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.
What advice would the Minister give to the 50% of schools and colleges that have already cut modern foreign language courses and the 67% that have already cut additional support and extracurricular activities?
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.
What extra support and funding is going in to help these disadvantaged students between the ages of 16 and 19?
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.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to be satisfied that our schools are getting a proper allocation of funding. Will my right hon. Friend indicate how UK education spending compares to the OECD average?
In relation to sixth-form students.
Certainly with regard to schools, it compares very favourably. It is important to recognise—
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
The latest published school capacity data, from May 2017, show that the number of unfilled, or surplus, primary school places in Westminster was 2,158, 17.8% of the total number available there.
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.
No, no. High Peak is a beautiful part of the country, of which the hon. Lady is an articulate champion, but it is a long way from Westminster, on which the question is focused.
She is here now.
She is here now, but she could be patient until later, when she will also be here.
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?
I will and, as my hon. Friend will be aware, we have committed significant extra resourcing for T-levels, and in the immediate term we are working closely with the 2020 providers, including in Dudley, to make sure they have the support they need.
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 in 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?
But Scotland does have a cap on student numbers, which is a reality of having a system unlike ours. We have seen a record proportion of children from disadvantaged backgrounds being able to go on to university, which is to be welcomed.
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?
Universities can be great engines of social mobility, and many do great work in that regard. Over £800 million is now being allocated to improve access to university, which is to be welcomed.
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?
Of course, we have already had the appointment of the chair of the commission, and I expect to be able to announce appointments to the commission in October.
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?
The hon. Lady deftly connects a couple of disparate aspects.
That is why it is so deft.
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?
We have managed to fund the pay award from within the Department for Education’s own budget, and we expect the Welsh Government to be able to do the same.
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 grateful to my predecessor for that question. I think I will leave it to the Daily Mail to decide what it does. Suffice it to say that the number of non-domestic providers has remained stable.
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.
How many staff in the Secretary of State’s Department are working on free schools?
Many different teams in the Department for Education work directly or indirectly on free schools, because they are an important and integral part of our school system.
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.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that 91% of all the new school places created between 2016 and 2017 were in schools that were rated either good or outstanding?
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?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of agriculture and of studying agricultural sciences. The sciences—maths, chemistry, physics and biology—are important preparation for studying agriculture post-16.
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?
We must always stand up for free speech. We must not allow bureaucracy on campus to stifle free speech, and it is our duty to make sure that it is promoted, because if universities are not about free speech, what are they for?
What progress has been made in developing guidance with universities to clarify the rules surrounding free speech for students and for the universities?
New guidance on clarifying all the rules around free speech will be published this autumn.
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.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Pen Green Centre in Corby on recently winning The Times Educational Supplement overall best school award? Has he given thought as to how best practice at that particular setting can be shared more widely?
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 educational 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?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I know that he does not come to the House without looking at the figures properly, and I would be very happy to meet him to look at them with him.
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?
Yes, I do. Those partnerships are incredibly important and can provide very important role models.
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.
We have allocated £1.5 million from the tampon tax fund to that and are looking at further evidence, to see whether there is a link to absenteeism from school.
West Oxfordshire’s thriving high-tech businesses are in urgent need of employees with technical skills. What steps is the Department taking to provide STEM careers advice in schools?
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.
Will the Minister update the House on the progress of the national assessment and accreditation system for children’s social workers?
NAAS is progressing extremely well. In early results, it has had a satisfaction rating of something like 86% for those very excellent social workers who have been through the system, and we look to continue that success.
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.
Following his meeting last week with the Family Rights Group to discuss the care crisis review, will the Children’s Minister now consider developing a long-term strategy for reducing the number of children being taken into care?
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.
Finally, I call Clive Lewis.
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 the 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.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the continued use of the UN Security Council veto by Russia has hampered efforts to prevent atrocities, and how can the UN be reformed so we can avoid this situation in the future?
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.
I call the man brandishing a report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which he once chaired and of which he remains a distinguished ornament: Mr Mike Gapes.
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.
I strongly welcome the Minister’s statement that, if Syria should use chemical weapons again, we are ready to act. Is he confident that our allies would stand with us in that endeavour?
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.
What difference is UK aid making on the ground in this crisis today?
I mentioned this earlier, but I am keen to repeat that the difference we have been able to make is in supplying food, humanitarian assistance and medical assistance to literally millions of people in Syria over a period. Specifically, between January and December 2017, our support in Idlib governorate provided approximately 653,000 people with access to clean drinking water, immunised 1,335,000 children under five, helped 321,000 children access education and provided 398,000 medical consultations. That is just in Idlib; that is the Department for International Development; and that is the United Kingdom’s population getting behind our work.
I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. There is a strong and significant evidential base to show that Assad has given the green light to the gas attacks. I am certain that, as the Minister has said clearly, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing everything diplomatically possible to prevent gas attacks, which would have an impact on innocent women and children. As the noose closes around Idlib, what additional aid and practical support will the Minister’s office make available to deal with what will undoubtedly amount to massive casualties?
Without going into detail, I say to the hon. Gentleman that whatever preparation can be made is being made. We are conscious of the risk, and as I indicated earlier, we are also conscious of the fact that should there be an attack, disinformation would be spread about it. We want to make every preparation possible to save lives and treat people should it become necessary, and that is certainly being done by providing the supplies that are available in the area.
What consideration have the Government given to using UK sovereign bases in Cyprus to provide a safe haven for refugees from Idlib?
As I indicated earlier, the issue is not necessarily moving people across the sea to areas either in Europe or elsewhere. We have already seen the difficulties of displaced populations. The effort is appropriately directed towards ensuring that people are immediately safe but then that they are returned to a safer Syria. What the area wants is not more refugees, either in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or elsewhere, but the means and mechanisms for people to be returned to their home areas safely. That will take further negotiation and the absolute commitment of the Syrian regime that people should be safe, so there is a lot to be done. I am not certain that there is any need to evacuate people to UK sovereign bases, because there will be other areas nearby where people would be safer, but it is much easier for people to return to their homes when they have been settled closer to home after displacement than when they have been overseas.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement. Today, the Secretary of State for Justice and I are launching the Government’s victims strategy, which sets out our vision for victims of crime in England and Wales. That vision is of a justice system that supports even more victims to speak up with the certainty that they will be understood, protected and supported, whether or not they report a crime and regardless of their circumstances or background.
