House of Commons
Monday 10 September 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Sixth Form Students: Funding
The Department is working closely with the Treasury to look at spending on 16-19 education ahead of the 2019 spending review. We are also looking at the resilience and efficiency of the further education sector to make sure it is sustainable and continues to give the excellent education it already does.
Of course, the figure for those taking foreign language GCSEs, which fall into that age group, has gone up from 40% to 47%. We have also protected the base rate of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds until 2020. I should add, too, that the proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds in education or apprenticeships is the highest since records began, and of course we are putting in significant support for disadvantaged students as well.
Some £500 million was made available for disadvantaged students in 2017-18; there is a supplement of £600 for every additional level 3 maths student; £34 million is going in for free school meals; and, of course, there are discretionary bursaries totalling up to £130 million—because we feel it is right that sixth-form and FE colleges distribute that money as they think best.
There has not been a rate rise for 16 to 18-year-old provision for a very long time, and there is a real danger of cost pressures from pay increases and pension increases. What will the Government do to make sure that those cost pressures do not act as yet a further cut to funding for this very important age group?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, I recognise that many providers feel that the base rate is too low, and I am sure that he will use whatever opportunities arise to make sure the Treasury is aware of his concern, as indeed will I. We will look to make additional funding available for the teachers’ pension scheme. I am very aware of the current issues.
The question is about sixth forms.
I am aware, as Mr Speaker reminded my hon. Friend, that the question is about sixth forms, and there is no doubt that sixth-form colleges do a superb job. It is important in the post-16 landscape that we have multiple providers providing this education to 16 to 19-year-olds to make sure that there is ample choice for young people after GCSEs.
There have already been cuts to FE courses, to teaching hours for those courses and to pastoral support in FE, and the entire sector is extremely concerned about the Budget to come and is expecting further cuts. Will the Minister commit right here and right now to no further cuts to FE colleges?
I know that the hon. Lady is a doughty champion of her local college and all the work it does, but it has to be remembered that FE and sixth-form colleges are independent organisations—I think that people forget that or are unaware of it. I have recognised—[Interruption.] I have made it clear that I recognise that providers feel that the base rate is too low. There is a post-18 review coming along, and we need to make sure that it aligns well with our work on the resilience and efficiency of the FE sector. I am aware of the pressures, however, and I am sure that the hon. Lady, like the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), will make her representation to the Treasury for improved funding.
Surplus Primary School Places: Westminster
Given the shortage of primary school places in a number of local authority areas, particularly on the edges of London, and the fall in the number of primary school children in Westminster schools—driven by the Government’s welfare reform agenda—will the Minister explain why it was sensible to fund the Minerva Academy, a free school, which was only ever half full, moved twice, never ended up on its permanent site, and closed this summer owing to lack of demand?
Eighty-six per cent. of newly opened free schools are in areas where more places are needed, and that is the case throughout the country. The other 14% are in areas where people are unhappy with the quality of provision. I should add that it is prudent for local authorities to retain some spare capacity in the system to allow for parental choice and to enable local authorities to manage shifting demand for places, to look further ahead at forecast demand, and not to strip out existing places that will be needed in the long term. If Labour had taken that approach when it was in office, it would not have cut 100,000 primary school places from our school system.
From January 2018, technical education apprenticeship providers must be allowed into schools to talk to those in years 8 to 13 about technical education and apprenticeships. I urge my hon. Friend, and all other Members when they visit schools, to ask what providers have been into them and to ensure that they hold schools in their constituencies to account, because they have a legal obligation. Schools are also responsible for giving those pupils independent careers advice on a range of education and training opportunities.
In my constituency, engineering companies find it difficult to recruit young people. I think that more should be done to help schools to give pupils the kind of career guidance that they need. Universities are only one option: apprenticeships are another. Can the Minister do even more to help schools to provide that advice?
I will do everything that I can. I understand that 140 engineering starts have been reported so far in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and our Apprenticeship Support and Knowledge for Schools project, or ASK, is raising pupil awareness through assemblies, application workshops and live broadcasts involving employers such as the national health service and IBM. It is absolutely right that university is one of the options that are available to young people when they leave school.
Many midlands businesses, especially manufacturing businesses, are desperate for apprentices. Schools are currently focused on, and judged by, their ability to get students through exams and into university. Will the Secretary of State develop a set of performance indicators to demonstrate the success of schools in enabling their students to graduate into apprenticeships?
The hon. Gentleman might like to have a look at destination tables. If companies in his constituency are finding it hard to find apprentices, in national apprenticeship week the National Apprenticeship Service offers some very good opportunities. Members on both sides of the House have run incredibly successful apprenticeship fairs, and the hon. Gentleman might consider doing that himself. A huge range of local employers and public sector organisations are involved, including the NHS, the UK Border Agency and the armed services, but on his particular patch, the engineering companies that are looking for apprentices might well want to take advantage of an opportunity with which he can provide them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is also important to engage parents in encouraging students to take on apprenticeships? Parents often have an old-fashioned view of apprenticeships, and are unaware of our modern version. What is my right hon. Friend doing to try to improve communication with parents?
We are looking at every opportunity to improve that communication, and the apprenticeship fair is one option. If it is run from 5pm to 7pm it allows parents to come. As my hon. Friend rightly says, there is rather an old-fashioned view of apprenticeships being just about plumbers and electricians, but the world has changed. We can look at the figures and at what is now being done by some of the big engineering companies, big banks and other companies—such as KPMG, but I could name a whole host—and see that it is amazing how apprenticeships have changed; it is amazing how this Government have changed apprenticeships.
The Minister surely knows that there is an attitude in so many schools that they want to keep that bum on the seat for as long as possible because they get that revenue. The fact is that she needs champions: she needs employers to get into schools more and she needs the FE colleges, as champions, to get into schools as well. If she backs the FE sector, she will get a very good result.
We do have ambassadors: the young apprentice ambassadors network does a fantastic job of giving talks in schools, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to have those conversations with schools. I will do all I can; I feel passionately about the fact that there needs to be more choice for young people both at 16 and at 18. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) says, we need to educate the parents, and we also need to educate the schools. I point out again that schools have a legislative responsibility to make sure that technical education apprenticeship providers are allowed into schools, and you should call your local schools into account, Mr Speaker, as should all hon. Members.
We have made excellent progress and are working closely with the selected providers who will deliver the first three T-levels from 2020 in digital, education and childcare, and construction.
An Opposition Member has mentioned apprenticeships, and T-levels are very important in that area, but the business placement has to be effective, and Government research has shown that businesses say that that is important, too. So what are the Government doing to work with businesses to make sure that these placements are effective and meet the requirements of both business and education?
My hon. Friend is right: a quality industrial placement is a fundamental feature of T-levels, and piloting of these placements is already under way. Providers will be receiving nearly £60 million in 2018-19 to work with businesses to deliver those placements, which will significantly reduce the burden on businesses.
My right hon. Friend will know that Dudley College of Technology has been selected to pilot all three of the strands of T-levels. Will he ensure that colleges receive the resources they need to deliver T-levels effectively and make a success of this fantastic initiative?
How are we going to avoid T-levels suffering the same fate as many other technical and vocational education qualifications? As we heard from the earlier comments on apprenticeships, so much of this is about parity of esteem and vocational education being seen as second-rate. What are we going to do about that, because otherwise this will fail?
The hon. Gentleman asks the most pertinent question on this subject, and I asked it immediately upon assuming my job as Secretary of State in the Department for Education. One of the key differences from previous attempts at reforming this landscape is that we will be implementing the Sainsbury report in full, rather than picking and choosing bits that might suit the political mood of the moment, and with T-levels we are not trying to create an all-encompassing qualification that does academic and does vocational and everything else as well; these are vocational and technical qualifications. They will be of a very high standard, benchmarked against the leading systems in the world, with more hours at college, a meaningful industrial placement—as we have just been talking about—and the integration of English, maths and digital skills.
