting real money—into improving the teaching of maths for 16 to 19-year-olds. This is really important. As I said earlier, we are using further education colleges and local authorities to get engineering companies into schools to talk to children and teach them about the prospects that exist. For any young woman, I would point to the gender pay gap, which they will see is large in engineering organisations, so there is an opportunity out there.
It is estimated that the UK will require 1.8 million additional engineers by 2025. The Scottish Government have published a STEM education and training strategy. Will the Secretary of State do something similarly concrete to encourage girls into engineering?
There is a lot of concrete work going on. Going back to the apprenticeship levy, engineering companies with a pay bill of over £3 million are putting money aside—0.5% of their pay bill. Employers want engineers and employers will employ engineers, particularly those doing degree apprenticeships.
Schoolchildren with Autism
It is clearly incredibly important that autistic children are well supported in their education. We have funded the Autism Education Trust since 2012 to deliver autism awareness training to education staff in early years, school and further education.
I thank the Minister for his reply. We look forward to welcoming the Secretary of State on Wednesday, when the all-party group on autism, co-chaired by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), launches its education report. Will the Minister commit to implementing the recommendations of our report, so that we can improve the educational experience for children with autism in this country?
I wholeheartedly welcome the report, and I know that the Secretary of State is visiting my hon. Friend and her colleagues on Wednesday, as she said. I look forward to meeting and discussing the report fully with them.
My county of Derbyshire is about to cut almost £3 million from children’s services, including almost £400,000 from special needs and disability services to support children. Schools are already struggling, so how on earth will these cuts help, and how will the Government ensure that support for special needs children is improved?
No local authority needs to cut those services. There is actually over £9 billion being invested in children’s services because, as in the case of Hackney, for example, it is seen as a priority, so there is no reason for a local authority to do that.
I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. The healthy pupils fund was designed to help pupils with a range of health needs. The Department promised to protect the fund in full but has cut it, leaving a £200 million gap between income from the sugar levy and its spending commitments. Can the Minister explain why he is content to see funding in this area slashed, and will he guarantee that there will be no more cuts?
Not only is the Department spending the £275 million from the sugar levy; we are going over and above that. We are spending over £400 million on making sure that students are healthy.
Schools have always been subject to inspection by Her Majesty’s inspectors and, from 1992, by Ofsted. Since 2010, we have simplified inspection, reducing graded judgments from 27 to just four. We have freed our best schools from routine inspection and introduced lighter-touch inspections for good schools.
We face a teacher retention crisis in this country. One head in Oxford recently described to me how she and her staff felt “criminalised” after a devastating Ofsted inspection. What is the Minister doing to change the “culture of fear” caused by inspection, which his own Department’s workplace survey identified as one of the biggest burdens on teachers?
The workload challenge identified a range of drivers of high workload, including accountability and perceived pressures from Ofsted. We took steps to address that in our 2017 action plan, including through Ofsted’s commitment to reducing unnecessary workload around inspections, by dispelling myths about inspection and by training inspectors and monitoring inspection reports. The winter 2016 teacher voice omnibus survey showed that 39% of headteachers had used advice from Ofsted to change practice to reduce unnecessary workload.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are working on introducing a free website to enable schools to recruit teachers.
All children must be kept safe, and we take tough intervention action when any council fails in its duty.
As the case in Rotherham today shows, the introduction of experienced and high-quality leadership is part of the answer. Will my hon. Friend, in his new portfolio, take on board the recommendation of the Select Committee on Education and place a greater emphasis on giving support and guidance to children’s services when considering intervention?
Many Government interventions provide support and guidance that works within an authority’s existing structure. In serious cases, an independent commissioner can provide those recommendations, and of course the ultimate reprimand is to be put in a trust.
Clearly, we cannot afford to have failing children’s services, but how far do Ministers recognise the massively increased demand on children’s services in Britain, because of things such as sexual exploitation of our young people and the range of difficulties caused by poverty in the home? What does that mean for the commitment of funding?
I have been to see both Hackney and Doncaster. In Hackney’s case, there was a turnaround in 2006; in Doncaster, it was over the last two years. It is about leadership, and a better-quality outcome depends not just on the leaders at the top, but on the social workers on the frontline being able to feel confident in the service that they provide. [Interruption.]
The sedentary chuntering of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) would constitute a book in itself, and it might sell rather well.
This Government are committing to providing a world-class education for all our young people, raising attainment and narrowing the gap between the affluent and the disadvantaged. Working with our dedicated teachers and professionals throughout education and beyond, we must continue to raise standards, from early years through to further and higher education, and ensure that the right care and support are always there for society’s vulnerable children. I will work to make sure that our education system offers opportunity to everyone, in every phase and in every place. The successes are clear, with 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools, and the latest figures showing the attainment gap narrowed by 10%, but there is more to do to spread opportunity, particularly in areas of the country historically left behind.
I recently visited Ashmore Park Nursery School in my constituency, which provides outstanding education, as do 60% of nursery schools across the country. Unfortunately, the future of their funding is now in doubt. Will the Secretary of State guarantee their sustainable funding beyond 2020?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to her local nursery school. This Government are spending more on childcare and early years than any previous Government, with not only the 30 hours commitment but the extra provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds, and of course there is also the work being done on the hourly rate.
Yes, it does. Before “Never again” comes “Never forget.” Every young person should learn about the holocaust, which is why it is the only historic event that is compulsory within the national curriculum. I commend the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and other such organisations.
The Secretary of State’s predecessor this morning admitted that they were wrong to abolish maintenance grants, that the student finance system is regressive, that variable fees will punish the poorest and that their review is intended to kick the issue into the long grass, rather than make decisions. Apart from that, she is very supportive. But she is right, is she not?
We have a system of higher education finance in this country that means unprecedented levels of disadvantaged people can go to university and our universities are properly funded. In October, the Prime Minister said that we would be taking quick action, raising the threshold for repayment and freezing the top fees for the next academic year. It is also right that we have a full review, looking at all aspects of value for money for young people and others going to university, and at the alternatives to university, such as taking a degree apprenticeship, as we discussed earlier.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. I value greatly the contribution that Church and faith schools make to our education system; they are consistently generally high-performing and popular schools. Every child deserves a good school place, which is why the “Schools that work for everyone” consultation set out proposals to enable a wider group of providers, including the Catholic Church, for example, to set up new schools. I am carefully considering the proposals.
Quite simply, the proposals will involve more children being eligible for free school meals than under the previous system. We have a short-term arrangement for the very early days of universal credit, which is different, but we estimate that around 50,000 more children will be eligible for free school meals than under the old system.
What is the Department doing to help children with special educational needs on their pathway to adulthood and, where appropriate, into the workforce?
We have introduced the supported internship programme for young people with complex needs, which is having a significant impact on supporting young people into work.
I will look into the precise issue the hon. Gentleman raises, but let me point out that we are spending record sums of money on education for ages five to 16 and beyond— £41 billion on school funding this year, rising to £42.4 billion next year and £43.5 billion the year after. We can provide those sums only if we have a strong economy providing the tax revenues to fund public services, which we would not have under a Labour Government.
My constituency has one of the highest number of children with special educational needs in Kent. Would the Minister therefore join me in welcoming the news that the Aspire free school, which will cater for 168 young people with autism spectrum disorder, is due to be built next year in my constituency? Would he also join me in congratulating local people who campaigned for many years for such a school and the Grove Park Academies trust, which has taken up the baton to deliver that school?
I congratulate everyone involved in campaigning for and setting up the Aspire free school, including the Grove Park Academies trust, which will oversee the development of the new school.
