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House of Commons Hansard
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Westminster Hall
20 June 2019
Volume 662

Westminster Hall

Thursday 20 June 2019

[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

Sudan

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the political situation in Sudan.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I have put in for a debate on this subject on a number of occasions. I was getting a bit despondent that I had not secured one, given the depth of the crisis in Sudan, so I was pleased that the unusual channels managed to find space for one. I hope everyone present contributes. I do not intend to say much; rather, I intend to ask a series of questions of the Government, and I hope we can move forward on what we should be doing.

I went to Sudan in September with the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). We had some inkling that problems may be afoot, but I do not think any of us anticipated how bad things would become. That is why I am pleased that we can at the very least debate the issue today. It is such a tragic situation.

My interest in Sudan goes back a long time. I have visited the country four times. I was always interested in the religious aspect of the conflict before the country split. We now have two elements to Sudan: the situation in South Sudan does not quite mirror what has happened in the north, but that country has its own problems. Perhaps we will discuss them on another occasion.

The Library produced an excellent briefing for the debate. For hon. Members who do not know, those briefings are always published online. It gives as good a summary of the background as is possible in three pages. I will not go through it, except to say that when Bashir was removed in April, some of us feared that there would at the very least be a vacuum, which would be filled by someone else, who would not necessarily be any better.

I welcome the Minister, and I look forward to hearing what she has to say. I also welcome the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan and South Sudan with great alacrity. We are here to ensure that we do what I have always pledged to do when I have met the Sudanese: not to forget the situation in Sudan. They often feel that their crises, while not belittled, are given a secondary level of interest because of all the other things going on in our world.

Sadly, following the removal of Bashir, violence broke out on the streets of Khartoum at the start of June, and what is happening in other parts of the country will be as bad as, if not worse than, whatever is going on in Khartoum. I will mention later what my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton and I found on our visit to Darfur.

We will keep our eyes very much on what is happening. We will not let the atrocities escape our notice. I hope that, in due course, we will have got a bit more stability into the country and that the Government will take appropriate action with international colleagues to deal with those responsible for the worst aspects of those atrocities. I will talk later about my discussions with the diaspora. I hope the Minister is able to respond to the things they have to say—I am only their mouthpiece—and to the things I ask of the Government.

The EU has taken a strong stance on what has been happening in Sudan, but we must understand that the situation will not be sorted out quickly. The African Union has made its own representations to try to bring about peace. Egypt, because of its relationship with Sudan, has expressed concern, and it was good that the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, visited in an attempt to mediate between the Transitional Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change, which seem to be the two sides most engaged in what is going on. Sadly, as a result of that, some FFC people were arrested, and at least one has been thrown out of the country. That is not exactly helping the dialogue.

I am concerned about the relationship between Sudan and the United Arab Emirates and particularly Saudi Arabia. For those who do not know, most of the fighting in Yemen is being done by Sudanese Rapid Support Forces, which we would call Janjaweed. That has added to the escalation of the troubles on the streets of Khartoum. At a time when the UK Government are being called to account for their own arms shipment arrangements with the Saudis, it is apposite that we recognise that we must put pressure on the Saudis, who hold the ring with respect to the arrangements by which the Transitional Military Council—the Government, if we can call it a Government—currently holds power. I hope the Minister says a little about that.

I will ask a series of questions of the Minister and then finish with what the diaspora have to say, which is very important. We have many thousands of Sudanese in this country, who are at the very least intensely worried about what is happening to their families and friends and who want, for reasons we know, a new Sudan to come out of the current situation.

The UK Government have made clear public statements condemning the way events have evolved. Our brave ambassador has been called in at least once to be dressed down by the Sudanese regime. Having known that regime for many years, I know that is not a good experience, so I pass on my thanks to him. It is important that we put on the record that the Government believe the Transitional Military Council, and in particular Hemeti, who seems to have taken control, is responsible for what is happening and will pay the price. We should use all diplomatic means to ensure that, in due course, there is a proper transfer of power from the Transitional Military Council.

I take the word “transitional” to mean that this is not another Bashir regime in the making, but something that will genuinely begin to govern Sudan in the way it should be governed. The new Government have to recognise the diversity of the people of Sudan, including women and younger people. I have hope for Sudan because I know from talking to younger people that they believe there is a different world out there. They believe something could be done to bring the country forward into the 21st century. Sadly, too often, they are disappointed.