At a recent Education Committee hearing, the Minister responsible for T-levels, the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, the right hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), said that her advice to parents would be to leave it a year following the launch of T-levels in 2020. Is the Secretary of State’s advice to employers offering placements to students that they should also leave it for a year? If not, what is he doing to raise knowledge of this technical qualification among employers? Simply willing it so will not make it so.
No, willing it so would not make it so, but that is not what we are doing, and by the way, that is not what my right hon. Friend the Minister said in Committee either. I am pleased to be able to report that many thousands of businesses are already involved in this process through the design of the qualification and through putting forward placements in the first pilots of these industrial placements. That number will grow significantly this year.
T-levels are a fantastic opportunity for preparation for the world of work. What further steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that businesses are onside and supportive, because there are some indications that some businesses are not behind this initiative?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that businesses must be at the heart of this, and they are. The design of the qualifications is being done by business, and at every stage we are making sure that the leading players in every sector are involved in the design and the delivery.
In June, in Education questions, I raised a range of substantial concerns with the Secretary of State about the progress of T-levels, but he pooh-poohed them, saying that he did not recognise the premises. Perhaps he will now recognise the three further reports that came out this summer, including one from his own Department, which show further concerns about the Government’s handling of the T-level process. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey showed that only 60% of employers had heard of T-levels, and that two thirds of small enterprises had not done so. Its advisers said there was a “fatal mismatch” between what employers needed and what the Government were offering. The Chartered Management Institute survey showed that two thirds of parents had not heard of T-levels, and the Department for Education’s own report said that employers needed clearer information and would not commit without it. The T-level process is in a mess, like the Secretary of State’s apprenticeship targets. It needs more Government money, more information, more resources and more capacity. What is he doing about that?
I am pleased to take the hon. Gentleman’s advice to devote more focus, more resourcing and more capacity to T-levels; that is precisely what we are doing. The programme is well on track and, far from what he has just described, it has the support of business and of the colleges that we are bringing in in the earliest stages. At the moment, this will involve only a relatively small number of students who are starting their GCSE courses this year and who will start their T-levels in a small number of colleges in 2020, but we will see the programme grow and grow from there.
Since 2010, we have seen a narrowing in the attainment gap of at least 10% in the early years, at primary school, at secondary school and in higher education entry. Improving social mobility and widening opportunity are at the heart of everything we do in every phase of education.
When I go to speak to my secondary schools and colleges, I am amazed by how many young people think that they are going to live or work within 15 miles of where they went to school. What can we do to utilise technology to ensure that people from financially or geographically challenging areas can get access to good quality employment?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about the deployment of technology. This is a project that we are paying close attention to at the Department for Education. He and I have spoken before about our work with the Department for Work and Pensions, and some of the work that is done in jobcentres and within the job search process. There is more that could be done on work experience opportunities and on highlighting the apprenticeship opportunities that we have just been talking about, and I would be pleased to hear from him further about his ideas.
As we know, the Education Committee proposed to give the Social Mobility Commission some much-needed teeth by allowing it to undertake social impact assessments. If the Government are really serious about tackling burning injustices, why did the Secretary of State rule out that proposal?
We have a new chair for the Social Mobility Commission, and I think that she will be an excellent chair, with her background in the Prince’s Trust and in promoting social justice. We expect the commissioners to be appointed shortly, and that body will have an important role to play in the evolution and measurement of social mobility, and indeed in the holding to account of the Government on the progress of social mobility.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a major cause of social injustice and a barrier to social mobility is the number of exclusions and the off-rolling that is going on in our schools? The Education Committee’s report “Forgotten Children” identified what Ofsted has said: more than 19,000 year 10 pupils in 2016 did not progress to year 11 in the same school in 2017 and around half did not reappear at another state-funded school. Ofsted has also identified 300 schools with particularly high levels of off-rolling. Does he agree that schools need to be more accountable and that we must stop off-rolling once and for all?
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has raised that important issue. As he will know, the level of exclusions has thankfully not risen to the level we saw under the previous Labour Government, but it is nevertheless a matter of concern. Let me be absolutely clear that using a permanent exclusion should be a last resort after all other things have been tried. We expect schools to have an active behaviour policy and to be held to account on that by Ofsted. As for the specific question about exclusions, they are a matter of concern and one of the reasons that we asked Edward Timpson to conduct a review. We look forward to hearing from him soon.
Children with special needs obviously have particular difficulty in accessing support to enable them to raise their station. Following Education questions in June, I wrote to the Secretary of State in July regarding the particular problems in Derbyshire and I asked him to meet with me to discuss the problems that my constituents and many others across Derbyshire are having.
I am always happy to meet the hon. Lady, who rightly highlights the particular hurdles and challenges that children with special needs can have, which I absolutely recognise. That is one of the reasons that we have the highest high-needs budget on record, and there is more recognition across the entire education system of some of the methods that can be used to support such children. However, we can always do more and I will be pleased to hear from her.
My borough of Bexley has many good and excellent schools that are delivering social mobility. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done through investment in early language and literacy skills to ensure that all children have equal opportunities?
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of early language and literacy, and he is right to identify some of the excellent provision in his constituency. I recently set out my ambition to halve the number of children who start school without vital literacy skills. There are many facets to that, such as what happens in early years settings and in the home learning environment, which we will have to pay more attention to in the years to come.
This summer has seen a record number of young people in Scotland gain a place at a Scottish university, including a 5% increase in young people from the most deprived communities. Scottish students are not being dissuaded by the tens of thousands of pounds-worth of debt facing students elsewhere in these Isles. What lessons does the right hon. Gentleman think he can learn from Scotland regarding university policy assisting social mobility?
Thanks to the lack of capped places, experts have warned that some universities in England are at risk of going under, with many universities facing major losses, particularly over the past five years. Given that that is a result of this Government’s policy of encouraging competition, has the right hon. Gentleman made any assessment of how badly university closures in disadvantaged areas would damage social mobility?
We have heard concerns from many Members across the House about social mobility, and the Chair of the Education Committee has recommended that the Social Mobility Commission get the resources and the powers that it needs. It is now nine months since the entire commission resigned in despair, so will the Secretary of State guarantee that the new commission will be appointed before a full year has passed?
This summer the Conservative party was concerned about an unseen social mobility crisis following the departure of the Foreign Secretary. As a Telegraph headline asked, with no old Etonians in Cabinet, “where will the talent come from?” Perhaps the Secretary of State can help to answer that question by confirming that he has accepted our call to ditch the Prime Minister’s scheme to spend £20 million ferrying a few hundred pupils up to 30 miles a day by taxi to get to their nearest grammar school. Will he now tell us whether he accepts our point that he should reinvest the savings in reversing the cuts to school transport for all?
You are very kind, Chris.
There are many different angles to our social mobility approach. As I mentioned in my opening answer, our focus on social mobility means that, at every phase of education, we have seen a narrowing in the attainment gap between the rich and the poor of at least 10%—in early years, in primary school, in secondary school and in entry to higher education. It is our school professionals, our teachers and other staff who have made that happen, supported by our reforms, by the fact that more children are going to good and outstanding schools, by the free schools programme and by the availability of quality new places and rigorous standards in schools.
Teachers’ Pay and School Budgets
We are fully funding the teachers’ pay award by providing a teachers’ pay grant worth £187 million in 2018-19 and £321 million in 2019-20. This funding will be over and above the core funding that schools receive through the national funding formula.
That is not the experience of heads and governors in Hounslow. The pay award is not fully funded. Schools are expected to pick up the tab for the first 1% of the cost of the pay award, so they are having to make further cuts to school provision and staffing. Also, schools have not been told how the pay award will be funded after 2020. Will the Minister come to meet heads and governors in Hounslow to explain how he thinks they will be able to achieve this?
