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Commons Chamber

Volume 651: debated on Monday 17 December 2018

House of Commons

Monday 17 December 2018

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Electoral Commissioners

The Vice Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That the Address of 21 November, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Lord Gilbert of Panteg and Joan Walley as Electoral Commissioners with effect from 1 November 2018 for the period ending on 31 October 2022; and Alastair Ross as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 November 2018 for the period ending on 31 October 2020, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request.

Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

The Vice Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That the Address of 12 December, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Richard Lloyd to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for a period of five years with effect from 1 December 2018, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Children in Care

1. What recent estimate his Department has made of the number of children in the care system. (908209)

At 31 March this year, there were just over 75,000 looked- after children in England, 4% up on the previous year following a small fall in the number entering care, but also a decrease in the number leaving.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if funding for family support and early intervention was ring-fenced, that would reduce the number of children subject to expensive statutory intervention and care proceedings?

I understand why my hon. Friend makes that point. It is important that authorities should have flexibility in managing their budgets in line with local priorities, but I also very much agree that early-help services have a really important role to play in promoting the welfare of children and supporting them in achieving better outcomes.

Will the Secretary of State review the amount of resources put per family to support the birth mother around raising their children? We have had so many cases in York where children have been taken into care or for adoption because of a lack of resources reported by the local authority.

We do believe that in most cases it is right for the child to be with their parents and that they should be taken into care only as a last resort. We are putting resources into local authorities to help with that, but money is tight—I totally recognise that—and that is why we are seeking always to improve processes, including by some of our partners in practical innovation programmes.

I thank the Secretary of State for appointing a children’s commissioner to Northamptonshire. Why did he feel it necessary to effect such an appointment, and how quickly does he expect results to be realised?

Of course, the safety of children must always be paramount, and we consider it to be the right approach, in the circumstances in Northamptonshire, to do that. These things do not all change overnight in terms of systems and processes, but we do expect to see good progress.

Seventy-three per cent. of children’s residential care providers are now run purely for profit. Alongside this, Ofsted has reported a rise in serious enforcement action against providers with regard to safeguarding concerns, poor use of physical restraint, children going missing, and children at high risk of sexual exploitation. How much longer will the right hon. Gentleman preside over the commodification of vulnerable children, and how many children’s residential homes has he visited in his time as Secretary of State?

I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of what she called commoditisation. A variety of providers are operating in children’s residential placements, and we expect the very highest standards of care for those children. That is why the Ofsted inspections are as they are.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is one of our top priorities, and we have seen the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils narrow at all levels, from pre-school to university entrance.

My Mid Worcestershire constituency is one of many rural constituencies that received a disappointingly low ranking in the latest social mobility index. The fairer funding formula will help, but what else will the Department do to close the gap in social mobility between rural and urban areas?

My hon. Friend is right to identify the issue in rural areas. It is encouraging that the number of good or outstanding schools in his constituency is up from 37 to 41 since 2010, but he is correct that rural areas can face distinct barriers. Through the opportunity areas programme, among other things, we will see what else we can learn to assist social mobility in rural areas.

Recent Policy Exchange research shows that poor behaviour is holding back learning and driving teachers out of the profession. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we drive out that poor behaviour, we can give every child a chance to climb the ladder?

Yes, indeed. Classrooms must be safe, calm and stimulating places for both children and teachers. The Policy Exchange report highlights what the best-performing schools do. We recently pledged £10 million to help share best practice in behaviour management, which we know is so important to teachers.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the Institute for Fiscal Studies report of 31 October, which shows that since 2010, our reforms have meant more funding going to pupils from poorer backgrounds? If so, will he join me in welcoming that report?

I welcome the IFS report. We want a country with maximum opportunity for everybody, regardless of their background. The IFS report identifies how reforms since 2010 have increased funding in favour of pupils from poorer backgrounds. That is part of starting to redress the balance and ensure that there are no limits on any child’s potential.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways to give children a good start in life is for them to be brought up in a stable and loving home? What is the Department doing to strengthen family relationships in this country?

I agree with my hon. Friend that strong families can help social mobility and so much else. Our reform programme, “Putting children first”, aims to ensure that vulnerable children and families receive high-quality support as soon as need is identified.

As today’s shocking research from the National Education Union shows, one simple step that could help the most disadvantaged children is providing them with a healthy meal. It is more than two years since the Government committed to a healthy schools rating system. When will they act?

I am glad that the hon. Lady mentions the issue of providing meals for children at school. We have done a great deal on breakfast, and we have also extended eligibility for free school meals on three different occasions—in a way the Labour party never did when it was in government—through universal infant free school meals, free meals in further education colleges and, most recently, the roll-out of universal credit.

In 2015, I set up the Liverpool to Oxbridge collaborative, to encourage more students from schools in my constituency to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the 19 students who have had interviews this month at either Oxford or Cambridge and have been part of that scheme? Will his Department work with me to encourage other areas of the country, particularly those with high levels of deprivation and poverty, to adopt similar schemes?

I am delighted to do so on both counts. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area. Encouraging young people to aim higher—whether that is to Oxford, Cambridge or other universities, or into professions—is very worthwhile, and I certainly join him in what he says.

25. The further education sector—famously an engine of social mobility—is now under threat from the insolvency regime that comes in next year. Karen Redhead has turned Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College around, but she would like assurances that the support mechanisms that allowed that will continue next year, so that such colleges do not just disappear down the plughole when the new rules kick in. (908233)

The framework that the hon. Lady mentions is, among other things, there to protect students studying at colleges. FE colleges have a central role to play in our system, particularly as we develop the apprenticeships programme and bring in T-levels.

The same NEU report shows that more children will be going hungry this winter than ever before, in the experience of most teachers. Is that helping or hindering social mobility?

I am pleased to be able to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we have record levels of employment, which have helped to contribute to record levels of household income. We have brought in the national living wage and brought in tax cuts for millions of people—all to help to support working families’ household budgets.

Given that many apprentices are from disadvantaged backgrounds, will my right hon. Friend make sure that the apprenticeship levy is fit for purpose? A lot of employers are rebadging and retraining senior employees, and denying new apprentices the chance to do apprenticeships. Will he confirm that there is a £500 million overspend on the apprenticeship levy budget?

I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that it is of course very important that we continue to monitor the way in which the apprenticeship levy works. We have committed to having a review, and we will work with businesses on how it works after 2020 to make sure that young people, but also older people or people who are further into their careers, can benefit from this programme.

According to UCAS figures, the number of young Scots from deprived backgrounds gaining a place at university is at an all-time high—firm proof that the Scottish Government’s policy of free tuition is working. Rather than become involved in creative accounting with student loans, will the Secretary of State now follow Scotland’s lead in improving social mobility, and scrap tuition fees?

The picture that the hon. Lady paints of the higher education sector in Scotland—it of course features many very high quality higher education institutions—is not the same one on admissions, I have to say, that I hear from everybody. I am pleased to be able to confirm that in England we have a record number and proportion of young people going on to university.

The Social Mobility Commission’s recent survey revealed a deep unease at the gap between the rich and poor, with the public believing that the Government, employers and schools are not doing enough. The Secretary of State’s response to this urgent problem is to make £2 million available for more research, but there is still no concrete plan of action. Can he tell us exactly how much of the £2 million will be spent on the most important time for social mobility—the early years—and will it investigate the impact on the poorest children being locked out of 30 hours of free childcare?

The concern that the hon. Lady mentions is a concern shared by me—I want to go further and faster on social mobility—but I am not quite sure where she gets the idea that the social mobility strategy consists of the research budget of the Social Mobility Commission. Social mobility is at the heart of everything that we do, and we see it in the narrowing of the attainment gap in nursery school, in primary school, in secondary school, in the attainment of level 2 maths and English by age 19 and in university admissions.