I was delighted to meet campaigners along with my colleague from DCLG, and I congratulate the Further Education Commissioner on stepping in and having numerous meetings. I know that he is anxious to keep closely in touch with the hon. Lady to make sure that we get the right solution for this precious college—this valuable resource—which has been around for many, many years.
Schools in south Gloucestershire have welcomed the special provision fund, which is providing targeted support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Can the Minister outline any plans he has to continue that fund beyond 2018, so that south Gloucestershire can continue to improve the standard of provision we provide?
The Department has allocated £250 million of capital funding over and above the basic need funding to help to build new places at mainstream and special schools and to improve existing places to benefit current and future pupils.
Schools in the most deprived areas of Bath are losing between £25,000 and £75,000 under the new funding deal. What should be cut in those schools: teaching posts or mental health services?
No school will see a cut in funding in 2018-19 or 2019-20. Every single school in the country will see an increase in funding of at least half a per cent., and schools that have been historically underfunded in previous Labour Governments will see very significant rises in their school funding.
My constituent Mahzia Hart was head of an outstanding multi-academy primary trust in Bath and north-east Somerset. In 2015, she resigned following bullying on social media, which resulted in false accusations that were investigated by the National College for Teaching and Leadership and which were subsequently dismissed. In January 2017, Mrs Hart took the National Union of Teachers to court for defamation and successfully won her case. Two months later, however, the NUT was able to refer Mrs Hart to the NCTL again. Will the Minister look into this case and investigate? How is it right that teachers’ lives can be made a misery by repeated malicious referrals to the NCTL, particularly by those who have a vested interest?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The regulation of teachers is a very important function of the National College for Teaching and Leadership. I will look into the issue that he raised, and I am happy to meet with him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, a lot of work is being done on international students by the Migration Advisory Committee. I am happy to consider the issue of Scottish visas specifically and come back to him on it.
Physical education is a crucial part of the school curriculum. Only last week, I visited Westerton Primary School in my constituency, which has been able to secure a minibus to allow children to attend more sport engagements. That is thanks to initiatives that have increased sport funding in schools, such as the primary PE and sport premium. I have seen the benefits of the policies on the ground. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government will continue to support sport in schools?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why we introduced the school sport premium, a very important initiative. Sport is very important not only for reducing obesity but for ensuring that children can concentrate in lessons.
The mention of sport gives me a heaven-sent opportunity to congratulate the inimitable Roger Federer on his latest triumph. He just gets better and better.
The A-level history syllabus was widely consulted on before it was confirmed, and the actual detail of the exam board content is determined by exam boards themselves, which are independent, so long as they conform to the subject content, which, as I said, was widely consulted upon.
With over 30,000 cardiac arrests taking place outside hospitals every year and a disgracefully low survival rate of just 12%, it is no surprise that there is huge public support to make sure that every child is given a half-hour lesson on emergency life-saving skills, so that we can create a generation of life savers. Will the Secretary of State meet me to talk about how we can make that a reality?
My hon. Friend has been consistent in campaigning on this issue for a number of years, and I will of course be happy to meet him to discuss his comments.
The desperate rush to convert schools into academies does not appear to be matched by any rush to ensure adequate financial oversight and value for money. Will the Secretary of State please investigate why the academy trust United Learning received £150,000 to support Sedgehill School in south London, despite the school remaining maintained and United Learning not even becoming its sponsor?
We trust schools to manage their own budgets, and most do so extremely well. We are spending a record amount on schools—£41 billion—and academies are required to publish audited accounts every year, while their financial health is closely monitored by the Education and Skills Funding Agency. I will look at the specific issue the hon. Lady raises, but United Learning is a very successful multi-academy trust that is raising academic standards in schools, including a school in my constituency.
I very much welcome the steps the Government are taking to improve the mental wellbeing of school pupils, but does the Secretary of State agree that extracurricular activities such as sport are also vital in ensuring good wellbeing and mental health and that we should promote them at every opportunity?
Mental health among our young people is indeed an issue of paramount importance—and something, of course, the Prime Minister has given particular attention to—and the Green Paper is an important indication of the way forward, but my hon. Friend is also right to mention that active lives and sport play a very important part.
Not all children arrive at school equal, and those who are homeless and in temporary accommodation have the worst set of circumstances. Mrs Sheridan, a headteacher in my constituency, recently wrote about her pupil Jack, who has become an absentee student since going into temporary accommodation. What does the Minister’s Department say to those children in temporary accommodation?
We know that moving into temporary accommodation can mean changing schools, which is strongly associated with poorer attainment. We provide schools with extra resources to ensure that all pupils, regardless of their home circumstances, can go as far as their talent and hard work take them, but I will look at the case the hon. Lady mentions.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his position, and I do not apportion blame for the problems at Broadfield House in my constituency, which has had school failure after school failure, but can I ask for a meeting to ensure that this facility is back in educational use for the local community as soon as possible?
I will of course meet my hon. Friend.
Wirral Metropolitan College failed to secure funds for non-levied apprenticeships from April this year, despite a positive Ofsted report in October 2017, which highlighted the fact that it is a key player in economic and social development in the region. Concern has been expressed about a number of colleges that are currently meeting the needs of employers but have missed out in the procurement process. Will the Minister ask the Education and Skills Funding Agency to look again at the application from Wirral Met, to ensure that the college can continue to work with employers to deliver vital skills training in Wirral?
We are looking into how we can ease colleges and independent training providers through this process. I should point out that we received more than 1,000 bids totalling £1.1 billion. There will always be providers who are disappointed, but we will be working with those colleges to smooth the transition and ensure that they can provide the valuable training that will ensure that young people have the skills that they need.
Leaving the EU: Implementation
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on the Government’s proposals for the implementation of their policy on leaving the European Union.
Just this afternoon, the European Union finalised its directives setting out its negotiating position on the implementation period. On Friday, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union made a speech setting out the UK Government’s position. Formal negotiations on this very issue are therefore due to start this week.
As the Secretary of State said on Friday, we will be seeking a strictly time-limited implementation period to allow a smooth and orderly exit from the European Union. This builds on the Prime Minister’s announcement, in her Lancaster House speech in January last year, that there would be a “process of implementation” once the article 50 period ended. It has been supported by businesses both here and in the European Union, which will have to make only one set of changes as we exit the EU. During this period, the UK will be outside the EU. We will have left on 29 March 2019.
This is an absolute necessity. The EU can only legally conclude our future partnership once we are outside it. Such an agreement on the future partnership will require the appropriate legal ratification, which will itself take time. That will need to happen during an implementation period. However, if such a period is to work, both sides must continue to follow the same stable set of laws and rules without compromising the integrity of the single market and the customs union, to which we will maintain access on current terms. Both sides should approach this period in the spirit of our future partnership. That means each side committing itself to taking no action that would undermine the other.
During the implementation period, we will still make our voice heard. We will have to agree on a way of resolving concerns if laws are deemed to run contrary to our interests, and if we have not had our say. We will agree on an appropriate process for this temporary period, so that we have the means to remedy any issues through dialogue as soon as possible. All that will be provided for in the withdrawal agreement that we reach with the EU, which will have the status of a new international treaty between the UK and the EU. We will no longer be formally part of the EU treaties during this period.
As the Secretary of State said on Friday, we have made it clear that during this period we will be able to negotiate and sign our own free trade agreements. Here at home, we have already announced that we will present a withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, which will provide for domestic implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the implementation period. We have made it clear that as we leave the EU in March 2019, we will repeal the European Communities Act 1972. That will be done through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which recently received its Third Reading in the House of Commons and will shortly be discussed in the other place.