The pay award is being funded over and above the 1% for which schools have already budgeted. Incidentally, the 3.5% pay award for teachers on the main pay scale takes the pay range to between £29,600 and £40,300. The 2% pay rise will be funded over and above the 1%, and the 1.5% pay rise for headteachers will also be funded over and above the 1% that schools have already awarded. Pay scales for headteachers, for example, now range up to £111,000 a year for some heads, and £118,000 for headteachers in inner London, although I accept that those figures are not as high as the pay of the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, which is over £200,000.
I have raised school budgets in my constituency, about which I am concerned, with the Minister on a number of occasions, and I thank him for spending the time to look into them. Although school budgets are increasing per pupil by a minuscule amount, it is clear that costs, of which teachers’ pay is only one, are going up much faster than the per pupil increase. What can he do to make sure that school budgets, particularly in my Shipley constituency, rise at a rate that ensures they can cover the increased costs they are expected to incur?
We are spending record amounts on school funding—£42.4 billion this year—but we accept that schools are facing some cost pressures. We are helping schools with their resource management, and we are providing national buying schemes so that they can buy things such as energy and computers more cheaply.
We are also introducing a free teacher vacancy scheme, which is being rolled out later this year—it has already been piloted in Cambridgeshire and the north-east—and which will save schools £78 million a year.
Is the Minister aware that the Treasury has not funded the teachers’ pay increase for Welsh teachers, and therefore that, if there is to be a pay increase for teachers in Wales, it will mean redundancies, a reduction in provision for pupils with special educational needs and a reduction in school investment budgets?
By 2019-20 we will be spending £1 billion extra annually to deliver 30 hours a week of free childcare and pay our higher funding rates. Those rates were based on our review of childcare costs, described as “thorough and wide-ranging” by the National Audit Office. We have commissioned further new research to understand providers’ current costs.
Last Friday I visited Bright Sparks nursery in my constituency, which is rated “outstanding” and is long-established. The staff told me how difficult they are finding it to make ends meet under the new funding regime, and that is borne out by a report by the National Day Nurseries Association. Can the Minister tell us how nurseries are supposed to remain open when facing that shortfall? I am glad to hear that he is looking again at the costs, but I hope it will be a thorough look.
We continue to monitor the costs and, as I said earlier, we have commissioned further research. The evidence that we currently have shows that the majority of providers are willing and able to deliver the extended entitlement. Some 340,000 children have benefited from 30-hour funding places in the scheme’s first year, so it is certainly a success story, but the hon. Lady is right that we have to monitor what pressures there are.
On 31 August the Daily Mail ran a front-page story stating that a third of nurseries could shut because of school funding levels. Given that there are actually now more nurseries in other settings providing free childcare, does the Minister think it should apologise and issue a correction for gullibly following the lines being peddled by the Opposition Front Benchers and for misleading so many parents in such a worrying way?
I am sure the Minister can guess what I am going to ask about.
Among early years provision, the jewel in the crown for social mobility is our maintained nursery schools. The Minister will know from the conversations that we had before the summer that the supplementary funding that they receive from the Government is due to run out before the comprehensive spending review, so does he have an update for the House on what he and the Treasury are doing to ensure that our maintained nursery schools have a secure future beyond next year?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Maintained nurseries offer a valuable service to communities such as hers and others around the country, and we are conscious of the value that they provide. Both I and the Secretary of State have visited a number of them. Decisions about the future funding of maintained provision will be taken at the spending review, but I repeat that it would be premature for local authorities to make decisions about the future of their maintained nurseries before seeing the spending review outcomes.
The National Day Nurseries Association survey last week exposed the scale of closures caused by underfunding the 30-hour entitlement—a rise of nearly half over a year. Bright Beginnings in Stockport said that
“the reality is we can’t provide Outstanding nursery care on the funding provided.”
The Ark nursery in West Sussex said that it was
“closing because of a decade of underfunding.”
Windymiller, in my own constituency, on the estate where I grew up, closed its doors a few months ago due to funding pressures. Those are not outliers. Four in 10 providers fear that they will have to close in the coming year. These are viable businesses that just cannot square the circle of frozen funding and rising costs. If the Minister will not listen to us, will he at least listen to them?
Let me attempt to address that point specifically. National average hourly funding rates for local authorities for three and four-year-old entitlements increased from £4.56 an hour to around £5 an hour in April 2017. Our rates compare very favourably with the published research on the costs of childcare by Frontier Economics, which shows that the mean hourly cost of delivering a place is £3.72 an hour. I know that this is technical, but it is worth listening to, because the hon. Lady keeps going back to points that she clearly has not followed the details of. The research also showed that the average cost of two-year-olds’ places was £4.30 an hour, and our average funding rate is £5.92 an hour. All local authorities saw a 7% increase in the two-year-old rate in April 2017. We continue to monitor this, but those are the facts, and I hope that she will look and them and think about what she is saying about them publicly.
We have committed £7 billion to the delivery of new school places between 2015 and 2021, on top of our investment in the free schools programme. We are on track to create a million places between 2010 and 2020.
Today, Laurus Cheadle Hulme, a newly built, state-of-the-art free school, opened its gates to a new cohort of students. Initially, it will provide 210 year 7 places. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the free schools programme is a hugely important part of the delivery of good schools in Cheadle and beyond, and will he join me in wishing those at Laurus Cheadle Hulme the very best of luck on their first day?
I certainly do and will. This is one of the 53 free schools that have opened this month, bringing more good-quality places and more choice for parents. I congratulate the team at Laurus Cheadle Hulme on the school’s opening and look forward to hearing of their successes in the years to come.
Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Stockport local education authority to support calls for a new stand-alone primary school in the Marple area of my constituency, to meet rising demand, rather than cramming new places into sites that are already full?
I am not in the position to judge between those two points directly, but I very much agree with my hon. Friend that there are different ways to achieve expansion. Of course, the bulk of the expansion of school places comes from expanding existing schools, but there is also the possibility to create new schools through the free schools programme. The deadline for the next wave of free school applications is 5 November.
A few years ago, Brookfield Community School in Chesterfield was an outstanding local authority-run school. Because of the financial pressure the Government put on the school to become an academy, it has done so, but just a few weeks ago it was rated as “requiring improvement” and the academy arrangements have now been sacked. Will the Secretary of State recognise that outstanding schools can be run by local authorities and academies, drop the ideology, and let schools stay as local authority-run if that is what they want to do? The ideology hurts parents, pupils and teachers.
I have always recognised—and said as much—that we can of course find excellent education provision in a number of different models, as well as academies. Overall, the academies programme has been a great force for good. Something like half a million pupils are now studying in sponsored academies that are rated good or outstanding, and those academies typically replaced underperforming schools.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend on that; of course, he has a new and particular interest in and concern about the future of the next generation, and I congratulate him on that. It is very important that we are creating a million new school places this decade—that is the biggest expansion in school capacity for at least two generations. It is vital that we do that in good and outstanding schools, where possible.
Last time at Education questions, I highlighted the damning evidence from Ofsted’s own figures that showed that it rated schools by deprivation, rather than by the quality of teaching and learning. On Friday, we learned from the Public Accounts Committee that Ofsted does not listen sufficiently to parents and has failed to provide accurate information to Parliament. Does the Secretary of State now agree that Ofsted is not fit for purpose and that it is time for root and branch reform?
I do not agree with that. Ofsted does a very worthwhile and high-quality job, which is reflected in the fact that, for parents, Ofsted reports are the second most significant piece of information about schools, after only location. People trust the judgments that they get from Ofsted, and it is the only body that is in a position to make an overall judgment on the quality and breadth of education, alongside the results.
To address the shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths skills, the Government are committed to encouraging more students into STEM education and training. We are investing an additional £406 million in skills, including in maths and digital, and this includes the advanced maths premium and an £84 million programme to improve the teaching of computing.
