Tuesday 6 February 2018
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
Statutory PHSE Education
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of statutory personal, health, social and economic education.
In March 2017 the then Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), announced her intention of putting relationships and sex education on a statutory footing, and of creating a power to make PSHE statutory in future, following further work and consultation. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 provides for it to be made statutory in all schools in England through regulations. A call for evidence is running from December 2017 up to this month. I welcome that call for evidence, which gives us a chance to explore what world-class PSHE looks like, going forward into the 2020s. I hope that this debate will be a useful part of that process.
PSHE in this country has suffered on several fronts. It has been caught up in sterile debates about the difference between knowledge and skills, and about school freedom. It has also become a battleground because of its status as the home of sex and relationships education. It has been incorrectly associated with generic and sometimes obscure pet subjects—even origami. Often, we have lost sight of the fact that PSHE at its best supports the development of skills and attributes such as managing risk and taking responsibility, and the honing of critical skills that set young people up to succeed in other areas of the curriculum and in their wider lives. Surely that is what education is about.
Despite some of the cartoon battles that I have mentioned, there is a fair level of consensus about what PSHE includes: the knowledge and skills that young people need to stay safe—online and offline—healthy, and prepared for life. There should be programmes of study such as that prepared by the PSHE Association, with a spiral curriculum that is consistent with the ethos of the school and able to take account of the specific needs of the school’s community. It can support children’s mental and physical health, reduce the risk of drug and alcohol misuse, support financial capability, develop employability skills and provide emergency life-saving skills. Many schools provide excellent PSHE education, but others struggle. The fact that the subject is not mandated in all schools does not help; if there is a tussle for timetable space, the statutory subject will always win. Figures from the Department for Education itself show that time given to PSHE fell by 32% from 2011 to 2015, and the Select Committee on Education warned that that situation could still be deteriorating.
Mandatory or not, PSHE is of course not a magic bullet, but a clear position in the school curriculum, with support from inside and outside the education community, would be a good start. Giving PSHE statutory footing and enabling schools to act within a broad framework would make it easier for the Government to deliver their stated aims of improving outcomes in safeguarding pupils against online harm, and in mental health. That is because PSHE is a complementary subject area: for example, relationships are influenced by other areas covered in PSHE and cannot be taught in isolation. Although parents, teachers and pupils support the subject, I believe that schools would welcome clarity on its status. A Government decision to establish mandatory PSHE must be the start of the work, not its end.
The hon. Lady is making a strong case and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. Does she agree that it is not appropriate for parents to be able to withdraw their children from some of the lessons? Should not the guidance and regulations make it clear that all pupils have the right to know the facts? There is a big difference between opinion and fact, and all children, regardless of faith or background, have the right to know the facts.
I agree. Things work best when the home and the school work in partnership, not when they are in conflict. I am the mother of a teacher who often tells me about problems she has in trying to teach religious education in school. Some parents want their child removed from the lessons, because they do not want their child to be taught about other religions. That does not help. All children should be treated equally and have equal access to information, as the hon. Lady says. I completely agree.
One of the key benefits of PSHE, I believe, is that it increases academic attainment. A report by Pro Bono Economics in 2017 found that the provision of high-quality PSHE has a positive impact on young people’s academic attainment. Moreover, a study of 200 social and emotional skills programmes, predominantly delivered through PSHE lessons, demonstrated an 11% improvement in young people’s academic achievement. Encouragingly, evidence also showed that PSHE can have a positive impact on life chances, as it was the academic performance of the most disadvantaged children that improved by the greatest amount as the result of receiving high-quality PSHE.
PSHE does more than just add value to the qualifications that young people leave school with. Evidence suggests that it supports children in developing skills and characteristics such as teamwork, confidence, flexibility and resilience—all of which will enable them to achieve in their future lives and careers. I am sure that many hon. Members in the Chamber have had conversations with employers about young people leaving education with a handful of perhaps excellent qualifications, but no life skills. Many years ago when I was young I learned those life skills through such things as Saturday or holiday jobs, which are hard to get now. I learned what it was to be an adult by working with older women in Timothy Whites—whatever happened to them?—on a Saturday. Those things are not there for young people now; they need somewhere where we can teach them the life skills that they need to become the sort of employee that employers are looking for.
That is because the world of work that young people enter now is very different from the one I entered when I left school. People are not just looking for examination results; they want a candidate with the ability to adapt, innovate and work in partnership. Key leaders in business and industry support that view. The CBI has said that there is a need to focus
“not only on knowledge and skills, but also on the key attitudes and behaviours that are needed for success in life outside the school gates”.
That is where PSHE can certainly help. There is strong evidence that it improves academic attainment and young people’s prospects. I remind the Minister that at the Education World Forum in January he said:
“Preparing pupils to compete in an ever more competitive jobs market is the core purpose of schooling”.
I agree, and if he means what he says, as I believe he does, we need to be serious about attainment and social mobility, and about making provision for high-quality PSHE as a statutory requirement in schools.
Many other Members want to speak, and I do not want to cover every aspect of the subject, but I want to talk in particular about one area that is dear to my heart. In 2015 I tried to get a private Member’s Bill through Parliament—the Compulsory Emergency First Aid Education (State-funded Secondary Schools) Bill. Unfortunately it did not succeed, and the Government and the Minister did not support it. Perhaps the Minister was right and it was not the right place for the matter to be dealt with; perhaps the place for it is in PSHE. I should be happy to know whether he thinks that that is so.
I have worked hard on the issue for a number of years, as have many other Members of Parliament. The British Red Cross, the British Heart Foundation and St John Ambulance have all welcomed the call for evidence, believing that the teaching of first aid could sit happily within PSHE. The teaching of first aid, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation, as a mandatory component of statutory PSHE in both primary and secondary school, could be done in one hour a year, each year. It would ensure that all children and young people had the opportunity to learn that crucial life skill, building up knowledge and confidence over the course of their time in school. We know the statistics about first aid: only 5% of adults feel knowledgeable or willing to act in an emergency. Up to 59% of pre-hospital deaths from injury could have been prevented with basic first aid. More than 30,000 cardiac arrests occur out of hospital every year in the UK, and fewer than one in 10 people survive. If we could match the survival rates found in parts of Norway, where CPR is routinely taught in secondary schools, we could save around 5,000 lives per year in the UK.
As a mother of teachers, I understand that teachers are hard pressed and that their job is difficult, with long hours and little space, but I believe teachers are best placed to deliver the training, and they are not alone. They do not need specialist training to deliver it, because there are many quality, approved resources already being used in schools, such as those used by the three organisations I mentioned. The British Heart Foundation provides free CPR “watch and learn” training kits, which are in place in 66% of secondary schools. The British Red Cross provides “Life. Live it.” first aid for children and first aid learning for young people, with resources for primary and secondary schools. St John Ambulance provides free online access to its streamed sessions under the banner, “The Big First Aid Lesson”, which many of us will be aware of. The most recent session reached 125,000 students in a single sitting, in addition to more traditional teaching resources.
First aid learning must be appropriate to the development level. The optimal age to start teaching cardiac compressions is around 12, but learning the symptoms of cardiac arrest and how to call for help can begin with much younger children. When they start school, children should be taught how to dial 999 and what happens when they do. That will impart a sense of confidence and responsibility to act. In the current climate, when we all, particularly young people, go out to bars, cinemas or concerts, there is an ever-present threat of terrorism. We need to turn young people into life-savers so that they do not become bystanders.
I hesitate to intervene, because my hon. Friend is making such a powerful case, but does she agree that as well as the practical benefits she is talking about in terms of saving lives, another benefit of first aid training for young people is that it builds up their personal confidence and their employability?
I absolutely agree; that is almost the next point I was coming on to.
The training needs to be appropriate to the developmental level, but no matter how young children are, they can start learning about things such as what to do if they get a cut, how to put somebody in the recovery position and how to ring for help. Those are important things.
Beyond the process of learning those skills, as my right hon. Friend has just said, their inclusion in PHSE could have other benefits. The International Committee of the Red Cross believes:
“First aid is not just about techniques. It is an act of humanity”.
I agree. It is a key responsibility of citizenship. Teaching those skills will help create the next generation of good, caring citizens. It will teach character, something we all want to see happen. The Red Cross is surely right about that. Empowering young people with the ability to act and potentially save a life can transform how they feel about themselves and improve their self-esteem. It could also encourage more people to go into that career area and become paramedics. I have met many young people who, after having first aid training and perhaps joining St John Ambulance, went on to become paramedics and work in the national health service, because they found that they had a key skill and they understood its importance.
First aid training has wide support: 97% of teachers think it is vital for young people to learn essential skills in school, and 89% of people think that CPR should be taught in all schools in the UK. Some 95% of parents agree that first aid should be taught in secondary school, and 97% of 11 to 16-year-olds agree that they should be taught first aid, saying that they either definitely or probably should be taught it at secondary school.
We have a world that is fast changing—very different from the one I grew up in. It is a world full of threats online and the demands of social media. We hear a lot about the pressure young people are under. We know that young people need to learn about consent and about the terrorist threat. I am from a lucky generation; I grew up after the second world war, in a time of peace. Young children now face constant threats—things we could never have dreamed they would face—and if we are to equip them for those threats, to deal with them in their everyday lives, we have a duty to ensure that in school every child is taught PHSE. It is a place to learn life skills that will equip them for the challenges ahead.
If I am to be able to call all the hon. Members seeking to catch my eye, limiting speeches to around five minutes would be much appreciated.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on an excellent speech on this important subject.
When I was visiting one of my local schools a week ago, I was handed a copy of all the subjects it teaches in its PHSE syllabus. I must say that I was impressed: it is a sensible, measured group of subjects, all dealing with issues that young people need to get to grips with, which will hugely help them as they embark on adult life.
I do not intend to speak for long, but I will talk about one specific issue I would like to see addressed in PHSE education. I will do so as a result of having been visited by one of my constituents, Denise Coates from Houghton Regis, who is a cancer survivor and an ambassador on the issue for the Luton and Dunstable hospital—perhaps the best-performing hospital in the country. As a cancer survivor, Miss Coates is passionate about the early diagnosis of cancer, something that I note absolutely fits with the priorities of the Department of Health and Social Care and its new 28-day target to diagnose cancer.
On the list of PHSE subjects, which I got from one of my local upper schools, I was pleased to see that children are taught “What is cancer?” That is an excellent first step. We know that around 2 million people are living with cancer in our country; in my clinical commissioning group area, Bedfordshire, there are about 2,300 cancer cases and 960 cancer deaths per year. Denise Coates has a simple and straightforward request, which, if we are already teaching children about what cancer is in PHSE, it is possible, practical and extremely worth while to grant: that children be taught about the importance of early detection of cancer for themselves and to spread that learning within their families. That is potentially life-saving. All of us in this room will have lost family members to cancer. I lost my stepsister, who had four children, at the age of 49 and my mother died of cancer when she was 66. I know I am not unusual in this room.
We know that the golden key to cancer is early detection. If we teach that to our children, both girls and boys, when they are young, they have no embarrassment about examining their own bodies and know what to look out for. If they take that message home to their families and ensure their families do likewise, we can do much better. We know there is a particular issue, for example, with many in the Asian community in this country presenting late for cancer. That is tragic, because sometimes it will be too late—the saddest words in the English language. That is something we could prevent.
I have a very simple request. I have written to the Department of Health and Social Care, as a member of the Select Committee on Health, to seek its support on the issue. I implore the Minister to listen to my representations this morning. I say to the schools in my constituency and in every constituency up and down this country, “If you are already telling children about cancer, just go that extra step. Talk to them about the incredible importance of early detection. It is life-saving. It could save their lives or their family members’ lives.” I pay tribute to my constituent Denise Coates, who first brought the issue to my attention. I am doing my part this morning to further her campaign.
I did not expect to be called so early in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on bringing this matter to the House for consideration. I will concentrate on two things in the short time I have: mental health and some of the projects undertaken back home in Northern Ireland.
I received, as did many other Members, a briefing from the Shaw Mind Foundation that outlined that mental health is currently only taught as an optional component of PHSE, despite 75% of mental illnesses starting before the age of 18 and data showing that three pupils in every classroom suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition. In addition, child suicide calls to ChildLine are at a record high, while self-harming among girls is up 68% and is getting worse every year. In her introduction, the hon. Lady referred to our needing focus. I think we need to focus on mental health—particularly children’s mental health. Despite those figures, the NHS currently spends 11% of its budget on mental health services, and we are always asking for more resources for that.
Research shows that pupils and parents strongly support further mental health education. In Northern Ireland, a scoping paper on adolescent mental health gives some shocking statistics. More than 20% of young people suffer significant mental health problems by the time they reach 18, and the demand on resources is higher than ever. Rates of mental ill health are estimated to be 25% higher in Northern Ireland than other parts of the United Kingdom, and suicide rates among those up to the age of 19 are disproportionately higher as well. The emotional wellbeing of children and young people is poor, and it takes almost 10 years between young people presenting first symptoms and getting support.
All those things tell us the story of where we are. I know Northern Ireland is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I want to state the facts, because they will hopefully add to the debate and will make other parts and regions of the United Kingdom understand where we are. There are also specific groups of children who are more likely to face discrimination in the realisation of their right to the highest attainable standards of healthcare, including those living in poverty and economically deprived areas and children in contact with the criminal justice system. All those things tell us we need to do more and to focus on this.
Researched conducted by Ulster University on behalf of the Commission for Victims and Survivors found that almost 30% of Northern Ireland’s population suffer from mental health problems. Most of that is down to the troubles. You will probably understand that better than most in the Chamber, Mr Robertson; your past membership of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee perhaps gives you a wee bit more knowledge.
The rates of suicide among under-19s are disproportionately higher in Northern Ireland compared with other parts of the UK. We need to ensure that people are trained and available to deal with that. The increase in prescribing antidepressants for under-16s is unfortunately happening in my constituency and I suspect others as well. I have spoken with teachers, youth workers, church volunteers and many parents who are concerned about children and how they handle the traumas in their lives. The overarching theme in their comments is that there is not enough support or key workers to help children in need of someone to talk to.
I will give an example of some small things we have been doing, which will perhaps add to the debate. A good friend of mine, who is not a member of my political party—I have tried many times to bring him over; I am working on it, and maybe someday I will persuade him—recently described to me a very small pilot he has going on in his local community group, of which he is chairperson. He told me he had managed to source funding to meet with six of the estate’s troubled youths. A few of them have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and others have other problems, but all are crying out for attention.
He told me that he secured funding to take them on outings after they had small group discussions or were successful in small tasks. He gave the example that some of the kids were frightening an older lady by using her fence and garden as a racing hurdle of sorts. Instead of telling the boys off, he used class time to take them to help to tidy her garden, so they were invested in the work that was done. That was followed by a trip to McDonald’s, which is usually something to look forward to. The boys discussed what they were thinking and how they felt with Big John—I will call him that, because that is what they know him as—who is trained to work with children and had the time to counsel them.
The scheme is open to only six youths at present, but the effect on their mental health and wellbeing could be the difference in how they function in their adult lives. We need more people who are trained and more funding available to allow schemes like that to run in all sectors of the community. I commend Big John and Big Catherine, who is also involved. They give up their own time to make it happen.
One in five children in Northern Ireland are hurting from mental health pain and need help as urgently as if they were bleeding. We would not withhold a bandage on the NHS and we cannot withhold this healing process either. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead on bringing the issue forward. Other Members will contribute, but I believe that we need to focus on mental health, and PHSE classes should be only the first in a number of the steps that we need to take.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this important debate. PHSE is one of the most important parts of our curriculum. Yes, we need to make sure that our children are given an academic education that enables them to compete with the rest of the world, but just as vital as academic skills are life skills. I am not saying that schools should replace parents in that regard, but they undoubtedly have a role to play.
It was nearly a year ago that the Government tabled amendments to what is now the Children and Social Work Act 2017 allowing for regulations requiring PHSE to be taught in all schools in England. The new curriculum containing PHSE is expected to be taught from September 2019, and the Department for Education launched a call for evidence on the issue last December, which is due to close in about a week’s time. One question it asks those taking part is:
“Thinking about PSHE in primary schools”
and secondary schools,
“what do you believe are the three most important subject areas that should be taught and why?”
I will put forward two things that should undoubtedly be taught as part of PSHE.
For one thing—I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead, with whom I have worked closely on this issue—first aid should be taught to all children. The statistics in this area are startling. According to the British Red Cross, only 5% of adults would feel knowledgeable, confident and willing to act in a first aid emergency. That is particularly worrying when considering that up to 59% of pre-hospital deaths from injury could have been prevented with basic first aid.
I should clarify that first aid is already on the PHSE programme of study, under the theme of health and wellbeing. However, because it is not a mandatory component of the programme, coverage is patchy. Some schools do not include it at all, so 60% of children have no first aid education whatever. When I met the Minister—I know he cares passionately about this subject—he rightly pointed out that the curriculum is full and that teachers have important things to focus on. Let me be clear: I am talking about one hour of training, once per year. That is the minimum we would need to teach children the basic first aid skills to become life savers. I do not think it is onerous to find one hour in our curriculum to give our children the knowledge to save lives.
I would suggest that teachers agree. A 2014 YouGov survey of 1,157 teachers found that 97% believed it vital for young people to learn essential first aid skills in school. Hon. Members may say that parents would surely not agree and that they would want their children to learn academic subjects. Not at all. The survey suggests that 95% of parents agree that first aid should be taught at secondary school. Nor do students think it is a waste of their time, with 97% of 11 to 16-year-olds agreeing that first aid should be taught at secondary school. Frankly, I am not surprised by that. Evidence suggests that learning first aid can improve people’s life chances and empower them to step up and take responsibility, and that it provides them with a sense of contributing to their community. That is surely something we all want for our children, and it is achievable with one very simple change.
The second subject I would like to see taught in PHSE is weapons awareness education. We continue to have difficulty in tackling the scourge of knife crime, but that is not to say that the Government are not taking action. I welcome steps such as minimum custodial sentences for repeated knife possession, but we need to do more on education so that we tackle the issue at both ends.
I have campaigned on this issue for some time now. I remember attending a weapons awareness lesson run in my constituency by a charity based in the neighbouring constituency of Clacton called Only Cowards Carry. That charity was set up by Caroline Shearer, a truly inspirational woman, in 2012 after her son, Jay, was fatally stabbed in my constituency. What is really interesting is that these hard-hitting lessons show people the danger of carrying blades and knives. They show that someone is far more likely to be the victim of a knife crime if they are carrying a knife themselves. Trust me: the lessons have a lasting impact. Students who walk into a lesson cocky and confident walk away startled at the brutality of the impact that knives can have.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point, particularly on gang violence and knife crime, which as he knows are a real scourge. There are fantastic organisations such as Lives Not Knives in Croydon, which offers to go into schools where young people have been victims of knife violence or lost relatives and loved ones. Does my hon. Friend agree that making such education part of PSHE nationally, so that it is assumed that everyone will have access to it, is a good way of tackling this issue? Too many schools do not want to invite these people in, as that would be to admit that they have a problem, and they are often in denial that they do have a problem. Knife crime is a problem for all teenagers in this country, particularly in our inner cities, and they all need to be made aware of it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he has made a point I was about to come to. Charities provide this education and awareness, often free of charge or at very low cost—it is often sponsored or funded by the local police and crime commissioner—but they have an issue getting through the door of the schools, because the headteachers and subject leaders will say, “We don’t really have an issue with knife crime” or “We don’t want to say that we have an issue with knife crime.” Whether people have an issue with knife crime or not, and whether the issue is in school or not, we know that it is affecting constituencies up and down the country. Given the growth in cases of county lines activity, cuckooing and grooming of young people, in particular, with gang violence, which brings with it the drugs, knife crime and intimidation, it is absolutely right that this education should be part of the PSHE curriculum so that we teach pupils about the danger of carrying knives.
Just as with first aid education, I have regularly been told about the great demands on our curriculum, but again, I am talking about only one 45-minute lesson in year 9 or 10. That would not be a huge burden on the national curriculum. I am therefore asking the Minister for a total of one hour and 45 minutes as part of the curriculum.
PSHE provides an important opportunity to ensure that children walk away from school not just with the knowledge that they get from academic subjects, but with those all-important life skills. First aid is an important life skill. We should commit to ensuring that every student receives training through PSHE, and not just to enable them to save lives, although that should be reason enough. By fostering self-esteem and confidence, we give students the opportunity to develop skills and we support their personal development. As I have said, the other part of their personal development on which we should focus is weapons awareness. Children should be left under no illusion whatever about the danger that comes with carrying a knife. As I said, the danger is to not just others but themselves.