I call Paul Blomfield. [Interruption.] But not before we have heard from Sir William. I was simply seeking to build up an air of anticipation of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield).
I am deeply grateful, Mr Speaker.
Given the document to which the Minister has just referred, which was issued by the European Union to the United Kingdom about two hours ago, can the Government reconcile their policy of leaving the European Union with their own implementation proposals during the transitional period? Furthermore, will this apply when EU laws are imposed on us when we will have no say in either the European Council or the European Parliament, and when our courts will be obliged to apply European Court case law without having a judge in that Court?
Do the Government intend to make a new EU treaty? How long is the so-called strict time limit? Given that we are leaving the EU, and therefore the customs union and the single market, and ending the provisions relating to freedom of movement, will the Government reject this new EU ultimatum, including the statement that the European Court of Justice will continue to apply to the UK? Will the Minister reject the idea of the enforcement mechanism set out in the document? Will he reject the suggestion that the European acquis will apply in relation to the United Kingdom, as well as the notion in the document that European Union law will continue to apply to the UK during the transitional period with direct effect and primacy?
Under these arrangements, we will be required to remain in the customs union and the single market, with all four freedoms, and to continue to comply with EU trade policy. Will the Government reject the assertion about the European Union acquis, so that we will not be made subject to supervision and control proceedings under European Union law?
In short, do the Government reject this Council decision as inconsistent with our leaving the EU, which we are entitled to do under EU law itself and article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and which was achieved through the enactment of the arrangements for withdrawal that was supported by 499 Members of this House?
My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that Members on both sides of the House have voted to respect the referendum and that the UK should be exiting the EU in accordance with the vote in that referendum. My hon. Friend is a long-standing champion of this issue, and I make it clear that the UK will be leaving the EU on 29 March 2019. We will then have a strictly time-limited implementation period, which will be as short as is practicable—we currently expect it to be in the region of two years.
The answer to my hon. Friend’s first question is yes, but we must make sure that we reconcile these issues through the negotiations to come. He would not, I know, expect me to speak on behalf of the EU and its directives today; I am speaking as a Minister of the Crown, and we enter these negotiations seeking the interests of the UK and making sure that we exit the EU in a smooth and orderly way.
There is a majority in this House that wants a sensible approach to Brexit, so does the Minister agree that it would be right to reach out to that majority instead of letting the European Research Group call the shots? Will he also confirm, as the Chancellor, Business Secretary and Brexit Secretary said in a letter on Friday, that during the transition period, our relations will “continue on current terms”? Will he also confirm, as the Secretary of State told the Brexit Committee on Wednesday, that he does not see the Court of Justice as a red line and that, indeed, any red lines in the negotiations would be “idiotic”? In that vein, do the Government now recognise that it was wrong to rule out a customs union and close relationship with the single market, and does the Minister agree with the Chancellor that our economies should move only “very modestly apart”?
The Government are too distracted by negotiating with their own Back Benchers to focus on the negotiations that matter with the European Union. They are incapable of setting out a clear negotiating position, as Angela Merkel apparently said in Davos at the weekend. Is it not the case that the extraordinary infighting that we have seen again this weekend is the single biggest threat to a Brexit deal that works for Britain?
I agree with one thing that the hon. Gentleman said: there is a majority in this House that wants a sensible approach to Brexit. We saw that with the passage through this House of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, despite the votes of Labour Front Benchers, who voted against a stable and sensible approach with continuity and certainty as we take this process forward.
Of course we need to make sure that we deliver stability and continuity for our businesses, which was why the Government set out from the start, in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech, the approach of having an implementation period. I am happy to update the House on the beginning of talks on that implementation period today, but we will take no lectures from the Opposition’s Front-Bench team, who have a different position on these issues every day of the week.
Will the Minister confirm that the Government are making good progress on the failsafe option of leaving under World Trade Organisation terms, in case there is not a good agreement on offer? Does he also agree that we are more likely to get a better offer from the EU if it realises that we have the perfectly good option of just leaving?
My right hon. Friend is right to say that the Government have to prepare for all eventualities, and I am working closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) to ensure that we do just that. However, I am also very clear, as is the Government’s policy, that it is in the interests of the UK and the EU that we secure a partnership between us, and the implementation period is a bridge to that future.
We are just over a year away from leaving the EU, yet the only thing we can rely on from this Government is chaos. It has been said in the past that the Scottish National party is the real opposition to this failing Government, but I have to say that we are being given a good run for our money by Tory Back Benchers at the moment. The Scottish Government have published their analysis of what leaving the European Union will mean, and they have done so publicly. When will this Government publish their analysis?
If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to provide the real opposition, he might want a few more of his colleagues to turn up for debates in this House. Of course the Government will continue to carry out all the analysis and work that are needed to prepare for this process, but we are going to stick to what this House has repeatedly voted for, which is not to publish anything that would be prejudicial to our negotiating position.
The CBI, which represents thousands of businesses of all sizes and from all sectors across the United Kingdom, called on the Government just over a week ago to put the interests of the economy over and above ideology. Does the Minister agree with that, and if he does, when are the Government going to stand up against the hard Brexiteers, who mainly inhabit these Benches—there are only about 35 of them—and see them off to ensure that we get a sensible Brexit? If we do not do that, we will be sleepwalking into a disastrous Brexit for generations to come.
I can assure my right hon. Friend that the Government have always put the interests of the economy at the heart of their approach to Brexit. We are seeking a successful negotiation that delivers for the UK economy and our neighbours in the EU, but of course we need to ensure that we are prepared for all eventualities. The implementation period has strong support from a wide range of business groups and we are therefore seeking to deliver that as swiftly as possible by the end of this quarter.
Does the Minister agree that the flurry of confusion at the weekend reflects the fact that there are genuinely different views about how Britain should leave the EU that were not resolved during the referendum, especially on issues such as the customs union? Given the significance of the customs union for the future of Northern Ireland, for the issues raised by the CBI and for the future of northern and midlands manufacturers, does he agree that the Government should bring forward a proper vote in this Parliament on the customs union, and not just for the transition period but for the long term?
The right hon. Lady raises some important points, but her party, like mine, stood on a manifesto that said we would have our own independent trade policy and that we would therefore be leaving the customs union and the common external tariff. I know that Labour Front Benchers have already voted to uphold that, so this issue has been decided by the House, and the Prime Minister has shown real leadership in setting out the way forward.
What negotiations, if any, will continue into the implementation period?
We have always been very clear that the benefit of the implementation period will be there when both sides have agreed the shape of the future partnership and we can therefore implement that. We will be seeking to establish agreement on the future partnership before March 2019.
Given the damage that the chaos in government is already doing to our economy, if the Minister will not accept the way out that has just been offered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee—incidentally, the vote she proposed should be a free vote—why will he not do as the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) suggests and extend article 50?
I do not recall hearing that suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). The Prime Minister has set out a clear approach, saying that the UK can benefit from its independent trade policy and pursue global trade in the future. That is what we are seeking to deliver.
Order. Let us hear from the voice of North East Somerset. I call Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg.
How does my hon. Friend square paragraph 4 of the European Union’s guidelines, which requires the phase 1 agreement to be respected in full and implemented in legal terms, with the idea that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed?
We have already set out our desire to reach that legal agreement with the EU on the withdrawal agreement, but it is of course clear from the terms of article 50 that the withdrawal agreement must have regard to the framework for the future relationship, which we are seeking to establish through the negotiations.
The Minister will have heard some of the anxieties about Britain during a transition becoming a rule taker rather than a rule maker. May I make a constructive suggestion, because there might be consensus around this point? If we want to get a final trade deal done properly, why does he not explore the option of extending the article 50 timeframe, so that we can negotiate while we are still around the table?