However, no single Department, agency or emergency service alone can provide the services that victims rightly expect to receive, as shown by recent major incidents and tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. To truly deliver on our vision, we must all work together. That is why we have today published, for the first time, a cross-Government victims strategy, further delivering on this Government’s commitment to ensure that victims of crime get the support they need.
This strategy is the latest milestone in improving that support for victims and builds on important progress over the past few years under Governments of both parties, such as the establishment of the first code of practice for victims in 2006; the appointment of the first Victims’ Commissioner to champion the interests of victims and witnesses in 2010; and the publication of “Getting it right for victims and witnesses” in 2012, which set out the Government’s approach to ensuring that victims and witnesses get the support they need.
The victims strategy consolidates and builds on that progress but recognises that more still needs to be done. I thank and pay tribute to all the victims, victims’ groups and experts who have willingly shared their experiences and sat on the victims panel, and to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who initiated this work. I also pay tribute to my officials and to my opposite number in the Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), for their work on the strategy. To achieve what we wish to, we must work together.
The nature of crime is changing and we must adapt our response to meet that challenge. Although overall crime has fallen, incidents of some of the most serious crimes have risen. Serious violent crime has increased and the reporting of sexual offending has also risen. In the year ending March 2018, there was a 24% increase in reported sexual offences, compared with the previous year.
The message from victims is clear: they want to be treated with dignity, humanity and compassion; they want clear, timely and accurate information about what is happening with their cases from day one; and they want the opportunity and support to make their voices heard as justice is done. To help to achieve that, the strategy sets out a system-wide response to improving the support offered to all victims of crime, throughout the criminal justice process, and incorporates actions from all criminal justice agencies, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts. We must ensure that those who are victims of crime do not become victims of the process.
First, we want to strengthen the victims code and make it fit for the future. Our data tells us that fewer than 20% of victims are even aware of the code. Those who are often find it too lengthy and too confusing, with too many agencies involved. We will therefore revise the code, make it more user-friendly and reduce the number of contact points. We will also strengthen entitlements in key areas such as the victim personal statement and support for victims of mentally disordered offenders. We will test the proposed changes to the code in a public consultation in early 2019, and aim to have a revised code in place by the end of 2019.
We have reaffirmed our manifesto commitment to a victims law. The consultation will consider how best to enshrine victims’ entitlements in law and the detail of the necessary legislation, and it will include boosting the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner, who already plays a vital role in holding agencies to account. In that context, I pay particular tribute to Baroness Newlove for all her work over the past six years to promote and protect the interests of victims and witnesses.
The criminal injuries compensation scheme must reflect the changing nature of crime. We will therefore review the entire scheme, with a particular focus on how we treat the victims of child sexual abuse and terrorism. That will include examining eligibility criteria and abolishing the arbitrary and unfair “same roof” rule, so that victims can get the compensation that they are rightly due.
From Hillsborough to Grenfell, there have been too many failures properly to support those affected by disasters, so today, in this strategy, we have set out our plans for an independent public advocate, and in tandem we have published a consultation on the detail of that role—supporting bereaved families so that those failures cannot be repeated and so that we can properly support victims from the beginning of a disaster right through to the application of justice and beyond.
Building on the work we commenced earlier this year to improve the parole process, the strategy sets out how we will improve communication and support for victims during what can be for many a difficult time, when memories of crimes committed years ago are relived. We will simplify the victim contact scheme and improve the quality of communication. We will make it easier for victims to make victim personal statements at parole hearings, and we will roll out revised training for victim liaison officers so that they are better equipped and prepared to support victims through parole hearings. That can and should help to ensure that past failings can never be repeated.
The strategy highlights the extra funding that we are providing for victims, including by increasing spending to improve services and pathways for survivors and victims of sexual violence and abuse. That spending includes £8 million on interventions to ensure that support is available to children who witness domestic abuse. Other measures include improved training for the police, including guidance on supporting victims through the interview process and collecting evidence; the trialling of body-worn cameras for taking victim personal statements, so that victims have a choice in how their story is heard; and expanding support for families bereaved by gang violence. The recent spate of gang-related violence, particularly in London, has shone a spotlight on the devastation that gun and knife crime can cause to families. We will also bring in new funding for advocacy support for those affected by domestic homicide. New guidance on pre-trial therapy to reduce the perception that it will damage the prosecution case will also be brought forward.
In developing the strategy, we have engaged extensively with victims, victims’ groups and the Victims’ Commissioner. That has ensured that the strategy is informed by those who have had direct experience of being a victim, as well as by those with frontline expertise who have supported them.
This strategy is not a quick fix. It is about building on the work to date so that we can better support victims in the future. It is also about giving them the confidence that, no matter their background, their individual circumstances, or the crime that has been committed against them, the support they need will be there.
This is the first time that we have looked in such detail and in such a joined-up way at how we treat victims in the wake of crime. This strategy is a marker for the way we should see ourselves as a nation—one that offers dignity, empathy and compassion to people when they are at their most vulnerable. It is something on which there is broad consensus across this House. On this agenda, the Opposition have, in my experience, always been constructive and positive in their engagement with the Government and I hope that that constructive approach will continue as we deliver the strategy.
Delivery of the strategy will now commence in earnest, as we continue to progress towards a system that supports even more victims to speak up by giving them the certainty that they will be understood, supported and protected throughout their journey. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.
Any progress to help victims is welcome, but the only thing that will cut the mustard when it comes to strengthening victims’ rights is primary legislation and for that we are still waiting. We are still waiting for the delivery of the promise made by the Tories in 2015 that they would enshrine key entitlements for victims and witnesses in primary legislation. They mysteriously stopped making specific references to passing primary legislation just a year later. When Labour repeatedly pressed them on whether they still planned to do so, we received a series of fudges, talking about strategies and non-legislative options.
It has taken three years for the Government to produce the strategy that has finally been unveiled today. Why so many mentions of consultation—“consult” on a revised victims’ code, “consult” on a victims’ law, and “consult” on the establishment of an independent public advocate? We have consulted all this to death over the past three years, and have heard loud and clear from all quarters that these things are vital and urgently needed. Labour has campaigned on this for years. Have we not had long enough to talk about this? I would like to hear from the Minister just how much longer we will have to wait and why we have to wait.