I hope that the Government will commit to ensuring that children learn both subjects as part of the new curriculum, and that the Minister, who cares deeply about this issue, will be able to say that he is the Minister who made every child a life saver.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I express my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce). This debate is so timely. As she rightly said, the Minister is very much in listening mode at the moment, because he is doing the consultation on the content of PSHE.
I want to echo what my hon. Friend was saying. PSHE, when it is good, is about life skills, confidence and resilience. Sadly, when we look at the most recent Ofsted research on PSHE, we see that it is not of a good enough standard, with 40% of schools rated inadequate or requiring improvement in their delivery of it. With all the topics now being debated in relation to the Children and Social Work Act 2017 making PSHE—and, at a younger age, relationship education—mandatory, I hope we can ensure that all schools are able to deliver a good standard, if not an excellent standard.
The Minister will not be surprised that I want to focus on a particular area, which is what relationship education for primary school children could cover. In the work that I have been doing for the past four years with charities, academics, professionals and, indeed, parents and survivors, looking at how we prevent child abuse, the key thing everyone has said is needed—I am glad that the Minister and the Government have listened—is proper relationship education for primary school children. Why is that important? Well, we know that one in 20 children will experience sexual abuse. The most recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics, for the year ending September 2017, show that of the sexual offences reported to the police, 37% are against children. That equates to 51,000 children a year. The Sex Education Forum says that 53% of children in schools have not learned how to recognise grooming or sexual exploitation. Of course, good relationship education for primary school children does not involve talking about sex; it involves talking about respecting yourself and other people and about what are appropriate and inappropriate relationships. Then, when children get older and go to secondary school, we would of course start talking about sex and consent.
Today is Safer Internet Day, so it is appropriate for me to bring into the debate the new phenomenon of online abuse. The statutory sex and relationship guidance in place at the moment is 18 years old. I do not want to age anyone in this Chamber, but the younger generation are growing up in an online world; we mainly grew up in the real world, for want of a better phrase. We do not really understand the 24-hour pressures that young people are under. In addition, we are only starting to recognise how abusers use the internet. I went to my local police force and watched officers trying to tackle the online grooming and then abuse of children. One in three children is now a victim of cyber-bullying. We need also to consider peer-on-peer abuse. One in five indecent images shared online was taken by the child themselves, according to the National Crime Agency, and 40% of child sex abuse is carried out by other, usually older children. That is why relationship education is important. It is not just about protecting children; it is about teaching children what is right and wrong in relation to others.
Of course, abuse is not just sexual: 82% of 13 to 17-year-olds have seen something hateful online in the past year. That means something targeting people or communities because of their gender, transgender identity, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity or religion. RSE and PSHE prevent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender phobia. That is a big issue, particularly online. Two out of five LGBT pupils were never taught about LGBT issues, and only one in five was taught about safe sex in same-sex relationships. This education is about teaching all children to respect others, but also about teaching LGBT children about their own choices and that they are okay.
Good sex and relationship education has a protective function. According to the Sex Education Forum, children who receive such education choose to have sex later in life, have fewer unplanned pregnancies, are more likely to use protection and are less likely to have sex against their will.
There is an argument that sex education, in particular, but also relationship education and PSHE in general, should be left to parents. I see the two forms of education going hand in hand, but I also point out that one in five parents feels ill equipped to teach children about the digital age. Half of young people living at home say that their parents know only some of what they are doing online. Sadly, we also need to reflect on the fact that nine out of 10 abused children know their abuser and 80% of child abuse happens in the child’s or the abuser’s home. What I am saying is that although we must of course respect the right of parents to make their choices, the state has a statutory duty to protect all children, and this debate is showing very clearly that we want all children to have the life skills to be able to flourish.
I therefore have three specific asks for the Minister in relation to PSHE and relationship education for primary school children. One is that they follow what the debate is showing and that the content is broad ranging. The second is that the Minister make available the necessary resources so that teachers have both the time and the skills—or the ability to draw on external agencies—to deliver that broad-ranging curriculum. Thirdly, I ask that there is protected time—one hon. Member has already asked for one hour and 45 minutes—in specific lessons or a commitment to weave these life skills within all lessons. For example, in maths we could be talking about credit cards and balancing our budgets.
I thank the Minister. I know that he is in listening mode, and I hope that “listening mode” translates into the PSHE that we are all looking for.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I will do my best to get the time keeping back on track, as I am conscious that there are a few speakers remaining.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce). I have been proud to support her work over the years on emergency life-saving skills in schools. I will focus on that topic briefly.
I am conscious that the Schools Minister has a list of about 150 subjects that colleagues have raised with him over the years as the single most important subject that should be added to the national curriculum in some way. On many of the occasions that I attempted to add to that list, he shared some of those subjects on there. He has an unenviable task.
Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), I want to focus specifically on the importance of emergency life-saving skills. Those who have already spoken on this subject have talked about many of the statistics, but I want to focus on a few. There are 30,000 cardiac arrests a year outside of a hospital, for which the survival chances are 12%—a disgraceful 12%, which is one of the lowest rates in the world. For every minute that passes in which somebody is not given help, their chances of survival fall by a staggering 10%. Even worse is the fact that 10,000 cardiac arrests are witnessed, but those witnesses do not have the confidence to do anything for fear they will make it worse, but they can do no worse than do nothing. I understand that, because as a young boy I found my father. I did my best, purely based on what I think I had seen on “Coronation Street”. Luckily some passers-by came. They did their best. Sadly we lost my father, but it showed me that these statistics are real.
We are simply asking for a one-hour session. As was mentioned, that one hour to create a generation of life savers could save 5,000 lives a year. Those are real people—the people that we represent. They are people of all ages, not just older people. In my constituency a couple of weeks ago, Matt Fiddes found his two-year-old son. He performed CPR and saved his two-year-old son. This captured the imagination of the public. Unsurprisingly, the good people of Swindon expect me to help deliver on this. I have lobbied the new Secretary of State for Education. I will continue to chase this. This was the subject that first secured the required 100,000 signatures for a parliamentary e-petition. Some 95% of parents support it. It is rare in politics to unite all sides of the House and 95% of parents. The British Heart Foundation, the Red Cross and St John Ambulance are poised and ready. They have the materials and videos. My constituency office has done the training sessions with the videos. They are fantastic. They are poised to go.
This is an absolute win-win situation for everybody. It would slot perfectly into PSHE. It will make a real difference. I know that the Minister understands the importance of this and he has encouraged schools to do this. Let us make that a given. Let us create that generation of life savers. Let us genuinely make a difference.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate and setting it out in the manner in which she did.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that this is obviously an England-only debate, with education being devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so it might seem somewhat strange—despite the fact the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has contributed—to see a Scottish MP engaging in today’s debate beyond our third party responsibilities. However, this is an issue that I feel strongly about and there are undoubtedly things we can learn from each other about the content and delivery of our curriculums.
PSHE not only helps children and young adults live healthier physical lives, but it also promotes better mental health. In addition to helping youngsters gain valuable transferable skills to help prepare them for life and work, PSHE also provides pupils with the relevant skills and knowledge to ensure they are safe online. That is an extremely important skill, given how accessible the internet and social media are to the current generation of young people, as I am finding out with my 11 and seven-year-old daughters.
It is also vital to note that relationship and sex education is a fundamental component of PSHE, and one that I am particularly passionate about. If it is implemented effectively and across the board, I firmly believe that we can help create positive and respectful relationships between boys and girls, which will help to tackle and eliminate sexist attitudes before they turn more violent later.
I received a report last week from the National Education Union and UK Feminista, which conveys the extent of the problem of sexism in our classrooms. The report highlighted that sexual harassment is prevalent in schools, with over a third of female students being subjected to some form of sexual harassment. Sexist language is too often dismissed as banter, with two-thirds of female students and teachers experiencing or witnessing it on a weekly basis. Less than a quarter of our female students think that their school takes sexism seriously. Those stats present a worrying picture of what life is like for too many female students.
Education is meant to be a place where our children learn, socialise and find their way in the world. Our education system should not be a place where sexist attitudes and behaviours, often fomented at home, are born and/or reinforced. One respondent to that report spoke about the sexual harassment she is experiencing:
“Some of the boys make comments on a lot of the girls in our years bodies and the girls just have to ignore it because no one thinks it’s a big deal. The boys also slap the girls butts and touch their breasts without any consent.”
It is shameful that we have allowed that sort of behaviour to go largely unchallenged in many of our schools. If we fail to educate in order to tackle and prevent sexism in classrooms, as sure as night follows day, we risk these behaviours manifesting later in life.
The Scottish Government’s “Equally Safe” strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls addresses the need to eliminate the systematic and deep-rooted inequality that women and girls face in their daily lives. The report completed by the National Education Union and UK Feminista shows that many of these deep-rooted behaviours are established very early at school. Sexism in schools is endemic, but not inevitable. The UK Government and others have to make PSHE a statutory part of the curriculum to ensure that every student receives education about the importance of positive, healthy and equal relationships. We need to get serious about adopting a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment.
There is undoubtedly more that we in Scotland can do in this area, but I am proud of some of the progress that has been made by the Scottish Government and others. Through the curriculum for excellence, personal and social education is a subject that covers aspects of planning for choices and changes, substance misuse, relationships, sexual health and parenthood. Following a report completed by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, the Scottish Government have outlined their intention to complete a review of PSHE. I hope that the Scottish Government are ambitious in this review, meet the calls made by young people during the consultation and use the review to lead the work into creating an inclusive school environment founded on the values of respect, inclusivity and equality.
The case for PSHE is undisputed. The evidence has been provided on the benefits that PSHE has in promoting healthy living, economic wellbeing and solidifying positive relationships. The statutory status for PSHE is supported by 85% of business leaders, 88% of teachers, 92% of parents, 92% of pupils, the Children’s Commissioner for England—I could go on and on, as the list is extensive. The current system is helping to foster behaviours that can grow more violent later in life. This debate is about introducing PSHE into all classrooms. It is about equipping our students with the skills, attributes and knowledge to prepare them for later in life. However, this debate has also been about the importance of sustaining a positive relationship between boys and girls, helping to eliminate sexist attitudes from our schools and preventing these behaviours from growing more violent.
Sadly, on average two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner each week. The attitudes that lead to this murderous behaviour must be addressed. We cannot leave it to an incremental shift in societal attitudes over generations to resolve this issue. We must address this head-on through a gender-based violence prevention education framework. Statutory PSHE is the ideal vehicle for this and I urge the Minister to get on and implement it.
I am looking to call the Front-Bench speakers at 10.30 am, so that leaves about five minutes each for the two remaining speakers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this important debate. As I considered my contribution, I was struck by a story that I was recently told by a pupil of a local school in my constituency, leading me to focus specifically on the provision of first aid training in schools.
When visiting St Paul’s School for Girls, I met a student who had recently witnessed a woman collapse in the street in front of her. Rather than panic, as I fear I and many of us in this room may have done, the young student displayed great maturity, helping the woman into the recovery position while also applying pressure to a head wound that she had sustained. As it turned out, the woman was a refugee who did not speak any English, leaving her unable to explain what was happening to passers-by. By having the wherewithal and composure to carry out those actions, the student helped to save the life of a woman who had in fact suffered a heart attack. For her actions, the student was later given a richly deserved commendation by local emergency services.
That student was able to provide the life-saving assistance that she did only because she had studied first aid as part of her PSHE course at school, enabling her to recognise what was happening and implement vital assistance before the emergency services arrived. How many of us in this room could say that we would be able to do the same? Would we be able to step in and offer that vital first-response assistance until the professionals arrived, thinking how terrible the situation was or wishing there was someone there to help?
The “Every Child a Lifesaver” coalition, which is made up of the British Red Cross, the British Heart Foundation and the St John Ambulance, is campaigning to make first aid a mandatory component of a new, statutory PSHE curriculum, and I would like to offer it my wholehearted support. This is not a big commitment. Just one hour a year over the course of their time in school could provide students with the essential skills, including CPR, that they need to save a life. The statistics are irrefutable. Only 5% of adults would feel knowledgeable, confident and willing to act in a first aid emergency. More than 30,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur in the UK every year, and fewer than one in 10 people survive, and most—around 80%—out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur in the home, while the immediate initiation of CPR can double the chances of survival in some cases. Organisations such as those I have mentioned provide all the necessary tools to teach these vital skills, and it is up to us as legislators to give them the platform that they need to impart their knowledge to today’s students.
There are more than just the obvious life-saving benefits to students of statutory first aid training. First aid training develops leadership skills, decision making, resilience and the ability to cope with adversity, supporting personal development and employment skills. It can improve young people’s life chances and empower them to step forward and take responsibility, while providing them with a sense of contributing to the community within our shared society. It will also ensure universal access to this essential knowledge and life skill, improving health inequalities across all communities and at every socioeconomic level.
The Department for Education consultation on making PSHE, including first aid, compulsory is open until only the 12th of this month, so I hope that this debate will raise the profile of this important decision and encourage as many as possible to take part in the consultation, so as to ensure that more children are able to act as my constituent did, and feel confident enough to step in and provide what could prove to be life-saving assistance to a person in need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Mr Robertson.
I congratulate my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), on securing this debate and the excellent case she made. I will start with the immortal words of those bards of New York City—I know you are a big fan, Mr Robertson —Salt-N-Pepa:
“Let’s talk about sex baby,
Let’s talk about you and me,
Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.”
That was a really big song when I was growing up. I was aware that people were talking about sex all around me, and that there were good and bad things, but I never heard anything about it at school. That was where I looked to be educated about the challenges of the world, but I never heard anything about it. I could conjugate lots of Latin verbs, but I certainly did not understand this.
The point is that children are already getting a broad PSHE education. They get it from their friends and siblings, where it is no doubt patchy at best, from the television, which is no doubt worse, and—this should probably make us collectively shudder—from the internet. The subject is out there. Children and young people hear words and research them, but goodness knows what they are shown. I feel that we have a duty to equip our young people with the facts of life and the critical reasoning skills to make good decisions when they negotiate the weird and wonderful opportunities that the world presents them. I believe that to not do so is to let them down.
Two years ago in Nottingham, thanks to the excellent work of Catherine Kirk and Councillor Sam Webster, we introduced a sex and relationship education charter. We went to our schools and got them to sign up, and 70% of them currently are. With two years’ worth of research, we can now say that staff feel more confident in delivering good lessons, pupils have shown maturity and their participation has improved, and in many schools zero parents have chosen to opt out. That context will change as we move on to a statutory footing, but some of the learning that we have in Nottingham will stand us in good stead.
We seek to equip our young people to pass what I call the “Friday night test”. When they are out and about on a Friday night, wherever they may be, we will not be with them, their teachers will not be with them and, most of the time, their parents will not be with them. In those moments of challenge, whether about money, alcohol or sex, have we equipped them to make good decisions about the different risks and benefits? If we have not, we have failed them. In researching this contribution, I saw that a Terrence Higgins Trust survey shows that 70% of young people say they that they have not learned about issues regarding consent. Deary me, what an indication; it is like sticking them in a car on the M1 but not having taught them how to drive.
We need to educate our young people about broader PSHE issues, and we need to do it well. Again, SRE is a pretty good example. That same piece of work by the Terrence Higgins Trust found that more than half of our pupils received relationships and sex education just once a year or less, and—this is the key point—half of our young people rated the RSE that they received in school as either poor or terrible. They are judging that against the standard of what they see in the real world. They are voting, although not quite with their feet, because I suspect that they do not have much choice. We cannot kid them. There is a big, wide world out there and we have to equip them properly.
That starts with properly resourcing our teachers so that they can engage confidently on the wide range of issues. We should also be saying that schools should not be doing this on a termly drop-down day, which students miss if they are away or think is a day when they do not have to contribute as much. Instead, this subject should be woven through the curriculum. I know that the Minister has lots of asks for an hour here and an hour there, but the best way to aggregate them is to weave them through on a daily basis. Our children will be faced with these decisions every day, so let us put it in their education like that too.
Low expectations are a great challenge in my community. This is a gendered issue, and that is worth reflecting on this 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. There is a perception—this is the sort of cod psychology that young people are exposed to on social media—that we get the love that we think we deserve. Through proper PSHE and SRE for our young people, I want our young women to understand that if they put into the world, they can get good things back. They should expect good things of how men treat them and how their friends treat them. At the moment, that does not happen enough, and I hope that this is seminal moment to change things.
I want to finish by saying that on 28 June—the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) asked for an hour and 45 minutes of termly time, but I am just asking for half a day of the hard-pressed Minister’s time—Nottingham will celebrate our first sex and relationship education day. The schools, city council staff, statutory agencies and voluntary agencies will come together to celebrate what we have done and to encourage the whole community about their responsibilities. We will issue some of our research and guidance, and some of the things that parents could do to challenge the things that they are not comfortable with.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech with many good points. Does he favour changing the name to “relationships and sex education”—to switch those two words round—as many of us think that relationships should come before the sex?
I have to say that I do not get excited about the alphabet soup. In preparing for today, I was desperately trying to work out whether it was PHSE or PSHE. As long as the content is there and our young people are getting it, you can call it whatever you want—I am very relaxed about that.
That event is on 28 June. Hopefully, Nottingham will demonstrate once again that it has been a model for what we are seeking to do as a nation, and I hope that during the consultation we can draw on some of that experience too.
I will leave two minutes at the end of the debate for the mover of the motion to wind up.
I too thank the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) for introducing this important debate and for her insightful opening speech. I was an English teacher for over 20 years before being elected in 2015, so I have an interest in the debate and I will contribute from that perspective.
Personal, health and social education is extremely important, as I understand because I had the opportunity to deliver that part of the curriculum. Alongside many other subjects and activities, it has its place in the curriculum in helping to prepare our young people for their future in a positive way. Its importance in Scotland is evident in Education Scotland’s national review, which my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) mentioned. We understand the importance of developing curricula to suit individual contexts and meet our young people’s needs, and of early intervention for making a big difference to the risk of young people developing mental health problems.
I listened carefully to hon. Members’ speeches and the range of areas that they would quite rightly and justifiably like to be included in PHSE education, such as cancer education, which the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned; mental health, for which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a plea; first aid, whose importance the hon. Members for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), and for Colchester (Will Quince) talked about; weapons awareness, which the hon. Member for Colchester also mentioned; relationship education and online safety, which the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) talked about; tackling sexism and sexual violence, which my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North discussed; and the importance of relationship education, which the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) talked about.
All those areas are, of course, extremely important in our young people’s development—who could possibly disagree with any of them?—but we must guard against treating personal, social and health education as an entity all on its own. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead reminded us that it cannot be treated in isolation. The valuable lessons that we hope to impart to our young people must be built into the fabric of our schools and, we hope, of our communities and country, which is a point that the hon. Member for Nottingham North also made. Those lessons include respect for ourselves, a sense of self-worth, respect for others, the importance of understanding difference in all its forms, the value of communication and the importance of kindness. We may expect all those things to be present in our PSHE lessons, but they must also form the backbone of our schools’ ethos and be displayed by school staff every single day to set an example.
The many demands on time in the school day mean that young people are lucky if they get more than one formal PSHE lesson each week, as all hon. Members present will know. In Scotland, PSHE is woven through and embedded in the curriculum for excellence and its focus on life skills. Learning and teaching can take place in a variety of ways and contexts. The value of experiences in the home, in our leisure time and in extra-curricular activities also offer a rich seam for young people to learn life skills.
At the school where I was teaching just before being elected, every year group would have one or two days completely off-timetable once a year. They would be taken to a different part of the school and they would rotate around workshops. They would get talks and practical workshops on first aid, and people—professionals and victims—would come in to talk about recovery from alcohol and addiction. Those are ways to focus on areas that headteachers and communities are concerned about.
We have all seen reports on television and in newspapers of all the things that people—with great justification—expect young people to be taught at school, such as internet safety, sexual health, relationship education, financial education, careers education with work and CV skills, road safety, self-awareness, positive thinking, mindfulness, gambling awareness, awareness of eating disorders, how to cultivate good mental health, cyber-bullying, strategies for coping with bullies, resilience, leadership, healthy nutrition, the importance of sleep, good study habits, and even scepticism. I could go on for about half an hour, but I will not—I think I have made my point. Nobody here would say that any of those topics is not important. They are all important, and they are all considered essential in the PSHE curriculum, but they cannot all be accommodated unless young people have a PSHE lesson every single day. As far as I am aware, no school does that.
