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Commons Chamber

Volume 656: debated on Monday 11 March 2019

House of Commons

Monday 11 March 2019

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sixth Form Curriculum

We want young people to have a range of options so that they can mature and develop the skills they will need in adult life. There was a wide consultation on reforming A-levels to ensure that they meet the needs of the future, and the new T-levels will increase the options available. I should add that £600 a year for each additional student taking maths A-level to increase take-up is now on the table.

The Minister will be well aware that we have seen a significant reduction in the take-up of subjects at sixth form level, with a 57% reduction in German, a 38% cut in Spanish, a 35% cut in French and a 38% drop in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects. This is down to a 21% real-terms cut in education funding for sixth forms. Does she not share my concern that the young people in the secondary schools in my area will not have the same opportunities as we enjoyed when we were at school?

We recognise that there is an issue around languages, but when I think about some of the good work that is being done on STEM subjects in particular, I am very impressed with what is going on.

21. Given that the UK has one of the lowest levels of women engineers anywhere in Europe, what steps are being taken to encourage girls to study physics as well as maths at A-level? (909696)

It is extremely important that girls and women have exactly the same opportunities and are represented at all levels, not only in engineering. We know that 44% of our STEM ambassadors are female, and we are investing in programmes such as the advanced maths support programme and the stimulating physics network, both of which help to increase participation, particularly among girls. I have seen lots of apprentices over the past week, and interestingly, more than a quarter of the apprentices in STEM subjects are women.[Official Report, 19 March 2019, Vol. 656, c. 5MC.]

With more than three quarters of schools and colleges post-16 reporting a significant reduction in support for extracurricular services and in all other means of supporting students, such as mental health services, is it not time to raise the rate and to address this real problem in post-16 funding?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has been a doughty champion of raising the rate, not least as a result of his experience in the education sector. I visited a sixth form college last Friday, and I am aware of the challenges that they are facing, as is the Secretary of State. We have protected base rates, but of course all this will be looked at in the context of the spending review.

The curriculum, diverse or otherwise, can be successfully delivered only if students attend. Will the Minister condemn the growing trend of students going on strike to protest against current political issues?

My hon. Friend believes that it is a growing trend; I do not know that it is a trend. I think we all agree that it is good when young people are passionate about the issues that they care about. I do not believe that anybody should go on strike as such, but I am sure that those students made up their studies in their own time and at weekends.

The 15,000 young people who protested about climate change last month in the Youth Strike 4 Climate were passionate and committed. Instead of condemning them or branding their actions as truancy, as some would do, would it not be better for the Government to review the curriculum to ensure that greater importance is attached to the urgency of attending to the ecological crisis that we face?

We would like to see those young people who have an interest in climate change becoming the engineers and scientists of the future, particularly the young women among them. It is important that people who care passionately about these subjects should use that passion to take up careers that will make a real difference to our climate.

In the past few days, research has exposed one of the devastating impacts of cuts to the curriculum in schools and sixth forms: music provision has fallen by over a fifth in five years, with schools in the most deprived areas suffering the worst. That was among the concerns raised by 7,000 headteachers last week, but the Secretary of State refused to meet them. Let me make it clear that I would happily meet those headteachers any time. The question is: will the Education Secretary now agree to do the same?

Yes, we have invested £500 million in music and the arts. To put that into context, the hon. Lady should be aware that the Secretary of State met headteachers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He did not meet any on Sunday, but I am sure that he will meet more headteachers this week, so there has been no snub from the Secretary of State. He meets headteachers all the time—[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Lady suggests that the Secretary of State refuses to meet headteachers, but that is not the case. That is not an honest representation of the Secretary of State that I know—[Interruption.]

Order. Please stop issuing instructions to withdraw. The statement from the Minister was borderline, because there can be no accusation of anything other than honesty in the Chamber, so I was happy to leave it there. I do not require advice or help from any other quarter.

Free Schools

There are 443 open free schools, and we will establish another 263. Today, I announced the approval of a further 37 special free schools and two alternative provision schools. In the spring, we will announce the successful applications from wave 13, and we recently published the wave 14 applications.

Cobham Free School’s secondary department has been in temporary accommodation since 2014. While it is welcome that the sixth form is moving in to the new site at Munro House in September, the rest of the pupils will not join them until 2021, which is frustrating for pupils and parents and will cost over £1 million. Will the Secretary of State see whether more can be done to seek early vacant possession, given the additional money and expense that would otherwise go on temporary accommodation, to get those children into the permanent site as soon as possible?

I commend my right hon. Friend for his ongoing work with the Cobham Free School and the upcoming project at Heathside Walton-on-Thames. He has met my noble friend Lord Agnew to discuss vacant possession and, as he knows, there have been delays in trying to get it, but I would be happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.

Whether free schools or not—a policy I disagree with—Stoke-on-Trent now has a huge gap in the number of places available at secondary schools to the point where 11 of my 14 secondary schools are oversubscribed, with some constituents having to get three buses to get to their allocated school in September. What is the Secretary of State planning to do about that?

This decade we are on course to create 1 million new places in schools across the country. It will be the largest expansion in school capacity in at least two generations, following the net loss of 100,000 places during the last six years of the Labour Government. Although there will always be individual situations that we need to address—we have a capital programme to do that, and I will be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss it—there are now tens of thousands fewer pupils in schools that are over capacity.

In The Times on Friday, the Secretary of State said that

“an exclusion should not just be the end of something but be the start of something new and positive.”

What is he doing to address the postcode lottery of alternative provision, particularly in areas with high amounts of exclusion? Why does the latest free school wave contain just two free schools with alternative provision? What is he doing to change that?

Some alternative provision free schools are already open, and there will be more over time, and my right hon. Friend is right that today’s announcement contained two more. Like him, I have seen some outstanding alternative provision in our country, and we need to ensure that that happens everywhere.

Today’s announcement of 37 new free schools to deal with exclusions is all very well, but the fact is that the reason why headteachers feel that they have to exclude pupils is that there is simply not enough money in special educational needs and disability provision in the first place. More is not enough from this Government. When will the Secretary of State finally fund SEND provision properly?

As the hon. Lady knows, there is more money going into high needs provision—£6 billion. However, it is also true—this is implicit in what she says—that there are greater demands on the system. That is why we brought forward as a first stage the package that I announced a few months ago, including the extra revenue funding and extra capital funding, but we know that there is more to do.

Parents and children in Middlesbrough were left angry and upset last week by the announcement that 100 pupils will not receive a secondary school place in the town from September and will instead be placed with neighbouring authorities. A key cause of that is population growth. Middlesbrough Council is supporting a bid for a new free school in Middlehaven, so will the Department expedite it as a matter of urgency?

As I said to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), there are areas where we need to continue creating new school places. That is why we have already created over 800,000 school places since 2010 and are on course for 1 million new school places over the decade.

On the free schools process, we expect to announce the outcome of wave 13 before too long.

Instead of increasing the number of free schools, will the Secretary of State look at how we could improve the quality of the free schools we already have? Plymouth School of Creative Arts does exceptional work in some respects, but it is failing in others. Will he look at investing more in making sure such failing and troubled schools give our kids the education they deserve?