We welcome the potential for improving court environments with victim-friendly waiting areas and an emphasis on accessibility for the most vulnerable, but with more than 230 court closures since 2010 many vulnerable people cannot get to the court anyway. Victims having to travel for hours on several different buses will hardly have the calmest start to their court visit, even if they have a more suitable waiting area when they do arrive.
There are measures that aim to provide more support for victims of major disasters such as Grenfell; the Minister alluded to that and we know it is currently lacking. Judicial review is a key tool for victims of tragedies to be able to challenge unjust or unlawful decisions by the state or other public bodies. Labour has committed to restoring legal aid for judicial review. Will the Government now do likewise?
The Government say that an independent public advocate would help to guide bereaved families through any investigative process after a disaster
“so their voices can be heard at inquest.”
However, that is misleading. Although the title includes the term “advocate”, the official will not represent bereaved families at inquiries or inquests. When will the Minister provide advocates to help victims to navigate a complex and intimidating system and lawyers for bereaved families at inquests? The document released today concedes that there is “some potential for confusion”. That is not good enough for victims who are seeking clarity.
Let us be very clear: from a victim’s point of view, our justice system is not fit for purpose. For too long, victims have felt like an afterthought in the criminal justice process. The Government can produce all the strategy documents in the world but victims need action now.
There is no indication of how the Government intend to fund some of the positive measures in the strategy, measures that Labour has been calling for—raising the amount for survivors and victims of sexual violence and abuse from £31million to £39 million; £8 million for children who witness domestic abuse; and £18.8 million on domestic abuse accommodation services in England. That is all crucial, but will the Minister tell us where the money will come from? Victims may well not have confidence that anything in these measures is being properly funded, given the Tories’ failure to fund the female offenders strategy, which their own advisers say was underfunded by at least £15 million.
Just today, we heard the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association say that policing will be in a “perpetual state of crisis” if the Government do not lay out a long-term vision for the stretched service. The entire justice system is crippled. It is time for the Tories to do as they promised and speed up the urgent work of creating a robust victims’ law. Victims cannot wait for another year.
I welcome much of the content and tone of the hon. Lady’s comments. I am sure she will be extremely pleased to see the reaffirmed commitment to the consultation on the legislation to underpin this. She said that it has taken three years for the Government to produce a strategy. Well, I have been the Minister for three months and I hope that she is encouraged that I have published the strategy, in which that is clearly set out.
The hon. Lady is right that the victims code is very important but we do need the ability for victims to enforce and monitor that and the legislation underpinning it. We are consulting on that, which is the right thing to do. She asked about timescales. I pay tribute to her colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), for his work in this area. He and I have discussed this on many occasions.
The hon. Lady asked when this would happen. As I set out, we will be consulting on the independent public advocate from today. So there is action, which will be followed by consideration of that and steps forward. Consultation will follow on the criminal injuries compensation scheme and the consultation on the revised victims code and the necessary legislation underpinning it will come in 2019. Although I understand that the hon. Lady may be a little frustrated by consultations, I am very clear that what we are doing is hugely important and it is right that we consult widely, particularly with the victims of crime and others, who know best what will work for them in this context. Therefore, although I take her point, I make no apologies for the consultation; it is important that we get this absolutely right. It is also right that we ensure that people have access to justice, and this Government have a strong track record of ensuring continued access to justice.
The hon. Lady highlighted the money and the financing. As she will know, already, taken together, around £200 million is spent across Government and different agencies on supporting victims of crime. We seek with this strategy to ensure that that money is better spent, and better joined up in the way it is spent, to deliver the outcomes that victims of crime want and that this strategy is designed to deliver. This document is a very clear statement of intent by this Government, delivering on a clear commitment from this Government to support victims of crime.
But are we planning to continue to let victims down by persisting with inadequate sentencing and early release?
Although I have the hugest respect for my right hon. Friend, I believe that this Government and previous Governments have a strong track record of supporting the victims of crime and that this strategy builds on that strong track record. As he will be aware, sentencing is a matter for our independent judiciary, and the Government always ensure that it has at its disposal a range of options to consider when sentencing an individual.
I also thank the Minister for taking the time to provide a copy of the statement in advance.
This matter is devolved, and I want to talk a bit about what the Scottish Government are doing in this regard. The Scottish Parliament’s Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 ensures that victims and witnesses have legal protection in primary legislation. Our own victims code was published in 2016, ensuring that justice agencies, including the police, the Crown, the courts and the Parole Board publish and report on shared standards regarding how victims are supported and on how those standards are being met. It is important to note that legislative context.
In Scotland, we are looking at improving the availability of information to victims by reviewing the victim notification scheme and consulting on how victims can best input into parole hearings. This is part of our programme for Government for this year. In relation specifically to homicide, Scotland is looking at developing a new model of victim-centred support, beginning with the Homicide Service but looking at other services after that. What work is being done, with regard to things that are being done in Scotland and the way that they are working, to ensure that lessons are learned about whether they would be applicable down here and could be broadened out to happen here as well?
Thinking about what happened in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, what action is the Minister taking to ensure that victims’ voices are heard before a tragedy occurs, rather than afterwards, so that things like the horrendous tragedy at Grenfell can be stopped before they happen?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she said and for her tone. She is absolutely right—this is a devolved matter. Although it is devolved, and while I may not agree with everything that the Scottish Government do or all the policies they put forward, I assure her that in drawing up this strategy we have taken great heed of what is done in Scotland and looked at what the Scottish Government do. There is no reason to be dogmatic about these things. Where there is good practice elsewhere that may be applicable, we are always happy to look at it, and my officials have been looking at what is done in Scotland. Indeed, as the Minister in the Department who has responsibility for devolved Administrations, I take a particularly close interest.
In respect of reporting and shared standards, the hon. Lady will see in the strategy that we believe that transparency is extremely important. We set out our plans to consult not only on an expanded role and expanded powers for the Victims Commissioner, in holding people and criminal justice system bodies to account, but on an increased role for police and crime commissioners to monitor compliance in their local areas with the code and what is being done, and to send those reports upwards to the Criminal Justice Board and ultimately to me as a Minister.