SEND Services: Lancashire

3. What assessment he has made of progress on delivering the actions set out in the written statement of action issued in response to the 2017 inspection of services for children and young people with SEND in Lancashire. (908211)

Lancashire produced a written statement of action, which Ofsted has assessed as fit for purpose. Advisers from the Department and NHS England are now monitoring and supporting the implementation of the written statement of action. Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission will revisit the area in early 2020 to assess progress.

Will the Minister indicate what funding is being made available to Lancashire County Council, for example through the high needs block of the dedicated schools grant, to enable it to fix the failings outlined in the Ofsted report, given that Lancashire County Council is already £10 million overspent and it is estimated that there is an overspend in this area of half a billion nationally?

Yesterday, we announced that local authorities will receive an additional £250 million of high needs funding over two years, plus £100 million of capital funding to make more places available. That will take our total spend per annum on high needs funding to over £6 billion.

That answer shows that the Minister has his head in the sand. In addition to what is happening in Lancashire, new research for the Local Government Association shows that by 2020-21 there will be a potential £1.6 billion gap in funding for special educational needs and disabilities nationally. Given that there is no new money, according to what the Secretary of State said on the television at the weekend, when will the Government ensure that children with SEND are able to access the education they deserve?

This is new money—£250 million plus £100 million for capital spending—from the underspend in the Department. The additional funding will help local authorities and schools with the increasing costs of provision for some of our most vulnerable children and young people. I think it is a shame that the Opposition are scaremongering in this way with the most vulnerable families in our society.

Secondary School Standards

The dedication of teachers along with our reforms has seen the proportion of good or outstanding secondary schools increase from 64% to 75%, in terms of the pupils in them, between 2010 and 2018.

Unlike the vast majority of senior schools, most of my constituency still operates a middle and upper school system. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the all-through education model is better for raising standards and preferable to pupils having to move school only five terms before they take their GCSE exams? Will he do everything in his power to assist schools in North West Leicestershire that want to transition to the 11-to-16 model?

These decisions are best made at a local level in the light of the local circumstances, but to support schools that decide to change their age range, we publish online guidance for maintained schools and academies on the process involved. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is in touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards.

During the recent Education Committee inquiry, we heard from many businesses and experts about how the current UK curriculum is taking us in the wrong direction. They said that it is about regurgitating knowledge rather than equipping young people with skills—communication skills, and the ability to do projects, science practicals and so on. Does the Secretary of State agree or disagree with those people?

If parents, employers and others heard us suggesting that there was some sort of conflict between knowledge and skills, they would despair. People need both when they come out of school. The development of skills is in many ways about knowing how to deploy knowledge. We believe that a knowledge-rich curriculum is incredibly important and helps to develop the skills that young people need for the world of work—and, indeed, for life.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, if we are to continue to raise standards in schools, it is important that schools funding is given a high priority in next year’s spending review?

Indeed. Schools, and education more broadly, are a unique case in our national life because they are all about bringing up the next generation and social mobility, and ensuring that our economy works at its full productive potential.

Ofsted has proved to be one of the most effective regulators in the country, but with cuts of almost 50%, inspections are too short and inspection teams are too small, and many schools simply do not get the inspections they need—some should require improvement or be in special measures and are not; and some good schools should be outstanding but are not. Will the Secretary of State commit to putting more resource into Ofsted so that parents can have faith that their schools are delivering for their students?

I have faith in the Ofsted system, which is an incredibly important part of our system alongside performance measures and so on. It is a vital part of what parents use to select their school. The new Ofsted framework, which is due to come in next year, is a further opportunity to develop that, but we want a proportionate system.

STEM Subjects

The Government’s industrial strategy specifically targets STEM shortage skills. Between 2012 and 2018, entries to A-level maths rose by 25%. It is now the most popular A-level. Exam entries for GCSE computer science have increased from 2013, when it was first examined, from just over 4,000 to more than 70,000 in 2018. That is in part down to the £7.2 million funding that is going into maths hubs. A number of programmes have given STEM a real drive in schools and further education.1

I recently co-hosted a STEM workshop in Crieff High School in my constituency with the support of the Royal Navy. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to talk about what education opportunities we can provide across the United Kingdom working with educational institutions, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the National Citizen Service?

Well done to Crieff High School, the NCS, DFID and the Royal Navy. There is no doubt that weaving education into life jobs and everything we do with young people is how we get results. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend any time.

When I visit STEM businesses in my constituency, I often ask how many of their apprentices are women. They say that there are not enough coming through the pipeline, the same excuse for why they do not have female directors. What is the Minister doing to increase the take-up by women and girls of STEM subjects?

My hon. Friend is right that, without doubt, gender stereotypes affect what young girls do. Those stereotypes are changing because we are making sure that we change them. For instance, since 2010 we have seen 26% more women entering STEM A-levels. However, we recognise that the take-up for physics is notably low and we have put money into the Stimulating Physics Network. I praise hon. Members who have taken part in the Year of Engineering. We know that at primary school girls and boys have similar levels of interest in STEM subjects, but that that tails off quite substantially at secondary school. We are doing research to understand that better.[Official Report, 20 December 2018, Vol. 651, c. 5MC.]

Students from Coleg Gwent had great success recently at the WorldSkills UK competition, including a gold in forensic science, which is a great advert for taking up STEM subjects. Will the Minister join me in congratulating all Welsh students and colleges who did fantastically well across the board in that UK-wide competition?

Yes, I am very happy to join the hon. Lady in congratulating them. Right hon. and hon. Members who do not know anything about WorldSkills should take a look—it is fantastic. I am disappointed that the Scottish Government have chosen not to put in any money, despite its success. WorldSkills is a way of showcasing exactly what young people can achieve.

I was about to thank the Minister for her positive comments about STEM, however I should point out that the Scottish Government properly fund further education. STEM careers are still not attracting enough young people and we have a continuing need to tap into Europe’s talent streams. Does the Minister share my concern that limited uptake of STEM subjects, now coupled with potential restrictions on EU nationals based on salary, is a serious issue? What discussions has she had with the Home Secretary on keeping the EU talent pipeline open?

It is extremely important that we use talent from wherever it comes. I reiterate that I am disappointed at the Scottish Government for refusing my invitation to put some money into WorldSkills. This is an opportunity to boost engineering careers and choices, particularly for women. I am disappointed in the Scottish Government’s attitude.

School Places: England

There are 1.9 million more pupils in good or outstanding schools compared with 2010 and we are on track to create 1 million places this decade. That compares with a loss of 100,000 places in the six years up to 2010.

A badly planned new housing development is putting enormous strain on school places in my constituency, particularly primary places. We have a new school that will open in 2019, but the funding process through the Education and Skills Funding Agency has been very elongated and bureaucratic. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could say how the process can be simplified, so that in future we can ensure that the supply of good new school places matches the demand in areas where there is new development.

I thank my hon. Friend for his support on the Lower Farm primary academy. The Department is always looking for ways to improve our processes, driving efficiency and value. That now includes the establishment of a specialist property company and the use of modern construction methods to help to build schools faster. I am very grateful to him for his helpful feedback.

I am deeply concerned that schools are using isolation rooms as a form of unregistered exclusion for pupils for extended periods of time, thereby severely harming their education. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of how good the education is that is received by the children forced into using them?

We think it is up to headteachers, within the rules, to set the behaviour policy in their schools. They have to set it out clearly in their behaviour policy, on which there are clear guidelines.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the rising percentage of good and outstanding places in special schools, meaning that no matter what challenges someone faces, real opportunities are on offer for all?