Even if a school wanted to formally timetable PSHE every single day, what would it remove from the curriculum to do that? I suggest that we need to think of PSHE as the thread running through our entire curriculum. As an English teacher, I had the privilege of exploring important life lessons through literature, such as the importance of family and friendship; the drive for revenge; the need for reflection; the courage to battle through diversity; the importance of standing up for our beliefs, even if that sometimes means standing alone; and the power of forgiveness—all sorts of things. As an English teacher, I was in a privileged position. Other subject teachers might not have such a rich tapestry to work with, but all school staff, not just teaching staff, have an opportunity to teach by example the most basic life lessons and requirements, such as kindness, self-respect and an awareness of the needs and difficulties of others. We must not be tempted to confine those lessons to PSHE in a way that is neither sustainable nor desirable.
We are all PSHE teachers—especially parents. As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead said, schools and homes work best when they work together, and as the hon. Member for Rotherham said, it is the job of schools and parents to reinforce positive messages and positive behaviour. I accept that that is a challenge for parents, who are raising children in a world that has changed so much since they were children. As the hon. Ladies pointed out, the world is changing rapidly and because of that, school and home need to work all the more closely together.
PSHE deserves its place in the curriculum as somewhere for the proper discussion and exploration of all sorts of important developmental and personal growth issues. However, to be completely honest, our entire curriculum is PSHE whether we are in a maths, English or PSHE classroom. It is not separate. It is wound into the very fabric of all the life lessons and academic lessons we want our young people to learn to live successful and happy lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) not only for eloquently introducing this debate but for all her tireless work in trying to legislate for compulsory emergency first aid education. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made valuable contributions to this debate, not just today but for a number of years—long before I became involved.
Despite being late to the debate, I was proud to lead the push from the Opposition Front Bench with my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for the Children and Social Work Act 2017 to include statutory personal health, social and economic education, including relationship and sex education. From debates in Committee and on Report, we ended up with a broad cross-party consensus—something that is rarely seen in the House, although it is reflected in this Chamber. It was also reflected in the proposals of the then Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), to make elements of PSHE mandatory in all schools and to make the new subjects—relationships education and relationships and sex education—mandatory at primary and secondary level respectively.
Hon. Members’ wide-ranging contributions are testament to the breadth and scope of PSHE. They will be pleased to know that I will not focus on or rehash the pertinent points already made in this debate. As we all know, the Department’s consultation is due to close on 12 February. The intention is to teach the new sex and relationships education curriculum from September 2019, but no date has been given for the roll-out of statutory PSHE, nor has any commitment been given that PSHE will include SRE.
As hon. Members have highlighted, the introduction of statutory PSHE is backed by a plethora of organisations. When it is taught well, children enjoy the lessons and it is effective in helping them to lead healthier lives, both mentally and physically. It builds resilience and gives them a better understanding of the world around them. It helps them to develop empathy skills, work with others, communicate, think critically, cope with setbacks and keep themselves and others safe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) outlined.
The Government’s commitments were made under a different Secretary of State. The new Secretary of State was chair of the all-party group on social mobility when it published a report that challenged the Government to recognise in their educational policy that
“social/emotional ‘skills’ underpin academic and other success—and can be taught”.
Is he willing to rise to his own challenge, or has his thinking changed?
Will the Minister advise us whether the Department has any dates at all in mind for implementing regulations for the roll-out of statutory PSHE? I understand that he may find that difficult, because for PSHE to be taught effectively, the Government must address the hash they have made of our education system more widely. Giving teachers and schools more to do when they are struggling with depleted budgets, ongoing recruitment and retention will not necessarily yield the right results.
Just last week, we found out that Ministers had missed their own teacher recruitment targets for five years in a row. There are 10,000 fewer secondary school teachers than needed, and nearly 35,000 teachers left the profession in 2016. Last year, 500 headteachers wrote to the Prime Minister to ask her to reverse £3 billion of cuts. Local schools are sending begging letters to parents for essentials such as paper and glue. Schools are facing cuts for the first time in 20 years. If the Minister is going to tell us—I hope he is—that the Government remain committed to statutory PSHE, will he also tell us how they intend to fix the education system that they have broken, to equip it for any statutory roll-out of SRE or PSHE?
Teachers tell me that PSHE is seen as an add-on, typically taught for an hour every fortnight by someone whose job it is not, or by an outside agency brought in to tick the box. What they tell me is backed up by evidence from the Department for Education’s own data, which shows that time spent teaching PSHE fell by 32% between 2011 and 2015. They also tell me that what statutory SRE and PSHE need is specialist teachers, that it needs to be part of the overall teacher training programme, and that any qualified teachers whose role will include teaching it need to be appropriately equipped and resourced—a view shared by the National Education Union. Will the Minister tell us what budget the Department has set aside for that?
If you will permit me, Mr Robertson, I would like to use my final few minutes to speak about what I see as absolutely the most valuable part of PSHE: sex and relationships education. I echo the powerful points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham about the subject. From my former career as a child protection social worker, the details are etched on my brain—I wish they were not—of every single child I ever worked with who suffered sexual abuse. I remember working with children who had been abused and teaching them about their personal areas—the areas that no one has a right to touch. I taught them what to do if someone did—if it happened at home or at school, if the perpetrator was an adult or if they were harmed by another child. Not a single child I worked with had ever been taught that in school or by their parents. Many of the dedicated teachers I met along the way asked me for my materials so that they could replicate that learning in their classrooms.
Time and again I have heard the argument made that it should be up to parents to take responsibility for teaching their children issues covered in SRE and PSHE, but the fact is that not all parents and carers feel able to. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), whose musical tastes we now know a little more about, pointed out that parents and carers cannot be with their children 24/7. As in all school subjects, the best results are achieved by parents and school working together, where what is taught at school is reciprocated at home and vice versa—a point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead, and for Rotherham.
I have been out of child protection practice for four years now, but things have certainly not changed. A recent Sex Education Forum survey found that 50% of young people were not taught at primary school how to get help if they experienced unwanted touching or sexual abuse. I am not saying for one second that child sexual abuse would be eradicated if such teaching were introduced, but I am sure that some of the children I worked with might have been able to tell someone sooner, stopping the abuse from being repeated. The teenagers I worked with might have been able to spot the signs of grooming or the fact that one of their friends was at risk.
I know acutely the heartache and scars that sexual abuse can leave. Even if introducing PSHE with SRE stops that from happening to just one child, it will be totally worth it. That is the reality of our debate, above anything else. We need this provision now, not in 2019 or at some other date, and not rolled out piecemeal. Viewing the matter in that context should make the new Secretary of State treat the failure to provide statutory PSHE, including SRE, with the urgency that it deserves. I sincerely hope that the Minister will answer all my questions and those of other hon. Members, and that he will confirm that the Government are ready to show some leadership in developing this long-awaited and vital part of our children’s curriculum.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate and on her powerful speech.
The teaching of high-quality personal, social, health and economic education is a very important issue, and I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on it. We believe that the education system must prepare all pupils for life in modern Britain. Schools have a key role to play in developing rounded young people who can navigate the challenges of the modern world with confidence. They should teach pupils a foundation of knowledge to use and apply in a variety of contexts, allowing them to thrive and develop and preparing them to become fully engaged citizens and contributors to society.
The context of this debate is that standards in our primary and secondary schools are rising. Some 1.9 million more pupils are in good or outstanding schools today than in 2010. The attainment gap between children from poorer and wealthier backgrounds has closed by 10% since 2011. The proportion of pupils taking at least two science GCSEs has risen from 63% in 2010 to 91%. Children’s reading is improving. I agree with one point made by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson): reading literature introduces children to a range of emotional and life experiences.
We also know that high-quality PSHE and age-appropriate relationships and sex education are important in contributing to keeping pupils safe and healthy. Technological advances have brought great opportunities, but young people today also face unprecedented pressures as they navigate the digital world. Effectively planned PSHE programmes can provide young people with the necessary knowledge to manage risk and build understanding of dangers such as drug and alcohol misuse and cyber-bullying, as well as supporting them to enhance their own wellbeing. Schools are encouraged to deliver PSHE as an integral part of their duty to provide a broad and balanced curriculum. Many schools already use their curriculum and school day to support pupil wellbeing, for example through their PSHE curriculum and through a range of extracurricular activities.
We know that these subjects are important, but they also need improving, which is why we have committed to a programme of reform. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 requires the Secretary of State for Education to place a statutory duty on all primary schools to teach relationships education and on all secondary schools to teach relationships and sex education, or RSE. The Act also gave the Government the power to make PSHE a compulsory subject to be taught in all state-funded schools, subject to further careful consideration.
As part of our reforms, in March 2017 we set out in our policy statement key areas that we anticipate that relationships education, and relationships and sex education will focus on, for example, teaching pupils about different types of relationships, and about unhealthy and healthy relationships, both on and offline. That is likely to include consideration of issues such as boundaries, appropriate behaviour, consent and respect for others, which were powerfully raised by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). She is right about protecting young children, and I agree that relationships education at primary school should equip pupils with age-appropriate knowledge, so that they can keep themselves safe.
Teaching about friendships and family relationships in primary school forms the building blocks for RSE in secondary school. Pupils should understand their own and others’ relationships, as well as the impact that relationships have on mental health and wellbeing. This knowledge will support pupils in making informed decisions.
As part of our reforms, we are also working closely with experts to determine what PSHE should look like in the context of statutory relationships education and RSE, and we will consider age-appropriate content and guidance. PSHE is currently a non-statutory programme in maintained schools. Schools are encouraged to teach PSHE, and this is outlined in the introduction to the national curriculum framework document, which was published in 2013. PSHE can encompass many areas of study, and in considering whether it should be made compulsory, it is important to balance the need for schools to have freedom and flexibility to tailor their local PSHE programme to reflect the needs of their pupils.
As set out in the policy statement, we could expect mandatory PSHE to cover several broad pillars, for example healthy bodies and lifestyles, including issues such as cancer, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). PSHE could also include issues such as keeping safe, puberty, drugs and alcohol education, healthy minds, including emotional wellbeing and mental health, economic wellbeing and financial capability, and, lastly, careers education, preparation for the workplace and making a positive contribution to society.
Many schools already teach PSHE well, and we want to understand how they do that in a way that complements their broader curriculum. In some primary and secondary schools, sex education is also taught as part of PSHE. The teacher voice omnibus survey report, published in October last year, explored schools’ approaches to PSHE and SRE. The vast majority of senior teachers—85%—said that their school taught both PSHE and SRE. Most of the others—8%—said that they taught PSHE only.
Schools are free to use PSHE to build, where appropriate, on the statutory content already outlined in the national curriculum, the basic school curriculum and in statutory guidance on areas such as drug education, financial education, SRE, and the importance of physical activity and diet for a healthy lifestyle. Teachers have the freedom to address the areas that are most relevant to their pupils, drawing on evidence, good practice and advice from professional organisations. We encourage organisations to develop materials for schools in their area of expertise.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire and others, including the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead and my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), raised the issue of first aid. There is nothing more important than keeping children and staff safe, which is why we have put in place a duty requiring schools to support all children’s medical needs, and we have set up a scheme so that schools can buy defibrillators at a reduced price. Schools can teach emergency first aid and life-saving skills in a variety of ways, for example through the wider curriculum, through assemblies or through PSHE, and we have given headteachers more freedom than ever before to shape the curriculum to the needs of their pupils.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way to the hon. Lady, if she does not mind; I want to cover other people’s contributions.
We also encourage teachers to draw upon high-quality resources in the classroom, including guidance on first aid and emergencies from the British Red Cross, St John Ambulance and the British Heart Foundation. The British Heart Foundation provides free teaching kits to secondary schools on CPR. The kits are reusable and no trained instructor is required. Similarly, St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross provide free resources to schools on first aid, and they can also provide specialist trainers to teach first aid in schools.
In the last few years, there have been calls from many organisations, including parent bodies, to make PSHE a compulsory subject, and those calls have been echoed in reports from Committees in the House. We have made it clear that we want to provide all young people with a curriculum that ensures they are prepared for adult life in modern Britain. Good schools establish an ethos, a behaviour policy and a curriculum that teach children about the importance of healthy, respectful and caring relationships. They recognise that healthy, resilient and confident pupils are better placed to achieve academically and to go on to be successful adults.
An Ofsted report in 2013 concluded that PSHE was good or better in 60% of the schools inspected for the report. However, as the hon. Member for Rotherham said in her contribution, PSHE required improvement or was inadequate in the other 40%. The report also found that sex and relationship education required improvement in over a third of schools.
I am committed to ensuring that our programme of reform is underpinned by evidence. That is why we are currently conducting a thorough engagement process on the scope and content of relationships education, relationships and sex education, and PSHE, involving a wide range of interested stakeholders. The Department is engaging with schools and teachers, parents and pupils, experts in safeguarding and child wellbeing—
Will the Minister give way on that point?
I will not give way to the hon. Lady; I have literally one minute left.
The Department is also engaging with subject experts, voluntary organisations and other interested parties, including other Departments and public sector bodies. There are too many to list, but examples include the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s, the PSHE Association, the Sex Education Forum, faith organisations, secular groups, Stonewall, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Young Enterprise, parent bodies, teaching unions, academics in this field and young people.
To ensure that we retain a focus on what is deliverable in schools, the Secretary of State has asked Ian Bauckham to advise on this piece of work. Ian is chief executive officer of the Tenax Schools Trust and executive headteacher of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Kent. He brings over 30 years of teaching experience, including 13 as a headteacher, to this piece of work. He is working with officials to ensure that we really understand how to support schools in delivering high-quality provision.
As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead knows, to complement the engagement process, the Department is running a call for evidence, which closes on 12 February. It aims to gather views from as wide a range of bodies as possible. The responses so far to that call have been very encouraging, including from a large number of young people and parents. In the next steps, we will consider carefully those responses and other views collected through the engagement process, to determine sensitive and age-appropriate content, including the future status of PSHE, which I know Members here are awaiting patiently. We are also aware that there is a huge interest in this matter in all parts of this House. To answer the question of the hon. Member for South Shields—she has been bursting to ask it again—the regulations and guidance will be subject to a full public consultation later this year.
The commitment we have made to making relationships education and RSE compulsory in all schools, and to considering the case for doing the same for PSHE, will further ensure that pupils’ wellbeing continues to be supported in our schools. I hope that reassures hon. Members of the Government’s commitment to this vital agenda for children and young people.
I call Teresa Pearce to respond.
I thank everybody who has taken part today; this is a very important subject. I was a little concerned to hear the Minister talk about first aid in schools and only mention defibrillators. Defibrillators are very important, but first aid in school covers all sorts of things. A defibrillator will not help if somebody is having an epileptic attack. All sorts of first aid needs to be taught, not just defibrillation. The Minister also said that these things “can” be taught; I would have preferred him to say they “should” be taught.
I will finish with a quotation about the purpose of education:
“Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life. Delivering on our commitment to social justice requires us to place these 3 objectives at the heart of our education system.”
That quote is from the Minister himself, in a speech he gave in 2015. I agree with him, and it is about time that we did that. We have all considered the importance of statutory PSHE and I look forward to seeing the results of the consultation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of statutory personal, health, social and economic education.
International Disaster Relief
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK’s contribution to international disaster relief.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. It is quite timely to be debating this issue today on the back of data released last week by the OECD showing that the UK was one of only six countries to meet its commitment to spending 0.7% of its gross national income on international aid. Of the 29 members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, only Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Luxembourg regularly spend more than 0.7% of their national income on foreign aid. Although that is a rather depressing statistic in and of itself—given the ambition for developed countries to spend that amount was adopted by the UN General Assembly as far back as 1970 and was re-committed to at the 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles and that, also in 2005, the 15 European Union members all agreed to reach the target by 2015—it is a figure that we as a nation should be incredibly proud of. We were the first of the G7 countries to meet the commitment.
However, in an era when tough decisions on spending have to be made in order to repair the economic damage done by the last Labour Government, and in the wake of the global financial crisis, I completely understand those who question why we continue to spend £12.1 billion on aid and development overseas and why we are not putting some of that money into, for example, schools, hospitals, roads or the Ministry of Defence.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in terms of making the political argument for spending money on aid, it would perhaps be easier if we had a system in legislation whereby 0.7% was spent only when our economy was in surplus?
I am receptive to that argument, but I do politely disagree with my hon. Friend. I will speak about that in more detail later.
I believe that we in this country have a duty to help struggling economies to build new partnerships, support fledgling democracies and help to put an end to disease, hunger and extreme poverty. I am convinced that our development budget is a crucial part of securing the United Kingdom’s place in the world, helping to build a truly global Britain at this time.
It was Tony Blair, not somebody oft quoted in this place these days—although maybe more on our side than on the other side—who said, way back in 1999, that in today’s interdependent world, our actions should be
“guided by a...subtle blend of mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values that we cherish. In the end values and interests merge.”
I could not agree more. Our international aid budget is right not only on a humanitarian level, but in terms of our national interest. They are intertwined.
It is hard to believe that it was only five years ago, in 2013, that the World Health Organisation declared the Ebola epidemic in West Africa a public health emergency of international concern. That that status was lifted as quickly as March 2016 is due in no small part to the contribution of UK disaster relief and the actions of British, Irish and Canadian troops on the ground, as part of Operation Gritrock. In November 2013, just 13 months after the start of the operation, Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free. Our military, especially our Navy—I would say that—deserve special mention when we talk about our contribution to disaster relief across the world.
In this place, we often speak of the bravery of our armed forces personnel in the face of adversity, but the sheer scale of the work that they do in our name, delivering disaster relief across the world, is truly astounding. During one of the worst stages of the European migrant crisis, for example, during April and July 2015, HMS Bulwark and 814 Naval Air Squadron rescued more than 2,900 migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, as part of Operation Weald. Those 2,900 migrants faced certain death without our intervention. Looking to the future, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will transform the UK’s maritime capability, including in terms of providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way again. He mentions the importance of national interest in the way that we dispose of our aid. Does he agree that it is important that the expenditure of aid money comes under clear political leadership from the Foreign Office? I look forward to such a reassurance from the Minister. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether there is any concern about the decoupling of directives about national interest and the expenditure of money through the Department for International Development, and if they are permitted to make political decisions in DFID when moneys are spent or allocated.
I would suggest that that is a question for the Minister rather than me.
But does my hon. Friend agree?
It is clear to me that without a strong Navy we could not have delivered the £92 million of aid that the UK contributed to the response following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, nor could we have deployed the 2,000 UK servicemen and women who spearheaded our aid relief. Without a strong Air Force, the RAF would not have been able to deliver aid to mountainous Nepal following the 2015 earthquakes there, when the Department for International Development provided shelter support for more than 214,000 people, as well as clean drinking water, sanitation and hygiene support for more than 56,000 people.
Although I do not support the approach that some of our European allies have taken in counting money spent for international aid purposes as defence spending, thereby making their declarations to NATO on defence spending questionable—to say the least—the huge role played by our armed forces in delivering our international humanitarian aid and disaster relief should make the Ministry of Defence DFID’s best friend and strongest ally. At the end of the day, we would all do well to remember that in chaos fear reigns and extremism and terrorism flourishes. Our aid budget and our contribution to disaster relief is, I believe, central to our safety and security and that of our allies overseas.
In his drive to increase US spending on combating AIDS in Africa, President George W. Bush—another one not often quoted in this place—said:
“When you have an entire generation of people being wiped out and the free world turns its back, it provides a convenient opportunity for people to spread extremism.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. My hon. Friend mentioned George W. Bush. It is interesting to note that, on account of the focused effort that George W. Bush and his Administration put into relief in Africa, his reputation in Africa is second to none.
I could not add anything more. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; George W. Bush’s reputation there is almost in adverse relation to his reputation in this part of the world.
Concerns have been raised in this House and elsewhere about how our aid budget is focused on responding to disaster, rather than prioritising disaster preparedness so that countries are better equipped to help themselves. On that note, I return to the topic of Sierra Leone and the great work done there by DFID, in partnership with the armed forces.
One of the greatest achievements of the Royal Army Medical Corps 22 Field Hospital, who were deployed in Operation Gritrock, was to establish an Ebola training academy, which has trained more than 4,000 Sierra Leonean healthcare workers—a huge feat in a country with poor access to education and specialist training. Crucially, 22 Field Hospital implemented a “train the trainer” programme, ensuring local sustainability of the training in case of a fresh outbreak of the virus. The effect of that academy for the people of Sierra Leone cannot be overstated, not just on a practical level, but on a psychological one. It is a fantastic signal of this Government’s direction of travel on aid spending.
We all know that, due to their nature and usual geographical location, when natural disasters strike it can take some time for even the best prepared aid effort to get itself under way, losing precious hours. Her Majesty’s Government were criticised last September for what was perceived to be a slow response to Hurricane Irma, which caused terrible devastation to Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, which are all, of course, British overseas territories. It is therefore right that UK aid organisations and DFID are working hard to shift the focus on disaster relief and aid from responding to pre-empting and building resilience in our programme countries, to help them to withstand the worst of natural disasters, including through the disasters and emergencies preparedness programme.