I welcome the investment to which the Minister referred. Does he agree that it is at primary school where children need to be encouraged to enjoy maths? Initiatives such as the green car challenge run by south Shropshire engineering ambassadors, where year 6 pupils in south Shropshire make a vehicle that can run on renewable energy, can excite young people and bring STEM subjects to life.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Excellent projects such as the green car challenge for year 6 pupils in schools in south Shropshire help to bring science to life and they help to motivate those pupils when they start secondary school where, since 2010, the proportion taking at least two science GCSEs has risen from 63% of 16-year-olds in 2010 to 91% now.
Does the Secretary of State and the rest of the Education Department recognise the importance of agricultural science to help address the need for more food production in this country on the back of the forthcoming Bill? Is it not about time that we included agricultural science in the STEM subjects?
Universities: Freedom of Speech
We want our universities to be bastions of free speech where a free and robust exchange of ideas thrives. I am very encouraged that the Office for Students has made it very clear that, as a regulator, it will be encouraging free speech in our universities and that, if it intervenes, it will never be to restrict it.
Earlier this summer, the Universities Minister made it clear that free speech on campus should be encouraged and that those attempting to shut it down should have nowhere to hide. Does my hon. Friend agree that hearing, considering and debating different views are a key part of learning?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want free speech, diversity of opinion, diversity of thought and civility in debate, where people do not easily take offence or give offence too easily. That is why I am working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and key stakeholders to come up with new guidance on free speech to deal with the dizzying array of regulations that wreckers on campus can exploit to frustrate free speech.
My hon. Friend will agrees that many of us in the Chamber would not be here today were it not for the culture of free speech and our ability to engage in it on our campuses to develop and hone our political philosophies and arguments for right or wrong. Does he agree that we in this place who have benefited most from that right have a duty to stand up for it wherever we see it under threat on far too many of our university campuses?
Latest Ofsted data confirm that 94% of providers were rated as good or outstanding, up 20 percentage points since 2012. We have recently published new criteria to raise the quality of level 2 qualifications and are investing £20 million in professional development for early years practitioners working in disadvantaged areas.
Maintained nursery schools make an important contribution to improving the lives of some of our most disadvantaged children. As I mentioned earlier, I have visited a number of these schools, as has the Secretary of State, and Pen Green is at the forefront of what maintained nursery schools do. Its award is well deserved and I offer it my warmest congratulations. Our research on the value offered by maintained nursery schools will inform spending review decisions about their future funding.
Children from the poorest families in this country are much more likely to suffer a major brain injury by the age of five. Nobody quite knows the precise reasons why that is the case, but the statistic is replicated by the figure for children between the ages of 14 and 21 from poorer families. That is a major reason why many children fall out of the education system and end up in prison. I urge the Minister to look at the new figures. Will he meet me and people from the United Kingdom Acquired Brain Injury Forum to discuss what we can do to ensure that children, in particular from the poorest areas and the poorest families, get a better chance in life?
I know that the whole House would want to wish a happy and successful year to all children starting school this month or going to a new school, including one of the 53 new free schools that opened last week. We also welcome the tens of thousands of new teachers joining the 450,000-strong profession this month and around 30,000 who are due to start their teacher training. We will continue to work with the profession this academic year to build on the progress that it has made happen since 2010, with rising standards, more high-quality school places, and a significant narrowing of the attainment gap between the rich and the poor.
What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to reduce the number of looked-after children from London who are placed in socially deprived areas of Kent, such as Swale and Thanet? These often vulnerable children have to be educated in Kent, with the costs being borne by Kent schools. Does my right hon. Friend believe that is fair?
I take this matter very seriously, and the Minister for Children and Families recently met the executive headteacher of the Coastal Academies Trust to discuss the issue. We want to reduce out-of-area placements and ensure that looked-after children can access high-quality education provision. We are providing funding through our £200 million children’s social care innovation programme to increase councils’ capacity, so that fewer children are placed far away from home.
Legislation and guidance regarding looked-after children—for example, on such children having their own social worker—is vital to safeguarding their welfare. The recent guide for local authorities published by the Department refers to this legislation and guidance as myth, and actively urges local authorities to dispense with their statutory obligations, thereby cutting vulnerable children adrift. Worse still, only this morning the Minister responded to those criticisms by advising that statutory guidance is open to interpretation. Is it now the Department’s policy that statutory guidance in relation to vulnerable children no longer needs to be followed?
I responded very clearly to the myth-busting document. We consulted directors of children’s services and with Ofsted before we published the myth-busting document, and we made it very clear this morning that no legislation has changed, or is going to change, in any way.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. As she hints, we have appointed a strong sponsor for Whitehaven Academy that is already driving forward improvements, backed by substantial funding to improve teaching, resources and the school estate at that school. The overwhelming majority of academies tell a positive story of driving up standards, and the latest published accounts show no regularity exceptions, as they are called, for more than 95% of trusts. The Education and Skills Funding Agency has learned from the experience of the Bright Tribe Trust and other cases, and has made improvements.
The Construction Industry Training Board has worked with all 1,148 apprentices. For 776 of them, the issue has been resolved and they have got training places and employers, for 225 we are still looking to find a match for them, and 147 have failed to respond following repeated attempts to get in touch with them. The Construction Industry Training Board should be congratulated on what it has done. It has used letters, emails and texts—every way possible—to get hold of those 147, and it is to be praised.
I welcome the Government bringing forward proposals to introduce first-aid education in our schools. Does the Minister agree that giving children these skills will give them the confidence to save lives, and we can create a new generation of life-savers?
We all know how important it is that young people are given the knowledge to be healthy, happy and safe. That is why, for the first time, all state-funded schools will be required to teach health education. The draft statutory guidance includes content on first aid. I commend my hon. Friend and others in this House who have campaigned on this issue very consistently.
We have record numbers of teachers—450,000, which is 10,000 more. The number actually fell this year, but there are 450,000 teachers in our school system—10,000 more than in 2010. The average class size in secondary schools has risen only slightly since 2010 despite the fact that there are 32,000 more secondary school places, and similarly in primary schools, despite the fact that there are over 500,000 more primary school pupils in our schools. We are working in areas around the country, including the north-east, to improve teacher recruitment and retention in those areas.
The students union at Anglia Ruskin University has recently undertaken a detailed study of mental health issues faced by students, and it strongly recommends the benefits of students registering with two GPs—one at home and one at university. Will my right hon. Friend work with our new Secretary of State for Health to see how this could be made possible in a 21st-century NHS?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that transitions do, in general, pose difficulty for students—transition from school to university, but also transition from one set of health partners to others. The “Minding our future” report published by Universities UK in May states that better sharing of patient records is essential to address potential discontinuity of care. I hear what she is saying about registering with two GPs, but I will be seeking to work with the Health Secretary on how we can make sure that the records are transferred to make sure that students are well taken care of in this period of transition.
This is extremely important. We are very aware of the specific problems for children with SEND. We are working very closely with a number of providers to make sure that this is available. We have made adjustments on apprenticeships. We will continue to make adjustments to make sure that T-levels are available for all.
One of the most effective engines of social mobility in this country remains the Army. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to what some are saying today, our schools should remain open and welcoming places for members of our armed forces to come in and inform, inspire and give good career advice to young people, especially those from working-class backgrounds?
We take the fabric of school buildings very seriously. We undertook a survey of all school buildings in the country. We are spending £23 billion both on increasing the number of school places and improving the quality of school buildings. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituent to discuss that particular school.
Identifying and supporting children in their early education can often help to ensure that they get on in school and remain in mainstream education. So many who are excluded have communication difficulties or other problems with basic skills. In Mansfield this year, one in four children start primary school without those basic skills. What can my right hon. Friend do to support schools such as Forest Town Primary, which offers a nurture group to help those pupils transition to school, and help other schools to provide that kind of facility?