In respect of Grenfell and what happened before the tragedy, I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I am a little cautious in going into that while the inquiry is still going on. However, I believe that the IPA will play an extremely important role in ensuring that victims’ voices are heard.
I thank the Minister for his statement. This really is a great day for victims. There is much to be very pleased with in the statement and the document that joins it. Let me focus on the “same roof rule”—an issue on which I have been campaigning for many years. I was particularly pleased with the change to that rule in a world in which most sex offenders are known to their victims. This is very important. Will he give us greater detail as to when it is likely that the change will come into effect?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is quite right to highlight the importance of this change. She has campaigned very strongly on this issue, as has the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). Only recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) highlighted the very important campaigning of his constituent, Alissa Moore, on this issue and the huge impact that that has had on bringing about change.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) asks about timescales. We will be responding to IICSA, the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which plays into this agenda, but at this stage we anticipate that we will be looking to consult early in 2019.
I thank the Minister for his statement and say how much there is in it that is really warmly to be welcomed. I think it will get strong support from the agencies outside, from the voluntary organisations, and across this House. I commend his approach in dealing with it cross-departmentally. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the shadow Minister: we look forward to this proceeding to legislation.
May I put to the Minister an issue that has been omitted—victims in rape cases who, when they are in the witness box, are, in effect, put on trial by being cross-examined about their previous sexual history? Everyone in the House agrees that that should not happen. A defendant dragging out the victim’s previous sexual activity in order to besmirch her reputation to the jury or to intimidate her out of giving evidence in the first place should not happen, but unfortunately, the law to protect victims from that is not working.
I know that the Minister will be able to get wise counsel from the Solicitor General and the Attorney General, and I know of enthusiastic commitment of the Minister for Women to justice for rape victims. If the Minister does not add this to the strategy, it will be a glaring omission, so will he include in his very commendable approach tackling this injustice?
The right hon. and learned Lady has long been a doughty campaigner on this and many other important issues, and I pay tribute to her work. She is right that this is not explicitly in the victims strategy. I and my fellow Ministers, including the Solicitor General, have heard her make her point eloquently and forcefully, and we will reflect carefully on what she said.
We have found that most victims want to play a strong role in parole. How will the Minister make victims’ statements more comprehensive for that purpose and give them a role in the parole system?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He has raised that issue previously, particularly in his work as a member of the Justice Committee. He will be encouraged to hear that there are a number of references to the operation of the Parole Board in the strategy, and we will see later this year the Government’s response to the consultation about the operation of the Parole Board. On his specific point, the strategy sets out how the Parole Board will move towards a presumption that victims can, if they wish, read out a victim personal statement in that process.
I warmly welcome the Minister’s statement. Many of the promises the Government are making today have cross-party support. I am sure the Minister will recognise that without adequate funding to put them into practice, many of those promises will be empty. In the 50 pages of the victims strategy, I counted what looked like a commitment to £60 million of new funding. Is that it, or is there any extra funding, to make sure that we are not just legislating but doing?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words and the tone with which he approaches this important issue. As I set out in response to the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), around £200 million of funding has already been spent on supporting victims of crime throughout the system. We believe that that can be better spent by joining it up more effectively and spending it in ways that reflect what victims say they need. The right hon. Gentleman will also see in the strategy a commitment, for example, to an additional £8 million to support children who have witnessed domestic abuse and domestic violence. That funding is already secured.
I welcome the Minister to what I believe is his first statement at the Dispatch Box. He has certainly set the bar high for his many future statements.
The Minister probably noted yesterday that the police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, spoke out about her own experience of being a victim in an abusive relationship over two years. Would he give us a bit more detail about what role he sees police and crime commissioners playing in supporting victims, particularly when some, such as my own, have personal experiences of abusive relationships?
I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend’s police and crime commissioner. She was incredibly brave to speak out, and by doing so, she has helped to make it a little bit easier for others to feel confident to speak out. I pay huge tribute to her for that.
As I highlighted earlier, we see an increased role for police and crime commissioners in this process, particularly in monitoring and ensuring compliance with the victims code in their local areas and improving transparency around that. Police and crime commissioners are probably the part of the criminal justice system who know their areas and localities best. I pay tribute to them for their work and believe that they have a huge amount more to contribute in this area.
I really welcome today’s announcement of a system-wide approach to supporting victims. I particularly welcome the review into the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which seems to be focused on re-traumatising victims rather than supporting them. A recent study from University College London showed that 80% of 13 to 17-year-old girls who were sexually assaulted went on to exhibit mental health issues within five months. Rape Crisis has a waiting list of 6,000, and Rotherham Abuse Counselling Service has a waiting list of 260. To address this, will the Minister consider committing, as part of the victims strategy, to placing early support for victims of crime on a statutory footing?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. As I said earlier, I pay particular tribute to her for the work she has done both in her constituency and in this House as a strong champion of the need to ensure that the support we offer, particularly through the criminal injuries compensation scheme, adapts to reflect the changing nature of the crimes the victims of which it is seeking to support. I know she will welcome the commitment to review the whole operation of the criminal injuries compensation scheme—eligibility, timescales for claims and of course the issues about the same-roof rule. She asked a specific question, and I am very happy to meet her to discuss it in more detail, whether in the context of this piece of work—this strategy—or, more broadly, about the consultation next year. I am happy, as ever, to meet her to talk about it.
May I commend the strategy, and indeed the way in which my hon. Friend has delivered it? The strategy calls on everyone to work together, and it rightly puts the victim first. Will my hon. Friend offer further details about the trials of body cameras for victims, which he mentioned, because I can think of nothing worse than having to relive the crime in giving evidence? How will body cameras help victims in delivering evidence?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. There will be a trial of body cameras for giving a personal statement, which we believe has the potential to make a real difference. It means that victims will be able to give such testimony in a way that is as comfortable for them as possible in the circumstances, and it will minimise the need for them to have to do exactly what she says, which is having to relive the crime a number of times.
One of the most depressing elements of a violent crime is that, quite often, the victim has to live with the damage for a long time afterwards. In particular, many young men who have been hit on the head have traumatic brain injuries from which they have never managed to recover because there has not been proper rehabilitation support. Will the Minister work very closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that we have neurorehabilitation prescriptions, so that justice is brought to those victims because they can properly recuperate?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and I want to reassure him. As I look around the Chamber, I see my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell. I paid tribute to him earlier, and I pay particular tribute to him for initiating this work and for working with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we have a strong relationship. I regularly meet my opposite number, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). We have met to discuss this strategy, and I am very happy to discuss with her the point made by the hon. Gentleman.