There is a certain disparity in what my hon. Friend is saying in trying to contrast aid with disaster aid. Once the disaster aid is spent, a lot of our aid is spent on education, and that is one of the most useful things it can be spent on. Without that, we do not get the quality people in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree?
This is becoming a running theme—I could not agree more strongly.
It is sheer common sense that providing funding to countries at an elevated risk of natural disaster will reduce the need for British aid in the future and slow the pace at which it needs to be delivered to be effective. The people of the UK are rightly proud of this country’s tradition of responding to disasters across the globe, and of the contribution that our armed forces make to those responses. I am immensely proud, as everyone here should be, that Britain is one of only six countries to contribute 0.7% of its gross national income to overseas aid and development. It gives me an immense feeling of pride to see the Union flag-branded aid parcels and to know that this country at least is doing what it can to ease the blights of poverty, poor education and low economic growth, and to create secure countries and develop partnerships that make us all more secure. It is a sign of who we are as a nation—outward-looking, positive and committed to meeting our responsibilities across the globe—that we deliver humanitarian aid and disaster relief across the globe when and where it is needed. We are working hard to pre-empt such disasters and make our response even more effective in the future. Those are the actions and the signs of a modern, compassionate and forward-thinking Government for a modern, compassionate and forward-thinking country.
Order. Five hon. Members have indicated they want to speak before the Front Benchers. We have got about 45 minutes before the Front Benchers, which is a reasonable amount of time. I do not want to set a time limit. That is just an indication of how long we have.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. I concur with what he said about the 0.7% commitment and about there being no conflict between our moral purpose and our national interest. All I would say is that it is vital that our work on international development is at all times guided by the centrality of reducing poverty and, in particular, adopting the sustainable development goals.
In 2016, the UK spent £1.2 billion on disaster relief. At roughly 15% of all overseas development assistance, that is the biggest single sector for UK aid. It was used to respond to natural disasters, disease—the hon. Gentleman gave the example of Ebola—terrorism, war and other conflicts, and mass atrocities. Our ability to react quickly to developing crises allows us to tackle serious issues before they develop. I want to draw attention to the emergency health unit, which is funded by DFID and run by Save the Children. In 2015, when there was an outbreak of measles in South Sudan, the emergency health unit was deployed quickly and provided life-saving vaccinations and medical assistance to the local population. In just three weeks, the UK’s and Save the Children’s direct action protected about 45,000 children from deadly disease.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the Ebola crisis was a textbook example of effective UK action. Tragically, Ebola killed more than 11,000 people, yet that figure would have been a great deal higher but for the actions of the UK and others. The year before last, in the previous Parliament, the Select Committee on International Development concluded that DFID should be commended for the way it responded. In particular, we applauded all the staff who worked in Sierra Leone and the region to bring the epidemic under control. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the Ebola crisis is an excellent example of how DFID can work with other Departments, including the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health, and of how, by doing so, we can help those living in the affected communities and deliver value for money for the British taxpayer.
The International Development Committee has just begun an inquiry into the administration and definition of overseas development assistance. An increasing proportion of the UK’s ODA is being spent by other Departments, and we want to look at that issue to ensure that the money is going towards the primary goal of poverty reduction. We also want to look at the definition of ODA. In the Conservative manifesto last year, there was a commitment to work with the OECD to change the definition of what constitutes ODA. It is sensible for the rules that govern ODA to be reviewed. The former Secretary of State called for more of the money that is spent on, for example, UN peacekeeping missions to count as overseas development assistance. As a result, the OECD doubled the proportion that can count from 7% to 15%, and I think that change made sense.
As it stands, the British overseas territories—the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine referred to Hurricane Irma—are not able to receive funds that count towards the 0.7% target, for the simple reason that their gross national income per head is far too high to qualify for aid spending.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of this, but during a recent Council of Europe session I had words with the secretary-general of the OECD about redefining that definition so that it did not mean that, after the disasters that struck the Caribbean, we could not give money to those areas. Does he agree that we should still push for that?
The International Development Committee is considering that matter, and we are still taking evidence on it. We have to tread with care, but there is a case to be made that, in some of the examples we have seen, such as in the Caribbean last year, there is a case for greater flexibility in the rules. In the evidence we have received for our inquiry, we have heard that the OECD has begun the process of examining a short-term financing mechanism, which could be made available to countries that have previously been on the recipient list for ODA but no longer are, by virtue of their current income. That would be allowed only in exceptional circumstances, but the Hurricane Irma situation could be such an exceptional circumstance.
The Development Assistance Committee at the OECD has also agreed to create a new mechanism to allow countries to go back more quickly on the list of ODA-eligible countries if their income per capita has fallen enough as a direct consequence of a natural disaster. That reform to the rules, which is quite narrowly defined, might well meet the sorts of circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes.
My note of caution is this: it is vital that our overseas development assistance goes to those who need it most—to the poorest parts of the world. In the overseas territories, one extreme—the Cayman Islands—has a gross national income per head 86 times larger than that of Ethiopia, and even the poorest of the Caribbean overseas territories, Anguilla, has a per-capita income 20 times higher than that of Ethiopia. In the light of that, I urge the Minister to take great care as the Government proceed with the discussions with the OECD DAC. I would not rule out some of the changes I have referred to, which I know the Government are discussing with the OECD.
When a crisis strikes, it is important that basic services such as health and education continue as normally as possible. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about education. Education Cannot Wait, which was set up with DFID’s help, is an incredibly important programme to support children living in emergency situations. It currently works with more than 3 million in 13 countries, many of whom are refugees or internally displaced people as a direct consequence of natural disasters, war or other atrocities.
Immediate and life-saving assistance is vital when crises occur, but it is important to lay the groundwork for a sustainable future as quickly as possible. The evidence that our Committee has taken over a number of years shows that the Department’s use of cash transfers can be a useful, productive and efficient way of giving support to people in some of the most vulnerable situations. Cash transfers typically have a much lower administrative cost, and give beneficiaries much more control over their own need. What scope do the Minister and the Department see for a wider use of cash transfers when disasters hit?
The central issue is climate change, which is an increasingly significant cause of humanitarian crises. In the past two decades alone, more than 1 million people have died as a consequence of weather extremes and their associated disasters. The Government’s report on building resilience and adaptation to climate change estimates that by 2030 there could be more than 300 million people trapped in poverty because of climate change. Surely it is vital that preventive measures are funded and pursued. As climate change continues to be an enormous challenge, countries will have to learn to adapt to changing conditions to prevent disasters. DFID already spends nearly £150 million a year on prevention programmes, including in South Sudan, Afghanistan and Burma, which help to build resilience to the changing environment and ensure that, when disaster strikes, locals have access to timely, appropriate and cost-effective humanitarian aid.
In conclusion, the UK has long played a positive role in disaster relief. Our Committee’s inquiry is examining in detail the Government’s case for changing the ODA rules, and we will report on that later this year. Clearly, climate change, natural disasters, conflict and mass atrocities mean that an increasing number of people are displaced as refugees or internally. Effective relief is vital, but ultimately we need to do more to address the causes of displacement so that, where possible, we prevent such disasters from happening in the first place.
It is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who gave a first-class speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. It is always timely to debate this subject. As we came through the doors into Westminster Hall, someone mentioned it was good to come to discuss good things, and this is a good subject to talk about, not because we are doing everything that can possibly be done, but because it is an opportunity for us to assess what is being done and what more can be done.
I think it is fair to say that, thanks to this country and the generosity of its people, many people around the world are helped when they suffer from natural and man-made disasters. At a time of so many needs, some of which we have heard discussed in great detail and with expert commentary, more people than ever before are on the move across the world. In many ways, the world is in commotion, and I think we are at the height of mass movement of people since the end of the second world war, and at a time of increasing population as well.
In my short contribution I will not try to match the wonderful speeches given earlier, but I will reflect on the generosity of the British people themselves and on how they respond to the disasters that we all too frequently witness. We all know the Government figures—some have been quoted—the legislative requirement to spend on humanitarian relief and the effect of military deployments in disaster zones. We should all be proud of the men and women who wear the uniform of our armed forces, in particular in the context of administering humanitarian relief. We are also all aware of what UK aid is achieving, providing food, shelter and medicine whenever and wherever a disaster presents itself.
The truly impressive thing, however, is that when asked the British people themselves are also keen to put their hand in their collective pocket. A cursory adding up of figures on the Disasters Emergency Committee website shows that it raised some £97 million in the past year for ongoing DEC appeals. The contribution of this country goes beyond finance, to people, who selflessly go or are deployed to the parts of the world where their services are most needed. That includes medical people, construction people, rescue teams from the emergency services, who are volunteers, and missionaries, volunteers and aid workers from a raft of different organisations, all putting themselves in harm’s way to care for people affected by disasters.
This debate is about the UK contribution to disaster relief, but Government action, although welcome, is not the only thing that the UK does, so we should be proud of—actually, we should be humble about—our history of philanthropy, humanitarianism and action in such areas. In my constituency, we have a citizenship award named after William “Citizen” Jaffray, who understood that more than most. He personified the values of philanthropy—I must make a note not to use that word too often, because it is one I always struggle with. In the early part of the 19th century he paid for smallpox inoculation of the population throughout Stirlingshire, saving thousands of lives. That is one example of private charity, and he put his money into it as millions of people in the UK do today—but he invested in preparing people to stop an epidemic before it happened. That is my theme in the remaining part of my speech.
I am sure Members are aware of the work of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in this field. FAO work is focused clearly on governance, information systems, spreading good practice and capacity development—that is the disaster early intervention agenda. By improving our information systems and our understanding of how and when disasters will happen, we can stop them happening in the first place—we hope. Data and information are key: for example, understanding of a river network will allow environmental interventions that can reduce the likelihood of flooding. By having detailed mapping information on settlements, we can understand where and when there are likely to be disease outbreaks. Work such as that undertaken by the Food and Agriculture Organisation to map the rivers of south-east Asia, or that of Missing Maps around the world to ensure that the humanitarian open street map is fit for the next disaster, is vital to all of that.
I understand that not all disasters can be predicted or mitigated, but many can be. It is worthwhile noting that around the world, according to the UN, 62p in every £100 spent on disaster aid was spent on preparedness; but we in the UK lag behind, investing only 42p in every £100. Yet an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The disaster early intervention agenda is about good governance, the rule of law, mapping, understanding of the natural environment, and community resilience. Those are actually strengths of the United Kingdom, so we can and must do better in that field, harnessing our great national talents and resources to make a difference around the world. If we do so, we will save people before they need to be saved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. These days, it is something of a rare pleasure for me to take part in a Westminster Hall debate, but I received special dispensation from the Scottish National party Whips Office to do so today. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on securing this debate. I was our party’s international development spokesperson in the previous Parliament, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute. Earlier this morning, by happy coincidence, I was meeting representatives of Scotland’s International Development Alliance. All in, it has been a bit of a time warp.
The debate is timely, as other Members have said, including the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). The need for disaster response has, sadly, never been greater. In particular, in recent years the displacement of people by hunger, conflict and climate change has put the whole international development and disaster relief system to the test.
Aid can of course be shorthand for many different things, in particular in the context of disaster relief—relief, rebuilding, resilience, root causes and our responsibilities. Relief in the immediate aftermath, again as others have said, is vital, especially in the face of a natural disaster or something unseen such as the tsunamis of recent years and, to a lesser extent, the Ebola outbreak. Like other Members, I pay tribute to the work of the DEC and the recently established DEC in Scotland. They bring together the best of the agencies and the best of the skills and experience to avoid duplication and to ensure maximisation of the funds donated by the public. The UK Government can do the same thing through the UN agencies.
The Chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), made a point about cash transfers, which are important in all such situations but particularly in immediate disaster relief. He outlined the reasons for cash transfers, which include the ability of affected individuals to spend the money to meet their own needs, and the impact that that then has in revitalising the local economy and in terms of the very basic human dignity in doing that. Rather than us as paternalistic donors deciding what is good for people, we give them the power, recognising that, even in the midst of calamity, they have the option to decide and choose for themselves.
Moving on to the rebuilding phase, that is a particular challenge. I only vaguely remember the statistic, but at one time someone might be a refugee or displaced person for three or four years; now, for a displaced person on the Syrian border, for example, or someone displaced by famine in one of the central African countries, it can be for up to 18 years—an entire generation. Therefore, rebuilding, reconstruction and investment, in particular in education—again as we have heard—are vital.
On the reaction to Hurricane Irma—the effect on UK overseas territories and their GDP, and rebuilding—it is not that we should not give them money. They are dependencies of the United Kingdom, and we would give money if—God forbid—something happened here in the United Kingdom. We have responded to tragedies that have happened on our own doorstep, but we do not try to count that as official development assistance or aid, because that is part of our global network and definition. As the Chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, and other speakers said, if there are to be changes to those definitions, they have to be agreed through a multilateral process. There has to be consensus among the donor countries and the change has to be driven by overriding humanitarian principles, in particular the sustainable development goals. I might come back to say something about that in a bit more detail if time allows.
One of the challenges is getting the resilience in the first place: making sure that communities that are at risk from conflict, famine or climate change have a degree of resilience so that these issues can be nipped in the bud. DFID has the challenge of delivering the remainder of the aid budget and trying to keep it as significant as it can be in supporting local grassroots communities—for example, sustainable agricultural developments, so that farmers are not suddenly hit by a lack of artificial fertilisers but are in a position where they can grow sustainable crops even in the midst of climate change, drought or floods.
The root causes have to be tackled. Why are people caught up in disasters? Usually it is because there is a root cause somewhere. It has been said that climate change is the biggest challenge—it threatens to roll back progress that had been made toward the millennium development goals, and potentially towards the sustainable development goals. Conflict situations are a challenge, too. Although it may not be directly applicable to this debate, research by the Scottish National party has shown that 13 times as much was spent on bombing Libya than was spent on the rebuilding effort. Sadly, those statistics can be found elsewhere, too.
We have to take a little responsibility for why some of the very often preventable disaster situations arise. It is important that the spending is there to meet needs when they arise, but it should not have to be at the expense of investment in tackling root causes and the resilience stage of the aid process. That is why I welcome the cross-party consensus on the 0.7% target, but there are questions to be asked about exactly how that figure is defined and spent.
One of my repeated concerns, which touches on the point about UN peacekeeping, is about the way that the Government continue to double-count money that is spent towards both the 0.7% target and the 2% NATO target. To some extent, that may be permitted under some readings of OECD rules, but there is a danger of conflation of the two, and that both arms of expenditure will lose out. I have my own views on military expenditure, starting with Trident, but no matter what one’s views on those things are, as far as possible, efforts should be made to keep those budgets separate, or at least properly and transparently accounted for, so that, whether in Committee, Westminster Hall or elsewhere, we can scrutinise them.
That speaks a little more widely to the mission creep of other Departments and the claims that they are starting to put on the 0.7% budget. It should not be a cover because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office struggles to meet some of its other requirements for aspects of diplomatic missions. The FCO should be resourced; the Department for International Development should be resourced; the Ministry of Defence should be resourced. It is perfectly possible to find ways of doing that if we look at some of the big, unnecessary capital expenditure, not least Trident—the Tories can tick off their bingo box. If the other Departments are to spend a greater share of the 0.7%, they have to be held to the same standards of transparency and the same levels of scrutiny as DFID has been over the years.
I conclude with a thought on the idea of aid money serving the national interest. In my previous guise I used to repeatedly ask Ministers for a definition of the national interest, because I do not see how it can be anything other than the meeting and delivery of the sustainable development goals. How is the United Kingdom’s national interest not served by building a more peaceful and sustainable world, where people are less susceptible to shocks of conflict, climate change and famine, where girls are educated, people have access to safe running water and the environment is protected? That is the national interest. If there is some other national interest that has been hinted at when Members says, “This is what aid should be,” I would be interested to know what that is. That would be useful to hear.
It is encouraging that there is usually a cross-party consensus on this kind of issue; we have managed to hear praise for both Tony Blair and George W. Bush in the debate so far. At the very least, that is an indication of our intention to come together to act not just in our enlightened self-interest, but in the best interest of people who very often find themselves in situations that are no fault of their own in developing parts of the world.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on setting the scene so well, as he always does in debates in Westminster Hall. Debates here often are used to raise issues that are important to us, which is what the hon. Gentleman has done. Other hon. Members and I are here because we share his interest and concerns.
I have been outspoken on the obligation of those who have much to those who have little. We have a duty to help and to show compassion for those in need. However, having been brought up as an Ulster Scot with some Brethren ties, let me assure hon. Members that we are called to be good stewards of our money. We need to ensure that what we send gets to where it should get to and that it helps those who we want to help. There has to be some monitoring and regulation to make sure that it happens. For that reason, although I support overseas aid, I am concerned about how it is used. It is easy to dismiss the many newspaper and media reports, but they raise some concerns about where the moneys are spent.
I am always pleased to see the Minister in his place, because we all know him to have compassion and a real deep interest in his subject matter. There will be no one in the House or outside it, I suspect, who would do anything other than support him in his work. I asked the former Secretary of State for International Development what recent estimate had made of the proportion of the Palestinian Authority’s foreign aid receipts spent on payments to convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons in the last 12 months. The response I received was excellent, and I thank the Minister for it. It stated:
“In August 2017, the International Monetary Fund estimated that external financial support to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2017 will total $666 million USD (approx. £500 million GBP). Many donors, including the UK and European Union, restrict their support to the PA for specific purposes and projects, and ensure that none of their aid is used for payments to convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons. No estimates have been made of the proportion of the PA’s external financial support which was spent on payments to convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons in the last 12 months.”
“No UK aid is used for payments to Palestinian prisoners or their families. UK financial assistance to the PA is only used to help to pay the salaries of health and education public servants in the West Bank. Only named public servants from a pre-approved EU list are eligible and a robust verification system validates that funds are used for the intended purposes. The UK government strongly condemns all forms of violence including incitement to violence.”
That reply was exactly what I wanted. It sets the scene and puts to rest some of my concerns, and outlines where we are. I welcome that good, comprehensive response.
It is essential that we know where the relief is going, who has their hands on it and who the beneficiaries of the relief are. I always give examples from Northern Ireland and my own constituency because I want everybody inside and outside this House to know about Strangford. I recently hosted a fund-raising dinner for my branch of the Democratic Unionist party. We have a dinner every year and have done so for the past five years. The dinner has a dual purpose. The event is in a local church that provides a fantastic four-course meal for those who purchase tickets. It is in a lovely area and the proceeds raised from the price of a meal go to a charity in Swaziland, the Eden Mission. It does great work: it digs wells and provides schooling and health services. The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) is nodding his head. Like me, he understands that we have a close connection with what is happening.
I have hosted the dinner for the past five years and will continue to do so. I trust what the mission does and it promises to make a difference in Swaziland. I have seen the children’s choir that the mission brought to Northern Ireland. They have sung in my office and in the halls of Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly functioned until a short time ago. We hope it will function again, but we must wait and see. I know that the choice I made to host my dinner in a church hall as opposed to a local restaurant that would charge roughly the same was a good decision to make. Just over £1,000 was raised for the charity. The church did the catering and we had some auctions.
My desire is to make sure that we make good decisions about how our aid is spent and who the real beneficiaries are. The project that I support sends containers out every year to Africa. The project workers tell me stories about what happens. They pack the container to within an inch of its life. Every conceivable portion of space is used. Sweets and clothes are packed into every crevice of the container. They also tell me that they have learnt the lesson of packing because they found that when they packed expensive items, such as wheelchairs and schooling aids, to the front, those would go missing during customs searches. That is a fact. It happened. It is unfortunate it happened, but it did. They have learnt to pack the expensive items in the middle of the container to make it harder to take them.
When I was told that story I wondered how much of our aid—I pose this as a question—has been siphoned off and whether we are doing all we can to protect our aid and to pack it in the middle, as it were, as my church, an Eden Church, has done in the past. This is why I asked the Secretary of State for International Development what monitoring the Department undertakes to ensure that aid granted to specific areas is used for the purposes for which it was intended; and whether it will liaise with religious missionaries in the destination country to ensure that UK aid is effectively distributed. The reply was excellent.
I do not question that the effective use of the UK aid budget is central to the Department for International Development’s work. I understand that all funding is subject to rigorous due diligence checks and that we have strict auditing and monitoring controls in place to ensure that all funding is used as it should be, and that every project is subject to an annual performance review and a project completion review to ensure that the objectives have been achieved and aid has been delivered to the intended beneficiaries. I am pleased that the Department uses multiple sources of information, including its partnerships with civil society, to be confident that UK aid reaches those intended. However, I would push for greater interaction with those on the ground who are able to distribute the aid.