My hon. Friend is right to identify that area. One element of the early years foundation stage profile is the personal, social and emotional development of children, which is vital. There is a whole range of things we need to think about in this area. One of them is the announcement I made a short while ago about ensuring there is adequate provision of high-quality school-based nurseries, particularly in deprived areas, but we also have to think about what happens at home and in other settings.
My hon. Friend is right to identify that critical need for business. Of course, we have very low unemployment in this country—the lowest since 1975—and that makes recruitment a challenge for many, but we also need to ensure that those skills are there. That is one reason why digital will be one of the first T-levels that is in place. There are many great schemes, as he alludes to, that help to give young people careers advice and make them aware of the possibilities of STEM subjects. It is not just STEM ambassadors. We need to thread this through our entire careers education programme.
The hon. Gentleman should know that since 2010, we have created 825,000 school places and are on track to have 1 million new school places. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, that is the biggest school expansion programme for at least two generations. That is in sharp contrast with what happened between 2004 and 2010 under the last Labour Government, which cut 100,000 school places from our system.
Students and teachers at Wilsthorpe Community School in Long Eaton have begun the new academic year in a new £16 million school building, funded by the Department. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that demonstrates the Government’s commitment to improving school facilities for all, and will he join me on a visit to the school in the near future?
My hon. Friend is right to identify what is going on. My right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards has just talked about the £23 billion of expansion and improvement capital that we have over the five-year period. We are committed to ensuring that we have the right number of places but also the right quality of places. She is right to highlight that point.
High-needs funding for children and young people with complex special educational needs, including those with autism, is £6 billion this year—the highest it has ever been—and an increase from £5 billion in 2013. We have increased overall funding allocations to local authorities for high needs by £130 million in 2017-18 and £142 million in 2018-19, and we will increase this further, by £120 million, in 2019-20.
Our plan on mental health, as put forward in the Green Paper, contains three important elements: there is the designated senior lead in each school; there are the support teams in or around schools; and there is piloting the shorter wait time for children and young people’s mental health services. More broadly, the Government are investing £1.4 billion to improve children and young people’s mental health services. Quite rightly, there is a much wider appreciation of these issues now than there ever has been, and schools have an important part to play in this alongside society as a whole.
My hon. Friend had a debate on the care crisis review last week. We recognise that the number of care order applications and the number of children in care have risen, meaning more work for local authorities. That is why we are working across Government, as I articulated in that debate in Westminster Hall last week, to ensure that local authorities and the courts have the resources that they need.
Nationally, only 6% of care leavers make it to higher education in comparison with the nigh-on 50% of young people who go to university year on year. This is a tragically low figure. What steps is the Department for Education taking to ensure that those leaving care have the same life chances as any other young people?
Care leavers are an important part of the overall strategy for support for children in need, which we have reviewed. Very importantly, we are also launching the care leaver covenant on 26 October, with which we will continue to maintain further support for care leavers; obviously, we have already extended the system of personal advisers to the age of 25.
Does the Secretary of State want to join me in congratulating North Yorkshire County Council children services department and its director, Stuart Carlton, on achieving the country’s first ever perfect score—outstanding in every area inspected by Ofsted? Furthermore, does he agree that that is very good news for the most vulnerable children in places such as Scarborough and Whitby?
I am more than happy to join my right hon. Friend in those congratulations. It was a great pleasure to visit his constituency recently to meet some of the people involved in the local opportunity area and see the extent of their ambition for children and young people in the area, for which they are much to be commended.
Under this Government, children with special needs are six times more likely to be excluded than their peers. In Norwich, headteachers have described provision for special educational needs as a complete mess because of a funding shortfall. Will Ministers commit to increasing funding support for these children to ensure that they get the education they do not just deserve, but is their right?
The Government have launched the most ambitious SEND reforms in a generation and are committed to improving outcomes for children with special educational needs. More than 98% of statements of SEN were reviewed by 31 March deadline for introducing education, health and care plans. The hon. Gentleman talks about funding, but we have given £391 million to local areas to support implementation of the new duties in the Children and Families Act 2014.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the political and humanitarian situation in and around Idlib in Syria.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his urgent question and congratulate him on securing it. The United Kingdom is extremely concerned about the escalating military action by Russia and the Syrian regime, which is putting at risk nearly 3 million civilians who have sought shelter in Idlib and the surrounding area. The past few days have seen dozens of Russian and regime airstrikes against areas of Idlib. Over the weekend we received reports of three hospitals, two White Helmets centres and an ambulance system being attacked and put out of service, leaving thousands with no access to medical care. Civilians, medical facilities and aid workers must be protected; they are not a target.
It is vital that a humanitarian catastrophe is avoided. The UN has been clear that a worst-case scenario in Idlib would
“overwhelm capacities and…create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen through”
the conflict, with up to 900,000 people displaced. We have therefore been supporting the urgent diplomatic efforts being made by Turkey and the UN. I spoke to my Turkish counterpart on 4 September, and the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan on 27 August to discuss the situation. Of course, the situation is considered by the UN Security Council very frequently.
It is deeply disappointing that Russia and Iran rejected President Erdoğan’s calls for a renewed ceasefire at the Tehran summit last Friday. Russia and the Syrian regime also rejected similar calls by ourselves and others at the UN Security Council on the same day. We urge them to reconsider and instead to find a negotiated way forward to avoid an entirely man-made disaster.
The UK has pledged additional humanitarian assistance and medical support. We are also backing innovative early-warning technology to save lives in communities threatened by airstrikes. Finally, along with the United States and France, we have been clear that we will respond swiftly and appropriately if the Assad regime repeats its appalling use of chemical weapons.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and the Minister for responding to it. There is a significant risk in this House that our current focus on Brexit and many other issues means that Parliament, the Government and, indeed, the media pay far too little attention to the horrific scenes and repeated brutal attacks on civilians and humanitarians that we are seeing in places such as Syria and Yemen. In that regard, I commend the efforts of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) to constantly bring to our attention the situation facing Syrian civilians. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who chairs the International Development Committee, for making an application today for a urgent debate on Yemen, which I support.
As the Minister said, this weekend has sadly seen a further grim descent into violence in and around Idlib, which many of us predicted. Russian and Syrian jets have resumed intensive airstrikes after the failure to agree a ceasefire. It is alleged that on Saturday regime forces carried out attacks with artillery and rocket shelling for over three hours. Yesterday, Syrian army helicopters and Russian air forces conducted 60 strikes for over four hours, including with barrel bombs, typically filled with high explosives and shrapnel, on Habeet, Abdin, Hasraya, Al Zakat and many other villages around Hama and Idlib. It is therefore crucial that we understand what the UK Government’s political, humanitarian and military strategy is, given the breakdown of the talks and the horrific scenes.
The Minister mentioned the work of the White Helmets. In the past few hours, I have seen video footage showing horrific attacks on their brave workers, who are under fire from indiscriminate artillery and cluster bombs. We cannot and must not simply wring our hands and say, “It’s all very difficult.” Millions of civilians are trapped in the province, including people who have been displaced from other parts of Syria by the Assad regime. Hospitals have been targeted, in violation of international law. Schools have been hit, and children have been injured and killed. Barrel bombs have been used, in violation of UN Security Council resolution 2139 and others. We led an international fight against cluster munitions, yet we have seen them used in Syria and Yemen.
With a staggering 5.3 million children in need of assistance across Syria, Save the Children and other agencies have warned that hundreds of thousands of people will be displaced in this initial offensive, piling pressure on an already overstretched humanitarian response. This has been echoed by the UN Secretary General and many of the humanitarian agencies responding to 3.9 million people already living in and around Idlib, with many of the population having fled places such as eastern Ghouta with almost nothing.