We should lead efforts at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and we must ensure, as a member of the Security Council, that Sudan is properly held to account through international mechanisms. I would say that even if it were not for the current difficulties in Sudan. I have said before to the Minister—she will not be surprised to hear this—that I hope she talks to the Home Office to ensure there are no deportations to anywhere in Sudan. There should have been no deportations anyway to Darfur, because of the ongoing problems there. It is important that people here and people there know that we recognise that the situation is so dire that we cannot send anyone back to that bedevilled country at the moment.

Because of the UK’s relationship with the other members of the troika—the US and Norway—it has a key role to play in making sure that the diplomatic effort is stepped up and that we bring the different parties together, which must include a real effort to de-escalate what is happening on the streets. We must condemn all state and pseudo-state armed actors, particularly the paramilitary groups—whether we call them Janjaweed or RSF—and individual militias, which have sadly always played a part in Sudan.

The eyes of the world are on Khartoum, but I fear that problems may break out again in Darfur. The Minister kindly said that the British Government are committed not to draw down further the numbers of military and police there, but we must keep our eyes on the situation, because if it explodes again, it would be catastrophic. I would be grateful if the Minister said that we were categorically committed to that, and that we welcomed the others that provide the numbers—mainly African Union players now—keeping to their side of the bargain to make sure we do not reduce the numbers anymore.

We must also make sure that no one can escape here. One aspect of trying to control how certain people have behaved and of holding them to account is freezing their assets and dealing with them through unexplained wealth orders and repatriation. We have a history of certain people visiting for health treatment, which does not go down well with people who know enough about what they have done in the past. That takes me to the International Criminal Court. Bashir is cited, but it is no good just citing these people; we have to follow that with action, which must include other people who have perpetrated violence in Sudan.

The British Government have to explain to the Government of Sudan, as far as they exist, that they have to keep their obligations under international law and that any transgression of it will be punished. I am not in favour of disengagement—it is important that we keep our ambassador there—but they have to understand that they are accountable for what they have done, including the way they are imprisoning people, the aspects of completely out-of-control behaviour by some militias on the streets, and the torture. Sudan is notorious for ghost houses. We need to know that people are not being tortured as a matter of course. I hope that we will follow that up and deal with it subsequently.

We must uphold international law on all the conventions on torture and any other inhuman or degrading treatment. That dovetails with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which should hold a rule 112 hearing on the implementation of cases that have been brought to light at the 65th ordinary session in Banjul, Gambia.

I will finish with a few comments from the diaspora, who are clearly desperately worried. There are thousands of Sudanese people in this country. We have to remember that, at one time, one in five refugees was Sudanese—that is what comes from 50 years of civil war. Clearly, refugee numbers from other parts of the world have grown, but there are still an awful lot of Sudanese people trying to get out of that country or already here.

The diaspora are adamant that they want a full international investigation into what happened on 3 June and subsequently. They want to make sure that the Government are not in any way fuelling the problem by finding ways to get money through to the regime. I made a Channel 4 programme—it has not yet been broadcast, so I do not want to spike its news—that discovered that the EU moneys that have been going into force protection and border controls have found their way to Janjaweed, because it has been doing some of that work. We need an investigation to make sure that those moneys have stopped.

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I have an interest in Sudan, in so far as when I was a young boy living in Aden, my nurse came from there, and I have a great deal of affection for her still. In my experience, the problem with aid is that it needs to be supervised all the way down. When we give money or goods to somewhere such as Sudan, the only way to guarantee its effectiveness is to have someone on the ground watching it being distributed at the point of delivery. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

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I do, and that is the allegation about some of the EU money. We wanted to stop the flow of migration, but this is a case of out of sight, out of mind, so we have not taken much notice of how these things have been done. If that money has found its way to the RSF, we should do something about that immediately. It is shameful, because that is not what the money was for.

The diaspora have also made it clear that they do not want any further cuts to the money going to UNAMID—the United Nations-African Union hybrid operation in Darfur. They would like access to the potential international mediation talks on 25 June in Berlin for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has been a leading body in the Forces of Freedom and Change and has been instrumental in holding the Government to account. They also think it is important not to cut diplomatic ties, but they want to make it clear through our condemnations that people who have perpetrated the violence, and worse, will be held to account. That means that the RSF should be disarmed and removed from the streets of Sudan immediately.