The Prime Minister has been clear that we do not want to be in some form of indefinite purgatory throughout the process. We need to take the opportunities for the UK that come from having an independent trade policy, and we have set out to provide continuity and certainty for our businesses through the implementation period. That continuity and certainty will be all the greater if we are clear about the future framework by the time we enter the implementation period.
I commend my hon. Friend and, indeed, the Government for refusing to break faith with the British people by insisting that we shall leave on 29 March 2019 and that, at the end of any implementation period, as the Prime Minister told the House on 11 December, the United Kingdom will have full regulatory autonomy and be free to do our own trade deals with third countries.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is very important that we respect the referendum, which of course Members of this House voted for in huge numbers and then voted to respect. The challenge for the Opposition Front-Bench team is to reconcile its ever-changing positions with that decision.
Every Minister and Secretary of State, and even the Prime Minister, when asked, has said that we will leave the common fisheries policy at the end of March 2019. Whatever else is happening in this so-called implementation period, will the Minister please confirm now that we will be leaving the common fisheries policy at the end of March 2019 and that we can then discuss which other countries we want to work with in our waters?
It is clear that the UK will be leaving the common fisheries policy, but we now need to negotiate the terms of the implementation period. The EU has already set out some of its approaches and argues that we will not be playing a continuing role in some institutions. The logic of that is absolutely there. We will be leaving the common fisheries policy and taking control of our waters.
In planning for all eventualities, will the Minister confirm that he is looking at the potential benefits and advantages that the European Free Trade Association might provide us with?
The Government have of course considered that, but the Prime Minister has set out that she does not believe that a Norway option is the right approach for the UK. It is important that we have control of our future trade policy, which is one of the objectives of our EU negotiation process.
We can argue all we like about the transition period, but it is fundamentally just a plank off a cliff, and we will have no idea where we are going when we walk off the end of it. Does the Minister agree that it is unlikely that a trade agreement would be agreed before we leave and very unlikely that we would have one by the end of the transition period? The real issue is that the Cabinet needs to sort out where on earth it wants this country to go.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman and do not share his pessimism. We start the trade negotiations from the unique position of our having a high degree of convergence with countries and territories that have followed the same rules for a long time. We can therefore be very ambitious about the future trade agreement that we can reach with the EU.
Until recently, I had thought that The Beano was a rather silly boys’ magazine; I now understand that it refers to “Brexit in name only”. Will the Minister confirm that abiding by Brexit in name only is not Government policy, that we will not move modestly apart from Europe, that we are leaving the customs union, the single market and the European Union and that we will have control of our borders?
I am happy to reiterate to my hon. Friend that the Government’s policy is that the UK will be leaving the EU, and that does mean leaving both the single market and the customs union.
The Minister stated that the Prime Minister does not want us to stay within EFTA and has ruled that option out, but that position is supported by only a few Back Benchers—the 35-plus—on the other side of the House. Will the Government commit to ensuring that the wishes of the majority of this House, which wants to put the national interest first, are listened to so that we get to the right place in 2019?
Of course the Government’s aim throughout this process is to put the national interest first. We have been clear, as was the hon. Lady’s own party in its manifesto at the last general election, that the UK will be leaving the European Union, which includes leaving the customs union.
Our partners have made what seems to be an extremely sensible suggestion that the implementation period should end with the budget period, at the end of December 2020. That is about two years—a year and three quarters, to be precise—so why have we been unable to sign up to it so far?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The negotiations on that issue are about to begin, and there are reasons why we are confident that we will be able to reach agreement by the end of March. We believe that the implementation period should be, as he says, about two years. We look forward to engaging in those negotiations to reach agreement with our EU counterparts.
Is it not time that the Minister put the Brexit ultras on the Conservative Benches, and indeed some on the Labour Benches, back in their box and pointed out that every single business sector he has met has asked to stay in the customs union, to stay in the single market and to be subject to the European Court of Justice for at least two years? Otherwise those sectors face chaos, with a huge impact on British jobs and British families.
I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation. He is right that many business sectors have spoken out for an implementation period, and they share the Prime Minister’s vision of an implementation period that is a bridge to our future relationship, but those businesses also regularly speak about the opportunities they see in the UK having its own independent trade policy.
My hon. Friend has now indicated twice that he anticipates the implementation period will be in the region of two years. Given that uncertainty is the greatest enemy of business confidence, does he not think it would improve business confidence, and indeed assist in the negotiations, if he were to make it absolutely clear that the implementation period will not exceed two years?
My right hon. Friend speaks with great expertise on these matters. It will be in the interests of the UK and the EU to reach agreement on the exact period of this implementation period as soon as possible, but it is important that we enter this negotiation by trying to give ourselves sufficient flexibility to achieve success.
Paragraph 17 of the directives for the negotiating team states clearly that
“any time-limited prolongation of the Union acquis requires existing Union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures to apply, including the competence of the Court of Justice of the European Union.”
Will the Minister please explain what exactly will be implemented during the implementation period?
Very clearly, as the Prime Minister set out, the aim of the implementation period is to implement the future relationship between the UK and the EU and to allow us to put those structures in place for that future relationship. As the hon. Gentleman so often does, he speaks eloquently in this House on behalf of the EU, but we need to make sure that we are negotiating on behalf of the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for his and this Government’s reasonable approach. I stress again that the European Free Trade Association does not require membership of either the customs union or the single market, but it does provide an administrative and legal framework that might be useful at least for the implementation period, if not further forward.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point, and I know he takes a great interest in these areas. We believe that both the UK and the EU have set out a different basis for the implementation period, and it is one that can deliver such continuity and certainty, as we have seen in the negotiations.
If the majority of Members of this House vote against the final deal, what will the Government do then?
It is very clear that this House has already voted for article 50, which means that we are leaving the European Union. What we want to ensure is that we have a good deal that this House will support.
The welcome news on Friday that the UK economy grew more strongly in the fourth quarter highlights the importance of the services and financial services sectors to this economy. In response to a question on a previous occasion, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union said he accepts that the future of financial services relies on a closely aligned regime of regulatory equivalence and mutual recognition. Does the Minister agree that that is still the policy of the Government?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Of course it is the policy of the Government to achieve a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union, building on the strong relationship we have had over the years to ensure we maintain strong market access for our services industry, including financial services. As he will know, the financial services sector is one of the many that has spoken up for this implementation period we are talking about delivering.
The Select Committee on Exiting the European Union visited Dublin last week, and every Minister and indeed politician we met stressed the need to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Last Wednesday, the Secretary of State told our Committee that regulatory alignment, as agreed last year, applies to only six areas. On Thursday, the Irish Government told us that it would apply to 142 areas, as proposed by the British Government. Which is it, six or 142?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It has of course been this Government’s position from the start of this process that we will not allow a hard border on the island of Ireland; we want to secure that through the future relationship between the UK and the EU. She refers to commitments in the joint report, and of course we want to protect north-south co-operation, wherever it exists, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
As well as on the importance of financial services, does the Minister agree that the Government’s objective of maintaining and, if possible, maximising and increasing continuing judicial and security co-operation will also require a continuing very close alignment on regulatory matters, not least in relation to data protection and exchange? Will he confirm that that will remain a priority for the Government, more than artificial or ideological considerations?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We set out in our data paper the intention to reach a comprehensive deal between the UK and the EU on data, which I believe will be in the interests of both parties. He rightly points to what the Prime Minister has said, which is that our commitment to European security is non-negotiable.