I know that the Minister takes these issues very seriously, and he has already set out a number of the steps that the UK Government are taking, but could he answer a few questions? Is he tracking, and will he publish details of, air attacks on civilians from wherever they come? What UK military support could be used to support the maintenance of humanitarian corridors, or to prevent the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and the use of chemical weapons? What will be the consequences for Assad, Putin and other belligerents if these violations of international humanitarian law continue, whether through the use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs or cluster munitions, all of which are equally wrong? What assessment has the Minister made of the potential for such attacks to be carried out? What sanctions have been issued against individual Russians and others who command responsibility for operations in Syria? Will the Minister say a little more about his discussions with the Turkish Government? What discussions have there been about the permissions for NGOs to operate in Turkish-held areas? Many are not registered in Turkey and may need assistance to be able to carry out operations in those areas with one of our allies.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. These are incredibly serious issues. I hope that the whole House and the country will be looking at them very closely.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and, of course, to others who take a very close interest in this situation. I can assure him that there is no shortage of efforts by the United Kingdom Government on this matter, whether here, in capitals abroad or at the UN.
The hon. Gentleman accurately describes the situation, which has become desperately familiar, regarding the conduct of events in Syria, where civilian populations have been put at risk. We estimate that the Idlib region now has some 3 million inhabitants, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of Syria. The number of extremist fighters is reckoned to be quite small—perhaps 15,000, with maybe a further 25,000 to 35,000 opposition fighters—and that number is dwarfed by the number of people in Idlib itself. As our excellent permanent representative said at the UN last week, there are more babies in Idlib than there are terrorists. That is why we need to concentrate our efforts on humanitarian relief and assistance, and to try to find a negotiated way out of the situation.
To answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions, I am not sure it is technically possible to track every air strike. Certainly we know when they have happened, but I am not sure how we would be able to find out from where they are being directed or anything like that. The obvious nature of the air strikes is very clear: they are from the Russian and the Syrian regimes. No one else is up in the air, so we all know where they are coming from.
The UN is actively considering any measure that might assist civilians. If there are corridors, there are questions to be asked about such things as how they would be made secure and policed, and we will give every consideration to that. No suggestion has been made for any military intervention in relation to that. If it were to be done with United Kingdom involvement, that would be a military intervention on Syrian soil, which would have obvious consequences. That has not yet been contemplated.
In terms of consequences and accountability, sanctions are already in place against Russian entities and that will continue to be the case. Last week at the Security Council, the permanent representative read through details of the units of the Syrian army that were involved in the Idlib operation, together with the names of their commanders, and made it very clear that accountability would follow. I think that that was a bold and necessary step. [Official Report, 12 September 2018, Vol. 646, c. 4MC.]
On the hon. Gentleman’s question about the potential of chemical warfare, the truth is, of course, that we have seen it elsewhere. The permanent representative spoke about the failure to deal with chemical weapons usage, saying last week:
“As of March 2018, the OPCW”—
the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—
“fact finding mission had confirmed 13 cases of likely chemical weapons use in Syria since it was established in 2014. And in terms of allegations, the fact finding mission have recorded at least 390 allegations. After more than four years of work by the declaration assessment team, the OPCW still is unable to verify that the Syrian declaration is accurate.”
“And we’ve heard many times that there are ‘gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies’ in Syria’s account of its declaration under the CWC.”
We can be fairly clear that those weapons still exist and are available in Syria. Of course, we have seen instances when conventional military action has been followed towards the end by chemical weapons usage. We have made it very clear through the UN and partners that appropriate action would be taken if that were the case. We are all also aware of disinformation campaigns being launched to say that such a chemical weapons attack is being prepared by other sources. There is no credibility to those accounts, they will not be used as a smokescreen should chemical weapons be used, and people will be properly held accountable.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that in all the international councils the immense moral authority that Britain has in this matter is exercised to the full? After all, we are, through our taxpayers, looking after more of the 11 million displaced people from this conflict than the whole of the rest of Europe added together. Will he also be sure to make it clear that the bombing of hospitals in Idlib, each of which is clearly marked with a red cross on its roof, is a war crime, and that the individuals engaging in those attacks will be held to account, however long it takes?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The United Kingdom has spent some £2.71 billion on supporting those in Syria who have been displaced. We have provided food, healthcare, water and other life-saving relief to the internally displaced. Since 2012, we have delivered more than 22 million food rations, 9 million relief packages, 9 million medical consultations and 5 million vaccines to those in need across the country. The work of the Department for International Development is commended all round.
The determination was increased last week. On 17 August, I announced a further £10 million in additional emergency and medical support for Idlib. My right hon. Friend’s point about health centres is well made—we have more documented evidence of recent attacks on health centres. This is unacceptable. The deliberate targeting of health centres is against international humanitarian law, as he said, and that should be spelt out every single time.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth on securing it. I can only echo what he said about the terrible bloodshed and humanitarian crisis that is looming in Idlib, the urgency for all sides to work to find some form of peaceful political solution to avert it, and the importance of holding those responsible for war crimes to account.
I want to press the Government specifically on how they intend to respond if there are any reports over the coming weeks, accompanied by horrifying, Douma-style images, suggesting a use of chemical weapons, particularly because of how the Government responded after Douma without seeking the approval of the House and without waiting for independent verification of those reports from the OPCW. If that scenario does arise, it may do so over the next month when the House is in recess.
We know from Bob Woodward’s book that what President Trump wants to do in the event of a further reported chemical attack is to commit to a strategy of regime change in Syria—and, indeed, that he had to be prevented from doing so after Douma. That would be a gravely serious step for the UK to take part in, with vast and very dangerous implications not just for the future of Syria, but for wider geopolitical stability.
In light of that, I hope that the Minister will give us two assurances today. First, will he assure us that if there are any reports of chemical weapons attacks, particularly in areas of Idlib controlled by HTS, the Government will not take part in any military action in response until the OPCW has visited those sites, under the protection of the Turkish Government, independently verified those reports and attributed responsibility for any chemical weapons used? Relying on so-called open source intelligence provided by proscribed terrorist groups is not an acceptable alternative. Secondly, if the Government intend to take such action, thus escalating Britain’s military involvement in Syria and risking clashes with Russian and Iranian forces, will the Minister of State guarantee the House that we will be given a vote to approve such action before it takes place, even if that means recalling Parliament?
The co-ordinated action that was taken earlier this year with the United States and France was not about intervening in a civil war or regime change; it was a discrete action to degrade chemical weapons and deter their use by the Syrian regime in order to alleviate humanitarian suffering. Our position on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is unchanged. As we have demonstrated, we will respond appropriately to any further use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons, which have had such devastating humanitarian consequences for the Syrian population. The right hon. Lady may recall that there are circumstances, depending on the nature of any attack, in which the United Kingdom Government need to move swiftly and to keep in mind, as their utmost priority, the safety of those personnel involved in a mission. I am not prepared to say at this stage what the United Kingdom’s detailed reaction might be or to give any timescale, because the importance of responding appropriately, quickly and with the safety of personnel in mind will be uppermost in the mind of the United Kingdom.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who has done so much to stand up for the voiceless in this matter. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that there is much that this country can and should do? Only recently the Prime Minister stood where the Minister sits now and talked of the attacks we had faced from Russian chemical weapons. Should we not also stand up to the Russians, who are financing this war, and to banks such as VTB that are trading on our markets and raising debt in this country? Is it not outrageous that these people are allowed to exploit our assets, property and laws to finance a war in Syria that is leaving hundreds of thousands injured and many more millions displaced, and that is fundamentally destabilising not only our interests but those of our partners around the world?