That is at the heart of what we do. That is why we have Ofsted and a school improvement programme, and it is why we encourage schools to learn from one another. One of the main reasons we have multi-academy trusts is so that they are able to work together. I think the hon. Gentleman will be meeting my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards, who takes a close interest in Plymouth schools, to make sure the very best can be done.

School Standards

We have reformed the curriculum and ensured we have rigorous qualifications so that employers and young people themselves can take full confidence in them.

At the end of the day, the most important thing that matters is that a child’s education is one that gives them the greatest opportunity in life. Although resources are clearly very important, what also matters is the quality of teaching, the learning environment and, above all else, leadership within schools. Does the Minister agree it is those ingredients that will really make the difference to a child’s education and to standards within schools?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and we will be investing over £20 million by 2020 through our teaching and leadership innovation fund. On Saturday I had the opportunity to talk about the benefits of diversity in leadership at the “Break the Cycle” event, and I take this opportunity once again to thank and pay tribute to teachers and leaders in our schools throughout the country.

17. Half of all secondary schools in Sunderland are judged by Ofsted to be inadequate or requiring improvement. Small-scale initiatives are always welcome, but it is clear that the issues we face are much greater. When will the Secretary of State get to grips with the deep-seated problems we face in areas like the north-east? (909692)

As it happens, on Thursday—in three days’ time—we have a session with Opportunity North East to look specifically at working directly with secondary schools in the north-east. The hon. Lady is right to identify that there is a particular issue in parts of the north-east, where primary schools have strong and outstanding results, as do nursery schools, but we clearly need to do more for secondary schools, which is partly what we will be looking at on Thursday.

16. Some of the very highest standards in our school system are in small village primary schools. When the national funding formula is reviewed, will the Minister provide additional support for these hugely important rural institutions? (909691)

Of course I recognise the value of rural schools, not least as a constituency MP—I have many brilliant rural schools in my constituency. As we come to look again at the formula, of course we will look at how the different elements work to make sure that all types of schools are supported.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) is a jolly lucky fella to get in at Question Time, as he withdrew his own question. He is a very busy fella, with many commitments and a very full diary, but I got him in early, which I know he duly appreciates.

Surely it is impossible to raise standards in schools when 15.93% of children with special educational needs and disabilities are excluded, compared with 3.6% of children without special educational needs. What is the Minister doing to address this stark difference in exclusions?

Of course it is a matter of concern that some groups are more likely to be excluded than others, particularly when it comes to children with special educational needs, who deserve and must have our particular attention. The hon. Lady will know that there is an ongoing review by Edward Timpson, the former schools Minister, and we expect to hear back on that quite soon.

Two thirds of children who are excluded from school are found to have speech, language and communication difficulties. Tackling this at an early age would make a real difference to their life chances and, indeed, to the standards they achieve at school, so will my right hon. Friend please outline what the Government are doing to show they realise this and to tackle it?

My hon. Friend is, of course, exactly right on that. The very earliest development of speech and language is crucial; someone who arrives at school unable to communicate fully just cannot access the rest of the curriculum. That is why I have set out the ambition to halve that gap in early language development. It is also why we must look at the home, because what happens in school and nursery is not the whole picture. We have to think about the home learning environment and make sure we are giving as much support to parents as possible.

Standards in schools are wholly dependent on the recruitment and retention of quality teachers. Does the Secretary of State agree that the immigration Bill, with its £30,000 threshold, is going to be a barrier to the recruitment of teachers post Brexit? Surely he must agree that it is time to scrap this flawed legislation.

A relatively low number of teachers from other EU countries are working in our education system. For the development of languages, for example, we could do more, and of course we will always look at the immigration system and make sure that the highly skilled people we need for our system are welcome.

Disadvantaged Children: Attainment Gap

Our reforms, backed by the £2.4 billion pupil premium, have helped schools to narrow the disadvantage attainment gap by 13% at age 11 and 9% at age 16 since 2011.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Research shows that when children fall behind in the early years it is incredibly difficult for them to catch up. Will he advise me as to how his Department is supporting disadvantaged children in those crucial early stages of education?

Of course, my right hon. Friend is correct on this, which follows on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). We are investing more than £100 million in our early years social mobility programme, including for professional development for early years practitioners and in grant support for the home learning environment, as I was outlining. Across the country, more than 150,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds benefit from the 15 free hours entitlement, 540 of whom are in the Bexley local authority area.

Quite a few children from disadvantaged backgrounds in my constituency start school with English as a second language. That is one reason why my constituency ranks relatively low on reading skills and in social mobility indices. What is the Secretary of State doing to enhance English-speaking skills in the very early years at nursery and in primary school?

My hon. Friend is correct about this; at the early years foundation stage, providers have to make sure that there are sufficient opportunities for children whose home language is not English to learn and reach a good standard in the English language.

Rural poverty means that children in north Northumberland are doubly disadvantaged in terms of educational opportunities. Headteachers such as Nicola Mathewson at Rothbury First School, in my most sparsely populated rural community, are struggling to balance budgets because of the apprenticeship levy forced on them there. This money cannot be spent on a teaching assistant to help with reading or maths. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can free up these funds by correcting what I assume was an oversight in respect of excluding small rural schools when the apprenticeship levy framework was put together?

Of course, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how we can make sure that apprenticeships do work for the Rothbury First School and others in her constituency. Local authorities, which are the levy payers in this case, should ensure that schools can benefit from apprenticeships; they can combine the levy across schools or share apprentices to ensure that the money is best spent.

As the Secretary of State will be aware, one institution that does close the disadvantage attainment gap in the early years is our valued maintained nursery schools. As hundreds of headteachers gather in Parliament today to lobby their MPs before we go on a march to Downing Street, may I, first, pay tribute to the children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), for securing the down payment of £24 million for these maintained nursery schools? May I also ask the Secretary of State to redouble his efforts and work across government to make sure they have a long-term, secure funding stream?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words about the schools Minister. [Interruption.] I mean the children’s Minister. Did I say schools Minister? He is also very good. I do recognise the particularly important place that maintained nursery schools have. With this recent announcement, local authorities can plan with confidence for the full academic year. As the hon. Lady knows, we are also doing further work to look into the value added and additional services that maintained nurseries provide.

Will the Secretary of State listen to a little bit of advice? A lot of people in the educational world want him to be a big beast. They want to know what he stands for and what he is passionate about. If he cannot be passionate about identifying which little children have talent but are lost to the system by the time they get to 11, he will be nothing. Why does he not take it seriously, bring back children’s centres and early years support, and do something about underprivileged children as early as possible? Be a big beast!

Wow. I believe my commitment to social mobility and closing the disadvantage gap is strong. I used to chair the all-party group on social mobility before I came into this job, and believe that social mobility is at the very heart of what we do. It is the core purpose of the Department for Education to ensure that every child, whatever their background, has the maximum opportunities available to them. I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that since the party of which he is a member was last in government, we have narrowed the disadvantage attainment gap at every stage—from nursery to primary, through secondary and into higher education.

18. The average student support in Scotland was up 1.4% in 2017-18. Does the Secretary of State agree that the SNP Scottish Government’s approach of supporting students, rather than charging prohibitive fees, explains why in Scotland the gap between students from the most and the least deprived communities achieving a positive destination has halved since 2009-10? (909693)

It may come as no surprise to anyone at all that I am not about to commend the Scottish Government for their approach. Actually, in the last few years England has seen record rates of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds being able to go to university. We need to work further on not only access but successful participation, bringing down drop-out rates and increasing completion rates, and making sure that everybody has full access to the most stretching opportunities available to them.