I do welcome that. As part of yesterday’s announcement, we also said that we would take off the cap on the current round of special and alternative provision free school applications and approve the full set that met the criteria.

Good school places include good school music teaching, but headteachers tell me that they cannot afford to provide high-quality music education, which flows into a lack of access to tertiary places. We have more international students studying at tertiary level than we do our domestic students in some cases. Will the Government urgently review the provision of high-quality music education, so that every child, regardless of their region, background, skin colour or religion, can study music at our wonderful universities?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the essential importance of music. That is one reason why music is the second most financially supported subject in our school system, after PE. We have invested £300 million in funding for music hubs and other music programmes between 2016 and 2020.

Air Quality: School Sites

Local authorities are responsible for air quality and must ensure that it meets the standards set in local air quality action plans. If there was concern about the air quality in a school building, it would fall to the body responsible for the school to check that and establish what measures needed to be taken to improve air quality.

Will the Minister and the Government take air pollution in our country and the effect that it has on children’s brains far more seriously? A target of doing something about air pollution in our country by 2040 is not good enough. The research evidence shows that children’s brains are being affected now and more so in homes where incomes are lower and in ethnic minority homes.

The Government take the safety of pupils extremely seriously. We recently published technical guidance on air quality in schools. This takes into account the latest developments in air quality management and monitoring to support the design of new schools, and it promotes best practice and covers air quality as a matter of controlling both external and internal pollutants and setting maximum standards for levels of pollutants in classrooms.

The Minister will know that a controversial housing development on the A27, one of the busiest roads in the south-east, includes plans for a new school. Local air pollution monitoring equipment does not even work. Does he not think that it is crazy to put a new school right next to such a busy road and should that not be a planning consideration when locating schools in future?

My hon. Friend raises an important point; we take air quality very seriously. It is a matter for West Sussex County Council to ensure that every school that is built in that county has high-quality air for the pupils in those schools.

Education Funding

8. What recent comparative assessment he has made of the level of education funding in England and other countries. (908216)

OECD data shows that the UK spends as much per pupil on state school education as any major economy in the world, apart from the United States. However we cut the data, the UK is among the highest spenders, and that is also true when we look at expenditure as a share of GDP.

I thank the Minister for that answer, and I welcome the work that he is doing to ensure that we compare well internationally, but will he continue to work with me to ensure that that funding is equitably distributed within England? I am thinking particularly of a fairer share for places such as Devon.

My hon. Friend fights hard for the interests of the schools in his constituency, as I know at first hand from the schools that he has invited me to visit and the headteachers to whom he has introduced me at round-table discussions that he has organised on school funding. He will know, therefore, that under the fairer national funding formula, Devon will gain £13.6 million for its schools by 2019-20, rising from £382 million to £396 million in 2019.

20. Turning to further education, funding for students aged 16 to 19 has fallen by 8% since 2010 according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies—the biggest squeeze of any part of the education budget—and the Government announced last week that the base funding rate for 16 to 19-year-olds would be frozen for the seventh year running. Does the Minister agree with the chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, who says that the “sustainability and quality” of further education and skills provision have been hit by the cuts to their funding? (908228)

Of course, we have guaranteed the amount per pupil for post 16, but we understand the constraints of post-16 funding. There is £500 million extra a year coming into the FE sector with the introduction of T-levels.

The Education Committee is conducting an inquiry into special educational needs and disability funding and provision. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that improving SEND support would go a long way to helping give schools financial breathing space, given the extent that it impinges on schools’ core budgets?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. High needs funding for children and young people with more complex SEN has risen by more than £1 billion since 2013. It is now £6 billion. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced yesterday, there will be another £125 million this year and another £125 million next year for high needs.

I gently exhort the Minister of State to face the House so that we can all benefit from his mellifluous tones.

The level of educational funding will be radically affected by the new treatment of public sector pensions. Can the Minister confirm that it is the Government’s policy to cover the majority of costs for schools and colleges, but not for universities, and explain the different treatment?

Foreign Languages in Schools

The Government’s ambition is that 90% of pupils will study the EBacc combination of GCSEs, including a foreign language, by 2025. We offer generous financial incentives to recruit more language teachers, and we have introduced the Mandarin excellence programme and modern foreign languages—MFL—teaching hubs to increase languages take-up and to support schools to improve the quality of foreign languages teaching.

I thank the Minister for his answer. One way to stimulate learning foreign languages in our schools is by using foreign exchange students. Indeed, in my school days, a charming French lady greatly stimulated my knowledge of the language. I am not a member of the governing party in Scotland. I therefore ask whether Her Majesty’s Government will do everything they can to continue using exchange students and to build on that in future.

I think the whole House would digest the hon. Gentleman’s personal memoir. We are indebted to him for it.

The Europa School in my constituency teaches languages by teaching other subjects in foreign languages. Does my right hon. Friend accept that that is proving popular with parents of all types, including from the UK, and that it is a good model to follow?

I share my hon. Friend’s admiration for the Europa School. It teaches the European baccalaureate, which is of a very high standard. The continuation of that qualification will depend on discussions with the European Schools system after the UK leaves the European Union.

There has been a significant contraction in the post-16 modern languages curriculum as a result of the significant funding cut. Funding has been frozen since 2013-14. Is it not time to raise the rate so that that curriculum can get back to where it should be?

To make A-level foreign languages classes viable, we need more sixth formers to opt for the subjects. To raise the uptake of A-level, we first need to increase the number of pupils who take a GCSE in a foreign language, reversing the damage caused by the last Labour Government in 2004, when they downgraded the importance of languages.

My right hon. Friend may recall that schools used to teach Latin to give a better understanding of English grammar. Does he agree that German, Spanish and Italian give a better understanding of grammar than French? When will we get some teachers of those languages?

Of course, we need all those European languages, as well as Mandarin and other languages, to be taught in our secondary schools. Since 2010, there has been an increase from 40% of the cohort taking a GCSE in a foreign language to 46% this year. However, we need to go further, which is why we have the target of 90% studying the EBacc combination of GCSEs by 2025.

Non, nee and nein are among the European words the Prime Minister has learned this week, but a generation of children is being denied the same opportunity, with nearly 20,000 fewer hours of modern languages taught in secondary schools now compared with 2010. The decline is particularly stark in German and French. Will the Minister commit today to reversing that trend, or is it only the Prime Minister who is being taught a lesson?

I must say, it is rich for Opposition Members to criticise the reduction in modern foreign language teaching. It was their Government—the Labour Government, in 2004—who downgraded the importance of foreign languages, and we are trying to reverse that. We have increased the proportion of young people studying a foreign language from 40% in 2010 to 46% this year, and we want to go further.

Social Work Profession

Social workers do an invaluable job in protecting the most vulnerable children and families in our society. We are improving initial education standards, and providing professional development at key stages throughout a social worker’s career. A new independent regulator, Social Work England, will have a strong focus on better standards, while the national assessment and accreditation system will provide additional confidence in the quality of practice.

The independent regulator will help to raise still further the already high standards of practice in social work. Does the Minister agree that social workers who achieve accreditation status should also earn the right to put some initials after their names—for example, ASW, standing for “accredited social worker”?

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that the national assessment and accreditation system is a critical means of embedding high standards in the social work profession. We are currently in phase 1, and more than 100 social workers have been accredited so far. We will be considering questions like my right hon. Friend’s during the national roll-out.

Initiatives such as Step Up to Social Work and Frontline have done a very good job in bringing high-qualities graduates into the profession, but what is the Department doing to encourage better continuing professional development for those who are already in the workforce?