Russia has an important role at this stage of what will likely be the end of the formal conflict in Syria. It is taking part in attacks that appear indiscriminate—in relation to targeting civilians—and all the fears are that the civilian damage and humanitarian distress that we have seen in other parts of Syria will be repeated. There is an opportunity to prevent that. The United Kingdom has called on Russia and Iran to do all in their power, with the Syrian regime, to prevent it. This is an opportunity for Russia to step forward, to do what is right on the international stage—even at this stage—and to assist in Syria’s transition to something different. The United Kingdom remains determined to use any diplomatic measures and other sanctions at its disposal to ensure the conduct necessary to provide a more peaceful solution to the troubles in Syria and to end a conflict that has done so much damage.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answers and I commend the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing the urgent question and for the well-informed and passionate way he set out the background. He reminded us of the humanitarian catastrophe that is happening even as we speak.
May I press the right hon. Gentleman on something about which I asked the Minister for Europe and the Americas on 24 July? When the House voted in December 2015 for military action in Syria, it was in expectation that that would help in the establishment of an interim Government in about six months. Clearly that prediction went badly wrong, and it is not enough for the Government to say, as they did last time, that these predictions are difficult. Will the Minister for the Middle East say what lessons we learning about the reliability, or otherwise, of such predictions, especially if, as now seems might be the case, we are heading towards a scenario where the House is once again asked to give its consent to military action?
Secondly, I welcome the Minister’s mention of something else that I asked about in July: the UK following the lead of others in establishing a national mechanism for the prevention and prediction of, and the rapid response to, mass atrocities, chemical weapons attacks and so on? Will he give us more detail about, or at least an indication of, what he intends to do to keep Members updated and to improve on the response so far?
Finally, given the very clear evidence of the commission of war crimes, does the Minister agree that if there is an all-out, indiscriminate offensive in Idlib, the terrorists there will be able to get away, but the babies—as the Minister said, they outnumber the terrorists—will not? They are the ones who will be left behind to die. In those circumstances, should not such an all-out, indiscriminate offensive be classified as a crime against humanity, because it is clearly designed to cause civilian casualties? Will the Minister give an assurance that the pursuit of all those responsible for war crimes in Syria will also apply to members of the Russian military who are involved, including, if necessary, the commander-in- chief who has given the orders for these atrocities to take place?
The processes to try to bring about a political transition in Syria are still going on, led by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura. Talks are continuing, and have been supplemented, to a degree, by talks that have taken place with those outside the formal process—Turkey, Iran and Russia. Efforts have failed because, on the ground, the regime has been successful, and the cost to it has therefore not been sufficient for it to want to make changes that would bring political reconciliation or political change. Those efforts are still being made through the United Nations. It is clear that a reimposition of the regime in its current form after the conflict is unlikely to bring stability to Syria, and to prevent the opportunity either for extremists to act again or for further civil unrest to occur. If the conflict is to come properly to an end, there will indeed have to be a degree of transition and change in the regime, and that will come through political efforts that are ongoing and will continue.
As for the prediction of events and military attacks, what the United Kingdom has been able to supply—the House will understand that I do not want to go into too much detail—is effectively an early warning system, which can be activated by electronic awareness of potential attacks. It can provide information through social media as well as by more conventional means, which enables people to take evasive action and to hide to the extent that they can. Of course, the best way to avoid civilian casualties is not to employ an early warning system, but to stop the bombing.
That leads me to the issue of war crimes. The designation of a war crime is not a political act, but a judicial act. Certain criteria are clearly laid out through international humanitarian law. There is an independent accountability mechanism—the so-called IIIM—that the United Kingdom is supporting in Syria. It is essential that, at some stage, the world is able to see accountability measures working. If there is impunity, there is injustice, and if there is no accountability, there is impunity. We will work with those systems. Whoever may be liable for war crimes, the United Kingdom will seek to ensure—through international and judicial means—that they are appropriately pursued.
I welcome the Minister’s remarks about chemical weapons. I want to develop the point about the primary and priority targeting of hospitals in Syria—in Idlib, and also during early parts of the civil war—which is one of the most flagrant and obvious violations of the Geneva conventions since the Spanish civil war.
Seven or eight weeks ago, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and I met 20 Syrian doctors, some of whom had been in hospitals that were bombed 30 times by the regime and its Russian backers. The Minister talked of naming and shaming Syrian military units, but he said nothing about shaming Russian and Iranian units that are involved in the same flagrant breach of the Geneva conventions, along with their command chains. Will he confirm that as well as naming and shaming those Syrian military units, he will name and shame individual Russian and Iranian units, pilots and chains of command?
Russia has continued its close military co-operation with the regime in spite of the atrocities that it has committed, including the use of chemical weapons. It has chosen to shield the regime’s use of chemical weapons from international scrutiny. Its repeated blocking of the mandate of the UN-OPCW joint investigative mechanism sent a dangerous signal to the Syrian regime that it could continue to use chemical weapons with impunity.
Russia must change tack. It must end its destructive support for the regime’s military campaign and instead support de-escalation and a political settlement. Of course, when information is available about those who may have taken part in war crimes, the accountability mechanisms that I have mentioned should, and must, come into play.
As has been said by almost every Member who has spoken today, the bombing of a hospital is a terrible war crime, but it is worse than that: doctors in non-regime areas in Syria, including Idlib, lack basic supplies. The Minister has been working on that, so may I ask him about his conversations with his Turkish counterparts and that of the Prime Minister? Have they been asked to make sure that the route through to Syria stays open, and will they help make sure that no doctor in Syria lacks basic medical supplies to save lives?
We have indeed been working extremely hard to try and make sure the supplies are there, and I commend the hon. Lady on her consistent championing ever since the beginning of this business in Syria of the White Helmets, civilian workers and the medical teams who operate there. We have indeed been speaking to Turkey about the efforts that might be made should there first be a movement of population. Turkey recognises that it is the first safe border to the north of the Idlib area and is likely to be called upon to use its resources. We and other international agencies have done what we can to ensure that what is available in the area to support people who are moving will be available. I understand that it is at present still possible to get assistance into Idlib; those humanitarian corridors are still working in a way they did not in other parts of the area. We will do all we can and respond in any way to further pleas for what may be necessary. We are extremely conscious of this, which is why I added £10 million extra on 17 August to the support the UK is giving specifically for medical aid supplies, to make sure they are available to those who need them. Turkey is working extremely hard both diplomatically and practically to try to stop the humanitarian disaster, because as well as preparing for it, we must do all we can to prevent it in the first place.
Yes, as we have discussed a number of times in the House, the issue surrounding the Security Council at the moment is quite severe and will be for so long as the major powers use their veto in a manner that prevents action on issues where others are agreed. The power of veto is there for a specific purpose and cannot be gainsaid, but if it is always used to prevent the sort of action the rest of the world deems necessary, there is a risk the Security Council loses the moral authority it seeks to have. As we have seen in places where it has asked for ceasefires and humanitarian access in Syria and been denied, that problem still occurs, so I agree with my hon. Friend.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s assurance that Britain will support a robust response should Assad resort to chemical weapons again, but the sad truth is that Syria represents the worst failing of the civilised world since Rwanda and Burundi, after which we said, “Never again,” so does he think that, when all this is over, there may be a case for an inquiry in Britain into how on earth we allowed this to happen?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a wider question and the Foreign Affairs Committee published something on it today. Indeed, sitting behind him is one of the members of that Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), brandishing a copy of the report, and I know his feelings about it very clearly, and all of us who were in the House on 29 August 2013 remember the circumstances. It would be wrong to pin the blame for everything that has happened in Syria on such a vote and such actions that were taken at the time. The responsibility for the tragedy of Syria lies fairly and squarely at the hands of Assad, the regime and those who have supported it, and we should look in no other direction. None the less, the question about what needs to be found out is real. I am not sure whether an independent inquiry is the right thing to do; we have been over this many times, but the right hon. Gentleman is right that there are lessons to be learned about how we got where we are, and they are essential because the world cannot go on looking on at these dreadful situations and feel as powerless as often we do.