We know that per pupil spending in England has fallen by 8% in the past 10 years, which has led to many schools now having to rely on substantial parental funding—in some cases, it is up to £1,200 per year. How is the Department ensuring that schools in disadvantaged areas are able to continue to deliver for pupils, given that the parents in such areas cannot possibly consider contributing such fees?

The simple truth is that that gap has been narrowing in England. I will take no lessons from SNP Members, whose Government in Scotland are failing to narrow the gap.

As we have heard from Members from all parties, communication, articulacy and oracy are the absolute keys to closing the disadvantage gap. A child with poor vocabulary at five and under is twice as likely to be unemployed at 30. We know that high-quality early years education can make a massive difference for disadvantaged children. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) for mentioning the heads of maintained nurseries who are campaigning outside No. 10 right now. Sadly, the Secretary of State chooses to lock the most disadvantaged youngsters out of the 30 hours of free childcare. Does he not agree that to make a serious attempt at closing the disadvantage gap, he must drop the requirement that both parents have to be in work to qualify for entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare?

There are currently 154,960 disadvantaged two-year-olds benefiting from the 15 hours’ free entitlement programme—a programme that was never available under any Labour Government. As for the increase in eligibility from 15 to 30 hours, that supports working families and helps to sustain employment. I gently remind the hon. Lady that we have record levels of employment in this country and the lowest level of unemployment we have seen since the mid-1970s.

Order. Progress is very slow, so we need to speed up. There are a lot of questions to get through; short questions and short answers would facilitate us in the process.

Post-18 Education and Funding Review

The Government’s post-18 review is making good progress. As part of the review, the independent panel chaired by Philip Augar has undertaken an extensive programme of stakeholder engagement and evidence-gathering with students, graduates, providers and employers, including a call for evidence that received more than 400 responses. They are producing a report that will form part of the wider post-18 review and this will be published shortly.

I thank the Minister for that answer. There have been rumours in this place about the possibility of reduced or variable tuition fees forming part of the proposals from the Augar review. In my opinion that misses the point; it is actually the cost of living and maintenance rather than tuition that causes accessibility problems at universities. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the Government will properly consult the sector on any recommendations and seek to follow the evidence, rather than offering quick fixes and good headlines?

I agree that we want to maintain the financial stability of our world-class higher education and research sector. I congratulate many universities on their appearance in the QS World University Rankings last week. That is why, when the Government conclude the review, we will ensure that people from every background can progress and succeed in post-18 education to contribute to a strong knowledge economy and deliver the skills that we need.

Support for Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

The special educational needs reforms of 2014 were the biggest in a generation. In December we announced a further £250 million in high-needs funding over the two years, bringing the total to £6.1 billion this year and £6.3 billion in 2019-20. We announced today that 3,500 extra school places will be created for pupils facing the biggest challenge in their education, with 39 new free schools to support children with special educational needs or those who have been excluded from mainstream schools.

I appreciate the Minister’s response and announcement, but it does not yet recognise the reality that schools are facing. One of my primary school teachers told me last week:

“SEND funding is in crisis. We have pupils who have been promised a place at schools with a special educational needs base, but due to a lack of this specialist provision, pupils have had to remain at our school. We cater for their needs as much as we possibly can.”

The reality is that those pupils are not getting the care that they deserve. We have only one chance of giving our children the best start in life. Minister, will you look again at the needs of all pupils being met, particularly those with special needs?

That is exactly what we are doing. Today’s announcement of 37 special free schools is on top of the 88 special free schools and 54 alternative provision schools that are already either open or in the pipeline The announcement today is in addition to that provision, which is why we are doing that. Additionally, we have put £100 million into increasing capacity in mainstream schools as well as increasing the high-needs funding for local authorities.

The Federation of Heathfield and St Francis Special Schools provides invaluable learning opportunities for more than 200 children with special educational needs in Fareham. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the inspirational head, Steve Hollinghurst, whose record of service spans 36 years, and will he set out what further support there is for these essential schools so that they can continue providing this support for our most vulnerable children?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising Steve for the work that he has done. Today’s announcement provides a portfolio of provision in local areas. Almost every local authority will benefit from this increase in provision.

This morning, I met students on the foundation skills course at the excellent Stockton Riverside College, which also operates in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley). What is the Minister doing to support colleges to deliver foundation skills courses to young people with high needs such as learning disabilities, including those whom I met this morning?

Colleges do absolutely critical work, and they do brilliant work with special needs children. I have seen it for myself at Hammersmith and Derwent colleges, and we continue to support those colleges.

Parents of children with SEN very rarely welcome the closure of their schools, and I say respectfully that we must treat the parents in Chippenham and Trowbridge with great sensitivity. None the less, does the Minister not agree with me and welcome Wiltshire Council’s great vision in spending £20 million on building a state-of-the-art school at Rowdeford, which will bring children from across the whole of North Wiltshire to an absolutely superb facility?

I agree with my hon. Friend that Wiltshire is doing a tremendous job in SEND provision. The inspection by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission has been exemplary. There is a legal challenge to the investment of £20 million and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that. I know that neighbouring colleagues take a different view as well.

Restraint and restrictive practices in schools and healthcare settings carried out by adults on children as young as two with SEND have caused bruising, black eyes, carpet burns and post-traumatic stress disorder. Guidance promised half a decade ago has yet to materialise, and the Department does not count these complaints. Fed-up parents are preparing to take legal action against the Government. Despite today’s announcement of placements for children with complex needs, should not the Minister be focusing on the fact that, on his watch, some schools are no longer a safe place for children with SEND?

I had hoped that the hon. Lady would commend today’s announcement and confirm that she takes a different view from her Front Bench on abolishing free schools. If we abolished these very good free special schools, we would actually put more children with SEND at risk. We are undertaking a root-and-branch review of restraint with the Department of Health and Social Care, and we will be reporting back.

School Funding: Distribution

In 2018, we introduced the national funding formula, which distributes funding based on schools’ and pupils’ needs and characteristics, not accidents of location or history. Since 2017, we have given every local authority more money for every pupil in every school, while allocating the biggest increases to the most underfunded schools.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but given that the national funding formula only reduces the funding disparity by some 5%, when does he think his Department is going to fulfil our manifesto promise of creating fair funding for all schoolchildren, and will he meet me and colleagues from Leicestershire to discuss these matters?

I will certainly meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues from Leicestershire. The national funding formula is delivering rapid gains for the most underfunded schools while also ensuring stability for all schools. By 2019-20, schools in Leicestershire will receive 5.5% more funding per pupil compared to 2017-18, or £31.5 million more in total. In 2019-20, 92% of schools in Leicestershire will already be attracting their full gains under the national funding formula.

I am here on behalf of Balham Nursery School and Children’s Centre in my constituency, which knows that it has guaranteed funding until 2020, but is deeply concerned about what will happen going forward. The people there do an incredible job bridging the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, so what assurances can the Minister provide them with today?