Given that the Minister said that £200 million a year is spent on support for victims, it is simply staggering, 12 years after it was first introduced, that only one in five victims are actually aware that the victims code exists. May I ask the Minister what demonstrable difference and what demonstrable improvements have been made to the judicial experience of victims and witnesses since the Victims’ Commissioner was first appointed in 2010?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and highlights the issue of awareness of the victims code. The fact that 20% of victims say they know about it and that 80% do not cite it does not, in and of itself, mean that the code is a bad thing. I believe that it means that we need to do more to promote awareness of it. We need to make it simpler, which is exactly what we are planning to do. We are actually planning—dare I use these words? —to simplify it almost to the point of being a pledge card that, up front and in very simple terms, will show victims what their entitlements are. We continue to develop and strengthen the victims code, just as we continue to make both the court experience and the support available to victims, pre and post-trial, better.
Liane Singleton was brutally murdered in 1998 by Paul Stowers. Her parents—my constituents Jacky and Gordon Singleton—have been trying to prevent the release of Stowers, including by petitioning this House two months ago. Today they found out that they have failed. They felt dreadfully let down by the criminal justice system, and totally powerless to influence the Parole Board. What difference will today’s announcement make to Jacky and Gordon? Can the Minister give them any reassurance?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who I know has highlighted this issue before. Her constituents are lucky to have her championing their cause as their Member of Parliament. It would be wrong of me to go into the details of that specific case on the Floor of the House, but I can say that the Parole Board will be taking steps to ensure that there is a presumption that a victim’s personal statement can be read in hearings. We will have made changes to the victim contact scheme by the end of 2019, and we will have rolled out new training for victim liaison officers by the end of 2018.
On the hon. Lady’s broader point, we have consulted on the detail of a mechanism for the reconsideration of parole decisions in certain circumstances. The consultation ran until the end of July, as she will be aware. We are carefully considering all the responses and will set out our next steps later this year. We are also carrying out a full review of all the Parole Board’s rules, which will be completed by the end of this year. I will be happy to meet the hon. Lady once those reviews are completed, if that would be helpful.
The £8 million to support interventions for children who have witnessed domestic abuse is to be welcomed. Can the Minister assure me that conversations are being held with the charities, which are often best placed to provide that support?
I can give my hon. Friend exactly that assurance. I am grateful for the work that many charities have done to help us to prepare the strategy, and I look forward to them continuing to play a central role as we deliver it.
The independent advocate for major tragedies is an important and welcome development. Given the Minister’s announcement today, could he indicate the proposed budget for that position?
The right hon. Gentleman, a former holder of the office I now hold—if rather more senior and distinguished—is absolutely right to highlight that important role. We have launched the consultation on the independent public advocate today, in parallel with the publication of the strategy. We will await the results of the consultation to see exactly how the scope and nature of that role is determined, which will of course then inform the funding required.
One of my constituents who was abused as a child was told not to make a claim from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority because it might prejudice the trial, but the trial took so long that by the end of the process, she was out of time. Will the Minister’s changes to the criteria for the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority be retrospective?
With regard to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, we have announced a review that covers eligibility and timescales. The hon. Lady highlights something that is an issue in some cases, particularly those involving child sexual abuse, because often the individual is not ready or able to bring forward a claim, either because of their age or because of the trauma they are still suffering. All those factors will be considered in the review.
Victims expect us to make the best possible use of risk assessment and management schemes. Obviously there is much in this strategy announcement to commend, but I wish to be a bit picky and ask the Minister whether he will meet me—this was part of my previous job—and/or other experts in the field who know far more than me, to discuss how to make the best possible use of the latest and best-tested risk assessment and management schemes.
It is always a pleasure to meet the hon. Lady, and I will be happy to do so again on this occasion.
We know that the people who are most vulnerable to crime are those furthest from mainstream services. It is the woman suffering at the hands of her partner, the trafficked person who does not speak English or the child groomed in their community who the consultations detailed today must reach. Who do the Government intend to engage with to ensure that the voice of those who are heard the least is properly involved in this process?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The aim of the strategy is to ensure that all those who are victims of crime, irrespective of background or any other factor, can access the support they need. We have worked extremely closely with not only individual victims of crime and experts in the field, but a wide variety of groups, covering individuals from all backgrounds and all ethnicities, on what they want to see in the strategy. I will continue to work extremely closely with them as we implement it. I am, of course, always happy receive suggestions from the hon. Gentleman.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Thursday 6 September, the Minister for Disabled People released the Government’s response to the UN committee report on the Government’s implementation of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. The committee expressed serious concerns that many articles of the convention were being breached and gave recommendations for its implementation. Given the importance of the convention in promoting and protecting the rights of disabled people, the House should have the opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s response. Could you therefore advise me, Mr Speaker, on how to ensure that this House has the opportunity to fully scrutinise the Government on this matter?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. If the Government decide it is appropriate to make an oral statement, a Minister comes to the House for the purpose of doing so; otherwise material tends to be communicated in written form. The Government’s response is a matter for the Government, not for the Chair. The Minister for Disabled People provided a written statement on this matter on Thursday, stating that she would place in the Library a copy of a report and letter the Government submitted to the United Nations outlining the UK’s progress. In summary, if the hon. Lady is dissatisfied with the Government’s response or the UK’s progress—or, conceivably, with both—there is a range of avenues that she might wish to pursue that ordinarily would involve a journey to, or other contact with, the Table Office. I will leave it to her and her legendary perspicacity to decide what means to seek to bring greater attention to this issue.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may recall granting an urgent question on 23 July on foreign fighters and the death penalty. The key issue at the time was why the Government had decided not to seek assurances about the potential use of the death penalty before assisting United States authorities in two specific cases regarding foreign fighters to whom we had denied British nationality. The Security Minister suggested that this had happened previously, but the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) asked:
“When was the last time that we departed from these principles”,
as he said he was not aware of it ever having happened before. When the Minister gave no answer to that question, I asked again:
“when did the Government last choose not to seek such assurances?”