The Minister rightly says that a priority for the Government should be to serve the best interests of this country. So if progress has been made towards negotiating a deal but that negotiation has not been concluded by late this year, will the Government consider, in the interests of this country, extending the process of negotiation to secure the ideal deal?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, but we want to make sure that businesses have certainty both about the implementation period and about where they are headed through it. The benefits to businesses of an implementation period will be much greater if they know the shape of the future relationship to which we are headed, so I do not believe that prolonging this discussion will be in the interests of either the UK or the EU.
Will the excellent Minister confirm that in 424 days’ time, when we leave the EU and start the implementation period, we will know what our future relationship with the EU will be after the implementation period?
I am happy to reiterate to my hon. Friend that that is absolutely our objective.
The jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK will be ended from March 2019 under the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but the Prime Minister has made it clear that the ECJ’s jurisdiction will continue into the two-year implementation period to follow. Can the Minister therefore confirm that the implementation and withdrawal Bill, which will come forward in due course, will re-impose the jurisdiction of the ECJ on the UK?
There is a crucial distinction and difference here, in that the action of the ECJ in the UK currently takes place because we are a member state of the EU, and the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill will implement the agreement between the UK and the EU. That will recognise that the UK is therefore an independent country, adhering to that agreement, which the Prime Minister said should be under the same rules and regulations that we follow now.
Like my constituents, I support Brexit, but does the Minister agree that, given that we have been in the EU for 40 years, it is essential to have an implementation period, so that we can deliver the huge prize of a smooth and orderly Brexit?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, one that has been made by people on all sides of the referendum debate. We respect the decision made by the British people, including his constituents, and we want to make the greatest success of it. A smooth and orderly exit is the best way to achieve that.
Earlier this month, the National Assembly for Wales unanimously—this included Tory and UK Independence party Assembly Members—supported a motion from my colleague, Steffan Lewis, calling for a continuity Bill to protect the Welsh constitution from the power grab inherent in the British Government’s legislative proposals for implementing the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Now that Wales has spoken, will the British Government listen, or are they intent on forcing a constitutional crisis?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s allegations of a power grab. The Government have listened. We have been clear that we will bring forward amendments to clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and we are seeking legislative consent for that Bill from each of the devolved Administrations. We need to make the process succeed for every part of the United Kingdom, and we look forward to doing that for Wales, as for every other part of the UK.
Will the Minister confirm that from a practical point of view we should not be too worried about new EU law during the two-year transition period, because it takes more than two years for new EU laws to be put in place? Also from a practical point of view, will he confirm that we will set up working groups on important technical issues, such as data exchanges, as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend makes two important points. She is broadly right about the process of making EU laws, of which she has great expertise from her time in the European Parliament. We want to make sure that the UK has the ability to express concerns when it has them and that we have good technical working between us and the EU. I assure my hon. Friend that, as the discussions move forward to focus on the future relationship, we will be doing exactly that.
I urge the Minister to resist the siren voices from his own Back Benches that are urging him on to the rocks of a WTO-only deal. Is not the real reason for the Cabinet’s policy of destructive ambiguity that it is fatally split on ideological grounds? Ministers are putting the unity of the Conservative party before British jobs, the British economy and British public services.
I completely disagree with the hon. Lady. The Government have set out a clear strategy to deliver for the British economy through this process, and we will deliver on that strategy. I have seen time and again in votes in this House that the greatest split that exists on these issues is between Labour Back Benchers and their own Front Bench team.
Will the Government make it a red line that no implementation period will begin until a trade agreement with the EU is concluded?
As I set out in my answer to the urgent question, it is clear that to put in place the agreement on the future relationship, we need to have left the EU. We need to ensure that both parties are able to ratify the agreement, with the UK as an independent territory outside the EU. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that, as article 50 itself suggests, the withdrawal agreement should have regard to the future relationship, which it will be in the interests of both parties to secure.
One in five people resident in Hammersmith and Fulham is an EU27 citizen. Along with, I suspect, the 3.5 million-plus others in the UK, they feel confused and misled by what the Government have said about their future in this country. Will the Minister confirm that people who move to the UK from the EU during the transition period will be eligible to apply for settled status?
We have of course already confirmed, and agreed through the joint report, that those people who are already in this country—he refers to some in his constituency—are going to be able to stay. They will be able to apply for a new settled status. We are about to enter into the negotiations on the implementation period. We have been clear that people will continue to be able to come to the UK during that period, but they will need to register.
The British people are, in the main, not ideological but practical and pragmatic. They simply want Brexit to work. Will the Minister assure me that the Government’s policy will be dictated not by fringe groups, either in this place or outside it, but by the national interest?
Whether among larger employers or small and medium-sized enterprises, it seems to me that there is currently a consensus that the length of time and potentiality of high costs for the UK in breaking into new markets is going to be devastating, with jobs lost. What change is there in the Minister’s response? Will he start to listen to the voices of industry, rather than of 35 Tory Back Benchers?
Right from the start of this process, we have been listening to the voices of industry and to businesses large and small. When the Prime Minister set out the implementation period in her Lancaster House speech last January, she was responding to some of those concerns. I am delighted that we can now move forward to secure the implementation period, which will help businesses in the years to come.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Lancaster House speech, coupled with the Florence speech, remains the basis of the Government’s approach to implementing Brexit and delivering the orderly and smooth Brexit to which we are committed?
On Friday afternoon, yet another north-east businessman came to see me worried about a cliff edge. Will the Minister now, once and for all, see off the middle-aged swivel-eyed men behind him and make it clear that, in the interests of British industry, he will negotiate a transition period in which British industrialists are on a level playing field with European industrialists?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming the fact that the Secretary of State delivered his speech on the implementation period, making it clear that we are seeking an implementation period in the north-east of England.
The Minister said that, during the implementation period, we will be able to negotiate and sign trade agreements. Will he confirm that there will be no compromise on that and that it will not be added to the growing list of concessions that the Government have made?
My hon. Friend tempts me to pre-empt negotiations—as a number of colleagues have. What I say to him is clearly the position that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out, which is that we will be able to sign those trade agreements, but, as the Prime Minister made clear, what we do not want to do is bring into force trade agreements that would conflict with our responsibilities towards the EU during that period. We want to make sure that this is a bridge to Britain’s future as a global trading nation.
Today, the Welsh Secretary for Finance, Mark Drakeford, said that the Government have still not allayed the Welsh Government’s fears of a power grab. Will the Minister set out when he expects to get agreement from the devolved Administrations, because if he cannot get a deal from within the UK, what confidence can we have of him getting any sort of agreement from the EU?
It is in the interests of all parts of the UK to exit the European Union with continuity, certainty and control, which is why I think it was a missed opportunity for his party not to support the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but I look forward to seeing that support in the other place. As I said to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), amendments to clause 11 of that Bill will be brought forward in the Lords.
Prior to the referendum, Her Majesty’s Treasury forecast near economic collapse, since when the economy has done well, with manufacturing and exports particularly strong. How can my hon. Friend assure my constituents that Her Majesty’s Treasury understands the electoral arithmetic of the referendum and will finally get with the programme?
I can assure my hon. Friend that our Department has been working closely with Her Majesty’s Treasury to ensure that we make a success of this process. He rightly points to the robust growth figures that we have seen from the UK economy. What we all need to ensure is that, throughout this process, we continue to support that economy to grow and deliver the public services that we all want to see.
Will the Minister confirm that the UK will remain a member of Euratom during the transitional period, and if not, will he inform those working in nuclear medicine where they should be sourcing their radioisotopes?