Everything about this Government is about closing that attainment gap, and we have closed the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers by 13.5% in the primary sector—in early years and primary schools. The hon. Lady will know that we have awarded an extra £60 million funding to recognise the higher costs of maintained nursery schools. We are working with the sector as we prepare for the spending review.[Official Report, 19 March 2019, Vol. 656, c. 6MC.]

I was at the Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water in my constituency on Friday. It is not even going to reach the £4,800 per pupil under the national funding formula. How can it be fair that that school gets that sort of funding, yet schools in Hackney—with a range of pupil premium funding on top—get £6,800 per pupil?

The purpose of the national funding formula is not to give every school across the country the same amount of funding per pupil. It must be right that schools with lots of children with additional needs—for example, coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, with English as an additional language or with low prior attainment—do need to receive more money to help to ensure that those children’s needs are met. It is also right that schools in areas of high costs receive extra money to reflect those costs. That is what our fairer funding system delivers, and my hon. Friend’s county will have benefited from the national funding formula.

Tithe Barn Primary School in my constituency is a low-funded school in a low-funded authority with an above average percentage of special educational needs children. The Minister has said that he will be gathering evidence on the adequacy of special educational needs funding. Is he able to give us any more information about when he will start to gather evidence, how he will gather it and who will be invited to contribute?

We understand the pressures on the high-needs budgets of local authorities up and down the country, including medical science and a whole range of other issues such as extending the age range for special educational needs provision up to 25. All those things have added pressure to high-needs budgets, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State towards the end of last year announced an extra £250 million between this financial year and the next financial year to recognise the pressures that local authorities are facing.

Figures show that our schools have 66,000 more pupils but 5,400 fewer teachers, 2,800 fewer teaching assistants, 1,400 fewer support staff, and 1,200 fewer auxiliary staff—a total workforce reduction of 10,800 from 2016-17. With weekend reports of headteachers having to clean the toilets, does the Minister still maintain that schools are not experiencing funding cuts from this Government?

As I said, since 2017 we have provided and are providing local authorities with more money for every pupil in every school. There are 10,000 more teachers in our school system today than there were when we came into office in 2010. In the recruitment cycle last year, we recruited 2,600 more teacher trainees into teacher training. It is an attractive and an honourable profession to work in. I wish the hon. Gentleman and Labour Front Benchers would support our schools and talk them up instead of talking them down.

Mental Health and Wellbeing: Support in Schools

8. What recent assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of support in schools for children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. (909683)

We conducted a national survey of mental health provision in schools that showed that most take action to support their pupils’ mental health. Schools need specialist support, so under the NHS long-term plan we are introducing mental health support teams as part of a major investment in children’s mental health.

During my annual community consultation, I met students from secondary schools right across my constituency. In every school, they raised the difficulty in accessing mental health services as a top priority. The Minister said that he is encouraging schools to offer counselling. Schools want to do that, but the funding crisis is preventing them because they do not have the resources. Next Tuesday, I am hosting a delegation of headteachers from every Sheffield constituency. Will he meet them to discuss this issue?

I would happily discuss the issue. I am very proud to share with this House the fact that the funding that we are increasing to £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24 would mean that funding for children’s and young people’s mental health services will grow faster than overall NHS funding, but also, more importantly, faster than total mental health spending overall.

Saxon Hill Academy in Lichfield, like many other schools that look after severely disabled children, has a programme of sleepovers for the children. That benefits the children, and it is great for the parents because it gives them respite, but the school is now having to discontinue it because of local funding issues. Is there anything the Government can do centrally to help Saxon Hill and similar schools?

Saxon Hill does a tremendous job, and respite is incredibly important. Part of the reason we have increased the funding, with £250 million over the next two years, is that we are very much cognisant of the fact that there are funding pressures on local authorities’ higher needs budgets.

The online game “Doki Doki Literature Club!”, which is available as a free download, promotes self-harm and has been linked to the suicides of several young people. What steps are being taken within schools to raise awareness of such dangers? What steps are being taken with the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to tighten the regulations that currently allow children and young people to download such harmful games?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The relationships curriculum addresses these online harms directly. We also have the online harms White Paper that is to be issued imminently.

Teachers’ Pension Scheme Costs: Effect on Universities

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on universities of increased teachers’ pension scheme costs. (909684)

The Department’s public consultation to gather evidence on the impacts of increased contributions to the teachers’ pension scheme for all TPS employers, including universities, for 2019-20 closed on 12 February 2019. Final funding decisions will be made in due course when the consultation evidence has been reviewed.

Modern universities across the country are deeply anxious about the upcoming charges to the teachers’ pension scheme, with one institution forecasting a 5% cut in staff members if the Government do not act. Will the Secretary of State urgently commit to supporting universities with these huge additional costs that have been earmarked for schools and colleges?

The Department’s initial analysis of each sector—state schools, further education, higher education, and independent schools—suggested that state schools and further education colleges would be most affected by the increase in employer contributions, so prioritised funding has been made available for them on this basis. However, final funding decisions will be made when the consultation evidence has been reviewed.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the most serious financial pressures are not on universities but on further education colleges and that it is time for a fresh, fair settlement for FE colleges, to ensure that learners get the investment in education that they deserve?

My hon. Friend is right that analysis has demonstrated that the FE sector would be affected. Obviously, FE colleges are most directly funded by Government grants, in contrast with higher education providers, which are autonomous bodies that are ultimately responsible for ensuring their financial viability.

Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy

As recommended in the northern powerhouse schools strategy, we are implementing a range of measures in the north to improve teaching and leadership capacity, to recruit and retain more teachers and to close the disadvantage gap. In 2018, 80% of children were in good or outstanding schools in the north, compared with 67% in 2010.

Many of the projects that the Minister has referred to today and previously have a national reach and are not solely catering for the north, which betrays the very purpose of the northern powerhouse schools strategy. Will he commit to creating a northern schools improvement board, drawing together local authorities and schools commissioners, and to extend funding beyond 2020, to deliver the regional strategy that we in Bradford need and were promised?

We are absolutely committed to the northern powerhouse strategy. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be in Middlesbrough on Thursday to announce more plans for Opportunity North East. The northern powerhouse strategy involves a range of policies. For example, we are rolling out a three-year programme of tailored support for some of the schools facing the most significant recruitment and retention problems; around 100 schools in the north will benefit from that. Five opportunity areas in the north will receive a share of £72 million to improve social mobility. In the Bradford opportunity area, we are targeting up to £1.5 million of school improvement support, improving literacy through £600,000 of investment in Bradford primary schools, including nine schools in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Technical and Vocational Education and Training

12. What steps his Department is taking to improve the delivery of technical and vocational education and training. (909687)

We are introducing T-levels from 2020, with the first ones being in construction, education and childcare, and digital. With longer teaching hours and substantive industry placements, T-levels will provide a high-quality technical alternative to academic education. That builds on the growing work with high-quality apprenticeships, which are now longer and better, with more off-the-job training and proper assessment at the end.

One of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s departing recommendations when he left Ofsted was that every multi-academy trust should contain a university technical college that offers maths, science and a technical specialism. Will the Minister look at taking that forward?

We want UTCs to join suitable MATs wherever possible, as it is beneficial to both of them. It allows UTCs and MATs to offer a broad base of education, which can only be in everyone’s interests.