Continuing professional development is crucial to high-quality social work. The Department funds it through the assessed and supported year in employment for new social workers, and an aspiring practice leaders programme. This autumn we launched a programme for more than 1,000 people moving into supervisory roles.

The Secretary of State said that early help services delivered by social workers were vital. What assessment has he made of the proposals to abolish 90 social work jobs in Derbyshire—where the number of children in care has risen by 50% in the last five years—and to transfer the early help service to schools?

In the Budget we announced a further £410 million for local authorities to invest in adults’ and children’s social care services in 2019-20. We also announced £84 million to scale up good practice from, for instance, Leeds, Hertfordshire and North Yorkshire to 20 other local authorities. We hope that places such as Derbyshire will look at those models and scale up that good practice.

I know that the Minister will want to join me in congratulating Frontline not just on bringing 1,000 people into the profession, but on elevating the status of social work. Does he recognise, however, that notwithstanding the additional investment to which he has just referred, unless we deal effectively with the funding crisis facing children’s social services, we will not be able to keep and promote those people who do such wonderful work in keeping children and young people safe and well?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about funding. We are working with the sector, and with the Local Government Association, to ensure that we are in a good place for the spending review.

Cost of Living: Higher Education

13. What recent assessment he has made of the financial effect on students in higher education of the current cost of living. (908221)

It is good to be back at the Dispatch Box.

The most recent assessment of the living costs of English-domiciled full-time and part-time undergraduates was the 2014-15 student income and expenditure survey, which found that the average living costs of full-time undergraduates were about £7,000.

According to a recent report in the Huffington Post, the living costs of students in Manchester have rocketed by 37% in the last 10 years. Cost should not be a barrier to accessing the country’s best universities, such as the University of Manchester. What is the Minister doing to encourage universities to keep students’ costs affordable?

Students who started their courses in the current academic year have had access to the highest ever funding levels to support their living costs. We now have a system of support that targets those from the lowest-income families, who need it the most. A record number of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds went to university this year, 68% more than in 2009.[Official Report, 20 December 2018, Vol. 651, c. 6MC.]

As a fellow historian, I warmly congratulate the Minister on his appointment, although I am afraid that he arrives to a perfect storm for students, battered by high tuition fees and extortionate interest, with evidence now piling up from freedom of information requests—the latest in The Huffington Post report that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) has just referred to—that many are unable to cope with spiralling accommodation costs in London and other cities. Yet recent questions I put to the Department on what it is doing about this got the answer that it was not a Government issue. On the day we are told that the London Business School head gets a half a million pound a year package, is it not appalling that students at his and other HE institutions are being brushed off like this? Will the Minister make this a priority for his in-tray?

The hon. Gentleman and I have a mutual interest in history, particularly the reign of Henry VII, and I hope that we can continue to be civil in our conversations on HE funding, but I reiterate on the loan package that we have seen not only a 10.3% increase compared with the previous grant system in 2016-17 but in November a further 2.8% increase, which means there is currently a maximum loan of £8,944. On accommodation costs, I am interested in looking in particular at the private rented sector. We have been working with the British Property Federation to develop advice on protocols that will encourage collaborative working between universities and private providers. I do want to go further and I hope that we can work together to look at this issue.

Support for SEND Learners

A programme of local area inspections is under way to ensure that the SEND reforms are being implemented effectively and weaknesses addressed. Yesterday, we announced an additional £250 million to local authorities for higher needs budgets to support those with more complex needs across this year and next. The core schools and higher needs budget will increase from almost £41 billion in 2017-18 to £43.5 billion in 2019-20.

Although the additional funding is welcome, I am sure that the Minister recognises the absolute crisis in support for children with special educational needs and disabilities and the absolute desperation that the parents who are taking legal action on this very matter feel, so will he announce an early new year resolution to plug the gap—estimated to be £1.6 billion by 2020, which these children will need?

I attended the conference that the Parents and Carers Network held in Coventry. It is important to listen to the sector. Many local authorities are co-creating their SEND provision with parents, and it is important that we listen and deliver the £250 million additional funding announced yesterday, and of course the £100 million in capital funding as well, taking the funding to over £6 billion per annum on SEND students. I know you take a great interest in this matter, Mr Speaker, as well.

18. Brooke School in Rugby caters for children with autism, physical disabilities, medical needs and learning difficulties, and it has recently opened a shop in Rugby town centre where pupils learn to produce products from recycled materials and sell them to the public. Does the Minister agree that that is an excellent opportunity to learn workplace skills? Will he join me in commending the inspirational head teacher, Chris Pollitt, for this initiative? (908226)

I commend the school for taking the initiative to provide its pupils with the opportunity to learn skills for the workplace in a safe environment. I hope that Mr Pollitt will share that excellent practice with other educational professionals and explore the possibility of running supported internships as well.

Topical Questions

In the last two weeks, I have set out the next steps in our major upgrade of technical education. We have announced additional funding for high needs budgets, plus capital funding and enhanced training and commissioning, and we have had confirmed a further narrowing of the attainment gap at primary school. We are striving for a world-class education for everyone, whatever their background and roots, and as we approach the end of the Christmas term, as ever our thanks and appreciation go to the 450,000 dedicated teachers and all the other professionals who make education in our country live.

Last week, it was confirmed that teachers and students at Sir John Deane’s sixth-form college in my constituency and elsewhere will lose out yet again following the confirmation that the national funding rate for sixth formers will remain at £4,000 per student next year. That is the seventh consecutive year that funding has been frozen. How can the Secretary of State claim that austerity is over?

It is true that five-to-16 education funding in this country has been protected since 2010 and that that pledge did not apply to sixth forms. Yes, funding has been tight for sixth forms and that is one of the things we will consider when looking at future funding.

T8. West Oxford- shire has a plethora of high-tech engineering companies, including ICE Oxford, Polar Technology, Siemens, Owen Mumford, and Abbott. What progress is being made with T-levels to ensure that those vital local employers have access to the local high-quality skills they need? (908241)

The first three T-levels—digital and construction in particular—are on track for teaching from 2020, and we have recently announced seven more for introduction in 2021. This is the way we build skills—by making sure that pre-16 and post-16 education gives young people the drive, desire and ambition to succeed at whatever level. The industry is a critical component of T-levels, and this will be an ideal opportunity for local employers to build local skills.

Over the weekend, the former Universities Minister, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), suggested that the Prime Minister was not acting in the national interest. On that theme, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) has said:

“I was in strong disagreement with keeping foreign students in the immigration cap. The sooner it is dropped, the better.”

I am glad that he agrees with us on that. We have been told to expect the immigration White Paper later this week. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether it will finally take students out of the migration target, allowing the Government to find at least one policy that the majority of this House and indeed the country can support?

I fear that the hon. Lady is mistaken. Our higher education sector rightly attracts students from around the world, thanks to its great quality, and we want to grow the number of students coming to our universities. There is no limit on the number of students who can come to our universities. I think she is referring to the statistical measurement, which is an international measurement that defines people who come to this country for more than 12 months as being in the immigration statistics, but of course, when they leave again, they count as minus 1 in those statistics.

T9. I rushed here today from witnessing the publication of a piece of research based on a wide-ranging survey by Policy Exchange. It reveals that low-level disruption in classrooms across Britain affects the learning opportunities of pupils and drives teachers from the profession. Will the Secretary of State issue guidance to school governors and headteachers saying that when headteachers take action to deal with this—for example, by banning mobile telephones from classrooms—they will receive the backing of the schools and of the Government? (908242)

I would have thought that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) strongly disapproved of the very creation of the mobile phone in the first place.