I refer the hon. Lady to the paper that we published on Euratom and the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, which the Government are bringing forward. It is not responsible to spread scare stories about radioisotopes, and the point has been clearly made a number of times that they are not restricted by the Euratom treaties.
Businesses and many others believe strongly in orderly change to our relations with the EU. Will my hon. Friend therefore confirm that the implementation period arrangements will include continuity of the UK’s role in many organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations where our role is as part of the EU, so giving us time to negotiate future relations with those organisations both before and during the implementation period?
My hon. Friend, who is an expert on trade issues, raises a very important point about our existing trade agreements. Of course we want to ensure that we roll those over, so that we maintain the best market access with those third countries and other territories and so that the UK can take up wider opportunities in global trade, so as we enter this implementation period, we will seek to secure both of those points.
Is not the decision about the deal and implementation period separate from that of the original referendum? Is it therefore not appropriate always to refer back to the “will of the people” when we are talking about decisions on the implementation and the deal?
I am a little confused by the hon. Lady’s point. I would have thought that her party might support an implementation period, but she appears to be saying that we need another referendum to have one. I do not agree with that argument. It is important that we go ahead with respecting the referendum—a unique democratic exercise in British history, in which millions of people voted—and delivering on it. Part of that can be a successful negotiation on the implementation period.
The Minister has spoken about an implementation period of around two years after we formally leave the European Union, if there is to be an implementation period. May I further press him to say that it will be less than two years? I would suggest, as others have, new year’s eve 2020.
I hear my hon. Friend’s point and I am sure that it will be heard by others on our team. We want this negotiation to secure the stability and certainty that business wants and that will be good for our economy. It is important to enter that negotiation seeking to bring the position of the UK and the European Union—which, indeed, at the moment seems to be closer to my hon. Friend’s position—closer together.
Given the challenges that the amendment to clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill gave the Government, will the Minister confirm that he is going to have discussions with the devolved authorities in time, so that we do not come across another problem later?
I can confirm that the communication with the devolved authorities is ongoing. We have discussed the issues of the Lancaster House speech and the Florence speech with them many times already, and I think they will support us in wanting to secure an implementation period that is good for the whole UK.
I think that our constituents would respect all of us in this place a lot more if we stopped making comments about people being swivel-eyed just because they have firmly held opinions. Does the Minister agree that the purpose of an implementation period is to demonstrate very clearly that we have a realistic grasp of the scale and complexity of the task ahead of us—not to frustrate Brexit, but to reassure the public and business that we want to conduct Brexit in a disciplined and sensible manner?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on both points. We want to make a success of this process for the UK economy, UK business and every part of the UK. I think that our constituents expect us to work together across the House and not to be calling each other names during this process.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I will take this point of order now because I understand that it relates to the exchanges that have just taken place. Let’s hear it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As you will have heard during this session, I asked the Minister a perfectly reasonable question. Unfortunately, he chose to respond by impugning my motives and questioning my patriotism. I assure him that I speak only in what I see as the national interest and the interests of my constituents. I therefore ask him to retract those comments and apologise, and we will leave it at that.
I said that I would hear the hon. Gentleman. The Minister is not under any obligation to respond, although he may if he wants to.
I am very happy to give a quick response.
Quick is good—much to be said for it.
I did not mean to impugn the hon. Gentleman’s motives. I would only point out that he was reading directly from the EU’s negotiating guidelines and that today we are, of course, discussing the UK’s policy.
That is not an apology.
No, it is not an apology. It is an explanation. But we will leave it there.
Taliban and IS/Daesh Attacks: Afghanistan
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on recent Taliban and Daesh attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers in Afghanistan and on the UK Government’s response.
I think that Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest condolences to all victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and to their families.
As the Foreign Secretary and I have made clear over the weekend, we have been appalled and deeply saddened by the series of ghastly and cowardly outrages over the past 10 days. The UK Government condemn in the strongest possible terms all forms of terrorism, including the recent attacks claimed by both the Taliban and Daesh. To target humanitarian workers and use ambulances to hide explosives is especially heinous, demonstrating the very lowest disregard for humanity. It is unacceptable that the Afghan people continue to suffer such brutal acts of terror. I pay tribute to the brave work of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, and the Afghan emergency services. They deserve our recognition for their swift and professional response in the face of these terrorist outrages.
As I said at the UN Security Council in New York just 10 days ago, the UK continues, and will continue, to stand resolute in its support for Afghanistan against terrorism, and supports those responsible being brought to justice. The UK remains committed to working with the Government of Afghanistan and our international partners to bring peace, security and prosperity to the Afghan people.
I need not remind the House that security remains an ongoing challenge in Afghanistan. The Taliban continue to carry out routine attacks across the country. The Daesh affiliate, largely based in the eastern Nangarhar province, has come under sustained pressure from the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, with support from the US. The UK is playing its part diplomatically and militarily in tackling this real threat. The UK military, working with NATO allies as part of the Resolute Support Mission, will continue to focus its support on the ongoing development and capacity-building of the ANDSF. I saw for myself the hard work we are doing as part of the mission on my visit to Afghanistan last October. Only last week, I discussed the challenging task facing the NATO mission with its charismatic and committed commander, General John Nicholson, when he was in London.
Our support is not just military. At the Brussels conference in 2016, the UK pledged up to £750 million for development in Afghanistan for the period 2017 to 2020. This is aimed at supporting improving health systems and private sector-led growth, boosting education and taking steps to tackle corruption.
Ultimately, however, a political solution to the conflict is the only way to achieve lasting stability in Afghanistan and the wider region. The UK Government strongly support the efforts being made towards this goal by the Afghan Government and look forward to further progress at next month’s meeting of the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Co-operation. Along with the US, we recognise that our ongoing involvement in Afghanistan must be conditions-based rather than time-limited. The long-suffering people of Afghanistan deserve peace, but also our support and assistance.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for the strength of his statement, the support he has given to the Afghan security services, and his condemnations of these heinous attacks, as he put it. I totally agree.
We used to have regular updates in this House on Afghanistan, yet the last major debate we had was in March last year, and we have had very few statements, particularly in the past year. Since then, as the Minister pointed out, the Taliban, Daesh and others have carried out a series of horrific attacks killing many civilians, Afghan security personnel, and, in the particularly heinous act last week, deliberately attacking humanitarian workers from Save the Children and civilians in Jalalabad, resulting in seven deaths. Our thoughts and prayers must surely be with all those who have lost their lives or been injured.
UK and global attention to events in Afghanistan has significantly waned in the past year despite the significant ongoing UK military presence, with over 500 troops stationed, plus an additional 85 recently added, as well as our diplomatic, development and non-governmental organisation involvement. The recent horrific events suggest that the situation is becoming increasingly violent and volatile. NGO members of ACBAR—the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development—report to me that over the past year there have been 156 attacks on aid workers, resulting in the deaths of 17 aid workers who have been killed while providing this crucial humanitarian assistance. Only today, 11 Afghan soldiers were killed in Kabul. This week, over 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured when an ambulance filled with explosives was detonated in Kabul. Last week, 22 civilians were murdered by the Taliban in an attack on a hotel. We know that 2017 was a record year for civilian casualties. The Taliban are gaining increasing momentum. Nine million people still need humanitarian assistance. Pakistan has been accused by some of a deliberate campaign to force out 600,000 Afghan refugees. There was a litany of serious and horrific attacks during the course of last year.
What will the Government do about the growing culture of impunity for those breaking international humanitarian law that we see not just in Afghanistan but in so many conflicts across the world? What assessment have the Government made of the involvement of elements from Pakistan, Iran and Russia, in differing ways, in the growing unrest, including very serious allegations of arming the Taliban and/or facilitating attacks? What assessment has the Minister made of the strength of the Taliban and Daesh? What steps are we taking at the United Nations Security Council? What consideration have we given to increasing our military, diplomatic and development contributions? What discussions have we had with our NATO and other allied partners?