The Minister’s rhetoric bears no relation to what we are seeing in our schools, where vocational education opportunities are shrinking all the time, and the Government’s sense of direction seems to be narrowing our young people’s curriculum. When will the statements that the Minister makes at the Dispatch Box start to have even the slightest relevance to what people are experiencing on the ground?

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman was last week, but it was National Apprenticeship Week. The opportunities that are available from the age of 16 in apprenticeships are extraordinary, and the Government are putting substantial investment into T-levels. For the first time, I have seen technical and vocational education get some real traction both inside and outside schools.

23. As the Minister knows, Southport College in my constituency is a beacon of excellence in technical and vocational education and training, but will she review the cap on apprenticeship funding, in order for more young people to forge a pathway into employment? (909699)

I know that my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion of apprenticeships in his constituency and across the country, and I am delighted to hear that he will host an apprenticeship fair in Southport in May. It was a pleasure to visit Southport College last year. There were 1,250 events during National Apprenticeship Week this year, which was a 50% increase on last year. The opportunities for young people and, indeed, older people are quite extraordinary.

The Minister rightly talks about the opportunities of the National Apprenticeship Week, but the National Audit Office says that the financial sustainability of the apprenticeship levy, which is key to the Government’s strategy, is at risk. We have a crazy situation with the overspend on higher apprenticeships producing a £500 million deficit, but non-levy payers, which are the training providers for three out of four apprenticeships, are left without funding. Following the catastrophic falls in apprenticeship starts in 2017, why is this Department now looking at another disaster, and how will this Minister stop this driverless levy going over the cliff and taking huge numbers of chances with it?

I have to say that I do not think the hon. Gentleman always believes what he says from the Dispatch Box. [Interruption.] He talks apprenticeships down. How can he possibly talk about an overspend on higher level apprenticeships? In this country, we are desperate for people who are able to do level 4 and level 5 qualifications. The National Audit Office report was a very backward-looking report. I am sure he would agree with me in private, if not from the Dispatch Box, that the difference he will have seen between National Apprenticeship Week this year and the one last year is quite extraordinary.

Everybody in this Chamber believes what he or she says from either the Front Bench or the Back Benches. It is a point so blindingly obvious that only an extraordinarily sophisticated person could fail to grasp it.

Teaching and Support Staff: Recruitment and Retention

13. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of trends in the levels of (a) pay and (b) workload on the recruitment and retention of teaching and support staff. (909688)

Our recent integrated teacher recruitment and retention strategy prioritises reducing unnecessary workloads. We will ensure teaching continues to offer one of the best pensions available, and teacher pay ranges have increased by between 1.5% and 3.5% this year.

I was back for assembly at my alma mater, Montpelier Primary School, this morning. It is an outstanding school, but it is coming under pressure from churn, with Brexit moving parents’ jobs so pupils are off, while teachers, finding their salaries are not enough to meet the London cost of living, either commute from outside London or permanently move their jobs there or overseas. What is the Secretary of State doing specifically about the London pressures, which are masked by the figures he has quoted, so that teachers are paid enough to be rooted in their community, as they were in my day, not passing through?

Of course we recognise the additional cost in high-cost areas, in particular in London. It is true that there are 200 more teachers in the Ealing local authority area than there were in 2010. However, it remains a very competitive recruitment market, particularly for graduate recruitment, partly because of the historically very low unemployment we have, and that makes our recruitment and retention strategy all the more important.

It is time for the right hon. Gentleman to issue his brevity textbook. Let us have an extract.

We are spending more per pupil than any other G7 nation, but headteachers are complaining that they are cleaning the loos themselves. Something is going wrong. What is it?

On the first point, we are spending more than any other G7 nation bar the United States in per capita funding for state primary and secondary education, but there are particular cost pressures in the system. We were discussing high needs earlier, and we do need to address that particular set of pressures. There are others as well, such as the way we go about purchasing and so on, and some of the costs that are particularly rising. I want to reassure my right hon. Friend that we are looking at all of those factors.

Topical Questions

I am pleased to confirm that we are providing £24 million of supplementary funding to local authorities to enable them fully to fund maintained nursery schools for 2019-20. Last week marked National Apprenticeship Week, celebrating apprenticeships and their positive impact on people, businesses and the economy. We have recently confirmed plans for reforms to the relationships and sex education and the health education curricula, to be implemented in schools from September 2020, so that children can be taught about mental and physical wellbeing, as well as about online safety, subject of course to parliamentary approval.

For how many more years can my Great Grimsby constituents expect Great Coates and Scartho state-maintained nursery schools to remain open?

As I said earlier, we recognise the particular place that maintained nurseries have in our system. They often provide additional, high-quality services, which we value. Work is ongoing to assess that value and of course we will make announcements about future spending as part of the spending review.

T2. I am incredibly proud of Peartree Way maintained nursery school in Stevenage. Will the Secretary of State commit to keeping it open for as long as he is Secretary of State? (909701)

I commend Peartree Way maintained nursery school. Maintained nursery schools do a brilliant job because they cater for the most disadvantaged children in our communities. That is why we have provided the additional £24 million that has been mentioned many times today. What happens next obviously depends on the spending review. We are working with the sector, which I want to thank for its hard work in allowing us to understand the additional costs so that we can put our best foot forward in the spending review.

It is great to see the pupils in the Gallery who have been listening throughout Question Time.

In the Government’s vast backlog of Brexit legislation, they recently slipped out regulations that allow them to withdraw the UK from the European University Institute. Legal experts say that that is completely unnecessary and academics warn that it will be deeply damaging. Will the Secretary of State publish the legal advice and allow a debate on the Floor of the House—or, better still, withdraw the proposal and think again?

The Department is working closely with the EUI. The issue is around the convention, which states that the UK cannot be a member of the EUI when it is not a member state. That is why, on exit day, we will automatically fall out of the EUI. We are keen to remain involved, but it would mean looking at further association after exit day.

T3. Will the Secretary of State consider taking schools in Lewes out of paying the apprenticeship levy to help them cope with the rising costs that they face? (909702)

All employers with a payroll in excess of £3 million pay the levy, but many apprenticeships are available that can work for schools, including apprenticeships for school business professionals and teaching assistants. Of course, there is also the postgraduate teaching apprenticeship. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that further.

T5. East Sussex College is an excellent FE college in my constituency. A deplorable situation has developed over the past two years whereby teachers teaching A-level at that college earn, like many others across the sector, nearly 20% less than teachers in the school just down the road. That is not sustainable. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that enough money is ring-fenced for staff wages in the FE sector? (909704)

I am sorry; we struggled a tiny bit to hear the full question. We have several programmes on the subject of FE staff and ensuring that posts are sufficiently attractive. However, it is probably best if I say that either my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills or I will meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the college in Eastbourne.

I heard perfectly clearly. Does the hon. Gentleman want to blurt out the last sentence very briefly?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. In the past few years, the salaries of FE teachers teaching A-levels and vocational education have ended up almost 20% lower than those of the teachers at the school down the road. What will the Secretary of State or the Minister do to address that?

I am aware of some of the discrepancies between the salaries of FE teachers and schoolteachers. We have several programmes, not least the taking teaching further programme, which will encourage industry professionals into FE teaching. However, as I said, I am aware of some of the issues around recruitment in the FE sector.