I again ask the Minister whether he will outline what work is done with NGOs to see that aid reaches the mouths of the babies with bellies swollen from malnutrition, and not the custom official with a swollen belly from too much food. It may be a little harsh to say that, but it is a fact. I have seen photographs—we have all seen them—of bellies swollen because of malnutrition and a big guy across the way whose idea of a balanced meal is probably two hamburgers in each hand. He seems to indulge in food when others are starving. I feel genuinely aggrieved by that. When we see the starving children, any person with any compassion whatever would be well aware of that. Having heard at first hand the struggles that children in Africa and other areas go through to survive, and understanding that there is a limited amount that this country can afford to give, every penny must be made to count. That is why I urge the Government again to ensure that it counts on the ground and not simply on a checklist on a desk.
Should we give aid internationally, despite the pressure we face at home? Yes, we should, and I fully endorse the Minister’s and the Government’s stand. Indeed, they have cross-party support. Should we account for every penny, every blanket, every grain of rice? We must, because it is our job to be good stewards. Should we make use of on-the-ground agencies and bodies? That is wisdom and good stewardship. I thank DFID and the Minister for the leadership and stewardship that he gives to the Department. That is why we have trust in him and support him. 1 want to make sure we are doing all that is possible to get it right.
I want to start the wind-ups at 27 minutes past 3.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on securing this excellent debate. We have a great deal of consensus in this debating Chamber, and it is important for the Minister to know that, although we can always argue about the refinement of processes, there is nevertheless an overwhelming view that the commitment to 0.7% of GDP as a national objective is one that is shared. In any case, the overriding national consensus supports what all Governments have done in this area.
However, I want to strike a marginal, discordant note. I do not think we have to begin by talking about the national interest. There is a profoundly moral case around disaster relief. I have sat with refugees in Macedonia and Albania who were fleeing the conflict in Kosovo. In Lebanon, I have seen people fleeing over the border from Syria. Most recently, in Bangladesh, we have seen refugees from Myanmar. I cannot look them in the eyes and believe that this issue is only about national interest, because it is not. The British people, generally speaking, are much bigger than that. It is important to make the moral case.
There is also a pragmatic case. At the time of the conflict in Kosovo, we saw refugees flooding into this country. I have constituents who came into this country as refugees from Kosovo—ditto Syria and so on. We know that whenever disaster arises around the world, it has repercussions. There is a profound case—hon. Members have mentioned this—for arguing that the real precursor to disaster relief is having long-term sustainability, to prevent disasters in the first place. That is not always possible. Some of the things that we anticipate are easy, but the unknown unknowns are problematic. Climate change is still producing unknown impacts, particularly in Africa. With the growing population and the capacity for climate change to disrupt whole communities, we might see disaster. That will almost certainly produce a tide of refugees who will look north to Europe for support and shelter.
Some hon. Members mentioned Ebola. We must be alive to the fact that there could be some as yet unknown pandemic that will hit this world of ours. It will be a global problem; it will not be about national interest. It will be about us working collectively together, as we did in the case of Ebola, but possibly on diseases as yet unknown that could have massively more dramatic consequences. And, of course, sadly, war on this planet is still something that we do not entirely control.
When a disaster takes place, the British are massively good-hearted. Some Members have already commented on that—the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) made that very point. We have a good-hearted nation. We see money going to charities, as well as action from our Government.
In the most recent case, of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, the British Government behaved admirably with respect to disaster relief. It was important, however, that that was co-ordinated by the Bangladeshi authorities, and particularly the Bangladeshi army, which was important in making sure that the camps were stable. There was of course also a plethora of agencies from all over the world. When I was in Bangladesh—I should point out my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, having travelled there recently—I met people from the Canadian Red Cross and aid agencies from around the world. All that immediate action requires some degree of co-ordination.
Immediate disasters are not simple to deal with—they are massively complicated—but because such action has been needed on a number of occasions over the years, there are now structures that can quite quickly get operations moving. Sometimes the challenge is what happens post-disaster. I know from exchanges on the Floor of the House that the Minister has thought about what happens next for the Rohingya in Bangladesh. It is not so much a question of transferring people back; that is a considerable way off. It is more about the fact that up to 50,000 women will give birth in the coming months and there is still not a clean water supply or sanitation system to sustain a population that may be living on a small patch of land for a considerable time to come.
The problem, of course, is that the world begins to move on. We saw that, to an extent, at the global level. Britain was a major contributor to the global efforts to provide assistance to the Rohingya in Bangladesh, but those funds are still undersubscribed. This is not about us being morally superior, but it sometimes helps to say we have played a significant part.
We do need people to stay for the long term. If we do not stabilise them into the long term, populations on the scale of the Rohingya in Bangladesh can be a hotbed of disaster. That can mean disaster for the population itself—through criminality, child prostitution and all the evils that can take place in such a community—but there is also the capacity for radicalisation, as has happened in other parts of the world. We must deal with disasters in the long term, not just the first weeks and months.
Several hon. Members mentioned Syria. If it gets to a post-conflict situation, the reconstruction of what was once, if not a first-world country, then certainly not a disaster case, will take decades—perhaps two generations. I think it was the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) who made the point about the relative amounts spent on conflict and on post-conflict stabilisation. That applies to Iraq, Afghanistan and many different parts of the world. Even our country has not put as much into the post-conflict situations as into the creation of the conflicts.
A number of Members pointed out the need to develop local partnerships. The capacity to work with local partner agencies is fundamental for both immediate disaster relief and the second phase. Often, large international agencies, however well intentioned they are, do not have the sophistication to get down to almost street level, which makes a material difference to people on the ground. There are problems with that approach, because as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, we have a duty to steward the pound that we spend. That is right and proper, but it is also important that such stewardship does not mean we miss the trick of getting the resources where they can do people maximum good. That often means working with local partner agencies.
Disasters will occur again and again around the world. It is of course right and proper to reserve resources for disaster relief, including for stabilisation after the immediate disaster period. Nepal, for example, is still not back together after the disaster of some years ago. In the longer run, we should not pit disaster relief against investment in long-term infrastructure, because investment in education, agriculture or industry will make a material difference in stabilising the parts of the world in question. It will make them less prone to war and more resilient to climate change, and it will make them better partners, even if that is seen in terms of narrow national interest. In any case, to conclude as I began, there is a moral debate to be had in the end: we share this planet, and our fellow global citizens deserve something from us. We are good at this and should not be ashamed of what we do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) for his excellent speech, and I thank hon. Members for all the others that have been made in the debate. There is clearly a lot of consensus about the significance of the UK’s contribution to international disaster relief.
This is an important and timely debate. The world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945, with 20 million people at risk of starvation as a result of drought and conflict in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria alone, according to the UN. The UK public have been among the most generous responders to emergency appeals, and they largely support action by the UK Government to respond to such disasters. However, an improved response is and will be needed to cope better with current and future humanitarian crises.
I welcome UK bilateral spending on humanitarian aid, which has steadily increased over the past seven years, and the vast majority of which has been spent on emergency response. That can only be a good thing. However, research shows that investing in disaster risk reduction prior to disasters saves life and is far more cost-effective than funding the response after a disaster has happened. It is too simplistic to assume an overarching cost-benefit ratio, but a study by the World Bank estimates that every pound spent on preparedness saves in the region of £7 in repair and recovery costs. Despite that, as has been mentioned, just 0.4% of global aid is spent on preparing for disasters. The world humanitarian summit in 2016 agreed to increase humanitarian aid spending on disaster risk reduction from 0.4% to 5%. DFID signed up to that, and I ask the Minister to provide an update on what progress has been made towards that goal. I also urge the UK Government to continue to invest in the disasters and emergencies preparedness programme beyond this year, when it is scheduled to end.
It is important to note that 90% of recorded major disasters caused by natural hazards from 1995 to 2015 were linked to weather and climate change. Fragile states have been hit hardest, and have the fewest resources to cope with climate change impacts. Even the global strategic trends programme of the Ministry of Defence acknowledges that humanitarian assistance will increase by up to 1,600% in the next 20 years, and says that that is
“in large part due to the effects of climate change”.
The current draft of the sustainable development goals highlights the fact that to achieve goal No. 1, which is to
“End poverty in all its forms everywhere”,
society needs to
“build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental disasters”.
The Government should follow the world-leading work of the Scottish Government by setting up a climate justice fund to support vulnerable countries in mitigating and adapting to the changing circumstances caused by climate change events. It would make much more sense, rather than dipping into the aid budget after such events, to acknowledge the risks and take action to reduce them before disaster strikes. There is a critical opportunity to do that now, while the political will exists, and I ask the Minister to look at that as soon as he can.
To give an example from last year, Hurricane Irma was not adequately prepared for and there was a lack of forward thinking and a slow response from the UK Government, despite indications that the hurricane would wreak devastation. Every year hurricanes cause on average $835 million of damage in the Caribbean and almost $200 million of damage in the Pacific, so the UK Government should have seen it coming. The climate challenge must therefore be integrated into national development plans and strategies. Coping with climate variability and attempting to anticipate future climate changes are no longer an optional extra but should be a policy imperative for the Government.
As well as investing in disaster risk reduction to make aid more effective, it is important to channel more funds as directly as possible through local and national actors on the ground in the affected area—we have heard a bit about that this afternoon. Such organisations know their local communities well and can respond to humanitarian crises in a quick and effective manner.
At the world humanitarian summit 2016, the biggest donors, including DFID, came together to recognise and agree the Grand Bargain. That was a series of changes to the way that donors and aid organisations work, and it aimed to get means into the hands of those in most need. Last September the UK Government recommitted to the full implementation of the Grand Bargain, but the UK response to the Rohingya crisis shows that there is a long way to go to meet those objectives. There is a lack of transparency regarding how much funding local organisations receive from the UK, and mechanisms for empowering the Rohingya with access to decision making and planning in the crisis remain limited, meaning that the response is less effective than it could be.
Only 0.2% of humanitarian funding is currently channelled to local and national actors—I think everybody in the room would say that that is woefully inadequate. NGOs support an increase to 25%, and the UK Government should also commit further funding to the Start Fund, which provides grants to small organisations in emergency situations.
Let us consider the changing focus of international aid. The UK is seen, without doubt, as a leader in shaping the global development agenda. Although aid effectiveness is difficult to measure, recent reports from the International Development Committee point out that foreign aid is—quite rightly—the most scrutinised part of UK Government spending. It is monitored by the Committee, the National Audit Office and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, and it scores highly on the international aid transparency index. However, there has recently been an alarming shift in the strategic focus of the UK aid strategy, and growing importance is now attached to the promotion of the UK’s so-called national interest. A key mechanism for achieving that, as set out in the 2015 aid strategy, has been to direct the aid budget away from DFID to other Departments, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence.
Official figures show that, last year, roughly a quarter of the UK’s aid budget was spent by Government Ministries other than DFID—a rise of almost 50%. The direction of travel has raised serious concerns that that will reduce focus on global poverty alleviation, as well as concerns about the transparency and accountability of aid spending outside DFID. DFID has a commitment, enshrined in UK law, to reducing poverty, but it is not at all clear that other Departments have that same commitment. Will the Minister outline what steps DFID is taking to ensure that other Departments improve transparency and accountability in their ODA spending, and say how that will be measured? A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies emphasised that position, and warned that the trend towards funnelling less aid money through DFID, combined with a growing emphasis on ensuring benefit to British firms, would have a negative impact on poverty reduction in developing countries.
After an OECD meeting in November, the Government reported that reforms to the ODA rules had been agreed. Those included doubling the percentage of contributions to UN peacekeeping missions that count as aid—such as the UK troops sent to South Sudan—from 7% to 15%. That followed agreements last year that made more security and counter-extremism spending eligible. It is our view that the foreign aid budget should never be used for defence, and this change appears to be a clear attempt to dilute the fight against poverty. We are extremely concerned about such developments driven by the UK Government.
The Secretary of State recently pledged in a Telegraph article to use Britain’s foreign aid as part of
“a bold new Brexit-ready proposition to boost trade and investment with developing countries”.
It is concerning to read that UK aid could be used to mitigate the negative impacts of Brexit, with the UK’s security and prosperity key factors in deciding how aid is spent. The reiteration that aid must be spent in the national interest was typically disappointing. I cannot emphasise enough that the delivery of aid must remain focused on ending extreme poverty and supporting a fairer, more sustainable future.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
The sitting is resumed, and I believe the SNP spokesman has three minutes to go.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I must say that it is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, since I see the Chair has changed in the past few minutes.
I was coming to my conclusion, but I will reiterate the point I was making about the notion of the national interest, which is that it does not mean very much. I have to reflect on what the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) called the moral interest, because it is in all of our interests to serve the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable internationally.
I cannot emphasise enough that the delivery of aid must remain focused on ending extreme poverty and supporting a fairer, more sustainable future for all. Although that sounds obvious, it needs to be reiterated time and again. It is in all of our interests. It is a promise we made to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, and that is what the UK taxpayer has the right to expect.
It is also critical to ensure that all our aid is high-impact, transparent and accountable and that it delivers real change for people living in poverty, no matter which Department it comes from. That is why I urge the Minister to commit to investing more funding to resilience and recovery for those living in the fragile nations most at risk of climate-related extreme events and economic and social disasters. Lastly, I urge him to channel more funding as directly as possible through local and national actors on the ground in the affected area, working with local communities and organisations.
Because of the votes, the timings of this debate have changed. The debate now finishes no later than 4.26 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
This is my first effort responding as a member of Labour’s Front Bench, and I am delighted to do so. It is perhaps a slight shame that today, of all days, it has been an all-male debate, but I am sure that the Minister and I can both say that our Departments are finely led by female colleagues. It gives me great pleasure to follow in the footsteps of distinguished colleagues, and even more to have managed to be here on time, which hopefully forestalls any demands for me to follow in the footsteps of Lord Bates—although I am glad to say that he has not been asked to resign as Minister of State for being 60 seconds or so late to the Dispatch Box. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), who served admirably in the shadow role in DFID.
I am rapidly learning that perspective is important in politics, as is the ability to recognise when Government Departments are doing a good job, even if their Ministers are sometimes late. I am pleased to commend DFID on the hugely important work it does—work that is recognised and appreciated by the United Nations, among others. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on securing this important debate, and pay tribute to all hon. Members who have taken part. There have been some fine contributions, not least on my own side, from the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), and from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd).
When it comes to international disaster relief, the UK continues to set an enviable example, although of course we could always do more. The Organisation for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs commends Britain on the commitments it made following the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. In common with us, OCHA would like to know whether the UK Government will continue to report to the platform for action, commitments and transformation on how it is meeting those commitments.
The sheer scale of the global humanitarian crisis risks making us all feel like powerless bystanders. In recent weeks, upward of one quarter of a million people have fled their homes in north-west Syria, the largest single exodus in a savage civil war that has lasted seven years—taking place, by the way, at a time when we are being told that the Syrian civil war is coming nearer to its end. This year’s United Nations response plan for Yemen describes the war-torn country as
“the worst man-made humanitarian crisis”
in the world, with more than 22 million people—around three quarters of the total population—in need of help.
Since the escalation of violence in March 2015, when conflict broke out, Yemen, already the poorest country in the region, has been left on the verge of a humanitarian collapse. We know that in both Syria and Yemen, conflict has been intensely aggravated by the fact that those countries are being used as proxies by others to further other agendas. We know, too, that because of that the demands placed on those charged with delivering disaster relief have been unrelenting. It is important to name and praise all those who struggle daily with the tide of human misery caused by these wars with no end.
I will mention one unsung hero, who in so many ways personifies what is best about the often-maligned United Nations and its agencies. Over the past few years, it has been the voice of the UN humanitarian co-ordinator, Jamie McGoldrick, that has drawn the world’s attention most loudly and most often to Yemen’s plight. He felt that he had to, as journalists had been banned from the country. He has just stepped down, having overseen one of the most difficult and challenging aid operations in the world. When asked how it felt to deliver aid to an increasingly desperate population in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick said that there is
“no point in getting angry, there’s no point in getting frustrated, the point is to get smart.”
It is high time that we in this place got smart. We owe it to people like Jamie McGoldrick and to the tens of thousands that he and his colleagues struggle to care for. Being smart means that we simply cannot tolerate a situation where the British Government sanction arms sales to Saudi Arabia, whose aerial bombardment of Yemen has caused so much death and destruction, while salving our collective conscience by asking people like Jamie McGoldrick to ensure that, if possible, traumatised women and children are pulled out of the rubble. The situation is simply not acceptable, nor is it sustainable.
In response to the points raised by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, I will say that the UK Navy has played an important role in international disaster relief, for example in the Caribbean hurricanes and the UK’s response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. Our defence forces can and should contribute to humanitarian relief, but I want to exercise a note of caution. Whenever we spend our aid budget, it must be about getting the biggest bang for our buck for the world’s poorest. The priority must always be poverty reduction and humanitarian relief, in line with internationally agreed rules. Where the armed forces can offer real added value and where they are explicitly doing humanitarian work, then it is an option worth exploring further.
We also need to get smart by standing up to those we believe we have a special relationship with, especially when they slash funding to organisations such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the main relief lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Their displacement from their homeland has continued, in some cases, for over half a century. If we are to use our influence to ensure that funding mechanisms are found for the longer term and for development financing for refugee countries, why are we leaving it to other countries to fill the funding gap left by the Trump Administration?
Returning to the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016, I would ask the Minister what progress his Department is making to ensure that at least 25% of humanitarian funding is delivered as directly as possible to local and national actors by 2020. I also ask whether the UK is increasing the proportion of aid spent on disaster risk reduction from 0.4% to 0.5% on the timelines laid out.
Today, the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945, with 20 million people at risk of starvation as a result of drought and conflict in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria alone. The scale of suffering is almost unimaginable and the task of reversing this tide of human misery so enormous that the temptation to simply slink away and pretend nothing is happening is too much. We can begin by at least recognising where we are getting it right and by turning our attention to what more we can do as one of the richest nations on earth.
We can also start by comprehending that a second world war that left millions dead and even more without shelter gave rise not only to the United Nations, but to a generation of people prepared to put their collective shoulder to the wheel to ensure that such conflict never happened again. With far fewer resources, and in a Europe and Asia whose cities had been flattened, that generation not only rebuilt, but strove for a better society—one without conflict. We still have much more to do to put an end to the conflict that is fuelling so much human misery today.
After that glittering debut, I will ask the Minister to conclude his remarks no later than 4.23 pm, to allow Mr Bowie three minutes to sum up at the end.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) for calling the debate, and all colleagues who have taken part.
To my knowledge, this is the first time I have faced an Opposition spokesman born not only after I first became a Member of Parliament but after I first joined the payroll as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ken Baker, which was a year before the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) was born. I will think of a suitable response in due course, but I put that on the record. It is a pleasure to welcome him to his place. I am sure he will give distinguished service on his party’s Front Bench for some time to come. We appreciate what he has to say and I am pleased he has such an obvious interest in this subject.
The UK has a leading reputation in humanitarian response, as colleagues have recognised, and the Prime Minister, the International Development Secretary and other senior Ministers attach great importance to that. The national interest is very wide and it encapsulates what the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and others spoke of. It is not narrow or narrowly focused and need not be considered that way. It encompasses the values behind international development, to which all parties in the House subscribe. It is important that, when we talk about it, we make clear to those who support development that it goes very wide. The projection of values is important for a state, a nation and a people, and that is what we do.
I will concentrate on the subjects raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, rather than on the flexibility of ODA, which the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who chairs the International Development Committee, spoke about. How we deal with that, and indeed how we look at what other Departments spend in relation to the delivery of ODA with a DFID interest, is an important separate debate that deserves at least an hour and a half of its own at some stage. I will be very happy if colleagues in all parts of the House put that forward for debate, so we can deal with it more fully. I will also deal with a number of issues that colleagues raised, not least resilience and preparedness, which a number of colleagues spoke about and which I will deal with in a bit more detail.
Since the Asian tsunami in 2004, DFID has mounted more than 30 humanitarian responses to both natural disasters and conflicts, including earthquakes in Nepal, Haiti, Pakistan and Indonesia, floods in India and the Balkans, hurricanes in Bangladesh, Burma, the Philippines and the Caribbean, conflicts in Yemen, South Sudan and Syria, and the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. DFID responds widely across an unstable world.
All colleagues mentioned the respect they have for those who go out and work for the United Kingdom abroad in those various areas. I echo that praise. It was very good that colleagues mentioned that. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton spoke of Jamie McGoldrick, who I spoke to just this week. He has done a remarkable job for OCHA, and I pay tribute to him and his colleagues who work in international organisations and are so important to us in finding out what is going on, and sometimes being in a position to say tougher things than nation states can say. I appreciate Jamie’s work very much. I know where he is heading to next and he will not have a quiet life there, either. We appreciate what he does.