I also asked him to write to all of us. The Security Minister said:
“I will write to hon. Members and let them know on how many occasions we have done that.”
“It will be for their summer reading.”—[Official Report, 23 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 730-731.]
I do not know if you, Mr Speaker, have had a letter on this matter. I know the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield has not had a letter regarding this matter. I have not had a letter, and I presume that no other Member of the House has received a letter, so I just wonder what advice you could give me on the precise meaning of the word “summer” in the sentence,
“It will be for their summer reading.”
It is almost two months since the Minister could have sent us a reply. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is trying to get away with not bothering to inform us that there have actually never been any such instances in the past. If so, he would be much better off, would he not, just coming to the House to tell us?
The concluding thought of the hon. Gentleman is uncharitable, but may nevertheless be justified. If that is the ambition of the Minister, I fear that it is destined to be frustrated, not least as a result of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order. In summary, if a Minister errs, and to err is human, it is the responsibility of that Minister to put the record straight, preferably sooner rather than later. I do not regard myself as the arbiter of what constitutes summer, but if Members are told that something is going to be for their summer reading, the ordinary interpretation of such an assurance is that it will be available to Members to read during the period of the summer recess. Clearly, that has not happened in this case. I hope that the Minister will correct the record ere long, failing which I predict, with complete confidence, that the matter will come to be aired perhaps more fully on the Floor of the House.
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
In a moment I will call Stephen Twigg to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Gentleman has up to three minutes in which to make his application.
I seek leave to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely recent developments in Yemen.
August was one of the deadliest months of the Yemen conflict, with an estimated 1,000 civilian deaths. On 9 August, for example, a coalition airstrike hit a bus, killing 40 children and 16 adults. Last week, a further 22 women and children were killed after an airstrike on the port city of Hodeidah. Last month, all parties in the conflict, the Houthis and the coalition, were condemned by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen. The panel cited violations of international law by both sides in Yemen and reached the conclusion that those violations may amount to war crimes.
There remains some hope that the resumption of the Geneva peace talks might help to de-escalate tensions and put Yemen back on a path to peace. However, the talks were suspended last week after the failure of the Houthi delegation to turn up. The United Kingdom has an opportunity, as an influencer in the region, to bring the two sides together for meaningful talks on resolving the crisis.
The House has a good record of debating the Yemen conflict, with strong cross-party support. I am particularly grateful to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who have repeatedly brought this issue to the attention of the House, as well as to the hon. Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Dundee West (Chris Law) for their support for my application today.
This conflict has already cost more than 10,000 lives and created a humanitarian crisis. Over the next month, the United Nations Human Rights Council and General Assembly both meet. A debate this week would enable the House to consider the latest developments in Yemen and to press for progress on all fronts—diplomatic, humanitarian and political.
I have listened carefully to the application from the hon. Gentleman. I am satisfied that the matter is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. Does the hon. Gentleman have the leave of the House?
Application agreed to.
The hon. Gentleman has obtained the leave of the House. I can advise the House that the debate will be held tomorrow, Tuesday 11 September, as the first item of public business. The debate will last for up to three hours and it will arise on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter set out in the hon. Gentleman’s application.
Legislating for the Withdrawal Agreement
I beg to move,
That this House has considered legislating for the withdrawal agreement.
It is a great pleasure to open this debate. The Government published the White Paper on legislating for the withdrawal agreement in July, and the Secretary of State made a statement subsequently. Over the summer, we have made further progress in the negotiations, and the vast majority of the withdrawal agreement has now been agreed. Progress has been made across a range of outstanding separation issues. At the same time, we continue to work on backstop arrangements to deal with issues relating to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Let me reiterate: it is unacceptable for a customs border to be drawn along the Irish sea, as that would be a direct threat to the territorial integrity of this country.
On borders, can the Minister enlighten us? What passport queues will British citizens arriving in France, Germany and Spain next year use—EU ones or non-EU ones—and what passport queues will EU citizens use coming into the UK?
As the hon. Gentleman will hear in my speech, we are proposing an implementation period from March 2019 until the end of 2020 under which our immigration and customs rules will continue to operate broadly as they do now. I hope that that satisfies him.
I will make some progress, and if the hon. Gentleman still has outstanding questions, he can raise them with me later.
The House will be aware that the Government have also taken steps to prepare for the unlikely event of being unable to reach a deal with the EU and have published a series of technical notices to inform people, businesses and stakeholders of the steps they would need to take in this event. We do not want a no deal outcome; the Government’s priority is to achieve a deal with the EU, and I remain confident that a deal that the House can support is within our reach. That is what I am here to discuss today.
The Minister says that the Government have published notices. Last week, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union told us in this House that the medicine notices covered stockpiling. I looked at them and could see no reference to stockpiling. In which notice is the stockpiling of medicines set out?
I gently remind the hon. Lady that no deal planning and the technical notices are not the subject of this debate. We are here to talk about the contents of the White Paper published before the recess, which covers the implementation period, the proposals for EU citizens and the financial settlement. That is what I am here to talk about, and I ask her gently to keep to the subject of the debate.
I am going to proceed.
The EU withdrawal agreement Bill is a vital part of our exit. Its purpose is simple: to implement the agreement we reach with the EU in domestic law. It is the means by which we will protect the rights of EU citizens in this country, pay the negotiated financial settlement and enter into an implementation period that is strictly time limited to prepare for the future relationship. If Parliament votes in favour of the deal, we will introduce the withdrawal agreement Bill to give the withdrawal agreement domestic legal effect.
The Minister has asked us to focus on the subject of the debate, and she has just mentioned the supposed deal to be put to Parliament. Can she explain how on earth that deal will proceed, given that 80, supposedly, of her own colleagues—including members of her own European Research Group, such as her former ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), and others—have said that they will vote against it? Is not the reality that the Prime Minister’s Chequers deal is dead, that we are heading for a disastrous no deal and that that is exactly why we need a people’s vote on the deal?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about a second referendum—it would be a complete betrayal of the voters, because we had that exercise and it was two years ago—and I am optimistic that we will strike a mutually beneficial free trade agreement with the EU that honours the result of the referendum, retains the territorial integrity of our country and enables a smooth withdrawal from the EU.
I will make some progress and then come back to hon. Members.