T4. Businesses in my area tell me that they need more young people with STEM skills to fill jobs. As well as encouraging an increase in girls taking STEM A-levels—up 27% from 2010—what more is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State doing to inspire and enable girls to study STEM subjects? (909703)

It is absolutely important that girls and women are equally represented at all levels, not only in engineering and STEM, but in all sectors. We invested in programmes such as the advanced mathematics support programme and the stimulating physics network, which aim to increase participation, particularly among girls. This week is British Science Week. I encourage all Members to get involved, not just to stress the importance of STEM education for the future of this country and for the next generation, but to ensure that women and girls can be involved in the wonders of science.

T10. Earlier this afternoon, my hon. Friends the Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) pointed out that in Scotland the achievement gap between the most and least deprived pupils has halved in less than 10 years. The Minister declined to welcome that, because the gap has not got any smaller. Mr Speaker, if the people running education in England think that cutting something in half makes it bigger, is it any wonder that so many schools are struggling to achieve acceptable levels of standards? (909709)

We are proud of our record in reducing the attainment gap in England, but I recognise that one always needs to go further. That starts, of course, in the early years. We are seeing progress at every stage, but there is always more we can do.

T6. Average funding per student for the 16 to 19-year-old age group is less than that for secondary school A-level students. What is the Minister doing to increase college funding to sustainable levels and to see greater parity with secondary schools? (909705)

Like for like comparisons are not always appropriate, because both systems contain different elements. I am very aware of the campaign going on—the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges Association have been doing a very good job. I need no persuasion to champion the cause of FE colleges, which have extremely complex courses to deliver and do a fantastic job. We need to get the right balance between schools and colleges. It is the case that colleges are dependent on the educational attainment of those who come in at 16, so that part of the sector matters as well.

The new times tables tests for year 4 come in soon. The test is taken using a machine. Martin, a dad of a boy with autism in Bury, is concerned that not enough provision is being made, or at least communicated to our schools as to what reasonable adjustment can be made. What provision is being made for our students who are anxious learners? Does the Minister agree that children with special educational needs and disabilities need the time and allowances to ensure that their circumstances can be managed?

The Standards and Testing Agency has a protocol in place for adjustments to be made for children with special educational needs. We have piloted a roll-out of the multiplication tables check over the past couple of years. We are rolling it out voluntarily this year and it will be compulsory next year.

T8. As my right hon. Friend knows, Dudley College has submitted an outstanding bid to be an institute of technology. Can she confirm that the IOT programme will go ahead as planned on published timetables? (909707)

I am aware that Dudley College has progressed to stage two of the competition and we expect to announce the outcome shortly. As it is a competition, I obviously cannot comment on that. IOTs are a new kind of prestigious institution. It is important to note that they are not about new buildings, but collaborations between FE colleges, universities and leading employers to deliver the high-quality technical education we need.

At a time when pupils’ emotional and mental health needs are increasing, cuts to our schools mean that teaching assistants are being lost. In Derbyshire, we are about to lose 200 early help staff. The number of school nurses is being halved and child and adolescent mental health services say that they can only see pupils where there is proof that they have attempted to commit suicide. Will the Secretary of State look at the cumulative impact of all the cuts to education and health on our pupils’ wellbeing?

We do recognise the additional demands relating to young people’s mental health. That is why our programme ensures a designated mental health lead in every school, a further roll-out of mental health first aid, a shortened time for CAMHS referrals and support teams operating around schools to help them with mental health needs.

T9. Under the previous Government, schools often found it impossible to exclude even violent pupils because they were tied up by appeals panels, often with little knowledge of the situation. We were right to get rid of them. Does the Minister agree that it is better to invest in pupil referral units, rather than backtrack on that important reform, to keep people safe? (909708)

We support headteachers in using exclusion as a sanction where warranted. We also believe that independent review panels provide for a quick, fair and accessible process for reviewing exclusion decisions in a way that takes account of the rights of the pupil and of the wider school community, and the ability of the headteacher to maintain a safe and ordered environment.

As a former chair of governors, I am sad to report to the House that the Northern Education Trust has failed the children who attend and who have attended the Thomas Hepburn school. The Secretary of State’s Department has agreed with the trust to the closure of the school in Felling in my Gateshead constituency. The other schools in the borough have already accepted additional pupils and are above their plan for September. Will the Secretary of State meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) to discuss how we are going to find places for the other 40 year 7 pupils who do not have places in Gateshead next September?

The hon. Gentleman and I have had a chance on previous occasions to discuss and correspond on the Thomas Hepburn school, and of course I will meet him, as he suggests.

A not insignificant number of parents feel compelled to take their children out of school and into home-schooling as a result of bullying. Will the Department’s call for evidence on home education look at the support being given to these children to try to get them back into mainstream schooling as soon as possible?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. When a child is excluded, where the responsibility for their education lies can be ambiguous, meaning that too many pupils fall through the net. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to clarify who has responsibility for excluded or off-rolled children to stop that from happening in future?

As the hon. Lady will know, we instituted the Timpson review into exclusions, which will report back soon. She will probably also have heard me say that we have to look at the question of making sure that schools retain some responsibility for pupils who are excluded, and I expect to have more to say soon.

A recent report commissioned by the Welsh Government has shown that fining parents for unauthorised school absence has had no impact on raising attendance levels in Wales. Is it not time to have a review of that policy in England and, if the evidence shows that it does not work, to drop it?

Parents have a duty to ensure that their children who are registered at school attend regularly. We have not formally assessed the impact of penalty notices, but comparable data shows that overall absence rates have remained stable in recent years following a downward trend since 2006—a 6.5% absence rate in 2006 fell to 4.7% in 2016.

A number of schools in my constituency are facing severe financial pressures, with some having to merge year groups and rely on parental donations. The Minister says that more money is going into education, but these smaller, rural schools are really struggling. Will he meet me to discuss what we can do for these schools in my area?

As I say, we are spending record amounts on our schools and we have special provision within the national funding formula to help rural, small schools in particular. There is an extra £25 million to ensure that those schools can support themselves and there is a fixed sum for every school of £110,000, but I will meet the hon. Lady and her headteachers to discuss her schools’ particular concerns.

On Friday, I was one of 3.5 million parents who received a letter from their school concerned that costs are outstripping funding. I was threatened with detention unless I asked the Secretary of State this: when it comes to more funding—and I hope that there will be more funding—will he ensure that it goes to those areas that are currently the lowest-funded counties?

Come the spending review, we will of course be looking at funding for education alongside other Departments. Funding for education is vital for our society and the productivity in our economy, and of course, we need to continue to look at how that is distributed through the national funding formula and to consider aspects such as rurality as part of that.

EU Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Changes

(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if she will make a statement on progress made in achieving legal changes to the EU withdrawal agreement and the timetable for approval in this House through a meaningful vote.

As negotiations are ongoing and at a critical stage, I am here to update the House on the latest developments. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to President Juncker by phone yesterday evening, teams will continue to talk throughout today and the Government will make a statement later today updating the House on the progress of discussions. As previously understood, the Attorney General’s legal analysis will be updated following the outcome of negotiations, and he will publish his legal analysis of any document produced and negotiated with the EU and present it to the House before it meets tomorrow.