I thank the Minister for his kind words and for reiterating the need to ensure that our military personnel are well protected from the disinformation that is being put out across the world. What can be done to stop the reported rise in attacks on medical facilities? Is the international community able to collect evidence so that we can hold to account these barbarians who are killing children and the sick?
To date, we have reports of some 37 attacks on medical facilities and health workers. These are being documented and detailed. As has been mentioned, deliberate attacks on such premises are a contravention of international humanitarian law. Every effort will be made, and our work with the accountability mechanisms such as the international, impartial and independent mechanism is designed to provide the necessary evidence, should accountability proceedings be held in the future, as we hope they will be.
Is the Minister able to give an indication of how many Syrians, Russians and Iranians are subject to asset freezes and travel bans and of how many cases are being built against those people for prosecutions for alleged war crimes? Would Mr al-Assad and Mr Putin fall into that category? Finally, would not the biggest contribution that the UK Government could make be to expand the family reunion scheme so that we could support more vulnerable Syrian refugees?
The information on who sanctions have been ordered on is public and has been revealed in answers to questions, but I will ensure that it is reissued and made available to the right hon. Gentleman. I cannot remember the number at present. On individual sanctions, we carefully consider for whom they might be most appropriate and what the most effective method might be. What was the right hon. Gentleman’s last point?
On reunion, the United Kingdom will see resettled the 20,000 refugees that were accepted by the United Kingdom, and that programme is proceeding well. We have done a great deal to settle people in the area and to see them returned. The big issue at the moment in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey is not sending people to the United Kingdom; it is how safe they will be when they get back to Syria, which is where most of them want to go. There needs to be an adequate programme in relation to that. That is where the focus of our efforts is now, but that can come about only if there is a safe and secure Syria, where certain guarantees have been given by the state so that those who fled will not have reason to flee again.
Idlib is the last major rebel and jihadist stronghold, so this could well be the military endgame as President Assad seeks to finish the job, as he sees it, of re-establishing his regime. I do not know anyone who believes that the rebel forces can possibly win this conflict, so the fighting will end only if they are defeated or killed, or moved out of Idlib. As I understand it, the two main rebel groups are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the National Liberation Front. The first is linked to al-Qaeda; the second to Turkey. Can the Minister tell the House whether both groups are being attacked by Syria with its Russian backers? It seems to me that plans need to be put in place to move those rebel fighters out of Idlib. The alternative is that the Syrian forces will go in and defeat and kill them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, in which there is an awful lot wrapped up. As I indicated earlier, the assessment by the United States and ourselves is that the extremist terrorist groups in Idlib constitute perhaps 0.5% of the population—a very small number, about 15,000 people. There are other groups fighting against the regime that the United Kingdom does not designate as terrorist groups, although they are so designated by the regime. There may be another 25,000 to 35,000 people involved in those groups. As I said earlier, the number of civilians in the area is much greater than the numbers in either of those two groups.
The possibility remains for those groups to surrender, either to Turkish or UN authorities, but for those who continue to hold out against any peaceful or negotiated end, if that proves impossible, there is little doubt that military action or special operations may become part of the future. It is essential to civilians that that does not happen, because they will inevitably be caught up in such activity if it takes place, so the determination is to try to find a way to negotiate an outcome.
My hon. Friend said that people could go elsewhere, but the problem is that Idlib is the end of the line. It is where people have been brought to now. Whatever the solution, it must be an Idlib solution, and we are pressing all the authorities to do all they can for a negotiated surrender solution, if that is possible, to spare lives. However, the most important thing is that those who have had no contact with extremist groups and the civilians who have been caught up in this should be safe and free from the risk of indiscriminate attacks, which should stop now.
The Select Committee’s unanimously agreed report on “The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention”, published today, says:
“There has been a manifest failure to protect civilians and to prevent mass atrocity crimes in Syria.”
It calls for an independent inquiry to investigate the processes that lead to and the consequences of the Government’s decision not to intervene in Syria. We could have intervened in 2011, with humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones, and the Minister referred to the 2013 debate and others. However, why are we quite happy to hold inquiries when we do intervene, such as with Iraq, but not when we do not intervene? As the Committee points out, the consequences of non-intervention by the international community can be worse than those of intervention.
It is obviously too early to give an official response to the Committee’s report, but the hon. Gentleman and I know the circumstances well. There is absolutely nothing to stop a further inquiry by this House into the decisions that were made and why. Indeed, I can remember most of the arguments now. However, he is correct that Syria has demonstrated the consequences of non-intervention in a way that had not been made fully clear before. Many of the political arguments at the time were based on what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I remember the public—it was nine to one—telling Ministers and Members not to do anything.
We now know that there have been consequences of that non-intervention. I do not know what the right forum is to learn still more of that, and I am not sure about the process, but now that the potential damage from non-intervention is established fact, the hon. Gentleman is right that the House needs to consider the consequences of non-intervention as well as intervention. I should add of course that there has been intervention since 2013, just not by the United Kingdom and its allies.
My right hon. Friend has already spoken about Russia’s gross dereliction of duty in its continued wielding of its veto on the UN Security Council. What can we, the Americans and the French—our allies on the Security Council—do to try to resolve this impasse to save the many thousands of civilian lives that will be lost as a result of this dereliction of duty?
Every diplomatic tool is being employed to demonstrate to those currently responsible for actions in Idlib the risk that they are taking—the risk to international humanitarian law, future accountability and the need to avoid both civilian casualties and the use of chemical weapons. That effort is being exercised by the international community as a whole. As I mentioned earlier, the UK was distressed by the fact that a ceasefire and other efforts promoted by the United Kingdom at the UN Security Council last week were not supported by Russia and the Syrian regime.
I am grateful to the Minister for all his responses to questions on such an important issue. Can he expand on his response about how and when action will be taken against those commanders who have been found to be responsible for these illicit attacks, for these war crimes? It is not good enough to say that it will happen at some stage. Will he reassure us that no stone will go unturned and that these people will be held to account, and held to account quickly?
In all honesty, it would be comforting, both to the House and to the hon. Lady, for me to say what the process will be and that it will be swift and so on, but I do not believe I can say that. Look how long it has taken for there to be accountability for serious crimes at Srebrenica. It depends on the gathering of evidence, and it depends on the willingness of authorities to take part and the willingness of the agencies to bring forward those within their own communities who might have been responsible.
We looked at the Burma fact-finding mission last week, and it is a scar on the world community that it can attribute blame, that it can demonstrate what has happened but that the processes of accountability are incredibly slow. We have done all we can at present to give people the tools they need to collect evidence. The United Kingdom has worked hard to explain to people how they can collect evidence and keep it safe to record crimes, but, ultimately, an accountability mechanism is still needed to bring that forward.
All I was able to say at the United Nations last year, when we moved the resolution on the creation of the accountability mechanism, was that the wheels of justice may grind slow but they grind exceeding small, and they get there. I wish I could say how much quicker it will be, but that tends to be the truth.
A joint statement issued by the United States, France and the United Kingdom made it clear that we will respond appropriately to any chemical weapons attack. Nobody wants to do that, and the warning was intended to prevent it, rather than to give an indication of response.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report. I hope that, at some point soon, we can try to find a way out of this political and intellectual cul-de-sac whereby intervention seems to be seen as, de facto, the bad response and non-intervention as, de facto, the peaceful response. Let us look at the lessons we have to learn from Syria.
I have a specific question for the Minister. Will he update us on the possibility of safe exit and assessment points on the border with Turkey and on assistance with triaging people who have to flee so that we can provide more resettlement, possibly in this country?
As I indicated earlier, we are working very closely with Turkey on what the responses would be if a large number of people were to move. Preparations are already in place for the provision of support in safe areas on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey is cautious about a large number of people coming across the border, and we have offered assistance in relation to that. All this is currently being worked out to try to find the best ways in which humanitarian access can be safeguarded and to find how people can be protected. That work is ongoing, and I commit to updating the House whenever anything new is available.