If Parliament votes in favour of the deal, we will introduce the withdrawal agreement Bill to give the withdrawal agreement domestic legal effect. Any parliamentarian who is truly committed to delivering the people’s decision to leave the EU will, I believe, find cause to vote in favour of the Bill. The final content of the Bill will, of course, be subject to the outcome of the ongoing negotiations. We intend to introduce it as soon as possible after the negotiations have concluded and the deal has been approved by Parliament.
The Bill will need to be given Royal Assent before exit day if it is to give effect to the withdrawal agreement. It is precisely because this window of passage is constrained that we have published the White Paper. We want to maximise Parliament’s ability to express its views on the Bill, and that includes the period before its introduction.
Would the Bill need to be passed completely unamended? If an amendment were passed, would the British Government have to go back and renegotiate with the European Union?
The Bill will be introduced after Parliament has approved the terms of the final deal with the “meaningful vote”. In that context, the Bill will have a normal passage, like all other legislation. Of course, the views of parliamentarians will be welcome. The Bill can be amended, voted on and scrutinised in the normal way, but it will always be set in the context of Parliament’s approval of the final deal, which includes approval of the withdrawal agreement. Members will, I know, have taken the time over the summer recess to review this substantial document at greater length. Views and questions will have matured and crystallised, and I am therefore delighted to return to the topic today and listen to those views.
The Government’s objective in publishing the White Paper was to set out how we intend to legislate for the parts of the withdrawal agreement that have already been settled in negotiations: those relating to citizens’ rights, the implementation period and the financial settlement.
My hon. Friend has just referred to what has been agreed so far. Am I right in understanding that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that that remains an important principle?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. When I say that we have reached agreement with the EU on those sections—citizens’ rights, implementation and the financial settlement—I am talking about the legal text of the withdrawal agreement, which is in the form of a draft international treaty. Members will be familiar with the screeds of text that have been shaded in green. Progress has been made since the March European Council, which indicates agreement on the legal text and substance between the EU and the UK.
It would not have been appropriate for the White Paper to attempt to cover the parts of the withdrawal agreement on which negotiations have yet to be concluded. We will seek to keep Parliament informed as we make further progress, but let me make it clear that the withdrawal agreement Bill will be the primary means by which we give effect to the agreement, including any backstop arrangements for Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Does the Minister agree that to help these very difficult negotiations with the EU, which does not like the Chequers proposals, it would be an extremely good idea, as a matter of urgency, to publish our tariff schedules for no deal, so that the EU can see what it would look like and so that those of us who want import substitution will know that they have a better opportunity?
I share my right hon. Friend’s passion for the prospect of our country’s leaving the EU and our prospects outside the EU, and he has considerable expertise on this issue. I hope that he will be heartened by the technical notices that have been published over the summer, which take a step forward in setting out how our preparations are evolving in relation to that aspect of a no deal outcome.
The Government are committed to working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the Bill works for all parts of the UK. The Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations has already discussed proposals for the Bill, and I look forward to continued engagement in the run-up to the Bill’s introduction and throughout its passage. Engagement has been constructive and positive, and we expect and intend that to continue.
We have also begun engagement with organisations and individuals on the Bill over the summer. I have held roundtables with academics, legal practitioners and civil society organisations, and I look forward to further engagement with a range of representative bodies this week. We will continue to work closely with all interested stakeholders to make sure that we get the legislation right, and I look forward to further hearing the views of Members tomorrow.
Let me now turn to the detail of the White Paper. Part 2 of the withdrawal agreement and chapter 2 of the White Paper set out the arrangements for EU citizens living in the UK and for UK nationals residing in the EU. A key step in the provision of a smooth and orderly exit from the EU is the provision of certainty for those individuals and their families. That is why reaching an agreement on citizens’ rights was the UK’s first priority in negotiating its withdrawal.
If no withdrawal agreement is reached, there will be no protection of citizens’ rights. Does the Minister agree that she should take the lead from Labour and remove citizens’ rights from the negotiations and instead make sure these rights will be protected regardless of the final withdrawal decision?
For this Government to take Labour’s lead on anything to do with Brexit would be a serious derogation of our duty, because Labour does not have a plan and would completely let down this country if it was in charge of Brexit negotiations.
We have prioritised the position of EU citizens from day one of these negotiations. This agreement will safeguard these rights, and the withdrawal agreement will be the primary means by which the rights of EU citizens will be underpinned in the UK. Once enshrined in UK law, this agreement will give certainty to citizens on residency, access to healthcare, pensions and other benefits, so that EU citizens will continue to be able to live their lives broadly as they do today. Our message to EU citizens is clear: “We value you; we thank you for your contribution to our country, and we want you to stay.”
Central to the citizens’ rights agreement is the right for EU citizens to continue living in this country: EU citizens lawfully residing in the UK at the end of the implementation period will be able to stay, and I welcome the fact that, since the publication of the White Paper, the EU settlement scheme is now being piloted in the north-west of England. This is an important step in delivering certainty to individuals and their families currently living in the country.
The Bill will ensure that EU citizens can rely on the rights set out in the withdrawal agreement and can enforce them in UK courts. It will also establish an independent monitoring authority to oversee the UK’s implementation of the citizens’ rights deal, thereby providing further reassurance for citizens that their rights will be protected.
The Minister seems to be saying that everything is certain and everything is sorted out and EU citizens should be reassured. Why then do EU citizens living in my constituency tell me that they do not feel so reassured? Could it possibly be the case that the Minister’s engagements over the summer did not include meeting EU citizens living in this country?
Of course I am saddened to hear that, but I do feel that the Government have put this on the record, made it very clear and carried out extensive outreach with diaspora groups and EU citizens’ representative bodies and have worked with our opposite numbers on the continent to ensure that both citizens residing in the EU and those in the UK affected by this are aware of their situations and what their rights are going forward.
The Bill, and the resulting piece of UK law, will cover only the arrangements applying to EU citizens in the UK; it is for the EU and its member states to implement these arrangements as they relate to UK nationals living in the EU. But let me reassure the House and the 800,000 UK nationals who have chosen to make their lives in other EU countries that both the UK Government and the Commission are clear that providing certainty for citizens is a priority. Once fully agreed, the withdrawal agreement will become part of EU law, and the reciprocal commitments and safeguards we have agreed with the EU regarding UK nationals will be upheld through legislation in member states.