Clearly, I cannot pre-empt the outcome of these sensitive and urgent discussions, and I am sure the House understands that I am not able to share details or engage in speculation about talks that are still ongoing, but I can assure it that, as soon as the negotiations have concluded, it will be updated. The meaningful vote will take place tomorrow and the motion will be tabled today ahead of that debate. The House will then face a fundamental choice: back the Brexit deal or risk a delay that would mean months more spent arguing about Brexit and prolonging the current uncertainty—uncertainty that would do nothing but pass control to Brussels and increase the risks.

It is incumbent on the House to deliver on the will of the British people and to provide certainty. Tomorrow, right hon. and hon. Members will have the opportunity to do just that in a meaningful vote fully informed by the Government’s legal analysis. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and every hon. Member in the House should take that opportunity to move forward and provide certainty.

This is a Government in chaos and a country in chaos because of this mess. I left my office at 20 past 3. At that time, Downing Street was unable to confirm who would be responding to my urgent question. It seems that the WhatsApp group, a lottery or something has chosen the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) to reply to the House, when my question was to the Prime Minister.

We find out from journalists and the Irish Government that the Prime Minister is apparently heading to Strasbourg this evening, or not heading to Strasbourg this evening, hours before a meaningful vote is due. The Prime Minister was clear and categorical on 26 February. She said:

“I want to reassure the House by making three further commitments. First, we will hold a second meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March at the latest”—

there are still 24 hours to go, so who knows? She also committed to a vote on no deal by 13 March and a vote on whether to extend article 50 by 14 March. She then concluded:

“They are commitments I am making as Prime Minister, and I will stick by them”—[Official Report, 26 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 166-7.]

This is a matter of trust. Time and again, the Prime Minister has failed to negotiate, failed to compromise and delayed and delayed. After three months, she has not achieved one single change to her deal. As we have often said, she has simply run down the clock, leaving us with a choice between her deal and the chaos of leaving the EU without any agreement. It was a bad deal in December, when it was first tabled; it was a bad deal in January, when it was rejected by the largest parliamentary margin by which any Government has ever been defeated; and it is still a bad deal today, 11 March.

These shambolic negotiations and endless delays are having real-life consequences in workplaces across the country: businesses are holding back on investment, jobs have been lost, workplaces are closing, workers fear for their jobs and the national health service and public services are having to spend millions of pounds preparing for a no-deal outcome, which the House has already clearly rejected.

Can the Prime Minister, I mean the Minister—I am sorry that the Prime Minister cannot be here, apparently—tell us what changes the Government have got to the backstop and when the Attorney General will publish his apparently new legal advice, or is it that, after three months of delay, nothing has changed? Given that they whipped their MPs to vote for the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), which said the deal could only be supported with changes to the backstop, will the Prime Minister be voting against her own deal if no changes have been secured?

Will the Minister confirm that we will, absolutely, have the meaningful vote tomorrow, and that it will not be delayed yet again? Will we also have the vote to rule out no deal on 13 March, and the vote on extending article 50 on 15 March, as promised? If the deal is rejected again tomorrow, will the Prime Minister shift her red lines, and show that she is not just willing to meet Members, but willing to compromise with them as well?

This chaos cannot go on for much longer. The fate of people’s workplaces, jobs and businesses is at stake as the Government fail to negotiate and there is simply dither after dither, and then further delay. It is time for answers.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about further delay. I have confirmed to him that there will be a meaningful vote in the House tomorrow. I have explained that negotiations are ongoing, and the Government are seeking legally binding changes that will address the concerns that have been raised in the House.

The right hon. Gentleman speaks of chaos. We all remember his advice to the Government, on day one after the referendum, to trigger article 50 immediately. I think that we can be very clear that this process would be no safer in his hands. He talks about investment. He and his party will have the opportunity to vote to secure and unlock investment tomorrow by backing the deal, and they will do so fully informed by the Government’s legal analysis. He asked about the timetable for the publication of the Attorney General’s advice, and I can confirm that that advice will be published before the House sits tomorrow.

My hon. Friend firmly confirmed that the vote on the deal would come tomorrow. He did not actually mention the event, if it is defeated, of the vote on Wednesday on whether or not we leave with no deal, and, further to that, the vote on Thursday about delaying article 50 if, indeed, the House rejects no deal. I hope that that was a mere oversight and that my hon. Friend is not going back on last week’s undertakings.

I am happy to confirm that the exact words of the Prime Minister in giving that undertaking, which we absolutely stand by, were

“First, we will hold a…meaningful vote”

on 12 March. If the Government did not win a meaningful vote, they would

“table a…motion…to be voted on by Wednesday 13 March…asking this House if it supports leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement… Thirdly”,

if the House rejected both those options,

“the Government will, on 14 March, bring forward a motion on whether Parliament wants to seek a short, limited extension to article 50.”—[Official Report, 27 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 377.]

It is crucial that the House has the opportunity to extend article 50 on Thursday, because we have to take back control from this shambles of a Government.

We are 18 days away from the scheduled UK exit from the EU, yet the Government still have no plan to protect jobs and living standards. This Prime Minister is guilty of neglect. She has proved incapable of governance, incapable of negotiation and utterly incapable of leadership. The truth is that the politics of the United Kingdom has become a farce. The lack of leadership from either the Tory or the Labour party has left people across the country at a loss, panicking about their futures and abandoned by their so-called leaders.

This morning, Downing Street exclaimed that tomorrow’s vote would go ahead, and the Minister has repeated that. It must happen, and it is welcome, because to dither and delay yet again would be another act of grave cowardice. We cannot ignore the facts: this place is in total chaos, and the crisis engulfing the United Kingdom is deepening. In Scotland, businesses, students, farmers, academics, mothers, fathers and EU nationals are rightly worried about their futures, but this Government, this Tory party and this Prime Minister could not care less about the people of Scotland. This deal will damage our economy, destroy growth and deprive Scottish people of all the cherished opportunities that the European Union has gifted us.

Michel Barnier was very clear: the negotiations are over. He said:

“We talked all weekend and now the discussions, the negotiations, are between the government in London and the parliament in London.”

Can the Minister answer these questions? Will the Government back the Prime Minister’s deal tomorrow? Will the text of the motion on which we shall vote provide for a new arrangement in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop? Has the Prime Minister negotiated with the European Union new protections for the Scottish economy? If not, are the Scottish MPs in her party ready to resign? Scotland did not vote for Brexit, and we must not be dragged out of the European Union against our will. The sovereign right of the Scottish people to choose our own future must be respected. We are, and we will remain, a European nation.

We are all leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe. Amid the right hon. Gentleman’s rhetoric, he spoke about the interests of the Scottish people. Of course, the interests of the Scottish people are in our strong Union of the United Kingdom. We want to deliver a good deal for the whole United Kingdom.

Unlike the Leader of the Opposition, may I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box? I know from my own experience that, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister is a brilliant master of his brief. The Leader of the Opposition talked about trust. Is not the Prime Minister demonstrating the trust that this House should put in her by going to Europe and negotiating with the Europeans a deal that will deliver on the requirements of the British people—unlike the Opposition?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to his work on this process. He has said many times that negotiations with the EU often go right to the eleventh hour. We have a demonstration of that today, and there will be a statement from the Government later today.

Can the Minister explain to the House why the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said earlier today:

“The…Prime Minister is travelling to Strasbourg this evening…to try to finalise an agreement, if that’s possible, to be able to put that to a meaningful vote in Westminster tomorrow…”?