As a number of colleagues have mentioned, the past decade has seen the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance soar. The UN appeal for 2018 stands at $22.5 billion—five times larger than the 2007 figure. That increase has been driven largely by two trends. First, the number of people affected by conflict, particularly within states, has increased, which has driven huge numbers of internally displaced people and refugees across Asia, Africa and the middle east. Secondly, crises are becoming increasingly protracted. In 1970, conflicts lasted an average of nine and a half years; today, that figure stands at 26 years. More than 80% of refugee crises now last for more than 10 years. That is putting huge strain on the system, let alone those who endure such misery.
National and local organisations are the first responders to disasters, but there will be occasions when those systems are overwhelmed by the circumstances facing them. That is why the Government are committed to maintaining the capability to provide bigger, better and faster responses to humanitarian emergencies: bigger because they are able to cope with more crises simultaneously, better by using a broader range of expertise, technologies and equipment to deliver bespoke responses to complex emergencies, and faster by quite simply reaching the people most in need as quickly as possible.
When needs are urgent, we adopt a “no regrets” policy to respond to disasters, meaning we take actions to kick-start a response before the full impact may be known, rapidly front-loading funding, relief supplies and expertise in order to save lives. We target our interventions to make sure they reach those who are most vulnerable: women and girls, children and those with disabilities. To do that, DFID maintains a number of response capabilities, which have time and again proven their worth in responding to major disasters.
First, the emergency medical teams, which the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby and other colleagues mentioned in relation to what we saw over the Christmas and holiday period of the team that went to Cox’s Bazar to assist those caught up in the camps with the outbreak of diphtheria. Through a partnership with the NHS, the fire and rescue service and the charity UK-Med, DFID is able to deploy doctors and nurses anywhere in the world to respond to humanitarian emergencies. Their expertise includes specialist surgeons, trauma experts, general medical or, in the case of the deployment to Bangladesh, public health and epidemiology. Thanks in no small part to their work, the outbreak of deadly diphtheria among the Rohingya refugees has now been curbed. I take this opportunity to thank them personally for the fantastic work they have done. They are a credit to their profession and to all of us.
Secondly, there is cross-Government work with the military. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine—indeed, my hon. and gallant Friend—rightly highlighted the crucial role of our armed forces in our disaster relief operations. We pay tribute to him and all his colleagues who serve in the forces. In September last year, a series of hurricanes hit the Caribbean; they were unprecedented. Although a certain amount can be predicted, which I will come to later, Hurricane Irma was the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, causing devastation across the region, and hot on its heels were Hurricanes Jose and Maria, adding to the chaos and disruption.
The UK launched a massive response operation, with DFID, the Foreign Office and the military working hand in hand to deliver assistance, repair infrastructure and get the region back on its feet. Some of that assistance was already there: humanitarian advisers were in the region 24 hours before the hurricane struck; the Mounts Bay ship already had relief supplies loaded, and within 36 hours those supplies were going from the United Kingdom. Hundreds of tonnes of relief were delivered by civilian and military means, including via the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Ocean. Nearly 2,000 military personnel were able to deliver aid, maintain security and provide reassurance to affected communities.
The military have played a major part in responding to some of the most severe disasters of recent times. The men and women of our armed services have helped to construct Ebola treatment centres in Sierra Leone, fly aid to Nepal, rescue thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and reach the most remote islands of the Philippines on HMS Illustrious after Typhoon Haiyan. That is perhaps an example of spending more widely that has a common interest, rather than just through DFID itself. Again, that is something we might explore in a further debate, to reassure colleagues that this expenditure, even if it comes from different Departments, is absolutely focused on the needs that DFID takes to be the most important. That co-operation is the result of regular training and careful planning between DFID and the Ministry of Defence. The two Departments have a memorandum of understanding that provides a simple mechanism for military assets to be quickly incorporated into emergency relief efforts when disaster strikes.
The UK does not respond alone. We work with the UN, non-governmental organisations, the Red Cross and other Governments to co-ordinate and deliver responses. Without those partners we would not be able to reach those most affected. OCHA is the key player in co-ordinating the UN’s humanitarian agencies, managing activity in different response areas, such as health, shelter, water and sanitation. The hon. Member for Rochdale spoke of the problems with water in the camps in Bangladesh. I met officials this week to discuss our response to that and what more can be done in relation to the concerns about that and health. It is very much on the Department’s agenda.
In relation to the European Union, the UK works closely with the directorate-general for humanitarian aid and civil protection in the EU Commission on many areas of humanitarian aid. DFID maintains regular engagement with the Commission and member states through its participation in the EU working party on humanitarian aid and food aid. As can be imagined, I have no intention of letting that relationship be lost in the events following March 2019.
We know that humanitarian assistance should be the exception, not the norm. Investing in countries’ resilience and preparedness not only mitigates the impacts of disasters, but provides better value for money in the long term. DFID has been investing in countries’ resilience for a number of years, and it forms a core part of our humanitarian aid reform policy. I will say a little more on that, because a number of colleagues raised it, and it is important.
We believe that development and climate finance can support countries and communities to better identify risks, as well as to prepare for and recover from disasters. Also critical is building strong health, education and social protection systems in developing countries, so that they are able to cope with crises. I will mention one or two areas where we are already working to deal with that.
In 2015, the UK committed to increasing its international climate finance by 50% over the next five years to at least £5.8 billion. It helps poor countries to adapt to climate change and promote jobs and livelihoods to reduce poverty. It will help to build the resistance of people, businesses and economies to increases in weather-related disasters or changes in climate trends. That money has already helped more than 21 million people to cope with the increased risk of droughts and floods.
We are investing in risk management tools, such as the index for risk management, and in insurance mechanisms, such as African Risk Capacity. We are also investing in climate science and modelling that will help us better to understand and predict risk, including through the science for humanitarian emergencies and resilience—helpfully, SHEAR—programme, which aims to advance the monitoring, assessment and prediction of natural hazards and risks across sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. The building resilience and adaptation to climate extremes and disasters—BRACED—programme aims to benefit 5 million vulnerable people, especially women and children, in 13 developing countries. The centre for global disaster protection will build the financial resilience of developing countries to natural disasters.
In all the ways that I have described, we are recognising the truth of what hon. Members have said in relation to preparedness and we are on the ball. I thank hon. Members who have spoken, and apologise for not being able to respond to them individually. I have outlined the world-class contribution to international disaster relief that the UK is able to make, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine for initiating this debate. Let me say two things in response. Although the debate has been on international disasters and in a way it is easy to convince the public that disaster relief is a good use of development aid, we have all recognised that development goes much further than just dealing with emergencies. We should be as proud of that as we are of dealing with the emergencies.
Yesterday, the Department said a sad farewell to Becky Dykes, with her memorial service. A DFID colleague, she lost her life in Beirut recently. Tributes were paid to her and her values and to the work in which she was engaged in Lebanon to improve the lives of those who, without her, would have had lives less well lived. Her life said so much about what all of us in this Chamber believe in, so we dedicate this debate to Becky and to all those like her, and we say thank you.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I associate myself very much with the words spoken by the Minister just now in paying tribute to all those people in DFID who give of their best in the work they do across the world.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive comments and pay tribute to him and the Department for the work that they do across the world. I thank everyone who has contributed to this genuinely good-natured and consensual debate. I thank the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), whom I welcome to the Front Bench and congratulate on his speech today. I also thank the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law); I apologise for not mentioning him before.
I am coming to my hon. Friend.
I would like to concentrate on three points that were made. The first, which was made by quite a few hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Dundee West, was the huge humanitarian crisis that we face now. It is probably the biggest that we have faced since 1945 and responding to it presents challenges for every Government. The second point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford, who must have Aberdeenshire blood in him somewhere given how strongly he wants to account for every grain of rice that is being sent out by DFID.
I will end on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) regarding the incredible generosity of the British people. Every year, they take our collective breath away with the amount of money and time that they are willing to give in order to send money overseas whenever crises occur. My hon. Friend pointed out that, last year alone, £97 million was donated by the British people for crises overseas and charitable works. It is on that point that I end the debate. I thank everyone very much for contributing to what has been a genuinely very good-natured and consensual debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK contribution to international disaster relief.
Will those who inexplicably are not staying for the next debate, on train services between Telford and Birmingham, please leave quickly and quietly?
Train Services: Telford and Birmingham
I beg to move,
That this House has considered train services between Telford and Birmingham.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a great privilege to be able to come to this place and raise the concerns of the residents I represent, and to have a Minister come and listen to them. In this place, as we have just seen, we often debate issues of great national and global importance, and sometimes we forget to focus on the issues that have the greatest impact on the day-to-day lives of those we serve.
Telford, my constituency, is a vibrant, thriving and rapidly growing new town set in the heart of rural Shropshire, and this year it is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It has a unique identity and a proud industrial heritage as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It is a shining example of what a successful new town can be. When Telford was designed half a century ago, it was intended to be self-sufficient, with all services, shopping and jobs provided locally. At that time, people were moving to Telford to get out of Birmingham, to live a better quality of life. However, the design of Telford in that way has meant that in many ways we are now cut off and somewhat isolated. Fifty years on, that self-sufficient model is not a model for a successful business centre, which requires excellent connectivity by both road and rail in order to thrive.
Telford has become a significant population centre and a very important business centre in the heart of the west midlands. It has inward investment, enterprise, commerce, advanced manufacturing and all sorts of hi-tech and new businesses coming to the area. Unemployment has halved and apprenticeships have doubled since 2010. With that, we should be experiencing good transport connectivity and rail networks fit for our growing new town, but sadly that is not the case.
Despite being surrounded by a rural hinterland of gorgeous Shropshire countryside, Telford is only 27 miles west of Birmingham, so we should be perfectly positioned for commuting to or leisure activities in Birmingham. We are next to the UK’s second largest city and should be able to capitalise on that opportunity, yet it takes us 47 minutes to get from Telford to Birmingham by train. We have only two trains an hour, and they are spaced so that if we miss the one at eight minutes past the hour, we have to wait 45 minutes for the next train. The issue is not just the spacing. Once we are on the train, the service is slow. It is a stopping service. The train chugs along reluctantly, stopping at every little Shropshire village that it passes along the way, and often it has only two carriages, which will inevitably be full to bursting at peak times.
As Telford has grown, more and more people have chosen to come and build their lives there, and more and more people want to travel to Birmingham for both leisure and work, so overcrowding is all too common, with people often standing for the whole of the 47-minute journey.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I shall be delighted to give way to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour.
My hon. Friend rightly highlights the issues of the track and the capacity of the trains. Does she agree that, in addition, companies such as West Midlands Trains, which won the new franchise, need to look at stations—in particular, Albrighton and access to it, and Wellington, which has 750,000 passengers a year but where there is leaking at platform 1 and no toilet facilities outside opening hours? Some of those basic passenger experiences also need to be looked at—experiences on platforms as well as on the tracks and in the carriages.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. There is a great deal more work to be done and I feel that we have been somewhat neglected over the years in Telford and the surrounding areas. It is important that we address this now for the future of our area. That is why I have come to this place this afternoon.
The journey to Birmingham from London is one hour and 27 minutes or thereabouts, but trying to go on to Telford is a throwback to a completely different era. There is this slow, crowded stopping service, which takes 47 minutes, as I mentioned, and that is enough to move any commuter on to the road. The infrastructure investment has lagged behind our rapid population growth and our growth as a business centre. As you can imagine, Mr Hollobone, residents are regularly in contact with me to tell me about their struggles and their frustrations on a daily basis, so I want to give a voice to their experiences.
The train service between Telford and Birmingham simply does not meet the needs of a modern, thriving new town. In fact, Telford is the fastest growing new town in the country and the fastest growing town in the west midlands, yet we have had the same train service for as long as I and many others can remember, and it is not moving forward.
I have experienced exactly the same issues in Stoke-on-Trent with the services into Birmingham, and we are seeing the same amount of growth. Would my hon. Friend agree that, if integrated properly, HS2 provides a significant opportunity to take many of the rail services from locations such as Stoke-on-Trent off that route, freeing up more paths on the route through Wolverhampton into Birmingham?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, because that part of the track around Wolverhampton is the reason we have these problems in Telford. I completely agree that if we can clear that track, we will have more opportunities for additional services on the line from Telford to Birmingham.
Five years ago the train service was just slow, irritating and inconvenient, as I have described. Now it is all those things, plus it is a real battle to even get on to the train during peak times. If Telford is to fulfil its true potential as an attractive place to live and work, we must have a 21st-century link to Britain’s second largest city. It is just on our doorstep, but we cannot get there. We must have good connections to the rest of the country, and Birmingham is a gateway to do just that. That is imperative for our success to continue.
Over a number of years there has been a long debate around electrification. It has been discussed over and over. It has now been kicked into the long grass for this particular section of the track. In some ways that really is not the problem. What really matters to people who use the service is reliable peak-time trains that commuters can use to easily travel those 27 miles to Birmingham. The recent proposal to take Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs jobs from Telford to Birmingham exposed the very real challenges that commuters face daily. A 47-minute stopping service, irregularly spaced and with overcrowded carriages, makes people think twice before accepting a job in Birmingham. That is no good for people’s income and no good for our economy. It is a lost opportunity. That is why connectivity is utterly essential to Telford’s future. We do not want to be just an afterthought.
In Telford, we make a significant contribution to the west midland’s economy and we have the potential to do so much more. I would say that we are the beating heart of Shropshire and the centre of gravity for the area, with new businesses choosing to locate in Telford and people choosing to move to Telford all the time. We are not just some sleepy county town on the way to Wales. We are a centre of innovation, enterprise and growth, but without the ability to easily get to Birmingham, we are cut off and it is holding us back.
Another aspect that I have not mentioned is trying to get back from Birmingham after a night out. That in itself is a massive struggle that puts people off going to Birmingham for the evening at all, because if the preceding train has just gone, they can be stranded at New Street station for up to an hour. Once on the train, it is back to the sluggish chugging along, stopping at every Shropshire village, and so on. That is not the 21st century. We should be able to go to Birmingham and enjoy a night out without thinking of the ordeal of getting back home.
I know that the Government are committed to improving rail services and delivering a rail service fit for the 21st century. We have had a change of provider in Telford—that happened last December—and the Minister will be glad to hear that we have experienced some improvements to our service, and many more are promised. We will have an additional train per hour with effect from December this year, and that is very welcome indeed. However, there is much more to do if our train service is to keep up with the needs of our town—as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who is not now in his place, mentioned.
We need more carriages. We need at least one fast train per hour, missing out those little Shropshire villages, for which there is no demand at all—I never see anyone getting on and off at these little stops between Telford and Birmingham. We also need sensible spacing of trains running in any one hour, to avoid lengthy periods between trains. It seems almost thoughtless to have two trains an hour running with a very short space between them.
As I have mentioned, our train service has failed to keep pace with Telford’s development and growth. This is impacting on the everyday lives of ordinary people trying to go about their jobs and get to work. It inevitably impacts on the success of our town. One thing that I am absolutely delighted about—I am keen to raise this—is our fantastic new footbridge linking the station to the town centre. I am grateful to the Government for the £10 million of funding for this wonderful, new bridge, which will transform the gateway to Telford and really change the way people perceive it as they enter into our town. The construction of the bridge from the station is well under way. People’s experience of using the station will be totally transformed.
I know that the Minister has responsibility for roads, but I would be delighted if he could ask his colleague, the Minister with responsibility for rail, to find time in his diary to come to Telford and open our railway station footbridge later in the year. I urge the Minister and the train operators—both West Midlands Trains Ltd and Arriva Trains Wales—to please not forget about Telford. We are doing great things for the economy locally and nationally. We must have the connectivity to keep on doing what we are doing, to keep on bringing in jobs and to keep on growing the region.
When thousands of people’s everyday lives are impacted by small issues that could be changed, we have to think seriously about why we are not doing it. There are some recommendations I would make today to our train operators—I hope they are listening, as well as the Minister. We need to drop some of the stops along the route to Birmingham. We are a business centre and we need to be able to go faster. This service is not a tourist stopping service to admire the attractions of Shropshire; we are talking about a function of business, and we must have that there. We must have enough carriages, because we cannot have only two carriages that are constantly overflowing. It is perfectly obvious that having an extra carriage would make all the difference. We must also have sensible spacing, particularly with the new train per hour, which is due in December. Trains need to be spaced sensibly around the whole hour, so that they do not all come at once. We must ensure that we do not have that 47-minute journey with a 45-minute wait between services.
Telford is an exciting place to live. Without doubt, it is one of the most successful towns in the midlands, economically and in terms of quality of life. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary in Telford and look to our future, we must ensure that our rail services match our economic growth and our huge ambitions for the future. That is essential if we are to continue to be the shining success story of what a new town should be. I will be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say.
The debate may last until 4.56 pm. I call the Minister.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Hollobone. It is a positive delight to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a delight to speak in a debate that falls 100 years after the granting of the vote to women and the successes of suffragism and the suffragettes, and 50 years after the founding of Telford as a new town. I can think of no better way of unifying those two ideas than in my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan).
I am absolutely delighted that the Minister has raised that point. I have not had the opportunity to put on record that a relative of mine called Janie Allan was a militant, socialist suffragette and was in Holloway, where she was force-fed. It is thanks to her that so many of us are here today. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr Hollobone, for bringing that to a train debate.
I am honoured to be intervened on so early. I do not think I have ever been intervened on during the beginning of my introduction, but it was for such an honourable and honest cause. What a fantastic thing to say—I very much thank my hon. Friend for that.
It says more about my hon. Friend than I can that she has brought this debate at this juncture, and I congratulate her on it. It gives us an excellent opportunity to discuss rail services between Telford and Birmingham. She has built a formidable reputation as a vigorously campaigning and hard-working constituency MP on behalf of her local people, and it is easy to see why. I would not, judging by the gravamen of her speech, wish to live in one of those small villages that sit between Telford and Birmingham, but, with that small exception, her speech was very well made.
As the Chamber will know, I am responding on behalf of my colleague the Minister of State, Department for Transport, who is the rail Minister. Until very recently, he was steering the Space Industry Bill through the Commons on the Floor of the House, and he has therefore been unavoidably detained. I am sure that this is a debate that not merely colleagues and officials, but train operators, and West Midlands Trains in particular, are learning from and enjoying.
Let me pick up many of the themes that my hon. Friend has described. As she knows, and as she put well herself, the train came relatively late to Telford, because Telford itself was a new town. Since then, the town’s Central station has become one of the biggest success stories in the west midlands. Since opening in 1986, the station has grown beyond all expectations and now caters for something like 1 million passenger journeys every year. As my hon. Friend said, that has created a degree of growing pains; in some respects the station is, in the best sense—to the extent that these things can have a best sense—a victim of its own tremendous success. In fact, those numbers make the station busier than some of the region’s more established rail centres, including such storied names as Worcester Shrub Hill, Stratford-upon-Avon and Tamworth, to name but a few. It is a far cry from the days when the town’s rail needs were met by the likes of New Hadley Halt and Wellington station, which was once even renamed “Wellington-Telford West” to indicate that it served the neighbouring new town.
As my hon. Friend knows, on 10 December last year West Midlands Trains took over the operation of the West Midlands franchise from the previous incumbent, London Midland. The new company, whose responsibilities include operating both of the stations in her constituency, has committed to £1 billion of investment across the west midlands to deliver better journeys for all.
With her characteristic focus on the here and now, my hon. Friend has pointed out that the issue is not, at this point, electrification, but the bread-and-butter matters of capacity and service. I think that is widely recognised. The new franchise, which will run until 2026, will see passengers in the west midlands benefit from £700 million of investment in new and refurbished trains, including 400 brand-new carriages. That will increase the size of the fleet to 709 carriages from 563, and create space for an additional 85,000 passengers on rush-hour services, the majority of which will be in the west midlands.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) will be thrilled to hear that a further £60 million is to be spent on improving facilities at stations, including providing over 1,000 new car parking spaces, as well as more room for people to park—I am delighted to say this as the roads and cycling Minister—their bicycles. Every station in the franchise will also benefit from new information screens, more than 800 of which will be installed by spring 2021. Passengers will be able to see real-time journey information, including on train loading, so that they can work out where to board and what to do during any disruption, although I am sure that is a remote possibility. Passengers will also benefit from ambitious targets for the roll-out of smarter and more convenient forms of ticketing, which should be available on 50% of all passenger journeys by 2020 and 90% by the end of the franchise term.
Should delays and cancellations occur, and they inevitably do from time to time, passengers’ rights have also been strengthened. Compensation will now be available after delays of just 15 minutes or more, which is a marked improvement—of 50%, 100% or 200%, however it is counted—on the 30-minute threshold offered under the previous franchise. Eventually passengers will be able to make and receive compensation claims directly from an app, which will go hand in hand with the provision of free wi-fi on practically all trains.