In the last written statement on Afghanistan, the then Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), who I see in the Chamber, said:
“The UK will never forget the sacrifice made by the 456 members of the armed forces who died during operations there. They helped protect our country…and, through our continued support to the mission, we are working to protect their legacy.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 19WS.]
I agree. It is completely vital that that that legacy of bravery and sacrifice is protected, for our own and regional security and for the safety and security of the Afghan people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. He has made a very worthwhile contribution. I very much agree; we have to recognise not only that we work collectively in the region but that the international counter-terrorism network is now so extensive that for us simply to leave Afghanistan is not an option.
While the insurgency remains persistent—the hon. Gentleman catalogued some of the dreadful events of the past 10 days—the Government of Afghanistan remain determined to build a better future for Afghanistan, and there have been some notable successes by the security forces against Taliban forces over the past year. The attacks in Kabul that we have seen over the past 10 days garner, I fear, more international publicity than they would if they were in other parts of the country and reflect the manner in which the ANDSF has depleted the insurgents’ capabilities outside the capital city.
I work closely with international partners, not least in the United Nations, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out. I also believe that regional partnerships are crucial to achieving long-term peace and security. As I say, I spoke 10 days ago in a debate that was initiated by the Kazakhs, who have the presidency this month of the UN Security Council. It was in their interests to talk about the way in which central Asian states can make some genuine and sustainable progress. I welcome the efforts to improve links between Afghanistan and its regional partners in south and central Asia. There is a tendency for us to look upon Afghanistan alongside either Pakistan or Iran without recognising that there are other near neighbours, many of which can play an essential part in improving the long-term future for all Afghanis.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the tragic severity of these attacks underlines the threat that these terrorist groups continue to pose to the state of Afghanistan? There would be huge implications for western Europe, and indeed for us, if that very fragile democracy, which we have done so much to sustain, were allowed to collapse, and therefore however grim these attacks are, it is all the more important that Britain and NATO stay the course.
My right hon. Friend has a particular knowledge of not only Afghanistan but Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, and he recognises the interlinked network of criminality and terrorism that is involved. There is no doubt—I very much agree with him—that security remains an ongoing challenge in Afghanistan. The ungoverned space for terrorist groups remains persistent. The Taliban, I fear, remain capable of attack across the country, and in Helmand province they remain the single biggest challenge for the security forces.
My right hon. Friend touches on the issue of democracy. We are very keen to see both presidential and parliamentary elections take place over the next 18 months or so in Afghanistan. It is important we have a Government in Afghanistan that is legitimate and widely regarded as such. However, those elections and that progress must be Afghan-led, and we very much hope to see progress towards democracy continuing. As I said, there will be yet another peace conference in Kabul on this issue, which will bring neighbours from the region together. I very much hope we will see steps forward that will take some attention away from the rather woeful headlines of recent days.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing it.
Saturday’s attack on Kabul’s Chicken Street area was one of horrific savagery and soullessness. To use an ambulance as a weapon of terror against innocent civilians shows—not for the first time—that there are no depths of depravity and evil to which the jihadis will not sink. It is part of a calculated strategy to show that even the best-guarded areas of the country are not safe and to worsen the political instability already gripping Kabul.
In the space of the last week, we have seen similar deadly attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, the Save the Children office in Jalalabad and the Marshal Fahim military academy, otherwise known as “Sandhurst in the sand”. At least 142 innocent people have been killed in total and hundreds more injured. We send our deepest sympathies to all those victims and their families, and we send our solidarity to all the people of Afghanistan.
Let me ask the Minister three questions. First, what are the Government doing to urge President Ghani to reach a settlement with his political opponents, so that all the country’s democratic forces can present a united front and stable defences against those who want to destroy this fledgling democracy? Secondly, amid reports that humanitarian agencies are having to review their presence in the country, given the increased threat to their staff, what are the Government doing to support the British aid agencies working in Afghanistan, particularly in improving their security?
Finally, the Minister knows the concern felt all across this House about the Afghan interpreters who have worked with our forces and who face a constant threat from the jihadis. Last month, the Government said that not a single interpreter had been relocated to Britain under the so-called intimidation scheme, and they also said that
“the changing security position…is kept under careful review.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2017; Vol. 633, c. 11WS.]
Given the rapid deterioration of the security position since then, will the Minister advise us what plans he has to bring more of our former interpreters to safety here in Britain?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her thoughtful comments. We obviously very much hope that next month’s Kabul peace process will be part of bringing all sides together, with democracy in mind, in Afghanistan. Having met President Ghani, I have to say that I have been impressed by his resilience in the face of great difficulties. As the right hon. Lady will know, with a national unity Government, there are inevitably ups and downs. Broadly speaking, however, things have held together, and that is to the great credit not just of Ghani, but of all the people who have been playing their part and recognising the importance of this process.
The UK Government remain very committed to a diplomatic presence in Kabul, to support the Afghan Government in their efforts to secure peace and stability. The support the UK provides to the Afghan Government, along with our NATO allies and partners, in improving security, development and governance is in my view crucial to ensuring stability and reducing the terrorist threat to the UK.
If I may, I would like to pay—I am sure the right hon. Lady would join me in paying—the warmest possible tribute to all our courageous staff on the ground in Kabul. As I said, I was there in October, and I realised the great difficulties and the very challenging conditions under which they work. It is very dangerous not just to leave the green zone, but even to live within it. The esprit de corps of our embassy in Kabul—this applies to other high-profile places such as Mogadishu—is something of which all of us here can be incredibly proud.
On the issue of the interpreters, the right hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot comment on the individual cases that have made it into the press, but I am very happy to say a few words. Our local staff policies were developed having regard to the then Afghan Government’s concern to retain their brightest and best citizens to help build a more stable and secure Afghanistan. Afghan local staff who are eligible for the ex gratia scheme but not for relocation are entitled to appeal such a decision, and MOD staff will assist individuals where the Department holds the relevant evidence. If the right hon. Lady or other Members have specific cases that they would like to bring to my attention, my door remains open and I am very happy to take up such cases.
Rightly, this country takes very seriously the cases of those who are putting themselves at grave risk—as grave as, if not more grave than, the risk to our embassy staff abroad—and they should be properly protected. I would obviously be very disturbed to hear if that were not the case. The right hon. Lady will recognise that there is a procedure and a protocol that needs to be gone through on such matters, but if there are specific issues to be raised, I hope she will do so.
I note the Minister’s remarks about the threat in and outside Kabul, but what should one make of current reports that the Taliban control 40% to 50% of Afghanistan’s 400 districts, which is the most since the NATO intervention in 2001? Will the Minister give us his assessment of the rather surprising resilience of both the Taliban and ISIS in the face of everything we are trying to do to assist the force in Afghanistan in taking them on, and will he also give us his assessment of the resilience of Afghanistan’s armed forces in the face of this threat?
Others will have observed that, as I have said, the solution for long-term peace and stability lies not just with the military, but in a broader peace process. Although my hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that the Taliban have clearly not gone away, equally they have not been able to take any major cities during the past two or three years. That means that large, relatively ungoverned parts and open spaces of Afghanistan may well be under Taliban control, for want of a better phrase, but most of the larger towns and cities are assuredly not.