Does the Minister share my hope and expectation that responsible Members would take every opportunity to reassure EU citizens living in our constituencies that there is a secure future for them living and working in this country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Prime Minister herself has said, “We value your contribution; we thank you for your presence in this country; and we want you to stay,” and I am not quite sure which part of that Opposition Members fail to understand.
Under the withdrawal agreement, any administrative procedures introduced for UK nationals are required to be smooth, transparent and simple, to avoid unnecessary administrative burdens. The Government are working closely with the European Commission and individual member states to confirm the processes that will be in place. We will also be running an information campaign to let UK nationals know of any changes—for example, in how they should access services—and I would recommend that all UK nationals resident in the EU sign up for exit-related updates on gov.uk. They can also find a country-specific living-in guide for their member state of residence.
I should like to turn now to the implementation period. The Government are committed to providing certainty—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way before she goes on to her next paragraph. I want to ask a question about family rights. Quite rightly, EU citizens have asked, “If my mother is very ill, could she come to the United Kingdom to be looked after?” Can the Minister give us clarification on the question of elderly parents who wish to join their children here in the UK who are currently EU citizens?
I encourage the hon. Lady to read the contents of the White Paper, which sets out in extensive detail the exhaustive and wide-ranging provisions covering EU citizens. Any Member who has constituents who are worried or anxious should please direct them to that document. It is agreed with the EU, and it sets out the basis of the immigration status and people’s access to benefits, pensions and healthcare. It should go far in reassuring constituents such as the hon. Lady’s that EU citizens who are currently in this country have the right to stay under the provisions that are agreed and set out clearly in plain English in this document.
I want to ask the Minister a specific question. She talks about the assurances that have been given and why so many people are worried. There are 3.5 million EU citizens in the UK, not including any other family members. The Home Office has told the Home Affairs Committee that the app for registering will be available only on Android and will not be available for iPhones, which half the people in this country use, and that the biometric permits, which are already seriously delayed in the Home Office, are being printed on the same printers that the DVLA uses and are miles behind. How on earth can EU citizens have any confidence, when the Government have not made even the basic practical provisions for registering and for ensuring that those people can get their documentation?
That is precisely why the Home Office is leading a pilot of the settlement scheme in the north-west as we speak, to identify what is working for people and what is not. So far, that is proving to be successful and showing that there is a good uptake of the scheme, but of course it is still in its pilot stage. The Home Office is very much in dialogue with the people who are directly affected, to ensure that we iron out the scheme and make it as simple, as user-friendly and as easy to use as possible.
One of the questions that the 1.2 million British people living in the EU are asking is what their entitlement will be to continuing medical care in the other member states in the event of there being no deal. What answer can the Minister give them?
We are working towards a mutually beneficial agreement. The terms of the withdrawal agreement are mutual, so they will apply equally to EU citizens in the UK and to UK citizens in the EU. In the event of no deal, we would make strenuous efforts to reassure the position of UK citizens in the EU so that they would be able to enjoy the rights that they enjoy today, but we would definitely have to work hard to agree that with individual member states in the EU.
I would now like to turn to the implementation period. The Government are committed to providing certainty and stability to businesses as part of a smooth and orderly exit, and we have been clear that they should only have to plan for one set of changes as the UK moves to the future relationship with our European partners. That is why we have agreed a strictly time-limited—
In the context of the exchanges that we had in the European Scrutiny Committee last Wednesday with the Secretary of State, can the Minister throw some light on how people will know, when there are changes to the rulebook, what those changes are going to be? What certainty will that provide, when in practice those changes will be decided by 27 other member states behind closed doors and without even so much as a transcript?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know as well as I do that Council directives and regulations that will come into effect in the UK during the implementation period are currently going through the scrutiny process in the EU, so we will have played a part in the development of many of those rules that might come into effect—
If I may finish my point, I will then give way. For rules where we feel that there may be an adverse effect or on which we have not had sufficient say, we are committed to enabling parliamentary scrutiny, and we are looking forward to discussing those options with Members.
My hon. Friend has just conceded that there will be a joint committee. She did not specifically say that, but that is how things will work in practice. I am talking about changes to the rulebook. If the 27 member states decide something and we accept it by way of international obligation, I do not see how we can prevent it. The parliamentary lock will simply be a farce.
When it comes to the implementation period, the withdrawal agreement, in its draft treaty form, contains agreed provisions on a joint committee. That committee could be a forum for resolving the issue to which my hon. Friend alludes. I hope that that provides some reassurance that there is an element of governance that commands some confidence and legitimacy in this process.
Significantly, from March 2019 and during the implementation period, the UK will not be a member state of the European Union. As a result, for the first time in 40 years, we will have the freedom we need to strike new trade deals with global partners—a freedom that builds on our long and proud history as a great trading nation and a champion of free trade with all parts of the world. Important work is already under way to maximise such opportunities. In July, the Department for International Trade launched consultations to inform the Government’s approach to trading with the US, Australia, New Zealand and potentially to seeking accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I am excited that those opportunities for the UK are drawing ever closer.
To give effect to the implementation period in domestic law, the withdrawal agreement Bill must ensure that EU law continues to have the same effect in the UK as it does now for the duration of the implementation period. The House will be aware that the current mechanism by which EU law is brought into UK law is the European Communities Act 1972, which will be repealed on 29 March 2019 when we leave the EU as prescribed in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018—a vital step in our exit. The Bill will require a strictly time-limited transitional provision so that the legal effect of the ECA is saved until 31 December 2020, at which point the implementation period will end. That will reflect the UK’s unique status as a country that has left the EU but which, for a strictly time-limited period, will continue to apply EU law as it does now, to the benefit of citizens and businesses.
The Minister is talking about an implementation period, but is that not a misnomer? It is far from clear what we will actually be implementing. She is going to ask Parliament to sign off on a process when there is no detail of what our future trading relationship with the EU or anyone else is going to look like and when we will be giving up our negotiating power within the EU. Is it not just a step into the unknown?
I am disappointed that the hon. Lady is not here to welcome the implementation period, which has been welcomed by many businesses not only in her constituency, but throughout the UK, because it provides time and certainty. It is part of the withdrawal agreement, which is part of the final deal package, which is intricately linked to the future framework on the economic partnership. Together, they will be put to Parliament for the meaningful vote.