T2. Parents and staff in maintained nursery schools are waiting for the Government to stop dithering on future funding. Excellent schools in Cambridge and all over the country face a funding cliff edge next year. Can the Minister give them the assurance they need, and commit today to the future of our maintained nursery schools? (908235)

We have made £60 million available to maintained nursery schools up to 2020 because of the excellent provision that they deliver. My message, and that of the Secretary of State, to local authorities is not to take any decisions until we get to the spending review.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about a creeping culture of censorship taking hold on some of our university campuses?

The Government are deeply committed to protecting freedom of speech in higher education. The Equality and Human Rights Commission and key partners in the higher education sector worked with the previous Universities Minister—to whom I pay tribute as a friend and colleague—to develop a single piece of guidance that will set out key principles. This will enable universities and student unions to understand their obligations to protect and support free speech, which must happen in our universities.

T3. Staff and students at the Heriot-Watt and Napier universities in my constituency want assurances that Brexit will not adversely affect their studies or their research. Given the current uncertainty, is the new Universities Minister in a position to give those reassurances? (908236)

Delivering an EU deal is the Government’s top priority, and we do not want a no-deal scenario. However, a responsible Government should prepare for every eventuality, including the possibility of no deal. We have already guaranteed the rights of EU residents in the UK by 29 March 2019, and we are calling on EU member states to do the same for UK nationals. For education, that will mean that they have broadly the same entitlements to work, study and access to public services and benefits as now. In addition, the Government have made an underwrite guarantee that will cover all committed payments to UK participants in programmes such as the European social fund and Erasmus Plus.

The Schools Minister will be aware of the concerns in Torbay schools around the consultation on the high needs funding formula, so we welcome the additional funding announced yesterday. Will he confirm whether the indicative amounts per council will be published?

Yes, I can confirm that the allocations to local authorities from the £125 million that the Secretary of State announced yesterday will be published imminently.

T4. A report from the Science and Technology Committee in the other place points out that the UK’s influential position will be diminished if we are cut off from EU funding, shared research facilities and the to and fro of talented researchers as a result of Brexit. Does the Secretary of State think that that is an acceptable outcome, stemming from his party’s internal civil war over Europe? (908237)

As I have already stated, the Government are committed to ensuring that we have a deal with the European Union. A deal will ensure that we have stability and security going forward after 29 March 2019, but we have also committed to putting in place protections to ensure that our HE institutions are protected under a no-deal scenario.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the fabulous University Centre Somerset, part of Bridgwater & Taunton College, on being awarded centre of the year in the Lion awards for innovation across the centre in learning, vocational courses and apprenticeships? It is a phenomenal establishment.

I will happily join my hon. Friend in congratulating that institution. What a wonderful story it is. Apprenticeships are how we ensure that young people have opportunities that would otherwise not be open to them.

T6. New figures show that primary schools in my borough of Westminster are now operating with one in five places unfilled, meaning that some schools will be threatened with closure. Will the Minister tell us when conversations were last had with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to establish why we are exporting families from an area with a surplus of school places to boroughs with a shortage? (908239)

We have created 825,000 new school places in our system since 2010. We want parents to have a choice of school, which contrasts sharply with the previous Labour Government, who cut 200,000 primary school places.

A fortnight ago, I was delighted to visit Tresham College in Corby to meet many of its brilliant engineering apprentices. Would my right hon. Friend be willing to join me on another visit to share in that success? What is being done to promote such opportunities more widely?

I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend on a visit to Corby. We are seeing the success that he describes right across the country. It is an awful shame that Opposition Members do not join us in congratulating good colleges on the work that they do.

T7. My constituent, Keith Tilson, a senior maths teacher in Nottingham, asks:“Given the real-terms funding cuts to schools, growing class sizes, year-on-year decline in properly qualified teacher numbers, and given also the fact that the Government has missed its teacher recruitment targets for the last 6 years, how does he intend to reduce the hours worked by UK teachers, which are the longest in Europe by 20% and the third longest in the world?” (908240)

We are spending record amounts on school funding—£43.5 billion by next year—we recruited 2,600 more people into teaching last year, which is an 8% rise on the prior year, and record numbers of pupils are taking A-level maths.

Two grammar schools in Walsall have benefited from the selective schools expansion fund, but does the Minister endorse the work that they are doing to improve access for disadvantaged children?

Yes. The selective schools expansion fund was targeted precisely at ensuring that grammar schools that do not yet admit enough pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and on free schools meals are encouraged to admit such pupils. I have been very encouraged by the applications that we have seen from the 16 successful schools, and I look forward to seeing accessibility increase.

T10. The “jam tomorrow” approach to the funding of further education is letting down our 16 to 18-year-olds. When will the Secretary of State get a grip, speak to the Treasury and raise the rate? That is the only answer to the crisis we see in further education. (908243)

Some £500 million is going into T-levels as they are rolled out in 2020. I have got a grip, as has the Secretary of State, and I would remind the hon. Gentleman that we have put considerable funding into FE. I am very aware of the challenges it faces, which is why we are looking at the resilience of the FE sector right now.

Some 3,000 parents have signed a petition against King Edward VI School’s policy now of attracting students by catchment area, rather than by the 11-plus. What is my right hon. Friend’s view of the petition?

I think it is right that parents are consulted on these important matters, but I also think it is important that our selective schools and grammar schools, which are very popular with parents, should also be extending their reach and making sure they are accessible to a wider group of pupils.

Despite the Government’s warm words, headteachers tell me that they do not have enough money for children with special needs. What comfort can the Secretary of State give to the headteachers of maintained schools in my constituency of Bristol West that children with special educational needs will have the funding they need in 2019?

I recognise the issues on the tightness of funding for special needs, which is one of the reasons why yesterday we announced the package that includes not only additional revenue funding but provision for more capital funding towards facilities, for more places, for more training for educational psychologists and for making sure that all teachers have the support and training they need.

European Council

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council. But before turning to Brexit, let me touch on two significant conclusions from the other business of the Council.

First, we expressed our utmost concern over the escalation we have seen at the Kerch strait and the sea of Azov, and over Russia’s continued violations of international law. We agreed to roll over economic sanctions against Russia, and we stand ready further to strengthen our support, in particular for the affected areas of Ukraine. Secondly, we also agreed to work together on tackling the spread of deliberate, large-scale and systematic disinformation, including as part of hybrid warfare. On this I outlined some of the world-leading work that the UK is doing in this field. And I was clear that, after we have left the European Union, the UK will continue to work closely with our European partners to uphold the international rules-based system and to keep all our people safe. That is why it is right that our Brexit deal includes the deepest security partnership that has ever been agreed with the EU.

At this Council, I faithfully and firmly reflected the concerns of this House over the Northern Ireland backstop. I explained that the assurances we have already agreed with the EU were insufficient for this House, and that we have to go further in showing that we never want to use this backstop, and if it is used, it must be a temporary arrangement. Some of the resulting exchanges at this Council were robust, but I make no apology for standing up for the interests of this House and the interests of our whole United Kingdom.

In response, the EU27 published a series of conclusions making it clear that it is their

“firm determination to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered.”

The House will forgive me, but I think this bears repeating: the backstop will not need to be triggered. The conclusions underline that

“if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would apply temporarily”,

And that in this event, the EU

“would use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop”.

And the EU27 gave a new assurance, in relation to the future partnership with the UK, to make it even less likely that the backstop would ever be needed by stating that the EU

“stands ready to embark on preparations immediately after signature of the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure that negotiations can start as soon as possible after the UK’s withdrawal.”