I can appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend, who has great experience in these matters, that perhaps our efforts in Helmand are perceived as wasted. It is certainly an argument put by some—I am not trying to put words into his mouth, but that is an increasing concern. Without doubt, UK personnel served with great commitment in Afghanistan, and our forces could play an important ongoing role in training the Afghan security forces to help to create the conditions for a more viable state moving forward. My assessment is that Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, but I am optimistic for its longer-term future. It is the view of the UK and our NATO allies that we have to look upon our presence as conditions-based rather than time-based.
We are appalled to witness the surge in deadly attacks in Kabul. Such indiscriminate attacks against civilians are a complete violation of human rights and humanitarian laws, and we strongly condemn them. Our thoughts are with all those who are affected. As we have heard, at least 11 soldiers have been killed today in the attack on an army post in Kabul, and just two days ago an ambulance packed with explosives killed more than 100 people in a busy shopping area. Last Wednesday, an attack on the Save the Children office in Jalalabad killed at least five people, while 22 people were killed in a Kabul hotel on 20 January.
Can the Minister set out how precisely the UK Government’s counter-Daesh strategy is addressing the situation in Afghanistan? What steps is the UK taking to bring an end to the attacks? Will he tell us what more the UK Government can do to provide humanitarian assistance to those affected? Lastly, what have the UK Government done to provide assistance to humanitarian workers who were affected by the horrific attack on Save the Children?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Let me touch on the issue he raised last, that of humanitarian aid and the NGOs on the ground doing incredibly important work in difficult circumstances. Although the UK Government do not pass on information on threats to NGOs or other project partners directly—due to our security rules, we can pass on only what is on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel page, although he will appreciate that in many districts there will also be an opportunity for ongoing dialogue—we do require NGOs receiving official development assistance to manage their security, and an assurance process is required as part of that due diligence. He will therefore appreciate that there is a lot of ongoing dialogue, and we remain open to providing assistance to any humanitarian organisation on the ground there that has UK connections or may have UK employees. However, I appreciate that the parents and other relatives of those working out in such difficult circumstances must be increasingly alarmed by what they have seen in the headlines over the past 10 days.
From the UK’s perspective, we feel broadly speaking that progress is being made. It is sometimes very slow and painstaking progress, and when such events happen, particularly in quick succession, one is inclined to think that the Taliban and others have suddenly decided to do what they are doing in part because of the peace process conference taking place in February.
If I may respond to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) made earlier, it is our understanding that, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, only 13 districts are under Taliban control. Although that is still 13 too many, I hope the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) will recognise that that provides some evidence of progress. However, some of that progress is slow and painstaking, and we have to be patient.
Is the insurgency in part being reinforced and supplied from outside Afghanistan? What action are the Government and their allies taking to try to tackle that aspect of the crisis?
While I agree that there is clearly some of that taking place from outside groups, my right hon. Friend will recognise that a lot of it is subject to close intelligence that I would not wish to comment on at this stage. He is right to say that we are doing our level best to try to ensure that any assistance to terrorist groups from outsiders is kept to a minimum. However, he will also recognise that, as I have said, there are now, I am afraid, global networks of terrorist groups. The Taliban have received co-operation not just from the Pakistan side but from other sides of the Afghanistan border, and Daesh or so-called Islamic State are a global network and can utilise help from beyond the Afghan borders.
I join the Minister and others in condemning these senseless attacks, particularly the attack on Save the Children, which has been active in Afghanistan for 42 years. Will he take this opportunity to confirm that the UK will maintain its spending on overseas aid and will not allow it to be diverted to military activities?
As the right hon. Gentleman is well aware—not least because it was his party that, as part of the coalition Government, put this into statute—there are already strict rules about where overseas aid can be utilised through the OECD, and our own legislation makes the whole issue of official development assistance even more complicated. However, I hope that he will recognise that where projects can involve UK aid through the Department for International Development alongside the military, it makes sense to do so. There are strict rules in UK and international legislation that prevent vast sums of money being transferred away from aid, but the reality of the situation, as we all know, is that the proper resurrection of a state such as Afghanistan requires development work on a tremendous scale, much of which will require making the country more secure, and that means co-operation with the military.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that we have a long way to go to build a better future for Afghanistan given that the vast majority of Afghan refugees who return home have to flee violence again very shortly afterwards?
I very much agree. None of us is under any illusions; there is a long way to go before Afghanistan’s Government and people achieve their goal of building a more stable and prosperous country. But we will continue to play our part, and not just in terms of expenditure. One of the most important things that our non-combat troops are doing on the ground is working closely to help train some 3,000 Afghan cadets, who are Afghanistan’s military leaders of the future.
What is the Government’s estimate of the number of Daesh operatives who have transferred into Afghanistan from Iraq and Syria, and of those how many do they estimate are British?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that these are sensitive issues. I will try to reply to him in writing, in as transparent a way as I can. Clearly there is a concern that the porous borders on all sides of Afghanistan are open to Daesh or so-called Islamic State, and obviously there is a risk that some of the many hundreds of UK nationals who have been fighting in Syria and Iraq might find their way to Afghanistan.
My thoughts are very much with the people of Afghanistan. The Minister talked about Pakistan. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Pakistan. Can he confirm that Pakistan has lost 40,000 civilians and 5,000 military personnel to acts of terrorism by the Taliban? Pakistan has put in place effective border management controls on its side, but it needs co-operation from Afghanistan so that everyone can see where the problem is coming from—from which country to which country. What steps are being taken to work with groups such as the quadrilateral co-ordination group and the tri-ministerial group to help achieve that?
It is entirely fair to point out, not just as a friend of Pakistan, which I regard myself to be, that a huge price has been paid by the Pakistani civilians who have died. However, what has traditionally been a porous border along the Durand line has often been open for terrorist groups to co-operate—I do not think that anyone would deny that. It is also fair to say that the Pakistani authorities are not only aware of that but continue to do their level best to try to ensure that the porous border is corrected.
Let me just clarify, in answer to an earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), that we believe some 13% of Afghan territory is currently under Taliban control.
Although there was universal approval in the House for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, by 2006 we had lost five British soldiers in battle and a decision was taken on the firm promise by the Government that no shot would be fired. We went into Helmand and the result was the deaths of 450 of our brave British soldiers. Do we not have to challenge the idea that force always produces peaceful results and have an inquiry into why we went into Helmand in 2006? If we do not understand our past mistakes, are we not in danger of repeating them?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that essentially, there has only to be a political and diplomatic solution. The military cannot be enough and we recognise that in our relations with Afghanistan. In fairness, he slightly misquoted Lord Reid in talking about the idea of not firing a shot. That was felt to be an ideal, but we all recognised that by going into Afghanistan we would be in a dangerous place. Anyone who is as keen a student of history as the hon. Gentleman is will recognise that Afghanistan has been a difficult place for—I was going to say for a couple of hundred years, but I suspect that it is rather longer than that.
The United Kingdom has an enduring commitment to Afghanistan. We will continue to support the defence forces there to help to prevent it from becoming a safe haven for terror and to keep space open for a politically negotiated solution to the conflict. In truth, whether we like it or not, a safer Afghanistan is the only guarantee of a safer United Kingdom. A peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan is crucial for wider regional stability and the dismantling of global terrorist networks.
There have been attacks on foreigners in hotels, attacks on aid workers and bombs in ambulances. None of that is new, but perhaps the recent attacks in Kabul have taken this to a new level. To what extent should we be concerned that Afghanistan is an incubator for new terrorist techniques that then disseminate around the world’s trouble spots?
To be honest, I think it would be somewhat premature to suggest that Afghanistan is somehow an incubator for new terrorist events. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out, humanitarian workers have been targeted, not just in Afghanistan, but in many other parts of the world. We keep an eye op