The new franchise also plans to make great strides to break down the barriers to rail travel for those people who have restricted mobility. From 2020 the amount of notice required for passenger assistance will be halved to 12 hours, before falling to just four hours by 2021. By that date a trial of a turn-up-and-go service will also be undertaken. Other initiatives to recognise the railway as a community asset include an investment of £1.25 million to develop community rail initiatives, and a sustainability strategy to deliver a 49% reduction in carbon emissions and support the local supply chain.
As well as looking forward to better stations and more services, the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford will soon be able to enjoy more comfortable journeys on new trains. From 2020, 80 modern diesel carriages will be introduced to operate on services in and around Birmingham, including on the Telford line. In addition to offering a higher quality environment, these vehicles will have more seats than the carriages they are replacing, which should help to alleviate the rush-hour overcrowding that, as she mentioned, has resulted from the line’s growing popularity.
I have spoken so far about the franchise-wide improvements, but the line from Telford to Birmingham will also be transformed thanks to changes to the timetable, enhancements to station facilities and additional rolling stock. In December 2018, West Midlands Trains will create a regular all-day half-hourly service between Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury, calling at Telford. It will run from Monday to Saturday, and will complement the existing hourly service provided by the Wales and Borders franchisee, Arriva Trains Wales, making three trains per hour overall. I hope my hon. Friend will agree that that is a significant improvement, and it may go some way towards dealing with the dreadful situation she described of being stranded after an evening on the town. At the same time, West Midlands Trains will introduce a regular hourly local service to Birmingham on Sundays, in place of the current irregular Wales and Borders service. Then, in May 2021, that will be increased to two local trains per hour, which when combined with the hourly long-distance service from Wales, will mean three trains an hour all week. All of that will be achieved while maintaining similar journey times to today.
A better service deserves a better station, and Telford Central station is set to benefit from a range of improvements over the next few years. By the summer of this year—again, I rejoice in this as the Minister concerned—a bike hire facility will be installed. This will allow locals and visitors alike to find out for themselves why the area is known as “the birthplace of industry” by taking a trip to the Ironbridge UNESCO world heritage site and its surroundings. This work will be complemented by an expansion in the number of cycle parking spaces at Telford Central, due to be completed in 2021, and the development of station travel plans for both Telford and Oakengates. Those are designed to help promote sustainable travel to and from the stations by bringing together initiatives into a co-ordinated package that is delivered through partnership between the rail industry, the local authority and other stakeholders. Car users will benefit from an expanded and modernised car park. One hundred new spaces are to be created, and an automatic number plate recognition system will be installed to make it easier for passengers to pay for their car parking.
My hon. Friend mentioned apprenticeships. She will be pleased to know that the new West Midlands franchise will create 900 new apprenticeships over its course, and that the ambition is that at least 20 of those engineering and driving apprentices—I hope that the engineering apprenticeships will, in part, be at the new university in Herefordshire—will be female.
Smarter payment solutions will not, however, be exclusive to the car park. New ticket machines equipped with smart ticket readers are to be installed at both Telford Central and Oakengates stations. That will complement the introduction of the other smart ticket products that I have already outlined.
We know that change has to meet passengers’ needs and that modernisation must reflect the reality of people’s lives. That is why, as part of improving the ticketing arrangements, we have listened to what passengers have asked for and are introducing flexible carnet products from 2020. These will enable passengers to purchase a set number of journeys, and then redeem them as and when required.
Another common area of passenger feedback relates to the upkeep and repair of stations. Telford Central and Oakengates will be subject to a service quality regime that is designed to drive up station and customer service standards. The regime will be linked to cash penalties for the franchisee, and poor performance will result in money having to be reinvested in improving the customer experience. The same is true for Wellington station, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin would be grateful to hear if he were here.
The service quality regime will be overseen by West Midlands Rail, a consortium of 16 local authorities from across the region that has been created to lead rail transformation locally. Through a novel partnership arrangement, my Department and West Midlands Rail will jointly manage the new franchise, with West Midlands Rail taking the lead for services across the region, including those provided in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford.
The benefits of that collective but local focus can be seen right now, as a scheme is being delivered at Telford Central to better connect the station to the town and to create step-free access to all station platforms. That scheme, funded by my Department and delivered by Telford and Wrekin Council, is an excellent example of how partnership working between central Government and local government can enhance the lives of local people. That Telford and Wrekin Council is a member of West Midlands Rail is further cause for optimism for the town and its rail users.
Rail users in my hon. Friend’s constituency have much to look forward to. In the next few years, they will enjoy better and more frequent services all week on more comfortable trains and from more pleasant stations. Their rights will be defended not only by the tireless efforts of my hon. Friend, but by West Midlands Rail, which, as a devolved body, will be responsible for delivering local leadership for local services. The west midlands deserves the best possible rail service, and that is what my Department, my ministerial colleagues and my hon. Friend are determined to provide.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered train services between Telford and Birmingham.
Free School Meals/Pupil Premium: Eligibility
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future eligibility for free school meals and the pupil premium.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. With the support of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George), I called this debate because of our serious concerns about the Department for Education’s consultation, “Eligibility for free school meals and the early years pupil premium under Universal Credit”. Those concerns arose following my oral question on universal credit and free school meals to the new Secretary of State last week, when, unfortunately, he completely missed my point.
The Government are disregarding the concerns of many in this House and outside it that their actions will push more children into poverty. Labour Members know that poverty is not an inevitability, but a symptom of failure to harness political will, think innovatively and take bold steps forward. This whole issue encapsulates that neatly. In my contribution, I will focus on the concerns flagged up by the consultation’s proposals and discuss what should be done to mitigate those concerns and why.
In my letter to the consultation, I said that I am a huge supporter of rolling out hot and healthy universal free school meals for all children—I always have been. That will be no surprise to hon. Members, who know that I have banged on about my support for wider access and the provision of free school meals for more than a decade now, and I will continue to do so until all children receive a hot and healthy meal in the dinner hall.
In the current transition to universal credit, all families claiming the new benefit are entitled to free school meals, which is great, but the Department’s consultation aims to roll forward that reform by rolling back one of its most progressive measures. By removing the universal entitlement to free school meals under universal credit and introducing a £7,400 threshold for eligibility for free school meals, the Government are forcibly creating a cliff edge that will be detrimental to families, especially children. That seems utterly ludicrous.
As the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), wrote when the White Paper on universal credit was published in 2010:
“At its heart, Universal Credit is very simple and will ensure that work always pays and is seen to pay. Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently…better off for each hour they work and every pound they earn.”
The Opposition do not disagree at all with the principles that he set out, but sadly, the reality has failed to live up to the promise made eight years ago. We all know lots of the reasons behind that, which ultimately led to him resigning, but that is a whole other story.
The proposals set out in the consultation are diametrically opposed to that 2010 vision and what it was meant to achieve, especially around making work pay. To give one example of how the proposal will be detrimental: someone with three children in their family who earns just below the £7,400 threshold is set to lose out on £1,200 in free school meals if they work only a few hours more or get a pay rise. The family’s annual wages would have to increase from £7,400 to almost £11,000 to make up for what they lost by rising above the eligibility cliff edge—a problem that would not occur under the working tax credit system because the legacy benefits system provides an offsetting income boost at the point that free school meals are withdrawn. Under universal credit, however, there is no equivalent mitigation.
Another example, provided to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak and me by the fabulous Dr Sam Royston of the Children’s Society, is that a single parent with no housing costs and one child would be £26 better off per week under the old working tax credit system than under universal credit. The Minister may think £26 per week a meagre amount, but for many outside this place it can determine whether or not they can eat or heat their home. The child of the single parent in Dr Royston’s example is not entitled to free school meals either under working tax credits or under the proposed universal credit rules, so it may seem that they will be no worse off, but the only way they can be so entitled is if the transitional plans are made permanent, so that all children in a family that claims universal credit receive free school meals.
My hon. Friend will be aware—as I am, since I represent a rural area—that one of the problems with free school meals is how many parents will not claim them because of stigma. Does she agree that changing to universal credit will only make that worse?
Yes. One of my reasons for supporting universal free school meals is that the stigma would be removed. It was proved in the excellent school food plan commissioned under the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), that that was one of the benefits of universal free school meals. The poorest kids, who are entitled to them anyway, are the ones who benefit the most.
As a teenager, I was entitled to free school meals, but because of the stigma I did not take them. I used to refuse to queue up for my token, so I went without, which resulted in my developing a very controlling relationship with food and a lot of problems at home. I totally support my hon. Friend’s proposal, because free school meals for all children will mean that they all get a healthy meal and the stigma will disappear.
I totally agree. The same system should apply for all children who are entitled to universal credit, although wider access is another debate.
I completely agree about the stigma; I raised the same point with the Minister the other day in the Chamber. However, does the hon. Lady agree that there is another way? Instead of enfranchising everybody, we could have an auto-enrolment scheme that was linked to the benefits system, rather than a system of people self-declaring as eligible.
I agree about auto-enrolment: parents should not have to apply. However, the point that I am trying to make is that any family eligible for universal credit should automatically get free school meals through auto-enrolment. If the cliff edge is brought in, it would be detrimental to that vision that we probably all share.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the more we spend on the administration costs of the proposed system, the less money will go towards the pupils? Having an easier system would mean we could spend more of the money on what it should be spent on: the meals that we want children to have.
I absolutely agree. Administering the cliff edge will mean huge costs. We should learn from the current system for free school meals for infants.
I am aware that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I had better get back to setting out my concerns. What we want to prevent is families avoiding pay rises or working more hours for fear that they will lose out. That is not making work pay, and it is not what the system was intended to do when it was set up. If the Minister and his Department, alongside the Department for Work and Pensions, were truly in favour of making work pay, they would at the very least have made provision to avoid that issue—even keeping the status quo would work. They have known about the problem for seven years; I have banged on about it for years, and so have my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, since before she was an MP, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and other hon. Members. Sadly, it seems that the Government are keen to power on without even considering the impact of their policies on a child’s life. It would be welcome if the Minister set out how he believes the threshold and its implications are consistent with the Government’s aim to make work pay.
Another concern about the consultation is the figure of 50,000 more children who we keep hearing will benefit from free school meals by 2022. On the surface, it is welcome that the Government have estimated that more children will be receiving free school meals under their plans, but it is deeply concerning that analysis by the Children’s Society has found that more than 1 million children living in poverty would miss out on a free school meal because of the cliff edge. In the consultation document, the Government say that 50,000 children will benefit by the end of the roll-out, when the transitional protections are at their capacity. Herein lies the crux of the problem: the document also states that 10% of children—113,000—will lose out on free school meal entitlement. That is because children will fall off once the transitional protections come to an end, as they move from primary school, where they will have the protection when it comes in, to secondary school, where their entitlement will end.
I would therefore welcome clarity from the Minister about how he will protect children who risk losing their free school meals when they move from one stage of their education to the next. If he cannot give us answers in this debate—that would be a shame, but I am aware that time will be an issue—I would be more than happy to take him up on his offer to meet me if he is still happy to do so. I am very grateful that he made that commitment.
I want to offer the Minister a solution, which I have already touched on. It makes total sense for the current transitional system to be made permanent so that all the children in a family on universal credit receive free school meals. That would not generate any extra bureaucracy, it would be fairer and it would help make work pay. It would be exactly what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green intended when he envisaged and enacted the policy. It would negate any of the concerns that I have mentioned and that other hon. Members may mention. It would push the cliff edge to a much higher earnings threshold and overcome the fear of deductions from earnings, which turn the Government’s proposals against making work pay. We do not want people to refuse pay rises or extra work for fear that they will lose three lots of free school meals.
That is not the only reason to maintain the status quo. Free school meals also have significant benefits for a child’s life. I will never miss an opportunity to sing the praises of the universal principle of free school meals. As several hon. Members have already mentioned, they reduce stigma. In its response to the consultation, School Food Matters quoted the comments of a headteacher about how universal infant free school meals had reduced stigma:
“Despite being in an affluent London borough, 27% of the children at our school are currently entitled to free school meals but nearer 40% have been entitled to free school meals within the past 6 years.”
That is what matters for the pupil premium. The headteacher went on to say:
“This is a clear indicator that many of the families are only just about managing.”
This shows that if the Minister goes ahead with the current proposals, we could see more and more of the “just about managing”—the JAMs, who the Prime Minister referred to in her first speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street—being left behind. Would that not go against what this Government are all about?
The Minister knows that I have a keen interest in supporting children from low-income families by giving them healthy meals, both in term time and in the holidays. We had the excellent private Member’s Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and I know that the Minister is considering pilots with regard to it, which is very welcome. By implementing my proposal, the Government would ensure that those children have access to a healthy meal that would benefit their education, their health and their wellbeing.
The evidence is out there and I am sure that the Minister has a copy of the school food plan lying around in his office; if he has not, I have a spare one, or I am sure that I get John Vincent or Henry Dimbleby, its writers, to send him one. I advise him strongly to go away and read it, as it is excellent from cover to cover, especially chapter 11, which is about the benefits of free school meals. In said chapter, there are references to the evaluations of the free school meal pilots established by the last Labour Government under Ed Balls, which showed that there was a 23% increase in vegetable consumption, a 16% decline in the consumption of soft drinks—because there were no packed lunches—and an 18% decline in the consumption of crisps. Those pilots also benefited a child’s education, with children in receipt of a free school meal in the pilot areas on average two months ahead of their peers outside the pilot areas and 2% more children reaching their target levels in maths and English at key stage 1, while at key stage 2 the impact was between 3% and 5%. If we want to close the attainment gap, there is nothing better than to start by making sure that the kids are all fed.
The hon. Lady says “there is nothing better”, but potentially there is: breakfast. All the studies show that disadvantaged children perform a lot better once they have had a breakfast, and in fact children in middle-class families and higher-earning families, where the parents are busy and going off to work, often suffer as well, because they are not getting that important breakfast, which is, after all, the most important meal of the day.
Absolutely—the hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I totally agree with what she just said. However, I do not see it as an either/or situation, as I want both those things; I want children to be getting their breakfasts and then getting their lunches. When there were the pilots for universal free school meals, lots of schools could manage to provide both, because even when there was an offer of universal free breakfasts, not all of the children had them; only about 18% to 20% of the children took up that offer. It is very affordable to provide such breakfasts and usually it is the children who really need them who take them, whether they are from busy working families or from poor families. It is a very good policy.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes—for the last time.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that instead of cutting back breakfast clubs we should be developing them. However, there is also the issue of “holiday hunger” throughout the summer period, the Christmas period, Easter and everything else, and we really should look to develop policies in that regard rather than cutting back.
Yes. My hon. Friend might not have realised what I was referring to before; it was to the private Member’s Bill promoted by our right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead on holiday meal provision, which the Minister has committed to running some pilots on. Hopefully, they will prove that point.
On the benefits of universal free school meals, I will just add that when they were piloted, the most marked academic improvements were among children from less affluent backgrounds. That is a very important point to make.
I think the Minister is a common-sense kind of guy; I have found that in my dealings with him in all-party groups that we have worked in together over the years. So I am sure that, on hearing the figures that I have cited, he will agree that the reason for all of this work is that children are more attentive and ready to learn, because they have a healthy meal in their tummies that is fuelling their learning.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am just about to finish.
The proposals in the consultation would jeopardise all of that, because those children would have to go back to bringing in packed lunches and only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional requirements that our fabulous school food does now. It has been improved beyond recognition.
I will give way to the hon. Lady very quickly.
I know that the hon. Lady is just coming to the end of her remarks, but I just wanted to pick her up on one thing. She is making compelling arguments for the benefits of free school meals and breakfasts. I think that many of us would support her in wanting to make sure that children are well fed at school. However, she has not touched on the costs of doing those things, the trade-offs, and the choices that might have to be made to ensure that a generous supply of free school meals is available.
The hon. Lady might not be aware, because I do not think that she was a Member at the time, but after the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath commissioned the school food plan, he agreed with all 17 of its recommendations. He put money to 16 of them straight away and the 17th one was for universal free school meals; he accepted the arguments for that recommendation and said he would provide money for it when it could be found. Money was found for universal infant free school meals, under the coalition agreement with Nick Clegg, and those meals were introduced.
The point has already been made; it has been proved. The money can be found, because universal free school meals more than pay for themselves, and the benefits that we get from them outweigh the initial costs, including the amount saved on administration because they are universal. There are a whole host of arguments around this issue, but in a sense I am detracting from what this debate is about, so I will conclude.
I hope that the Minister has been listening intently; in fact, I am sure he has, because he has looking at me and I have seen he is. I hope he will do the same with other speakers. The new system was presented as a way to eradicate poverty, but instead the introduction of the measure that we have been discussing could cement poverty in our society, and at worst there could even be a rise in poverty among “working poor” families. If that happens, we would go through all these changes for naught, and children would be just as badly off in the future—maybe even worse off—and that would be at the behest of the Government. I am sure that is not what they want, so I hope that the Minister will look at this issue seriously and perhaps think again, for the sake of the children out there who we are all here to support.
I have to call the first of the Front-Bench speakers no later than 5.36 pm. Eight Members are seeking to catch my eye, one of whom had not informed the Speaker’s Office beforehand that they wished to speak in this debate. If we are going to get everyone in, I am afraid that there will have to be a short limit on speeches of two minutes and thirty seconds.
Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this debate and for eloquently and forcefully putting across the reasons for it and the flaws in how things are processed.
I want to discuss this issue in context of my region. The Greater Manchester area has the highest rate of child poverty in the country. I have three concerns about the Government’s proposed changes to the eligibility criteria for free school meals. First, and from a regional perspective, the areas worst affected by child poverty stand to lose the most from the proposed changes. Places with among the highest rates of child poverty, such as my constituency of Manchester, Gorton, will have a high number of children who are no longer eligible for free school meals. The effects of this will need to be picked up by already-stretched local councils and charities.
Secondly, the Government are turning their back on the 10% of pupils from poor households who would not be eligible for free school meals under the proposed changes. In the city of Manchester, there are 5,000 children eligible for free school meals under universal credit who would not be eligible under the proposed criteria. Thirdly, the Government are undermining their own principle that universal credit should make work pay. In some cases, taking on additional work would mean families ending up on a lower overall income, instead of people being rewarded for working harder.
Changes to universal credit are already projected to push a million more children into poverty by 2022. We must not additionally take away the right for children in poverty to access free school meals.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate. She is a very strong advocate for helping children in our schools, and although I do not agree with everything she said, I support the direction she is moving in.
One thing that we can agree on is that the legacy system is not fit for purpose. It has many peculiarities, one of the most perverse of which is that the children of those on working tax credits do not receive free school meals. That means that somebody working 16 hours a week on the national minimum wage might have a take-home pay of £120, but they might live next door to a family in which somebody is working 15 hours a week on £25 an hour and taking home £375 a week, and yet their family still gets universal credit. The system absolutely must be reformed to make it fairer.
Under the circumstances, finding a threshold is probably the most cost-effective way, although it brings problems, as the hon. Lady has highlighted. There has to be a cut-off, and it is much better done in terms of income rather than hours, but that creates a cliff edge. This is a policy area where unless one goes to the extreme recommendation of giving all children free school meals, it is like being on the Old Man of Hoy—there is a cliff edge in every direction. There is a cliff edge at the end of universal credit or when someone moves on to working tax credits or at £7,400. The line must be drawn somewhere, and it is best drawn where more children will be on free school meals after the reform than there were before. In the long term, there may be a technological solution, whereby every child has a charge card. That would get over the problem of stigma, as everyone would pay in the same way. No one would know how much money the state was putting in, and it could be tapered. We could create a genuine universal credit.
Finally, I very much respect the hon. Lady’s position, and I look forward to hearing from the Labour Front Bench whether the Opposition support it. If so, where will they find the £600 million that the Resolution Foundation has said the meals will cost, or the £6.2 billion that would be required to give everyone the pupil premium, because it is a passporting benefit? Given the fiscal responsibility rule, that would have to come from additional taxation. The millions watching on parliamentlive.tv deserve to know where that taxation will come from.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has done great work on child poverty and school meals. I am proud to be standing here on the anniversary of women’s suffrage. This debate is on exactly the sort of issue that women were given the vote for and to stand in Parliament to speak on. The issue hits children most of all, but women primarily and in particular single parents.
I was shocked to read the consultation document, having worked on universal credit for many years. One of the best things about universal credit was the fact that all children on universal credit were entitled to a free school meal. I applaud the fact that the coalition Government legislated for that. It would be a backwards step to look to take that away and introduce a cliff edge at just £7,400 a year of earnings, which is equivalent to just 18 hours a week on the minimum wage. Under universal credit, someone loses 63% of everything they earn. If someone on a low wage is only getting 37% of what they earn back into their pocket and is losing free school meals for their children—those are worth on average £429 for one child and £858 for two children—that is a huge disincentive to work.