In these conclusions, in their statements at the Council and in their private meetings with me, my fellow EU leaders could not have been clearer: they do not want to use this backstop. They want to agree the best possible future relationship with us. There is no plot to keep us in the backstop. Indeed, President Macron said on Friday that:

“we can clarify and reassure...the backstop is not our objective, it is not a durable solution and nobody is trying to lock the UK into the backstop.'”

As formal conclusions from a European Council, these commitments have legal status and should be welcomed. They go further than the EU has ever done previously in trying to address the concerns of this House. And of course they sit on top of the commitments that we have already negotiated in relation to the backstop, including ensuring that the customs element is UK-wide; that both sides are legally committed to using best endeavours to have our new relationship in place before the end of the implementation period; that if the new relationship is not ready, we can choose to extend the implementation period instead of the backstop coming into force; that if the backstop does come in, we can use alternative arrangements, not just the future relationship, to get out of it; that the treaty is clear the backstop can only ever be temporary; and that there is an explicit termination clause.

However, I know this House is still deeply uncomfortable about the backstop—I understand that, and I want us to go further still in the reassurances we secure. Discussions with my EU partners, including Presidents Tusk and Juncker, and others, have shown that further clarification following the Council’s conclusions is, in fact, possible. So discussions are continuing to explore further political and legal assurances. We are also looking closely at new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure that any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy—[Interruption.]

Order. This is very irregular. The statement must be heard. There will be a full opportunity for exchanges, but the statement by the Prime Minister must be heard and heard with courtesy.

We are looking at new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure that any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy and enabling the House to place its own obligations on the Government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely. But it is now only just over 14 weeks until the UK leaves the EU, and I know many Members of this House are concerned that we need to take a decision soon. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will set out business on Thursday in the usual way, but I can confirm today that we intend to return to the meaningful vote debate in the week commencing 7 January and hold the vote the following week.

When we have the vote, Members will need to reflect carefully on what is in the best interests of our country. I know that there are a range of very strongly held personal views on this issue across the House, and I respect all of them. But expressing our personal views is not what we are here to do. We asked the British people to take this decision; 472 current Members of this House voted for the referendum in June 2015, with just 32 voting against. The British people responded by instructing us to leave the European Union. Similarly, 438 current Members of this House voted to trigger article 50, to set the process of our departure in motion, with only 85 of today’s Members voting against. Now we must honour our duty to finish the job.

I know this is not everyone’s perfect deal—it is a compromise—but if we let the perfect be the enemy of the good, we risk leaving the EU with no deal. Of course, we have prepared for no deal, and tomorrow the Cabinet will be discussing the next phase in ensuring we are ready for that scenario. But let us not risk the jobs, services and security of the people we serve by turning our backs on an agreement with our neighbours that honours the referendum and provides for a smooth and orderly exit. Avoiding no deal is only possible if we can reach an agreement or if we abandon Brexit entirely.

As I said in the debate earlier this month, do not imagine that if we vote this down, a different deal is going to miraculously appear. If you want proof, look at the conclusions of this Council. As President Juncker said, it is the “best deal possible” and the “only deal possible”. Any proposal for the future relationship—whether Norway, Canada, or any other variety that has been mentioned—would require agreeing this withdrawal agreement. The Leader of the Opposition and some others are trying to pretend that they could do otherwise. This is a fiction.

Finally, let us not break faith with the British people by trying to stage another referendum—another vote that would do irreparable damage to the integrity our politics, because it—[Interruption.]

Order. Many Members of this House, including an illustrious Chair of a Select Committee, are heckling noisily. Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil, you are a cheeky chappy, but we need much less of the cheek and more by way of courtesy in listening to the Prime Minister.

Another vote would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics, because it would say to millions who trusted in democracy that our democracy does not deliver. Another vote would likely leave us no further forward than the last, and another vote would further divide our country at the very moment we should be working to unite it. And let us not follow the Leader of the Opposition in thinking about what gives him the best chance of forcing a general election, for at this critical moment in our history we should be thinking not about our party’s interests, but about the national interest. Let us a find a way to come together and work together in the national interest to see this Brexit through.

I will work tirelessly over these new few weeks to fulfil my responsibility as Prime Minister to find a way forwards. Over the past two weeks, I have met quite a number of colleagues on this important issue, and I am happy to continue to do so, so that we can fulfil our responsibilities to the British people so that together we can take back control of our borders, laws and money, while protecting the jobs, security and integrity of our precious United Kingdom; so that together we can move on to finalising the future relationship with the European Union and the trade deals with the rest of the world that can fuel our prosperity for years to come; and so that together we can get this Brexit done and shift the national focus to our domestic priorities: investing in our NHS, our schools and housing, tackling the injustices that so many still face, and building a country that truly works for everyone. For these are the ways in which, together, this House will best serve the interests of the British people. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of her statement.

On Ukraine, as NATO has said, we need both sides to show restraint and de-escalate, with international law adhered to, including Russia’s allowing unhindered access to Ukraine’s ports on the sea of Azov.

We face an unprecedented situation: the Prime Minister has led us into a national crisis. If any more evidence was needed of why we face this grave situation, the Prime Minister demonstrated it at last week’s summit. There were some warm words drafted, but the Prime Minister even managed to negotiate those away, to be replaced by words about preparing for no deal. The Prime Minister boasted:

“I had a robust discussion with President Juncker”,

but that cannot hide the cold reality that she achieved nothing. Standing at the Dispatch Box last week, the Prime Minister said,

“I have made some progress”.—[Official Report, 12 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 274.]

She has not made any progress at all.

She said so herself while still in Brussels:

“The EU is clear, as am I, that this is the deal.”

The European Commission has been categorical. It said:

“It will not be renegotiated. The European Council has given the clarifications that were possible at this stage, so no further meetings with the UK are foreseen.”

The deal is unchanged and it is not going to change. The House must get on with the vote and move on to consider the realistic alternatives. There can be no logical reason for this delay, except that, in taking shambolic government to a new level, the Prime Minister no longer has the backing of her Cabinet. The International Trade Secretary has suggested that the Prime Minister’s deal no longer has the backing of the Cabinet. It is worth quoting his words. He said:

“I think that it is very difficult to support the deal if we don’t get changes to the backstop. I don’t think it will get through. I am not even sure if the Cabinet will agree for it to be put to the House of Commons.”

We have had the spectacle of the past few days with numerous Cabinet members coming forward with their own alternatives. The International Trade Secretary suggested that a two-year transition to a no deal is an option. The Work and Pensions Secretary says that the Government need “to try something different” and build a consensus in Parliament. The Attorney General is reported as saying that he wants the Prime Minister gone and for the deal to be renegotiated, while the International Development Secretary is allegedly liaising with the European Research Group to launch an alternative option. Others are reportedly working on a second referendum, but if even the Cabinet no longer backs the deal, then who knows what the options would be?

Will the Prime Minister give us some answers? First, does her deal still have the confidence of the Cabinet? Secondly, is Cabinet collective responsibility still in operation? Thirdly, does it remain Government policy to avoid a no-deal outcome? An unacceptable deal is on the table. No amendment has been secured. Renegotiations have been rebuffed and not even mere assurances have been offered. The Prime Minister’s shoddy deal no longer even has the backing of the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister ran away from putting her deal before Parliament, because even her own Cabinet has doubts, and she herself admits that Parliament will not back it, so we are left edging ever closer to the 29 March deadline without a deal and without even an agreed plan in Cabinet to get a deal. The Prime Minister has cynically run down the clock, trying to manoeuvre Parliament into a choice between two unacceptable outcomes: her deal or no deal.