Can the Minister confirm that? If an agreement that changes the withdrawal agreement or the political declaration is reached tonight, will that have the approval of the Heads of Government? If not, will it actually constitute a negotiated agreement under the terms of section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018?

The right hon. Gentleman, who is the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee, asked me a series of questions, and I think that he knows I cannot answer them all. My Secretary of State has reiterated to me that he is keen to give evidence to the Select Committee tomorrow, so perhaps he can update the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee on all those issues.

May I likewise welcome the Minister? Before his well-deserved promotion, he was an excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary—[Interruption.] That was before my demotion, but there we are. Has not the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) just shown us exactly what the Leader of the Opposition should have done in an urgent question that is entitled “EU Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Changes”? The nub of the matter is that we would be better served by a forensic examination of the January letter from Presidents Tusk and Juncker, in which much was conceded by the EU, and that now needs to be turned into legally binding text. Many complain about delay, dither and the consequences for workplaces, but does the Minister agree that all that could be solved if the agreement were passed tomorrow?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. Of course we should pass this agreement, but it is vital that the Prime Minister has gone in to negotiate right up to the last moment so that she can address the concerns of this House. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the letter from the Presidents took some steps to address those concerns, but we have sought, and we will continue to seek, legally binding changes.

The Minister could not answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). The status of tomorrow’s meaningful vote matters because we want to be sure that the Government will not use any shenanigans to avoid further votes later in the week. Will the Minister confirm that if by the end of tomorrow Parliament has not approved a withdrawal agreement and future partnership that have been agreed with the EU for the purposes of section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, the Government will go ahead on Wednesday with the vote on no deal, followed by the vote on the extension of article 50?

I have already confirmed that by repeating the Prime Minister’s assurance, and we do accept that section 31 of the withdrawal Act is binding.

My right hon. Friend asks an interesting question, and of course there are a range of different views on that. The House of Lords Committee has taken one view, and other hon. and right hon. Gentlemen will take others.

I think that the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) was asking for the view of the Minister. The clue is in the nature of the exchange. If an hon. Member or right hon. Member gets up and asks a question, he is interested in the view of the Minister, not of some other Committee in some other place. I would have thought that that was fairly straightforward, but there you go.

The Minister says that he does not engage in speculation, but may I encourage him to make an educated guess? If the Prime Minister’s deal is passed tomorrow, how many more years of very public Tory bickering will the country face as the UK seeks to establish its new relationship with the European Union?

The right hon. Gentleman asks a question about what might happen if the deal is passed. I think that he should get behind the deal and support it, because we would then secure the implementation period that would provide certainty to businesses and citizens in this country while we negotiate the future relationship and ensure that it is put in place. It is certainly my aspiration to ensure that that is done before the end of the implementation period.

The European Union has known for some considerable time that we are going to have this vital vote tomorrow. Supposing it actually does offer to pull a rabbit out of the hat sometime late tonight, what would that say about the bad faith in which it has been negotiating?

It is our determination to progress the negotiations in good faith, and we have done so throughout. I am sure that the European Union will want to show its good faith by meeting the concerns of this House.

Will the Minister acknowledge that tabling an amendment with Government support tomorrow to make support conditional on a not-yet-negotiated agreement would fulfil neither the letter nor the spirit of the Prime Minister’s promise?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman should await developments later today and see what the Government put forward tomorrow. I have been very clear that we absolutely stand by the Prime Minister’s commitments on the meaningful vote and on what follows.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and congratulate him and his colleagues on getting the European Union to agree to set up a taskforce or workstream to work up the Malthouse compromise proposals. Will he commit to getting those into the legally binding text, so that there will be an implementation date that is fixed for the future?

I know that my right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience in these issues. The alternative arrangements have been a crucial part of this conversation, and they will continue to play an important part in our negotiations. We are seeking legally binding changes.

Does the Minister care at all about the real impact of his Government’s utter incompetence on real people? In my constituency, American Express, the biggest private sector employer, is deeply concerned about recruitment problems because of his recklessness. Will he answer a very simple question? Will he himself vote against no deal if the Prime Minister’s deal is lost tomorrow?

I want to take the first opportunity to vote against no deal by voting for the deal in a meaningful vote. That is the best way to secure the absence of no deal and to secure the interests of this country.

The Minister has arrived at the big time and he is doing well. He has told the House that the Attorney General will publish any revised legal advice before the House sits tomorrow, which I am sure the whole House will welcome for obvious reasons. With regard to the motion that we might then have to vote on, will we get sight of it tonight, or will it be placed in the public domain only when the Order Paper is published electronically in the small hours of the morning?

My right hon. Friend asks an important question. The Government will bring forward the motion as soon as we possibly can, but I cannot necessarily guarantee the precise timing given that the negotiations are still ongoing.

Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 says that the vote must be on “the negotiated withdrawal agreement”. Does the Minister accept that a vote tomorrow on anything other than that would not count as the second meaningful vote and would not fulfil the Prime Minister’s promise of 22 February, when she said that

“we will hold a second meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March at the latest”?—[Official Report, 26 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 166.]

I can only reiterate what I have already said, which is that we will be holding the meaningful vote tomorrow. Of course, exactly what is brought forward by the Government will depend on the outcome of the negotiations, which are still ongoing.

With regard to the legal changes required to the withdrawal agreement, this House voted for the entire removal of the backstop. Does it not strike my hon. Friend as incongruous at the very least that it is harder to the leave the backstop than it is to leave the EU under article 50?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, as always. The Government have heard loudly and clearly this House’s concerns about the backstop, and they are what the negotiations are to address. I am confident and hopeful that we will come forward tomorrow with something that will allow even him to support the Government’s deal.

Given the mess that the UK Government are in at this eleventh hour, does the Minister think that his boss—the real Prime Minister—will ultimately be grateful for the ruling secured by myself and other Scottish parliamentarians from the Court of Justice in Luxembourg that article 50 can be unilaterally revoked and that there is a way out of this mess for the United Kingdom?

I simply say to the hon. and learned Lady that the way forward for the United Kingdom is to agree a deal and to leave the EU with a deal.

If the withdrawal agreement is defeated and this House assents to leave the EU without a deal following the votes this week, does my hon. Friend agree that there will be a whole series of permissions and protocols that we will need the EU to agree to in order to manage that situation? In those circumstances, why would the EU not turn around and make the obligations within the withdrawal agreement a prerequisite to it agreeing to any of the things that we need from it?

My right hon. Friend asks an interesting hypothetical question, but the best thing that we can do this week is to secure a deal that this House can support and then get it through the House so that we can avoid such eventualities and speculations.

May I press the Minister on the timing of the motion for tomorrow? For those of us wishing to speak in the debate, it would be particularly helpful to have the text of the motion so that we know exactly on what we are going to be voting. Will he please put it out by 5 o’clock today?

The hon. Lady sets a deadline to which I cannot commit, but the Government will bring forward the motion as soon as we can based on the outcome of the negotiations, which are ongoing.

The Government are formally seeking a legally binding text on the Malthouse compromise as an alternative to the backstop, aren’t they?

My right hon. Friend is as pithy as always. I can confirm that the Government are seeking legally binding changes to address the House’s concerns about the backstop.