I urge the Minister to look into the work of the Children’s Society. It has calculated that a single parent with two children would need to earn £11,000—that is, £4,000 more—to overcome that cliff edge under universal credit. That is no incentive to work, and a million children in poverty will not gain the free school meals that they need. A family in poverty cannot afford to feed their children to the best nutritional standards, as they would want to do. A free school breakfast would help.
I agree with the hon. Lady about those in poverty, but those moving from working tax benefits on to universal credit could be earning up to £40,000 as a household, if not more. Is it appropriate that we give those households free school meals, or is that a misuse of resource?
The vast majority of parents moving from tax credits on to—
Order. I call Stephen Lloyd.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I greatly appreciate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). The frustration with this issue is that the whole concept behind universal credit is about making work pay. It was defenestrated in 2015 by George Osborne removing the £3 billion and doing it per annum from the work allowance, so it does not make work pay an awful lot. There are lots of clunky bits within universal credit, which I have talked about ad nauseam and which just seem to get worse and worse, which is rather frustrating. Then there are free school meals, which are a tremendous success, yet the Government may well be laying a statutory instrument that will fundamentally not make work pay.
The estimated cost that parents will be paying for a child is £400 if their income is beyond the income floor of £7,400. Imagine I have an income of just over £7,500 and three children. That makes £1,200 before I even get out of bed. Does that make work pay? No, it does not. The rational decision by the parent or parents will be: “What’s the point? There’s no point me doing that extra bit of work and going over £7,500.” That is totally counterproductive.
Unusually for me, I ask the Minister on behalf of the Government to go swinging back to the Treasury and to say to his esteemed colleague, “Government, do nothing.” I know that there are various erroneous, scurrilous rumours going around Parliament and Westminster these days that the Government are not doing an awful lot, but in this case I urge the Minister to do nothing at all. He should not introduce the statutory instrument. The Government should let all children who will be going on to universal credit receive free school meals. I know that would cost £500 million to £600 million, but under the old system things remained the same, because when people went beyond 16 hours the working tax credit made up the difference. I urge the Minister to go back to the Treasury and say, “Do nothing. Let all children on universal credit receive free school meals.”
I, too, want to refer to the work incentive, because improving it was supposed to be the fundamental advantage of universal credit. That was set out fully and ably by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) from 2010 onwards. For example, the document “21st Century Welfare”, which was published in July 2010, states in chapter 2 that
“someone at the National Minimum Wage would be less than £7 per week better off if they worked 16 extra hours…A system that produces this result cannot be right.”
We all agreed with the right hon. Gentleman about that, yet the universal credit system, which is supposed to remove all these problems, will introduce a benefit trap far worse than anything in the legacy system. There is nothing in the legacy system under which someone earning a few hours of extra work will end up hundreds of pounds worse off because they have lost their free school meals.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I do not think I can, given the time limit, but I want to comment on the point that the hon. Gentleman made in his speech. He suggested that the answer could be an electronic card system and the contribution to school meals could be tapered away with the universal credit taper. I made that proposal in the Welfare Reform Bill Committee on 13 June 2011, when I moved new clause 3. I was making exactly the point that a fixed-income threshold for entitlement to free school meals is disastrous for work incentives. There is some merit in his suggestion that that would be a long-term solution, but I suggested it seven years ago, which I am afraid is a reflection of the failure of Ministers. Seven years on, they have not come up with a solution to this very serious problem.
The difficulty is that universal credit was never seen as a whole-of-Government initiative. When the Government that many now on the Opposition Benches supported introduced tax credits, it was a whole-of-Government initiative. Gordon Brown made sure of that. Under this Government, universal credit is a matter for the DWP, so the Minister present no doubt feels that it is not for him to worry about work incentives in the social security system. However, he should be worried about this issue, and I hope he will change his policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate.
This Government have presided over a total failure to address this country’s economic flaws, to the extent that food banks are now a major food supplier in Britain. Free school meal eligibility is linked to the pupil premium, which is a valuable source of school funding for the most deprived schoolchildren, so it would be a casualty of the proposal. The free school meal consultation, which would see the earnings threshold for free school meals eligibility lowered to £7,400 per year, is a result of a flaw in the design of universal credit. The legacy benefit system contained an in-built trigger for free school meal eligibility. All children whose families are on universal credit receive free school meals, so the Government are trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Has the Minister not considered that such a low threshold for free school meal eligibility is, in fact, a disincentive for parents to seek additional work? With school meals costing £437 per year, per child, undertaking an extra two hours of low-income work is not financially prudent for any parent. I urge the Minister to consider the human consequences of Government plans, in terms of physical and mental health and quality of life. Will he commit to maintaining free school meals eligibility for all children whose families are on universal credit?
Universal credit was a noble ambition, and Labour did not question the principle of it, but it has been executed so poorly that it has impoverished many people in the communities where it has been rolled out, to the extent that the use of food banks has risen by 30% six months on. It is a sad indictment of the Government that food poverty is having such a profound impact on children. In 2017, some food banks reported that more than 40% of their beneficiaries were children.
I point the Minister to the 2015 autumn statement, which committed the Government to maintaining pupil premium spending at current rates until 2020. Will he guarantee that spend, should this policy be implemented?
I, too, am proud of the work done by my north-east colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). This policy means that the Government expect families that are already struggling to find around £10 per week for each of their children to enjoy a school meal, or resort to cheap sandwiches and other rubbish to ensure that they are fed. I ask the Minister: which element of the universal credit payment will cover that cost, which runs to £800 for a family with two school-age children for a school year? No wonder we cannot find a charity that supports the policy. I ask the Minister whether the Government really think that successive Governments enhanced free school meal provision just for the fun of it. Do the Government truly believe that there was not strong evidence to back such a policy? Do they not understand that these changes will mean hungry children on their watch?
I am not one to be kindly towards the Government, who are responsible for the escalating number of children in poverty in the UK, but today I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, as with many other policies related to children, the Government have just not understood the consequences of their proposals. They need to act now, before we have a hunger crisis in our schools. I know that the Minister will say that no child currently on free school meals will be taken off them, but it is about the future and the next group of children, whose parents are public sector workers—cleaners, car park attendants, shop workers and so on. All of them have seen little growth in their income for nearly 10 years. Does he not agree that it would be bizarre to have two children in the same class, one who is getting fed, and one who is not, despite their families having the same income?
This morning, I met with the British Association of Social Workers. Its new research shows that poverty can result in parents being judged unable to care for their children and seen to be neglecting them. That in turn can lead to more children ending up in care, and possibly even adopted, because there was insufficient food on the table. How, in the 21st century, can it be right that a child is removed from their family just because they are poor? That policy, or more accurately that cut, is both shameful and destructive. The Government cannot claim to be providing anything for the next generation, except the erosion of public services, a reduction in social mobility and, now, the erasure of attainment in schools, by removing a positive policy that has changed many millions of children’s lives for the better.
Today, the Minister could accept that children will suffer under these school meal proposals. I just hope that he is listening, and that the Government will put the matter right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing today’s important debate.
We have been told many times by the Government that universal credit was designed to make work pay. These plans tell a different story. Universal credit was supposed to mean no cliff edges, so it would always be worth a household working extra hours to earn more. Free school meals are worth £437 per child, so even for a household with a single eligible child, taking just an extra hour of work per week on the national minimum wage would mean a loss of income under the new proposals. The Children’s Society estimates that a million children will miss out on free school meals under the new proposals. It is therefore not a case of work paying, but of some of the poorest children in society paying for another Tory policy that is set to bring yet more anguish and confusion to the botched universal credit roll-out.
Headteachers have voiced concerns that the proposed scheme would be complicated to manage and confusing for parents. Clearly the Government have not learned from their poor general election results. I remember the parody “strong and stable Tories steal the food from the children’s table” doing the rounds in response to the Tory manifesto policy to axe free school meals. The Government should know that they have no mandate to reduce school meals, and it makes no sense to do so.
Last summer, 47% of children who received support from food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network were between five and 11 years old, and 4,412 more three-day emergency food supplies were given to children during the summer holidays than in previous months. We know that children on free school meals already underperform in schools. Why would any Government choose to make life more difficult and more challenging for those children? Why would a Government that claim to want to tackle inequality, to help the disadvantaged, to tackle child obesity and to help out the “just about managing” come up with a policy that does the exact opposite?
I agree with the Child Poverty Action Group, which has said that the Government have missed an opportunity to alleviate the crisis by increasing the eligibility and uptake of free school meals, ensuring that all children from low-income households receive a nutritious meal at lunchtime. If a family is in need of universal credit, it stands to reason that the children should be eligible for free school meals. It is just another example of the Government using the universal credit system to make the poorest in society, including children in working households, even worse off.
I commend the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. It is a great shame that a significant number of people who wanted to contribute for longer than a couple of minutes could not. I encourage the hon. Lady to take the matter forward so that the debate can be continued under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, because it is clearly an important topic. As I intimated to you, Mr Hollobone, I will speak for only three minutes, as I wanted to reduce my time to allow others to get in earlier on.
I welcome the Minister and wish him well as he takes on his new role in the Department. Summing up, we have had excellent speeches from the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), for High Peak (Ruth George), for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin).
As probably the youngest Member currently in the Chamber, when I saw that the debate was on free school meals it conjured up images of the mince and tatties and the custard that we had at Milncroft Primary in Glasgow. I should declare an interest, as I am married to a teacher, so I have first-hand experience of my wife coming home and telling me about the importance of free school meals and breakfast clubs. I pay tribute to my colleague on Glasgow City Council, Councillor Norman MacLeod, who has passionately argued for free school meals, and I echo what the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said in that regard.
Before touching on a couple of things relating to Scotland—I know at this stage hon. Members normally groan, but unfortunately the third party summing-up rights mean that we have to take part in these debates, which is why I will try to keep my remarks brief—I will touch on three particular issues. The hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) made the point about money, and I think the same point was made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately). I took part in last night’s debate about the orders introduced by the Government, particularly on social security and pensions. In my time in the House I have already seen the Government pursue a benefits freeze, the 1% public sector pay cap, the barbaric rape clause and the medieval two-child policy. A number of hon. Members in today’s debate made the point that we should be looking after people on the lowest rungs of society, and the most vulnerable in society.
I am conscious of time, but I want to draw attention to the fact that in Scotland, with cross-party support, we have introduced legislation that enshrines a target for reducing child poverty by 2030. would like to see this Government do that as well.
I say to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West to keep going on with this. It has been a good debate, but we need cross-party consensus. Today is the beginning of that, not the end.
I welcome the Minister to his place in his new Department. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). She is a tireless campaigner as the chair of the all-party group on school food and she has shone a light for many years on this issue. She is also the first Sharon in the 100 years of women being elected to this place, so I congratulate her on that, too. I heard her on Radio 4 a few weeks ago when she was campaigning on secondary ticketing. Unfortunately, the grammar school and private school-educated kids could not get around the fact they were talking to a Sharon. Anybody who was in the Chamber on Friday when she gave her personal testimony in the debate on the registration of stillborn children will know that I have heard nothing more powerful in this place for many years. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate.
I doubt that anyone would dispute the importance of a benefit as wholesome as school meals. As a former primary school teacher, I saw the difference between those kids who got a full school meal and those who brought the rubbish in the packs—the chocolate and the drinks. I actually saw the impact on the difference in attainment during the afternoon. Governments have worked—together with Jamie Oliver—to improve nutritional values in school meals. We know that the provision of free school meals helps to reduce health inequalities, focuses attention in the classroom and brings benefits to attainment. As I said, I have seen it in my own experience.
The Government cannot deny that 1 million children living in poverty in working families are on these benefits. Those both in and beyond this place have outlined the conundrum carefully. By setting a net earnings threshold of £7,400 per annum to determine eligibility for free school meals under universal credit, the Government are contradicting their own stated aim of universal credit, which is to make work pay. If a household is earning just under £7,400 and has the chance to earn slightly more money, the Government are presenting working families with a cliff edge. There are clear questions the Minister needs to answer.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the example in the consultation document of a parent gaining free school meal eligibility is misleading? When they transfer from tax credits to universal credit, they will lose £1,600 a year. Those are not the children who should not be getting free school meals.
I cannot agree more with my hon. Friend. We talked about cliff edges. What assessment has the Minister made of the cliff edge issues? In particular, how many children will be affected and how much will it cost families to make up the shortfall?
A second and connected issue has been flagged in the debate: the pupil premium. Pupil premium is additional funding targeted at raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. It is currently targeted at children registered as eligible for free school meals, looked-after children and children who have had a parent in the regular armed forces at any point since 2012. Since the introduction of universal infant free school meals, schools have been missing out on that vital additional resource, as parents do not need to register for free school meals, which is the basis on which pupil premium is calculated. For schools already experiencing real-terms cuts to their funding, that is a vital additional resource that they can ill afford to miss out on.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time we broke the link between free school meals and the pupil premium and broadened the calculations for the pupil premium, so that it also includes social disadvantages such as bereavement, mental health problems, divorce and so on, which can affect attainment?
We will broaden it out and should have more, not fewer, children on free school meals. That was clearly our policy in our manifesto in June.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman, although I would say that only a former policy adviser would frame a question in the way that he did.
We know that for disadvantaged pupils having a full belly helps them perform. We had a fully costed manifesto at the general election, unlike the Conservative party, which—on its insult and injury tour—was taking away free school meals and making sure that it had no costed proposals for it. Labour would reintroduce free school meals as a universal benefit across the system so that we get proper learning and attainment in our school system. We cannot afford not to do it.
Will the Minister conclude his remarks no later than 5.54 pm, so that Sharon Hodgson has two minutes to sum up the debate? I call the Minister.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this important debate. I thank all colleagues who have spoken today, including the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin).
I worked closely with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West on the all-party parliamentary group on water safety and drowning prevention. I hope we can continue to work closely today. May I also say how moved I was by her heartfelt speech in the debate on the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill last week? It really moved the whole House, and people beyond.
Today’s debate is timely, as we have considered the responses to our public consultation on changing the entitlement criteria for free school meals and the early years pupil premium. I will be publishing the Government response shortly. It is all part of the drive to ensure every child has the opportunity to make the most of their life, no matter where they live or their background.
Let me start by restating the importance this Government attached to providing hot, nutritious free school meals to the most disadvantaged children. We are committed to continuing to provide those meals to families in need. Last year, about 1.1 million disadvantaged children in our communities were eligible for and were claiming a hot free meal, which saves families around £400 per year, as we have already heard today.
Under the existing benefits-based criteria, children whose parents or guardians receive one or more of the qualifying benefits, such as income support, jobseeker’s allowance and child tax credits, can make a claim to a school and are entitled to receive a hot meal. However, the simplification of the welfare system through the introduction of universal credit means that a number of the benefits that currently entitle families to free school meals will cease to exist.
To ensure that any families moving on to universal credit in the early stages of roll-out in the pilot areas, which we have heard much about today, did not lose out on their entitlement, in 2013 universal credit was added temporarily to the list of qualifying benefits for free school meals pending the introduction of the eligibility criteria. The same temporary measure was introduced for the early years pupil premium when that additional funding for disadvantaged three and four-year-olds was first introduced in 2015, and for the free early years entitlement for two-year-olds, which my Department has consulted on separately. As planned, we now need to replace the temporary measure with clear eligibility criteria under universal credit as its national roll-out accelerates.
In setting the new criteria we have followed five clear principles. First, our approach must protect children from a sudden loss of a hot meal as a result of the changes. Secondly, our approach must be fair in how it treats children and families, and target our support most effectively to those on very low incomes. Thirdly, it must enable more children to benefit from these entitlements. Fourthly, it should be as straightforward as possible, both for parents to understand and for schools to deliver. Last, but by no means least, it must be consistent with the approach the Government have taken to determining eligibility for other passported benefits as universal credit is rolled out.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?
I have a lot to say. Forgive me—I will try to address some of the issues that hon. Members have brought up in the debate. I will make some headway and see where we are on time.
Based on those principles, the proposal we have consulted on is to introduce an earnings threshold for free school meals and the early years pupil premium of £7,400. That is equivalent, depending on a family’s exact circumstances, to an income of £18,000 to £24,000, once benefits are taken into account. We will publish our response to the consultation shortly. I will briefly set out our thinking on the proposals in more detail.
Will the Minister give way?
Let me just set out the thinking, and then I will address some of the issues that colleagues raised.
First, to ensure our proposals do not result in any child losing out on a hot meal from one day to the next as a result of these changes, we propose to offer generous protections. We propose to protect the status of every child currently eligible for free school meals at the point at which the threshold is introduced, and every child who gains eligibility under the new arrangements during the roll-out of universal credit until the end of the roll-out. Following that period, we will protect all pupils who were protected and are still of school age until the end of their phase of education—for example, primary or secondary school.
Those protections will apply to those on universal credit and the legacy benefits that qualify a family for free school meals. We are not proposing to make any changes for those eligible for free school meals because they are in receipt of asylum support or pensions credits. Those households will therefore remain entitled to free school meals for a long as they retain those benefits.
Will the Minister give way?
Let me make some progress. I want to share a lot of information with colleagues.
The proposals will not affect the criteria for universal infant free school meals, which will continue to be available to all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2, regardless of income. I am sure the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West supports and agrees with that proposal.
Once roll-out of universal credit is complete, we will move to an earnings-based system, similar to the one introduced in Scotland. Any household earning below that earnings threshold and claiming universal credit will be entitled to claim free school meals for their children. We estimate that, as a result of the threshold, by 2022 about 50,000 more—not fewer—children will benefit from a free school meal, compared with the previous benefits system. That means we will be targeting our support more effectively towards low-income families and the most disadvantaged children.
It is only right that we set a threshold and do not allow every family on universal credit to be eligible. Let me explain why. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) said, some families can earn more than £40,000 a year and still receive a small amount of universal credit. I think that is a good thing, because it ensures that they are incentivised to continue to work. Although it is right that those families receive some universal credit, free school meals should continue, in my and many people’s opinion, to be targeted at the most disadvantaged families and those on much lower incomes.
Will the Minister give way?
Let me share this with hon. Members. If we do not set new criteria, the effect would be that about half of all school-age children would be eligible for free school meals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, the additional cost would be £600 million for free school meals, or £6.2 billion if we include the pupil premium, which follows that. In contrast, about 14% of children are eligible for free school meals today. That would not be a good deal for the taxpayer, in my opinion, and nor would it be targeting public funding at those in the most need. We have to remember that we want to target money at the frontline of teaching in our schools.
Will the Minister give way?
I am just going to address some of the issues colleagues talked about.
Order. The Minister might want to do that, but he has got about a minute left, because Sharon Hodgson has to sum up at the end of the debate.
Fair enough. I will write to colleagues about the issues I do not address.
The one issue I want to address, because it was picked up by many colleagues, is the cliff edge. First, universal credit removes the major cliff edges in the legacy system, such as 16 hours, so we are moving to a system that is better overall in that respect.
Secondly, the protections we outlined during the roll-out period will ensure that no child loses out on eligibility until after the end of universal credit roll-out. If their parents move over the income threshold, they will continue to be eligible. In the longer term, however, we need to set a threshold to ensure our support is targeted at those who need it most.
Let me pick up the point about the Labour manifesto, which the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) mentioned. The Labour manifesto contained a commitment to free school meals for primary school pupils and said that it will be paid for by a VAT rise on private schools. That is illegal until we leave the European Union. Universal free school meals, which the hon. Gentleman is suggesting now, requires a much bigger number—up to £6.2 billion—so I would like to hear from Labour where that massive increase will come from. It must come from massive tax rises. I think I shall end there, Mr Hollobone.
I thank the Minister for leaving me time to make some closing remarks.
This has been an excellent debate, although in my opinion it was far too short—it was over-subscribed, which is a good thing, but in the time allocated we obviously had too many speakers. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) to seek a Backbench Business debate, as she was unable to set out fully her expert knowledge in this area. Indeed, all my hon. Friends had to curtail their speeches.
I am very happy that the Minister agreed to meet me—as I think he did—
Excellent. Will the Minister also extend that invitation to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, who as he knows is a member of the Work and Pensions Committee? She has considerable expertise in the area.
I again encourage the Minister to read the school food plan—in particular, chapter 11, on the benefits of free school meals. The School Food Plan Alliance would happily meet him and become his new best friends if he wanted to take them up on that.
The cliff edge needs addressing—it is far too low. If there needs to be a cliff edge for all the reasons the Minister set out, it needs to be substantially higher up: £7,400 is too low.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).