The country, workers and businesses are increasingly anxious. Yesterday, the CBI said:

“Uncertainty is throttling firms and threatening jobs—not in the future but right now.”

The British Chambers of Commerce has said:

“There is no time to waste.”

A responsible Prime Minister would, for the good of this country, put this deal before the House this week so that we can move on from this Government’s disastrous negotiations. This is a constitutional crisis and the Prime Minister is its architect. She is leading the most shambolic and chaotic Government in modern British history; even Cabinet no longer functions. We have a Prime Minister whose authority has been lost, a Cabinet disintegrating into cliques and factions, and a Conservative party so fundamentally split that its very existence is being discussed. It is clear that the Prime Minister has failed to renegotiate her deal and failed to get any meaningful reassurances. There is no excuse for any more dither or delay. This Government have already become the first Government in British history to be held in contempt by Parliament. The debate on the meaningful vote was pulled at the last minute. The Prime Minister has now wasted five weeks having achieved nothing—not a single word renegotiated; not a single reassurance gained. This last week has embodied the failure, chaos and indecision at the heart of the Government’s shambolic handling of Brexit. Today, they have been dragged kicking and screaming to announce a date to restart the debate. It is—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Ellis, you are a distinguished ornament of a Government Department—a representative of the Executive branch. Be good, man; you can do so much better when you try.

It is disgraceful that a month will have been wasted since we were due to vote on 11 December. There can be no further attempt to dodge the accountability of Government to this Parliament.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me three questions during his response. Does the deal still have the confidence of the Cabinet? Yes. Does Cabinet collective responsibility still apply? Yes. Does the Cabinet want to avoid no deal? Yes, the Cabinet wants to ensure that we leave the European Union with a good deal, and that is this deal.

The real indecision is the indecision at the heart of a Labour party that has no plan and no alternative. The national crisis is an Opposition who are irresponsible and who put their party interest before the interests of the British people.

It is clear, is it not, that the deal that my right hon. Friend has negotiated so assiduously is most unlikely to secure the support of this House of Commons? In the circumstances, does she not think it would be wiser to seek an extension to article 50, rather than—[Interruption.]

Order. I am not having the right hon. Gentleman shouted down. I say very gently to a Government Whip, do not stand near the Chair and shout at your colleagues. If you are going to do that, leave the Chamber and we will manage perfectly adequately without you.

Does my right hon. Friend not think it would be wiser to seek an extension to article 50, rather than to leave with no deal?

I do not think it is right to seek an extension of article 50. What Parliament will be faced with is a decision to exercise its responsibility to deliver on the referendum vote and to deliver Brexit. I continue to believe that this is a good deal. Yes, we are seeking further reassurances, but I continue to believe that we can leave with a good deal and that this is it.

I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of her statement.

I have to ask, “Where is the leadership?”—a phrase that is often used. We thought that the Prime Minister had reached rock bottom, but she is still digging. We have four sitting days left in this place before the Christmas recess. We are then left with the narrow window, when we return in January, to find a way forward out of the Government’s Brexit timetable. It cannot be done.

After two years of negotiation, the Prime Minister has designed a deal that she knows she cannot deliver. It does not have the support of this House. It is time to call time on this Government. They are a laughing stock. Companies and their workers do not know if we are going to crash out of the European Union in three months’ time. We have just over 100 days to prepare for the risk of a no-deal outcome that most sensible folk would reject as unacceptable.

The Prime Minister is playing a game of brinkmanship. The European Council President, Donald Tusk, was clear when he said:

“I have no mandate to organise any further negotiations.”

What more does the Prime Minister need to hear to know that her deal is dead? This is embarrassing. The Prime Minister might be prepared to be embarrassed by this shambles, but the rest of us are not. Parliament needs to take control of this situation and seek to find a solution that prevents a risk to jobs and prosperity. It is the people of our countries that we are talking about.

Today the Prime Minister tells us that there are no other options. That is not the case. Standing before Parliament ruling out another referendum on EU membership is an act of desperation from the Prime Minister. Knowing that she cannot get her own deal through this place, she wants to silence debate. Having taken away Parliament’s voice—our right to a meaningful vote—she now wants us to take away the right of the people to vote: their democratic right to have their say; their democratic right to change their mind.

I plead with the Prime Minister to put all options back on the table. Stop operating in isolation; reach out and speak to the Opposition parties. We all have a responsibility to protect our citizens. It is time to move beyond the narrow party politics with which this place operates; it is time to operate in the interests of all our nations. I ask her to bring forward the meaningful vote on her deal before the Christmas recess. There is no reason to delay. Let us have that meaningful vote this week.

Lastly, will the Prime Minister do the right thing and meet me and other Opposition party leaders this week, collectively? This is the true test of this Government’s word. If we are to believe that we are a partnership of equals, then now, today, we must be heard.

First, I am happy to say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he wants to come to talk to me about this issue, I am happy to talk to him about it. But we do have a fundamental difference of opinion that was revealed in his party’s response to what I said in my statement: I believe that we should deliver leaving the EU for the British people, and he believes we should stay in the EU, so that is a fundamental difference that we have. He talks about putting jobs and prosperity first. This deal does just that. It delivers on the referendum while protecting jobs and prosperity. He says he does not want to leave with no deal. Well, the only way to ensure that we do not leave having no deal is to support a deal. And may I just remind him gently that 56% of Scots voted for pro-Brexit parties?

The report by the Independent Commission on Referendums published earlier this year recommended that any second referendum on a subject

“should be specified in the legislation enabling the first referendum, so that the requirement for or possibility of a second referendum, and the reason for it, is clear to the electorate before the first vote takes place.”

Does the Prime Minister agree that no such provision was made, and that calling for a second referendum at this stage is merely a ruse to try to reverse the result and is not in the nation’s interests?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for pointing that out to the House. Of course, it is absolutely the case that there was no suggestion, when the referendum was put to the people in 2016, that there might be a second referendum. People were told—they were led to believe—that their vote would be delivered by the Government of the time subsequently, and that is what I believe it is certainly in our interests, as a Government, to do. We should deliver on that vote and leave the European Union.

The Prime Minister may be aware that the bookmakers have been offering 66-1 against her deal passing Parliament, but even money on a referendum and even money on her then winning it. Could it be that the Cabinet Ministers who are known to be preparing for a referendum are not being disloyal to her but are simply better at maths?

I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman should spend too much time in the betting shops. I am not sure that the odds on the Liberal Democrats are very good at all.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that, despite the European Council’s so-called legal endorsement of the withdrawal agreement, which it says is not open for renegotiation, this agreement has not been initialled or signed by her and is only a draft—it is no more than a political agreement under which nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, including the backstop—and therefore she can still walk away?

I can certainly confirm that this deal has been negotiated between the UK and the European Union, but it has to go through certain processes in order to be ratified. Part of that is ratification here in the United Kingdom Parliament, and part is ratification in the European Parliament. It is those processes that lead to the final agreement and the withdrawal agreement.

I am sure the Prime Minister agrees that European Council conclusions and declarations are political statements. The Council has talked about clarifications and reassurances but ruled out renegotiating, contradicting or reopening the legal text. Indeed, it even struck out language saying that the backstop did not represent a desirable outcome for the EU27. Will the Prime Minister tell us exactly what she is asking for to deliver on the key concerns about the legally binding and indefinite nature of the backstop, with no right for this country to exit it on its own terms?

What I am asking for is to ensure that we can deal with the concerns expressed by the right hon. Gentleman and other Members of the House about whether the backstop could or would be indefinite. There are two ways to deal with that. The first is to put in place arrangements to ensure that the backstop is not triggered in the first place, and the second is to ensure that if it is triggered, it is only temporary. As I said in my statement, I am seeking further political and legal assurances in relation to those issues, which can be achieved in a number of ways.

As others have said, on Thursday it will be 100 days until Britain leaves the European Union. At the moment, we have no deal and no plan B. This is a constitutional crisis because this House is not being allowed to express its will on behalf of our communities, who around the country are telling us that they reject this deal. That is why MPs want to be able to vote against it.

It is pointless criticising Members who are coming up with other solutions, whether it is a second referendum or Canada or Norway-style deals. We as a Parliament are trying to find a solution to the political cul-de-sac and mess that we find this country in. It was clear back in the summer that the Prime Minister’s deal was not going to succeed. She is now not only not listening; she is not allowing debate. This is totally unacceptable. Will she agree to bring the vote before the House before Christmas, so that she can reflect on the outcome over the Christmas break and then lead us?

I know that my right hon. Friend and I have different opinions on the issue of a second referendum. I have indicated when the vote will be brought back to the House. It will be necessary for the usual channels to agree what the business motion would be and how many days of debate would be available. We are not trying to stop debate. I am trying to—[Interruption.] I am recognising and reflecting to the European Union the concerns expressed in this House and seeking ways in which we can ensure that Members have sufficient confidence that those concerns have been addressed.

The Prime Minister went to the European Council seeking legal assurances and returned with none, and the next Council meeting scheduled is in the third week of March. Now that Cabinet Ministers are openly speculating about what should happen when her deal is defeated, can she tell the House what purpose it serves to continue to pretend that we might leave the European Union without an agreement, when she knows better than anyone else how damaging and disastrous that would be, and when she told the House just now that it would risk the “jobs, services and security” of the people?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have responded on this point previously. We do have—this House has—a responsibility, and it will have a responsibility, to come to a decision on this matter and to determine whether to leave the European Union with a deal or to leave without a deal. There will also be those in this House who will try to ensure that, actually, we stay in the European Union. I think that would be wrong. I think we should be leaving the European Union, because that is what people voted for in the biggest exercise of democracy in our history. I believe that we should be leaving with a good deal, and this is it.

The final steps of contingency planning for departure on WTO terms are essential in case EU intransigence continues. Will the Prime Minister confirm that all of those necessary actions are now being taken to see us through any short-term disruption, including action to prepare for extra checks at the border, diversion of flow to friendlier ports, liberalisation of tariff schedules and cutting taxes for businesses?

My right hon. Friend is trying to tempt me into some budgetary decisions there, which, as he will know, would not be appropriate at the Dispatch Box. But I would say to him that we are making the plans—the contingency arrangements—for no deal. As I said in my statement, the Cabinet will be meeting tomorrow to discuss what further steps need to be taken. We have already stepped up those preparations—indeed, my right hon. Friend was responsible for them himself when he was the Brexit Secretary of State—but further stepping up of the no-deal preparations has gone on to address exactly the sorts of issues he is looking at, such as the flow of traffic into different ports here in the UK to ease the disruption. Disruption will take place under no deal in the short term. We want to take every step we can to mitigate that.

The Prime Minister ruled out a customs union, ruled out Norway, ruled out Canada, ruled out parliamentary votes on her objectives, ruled out parliamentary votes on the options and is now ruling out extending article 50, yet everyone knows she does not have support for her plan and she has no assurances from the EU that she asked for. If she carries on like this, she is the one who will take us over a no-deal cliff edge.

This Christmas, businesses and Departments across the country are now going to be spending billions of pounds preparing for no deal. Does she not have a duty and a responsibility to them to rule out no deal, to say she will extend article 50 and to have a proper discussion in Parliament to work out the way forward?

First, the right hon. Lady says that we ruled out certain things. Actually, in the vote that took place in 2016, the majority of the British people voted to leave the European Union, and one of the key issues in that was bringing an end to free movement, which some of the suggestions that she has as alternatives would not allow to happen. So, actually, we are trying to reflect the views that took place during that vote, and the decision as to whether or not we go forward with the deal will be one that this Parliament will take.

My right hon. Friend continues to negotiate changes to the backstop. Does she not agree that if those efforts were, unfortunately, to fail and if we are to avoid leaving without a deal, which we must at all costs avoid, it must now be critical that we build consensus in this House and forge a compromise that delivers Brexit while protecting British jobs and interests?

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the aim of everything we are doing, and I believe the aim of what this House will do, should be to ensure that we deliver on that vote and do it in a way that protects jobs and prosperity for people up and down this country. That is exactly what we are working for, and I hope that every Member of this House will consider that when it comes to looking at whether or not we should support this deal. I believe we should because it does exactly what my right hon. Friend has suggested.

Let me tell the Prime Minister what is irresponsible: delaying a vote on her agreement not because she is going to get any changes to it, but because she wants to run down the clock and try to intimidate MPs into supporting it to avoid no deal. Is it not the reality that this is not acting in the national interest, but in her personal interest, and that neither her party nor the country will forgive her for it?

I believe it would not have been right if I had not listened to the concerns expressed in the House. I listened to those concerns and I am working—discussions are continuing—with the European Union in relation to how we address them. It will then be for Parliament to decide but, at that point, Parliament and Members of the House will have a responsibility. The decision they come to will be about whether or not to deliver on the vote of the referendum in a way that protects jobs and our security.

Given that the Prime Minister has listened and is still trying to improve the deal, would the deal be more palatable if the timetable for starting on and agreeing the terms of future trade were as firm and as legally binding as the timetable for paying over all the billions?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. From the Council conclusions, there has been further progress in relation to the EU’s commitment to starting the next stage of negotiations, but it is important for us to continue to discuss the issue he raises about getting that confirmation and certainty—he refers to legal certainty—as to when those negotiations can start, and when it is the determination of both parties to ensure that those negotiations end. We want that trade deal in place by the end of December 2020.

The Prime Minister has said for two years that no deal is better than a bad deal, but we now know why—her deal is a disaster and will never pass the House. As she desperately tries to let the clock tick down, will she publish her no-deal planning?

I have been and remain clear that no deal is better than a bad deal, but I believe this is a good deal.

Will the Prime Minister publish the tariff schedule for the UK for a World Trade Organisation exit? Will that include zero tariffs on all components coming in for manufacture to provide yet another great boost to Britain as a big manufacturing centre?

These issues would have to be addressed in relation to a no-deal scenario. The Government continue to discuss the plans we need to put in place to deal with the possibility of no deal in order to mitigate the disruption that would occur in that situation. Obviously, we will be looking closely at the tariff schedules.

How much will it cost the NHS, our other public services and thousands of businesses up and down the country as they are forced to activate their no-deal contingency plans because of the Prime Minister’s reckless time wasting?

Responsible government is about ensuring that contingency arrangements are put in place. That is the responsible thing that any Government in this situation would do—ensure that contingency arrangements are in place until we have the outcome and know with certainty whether we are leaving with a deal or no deal. We need to make those contingency arrangements. That is the right thing to do.

After tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting when no-deal preparations will be high on the agenda, will the Prime Minister please arrange for a Minister to come to the House to give a statement—this week and every week until we leave the EU—so that we know what is happening and so that the country, businesses and individuals can be reassured? It is vital that the preparations happen, and this House needs to know what is happening.

My right hon. Friend raises the important point of making planning information available to the House. There are a number of ways in which that is expressed to the House. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union appears before the Select Committee and responds on those issues, and these matters have been addressed in debates in the House, but I understand the point she makes about wanting to ensure that Members are aware of the arrangements that have been put in place.

Does the Prime Minister accept that this House needs more time not to debate but to vote on the various option