It is important that we play our part. Britain is a key player in Sudan. We cannot ignore our past—it was a British colony. More than anything, however, because of our relationship with the troika—the Americans and the Norwegians—the Sudanese people look to us to provide leadership to make sure that what is happening is not ignored and is given the correct priority, and that peace is brought to that bedevilled country. That will not be done easily—we have taken 50 years so far, unsuccessfully—but there is hope. We have to make sure that we put pressure on the transgressors and that we follow it through. We have done that in the past, but we must be even keener now to ensure that our obligations are fulfilled.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), who, as the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group, has been indefatigable in his support of Sudan and South Sudan. I declare my interests, particularly as the chair of the APPG.

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, because when General Omar al-Bashir finally departed on 11 April, there was a great deal of hope and rejoicing. It was a remarkable event, because it marked the end of 30 years of brutal dictatorship. During that time, huge misery was heaped on Sudan; appalling crimes against humanity were committed in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile; and there was the secession of South Sudan.

Incidentally, we should not forget the plight of South Sudan, where little progress has been made on the peace process. Some 60% of the population does not have food security. Of a population of 12 million, 2.2 million are refugees and 1.9 million are internally displaced people. Since 2013, 100 humanitarian aid workers have been killed there.

The removal of President General Omar al-Bashir was an extraordinary event. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, there were high hopes for the future at the time, and there have been a number of positive developments and trends. In some ways, the uprising was one of the most progressive in the region. The Forces of Freedom and Change, which some people call the alliance, and the Sudanese Professionals Association combined management organisations, workers’ organisations and trade unions—not that there are trade unions in that country as we know them here—and also managed to bring in a number of the more liberal Muslim groups. Crucially, unlike in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Sudan’s Islamic fundamentalists were kept out of it.

One of key characteristics of the demonstration was that the demonstrators were determined to keep them as peaceful as possible at all times. After seeing the General deposed, they rightly did not want to leave the squares and areas around public buildings empty; they wanted to continue occupying them. That appeared to be working, and there was ongoing dialogue with the Transitional Military Council under Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. A lot of us at the time were quietly optimistic that progress would be made, but then the appalling events of 3 June happened, when the Transitional Military Council used total brutality and force on unarmed, innocent protesters who were sitting in and doing nothing but peacefully protesting for the future. Well over 100 were killed, and a number of key people were arrested, including SPLM-N leaders Ismail Jalab, Yasir Arman and Mubarak Ardol.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Stroud about the role of the Rapid Support Forces. The former Janjaweed militia, under Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is now the deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, has brutalised people on the streets, and we understand that it has used rape as a method of putting down demonstrations. Reprehensibly, some soldiers are preventing medical staff from going into hospitals.

All that is very depressing and, in some ways, unexpected. We must look at the international response, as the hon. Member for Stroud has done. I agree that the EU has been very strong and powerful in its condemnation. I would like to see more coming out of the UN. One of the problems is that if a more robust and direct resolution is drafted, the danger is that it will be vetoed by either China or Russia. I ask the Minister to tell us what more can be done within the UN. One of the strongest messages that the UK can send is that there can be absolutely no impunity or any form of amnesty for the people in the Transitional Military Council who have committed crimes against humanity and crimes against innocent people. Any indication that those wretched crimes will be swept under the carpet will only encourage the TMC to carry on with its current attitude, which is improving somewhat but there is still a long way to go.

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I thank my hon. Friend for letting me intervene. It is crucial that the International Criminal Court now takes more of an interest in what is happening in Sudan and South Sudan. It has the capability to investigate, and we should put the Government of Sudan on notice that if they do not take action, which is their first duty when war crimes have been committed, the International Criminal Court will come knocking at some stage—albeit in 10 or 20 years’ time.

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I certainly agree. There can be no question of General Omar al-Bashir escaping those charges in the ICC. There needs to be an ICC investigation into the crimes that took place in early June. It is absolutely essential that that happens.

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All of them—not just June.

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Exactly. Of course, General Omar al-Bashir has committed crimes in the past in Darfur and elsewhere. The crimes committed by the Rapid Support Forces and the TMC very recently must be fully investigated. I would be grateful if the Minister can comment on that point, but it seems that UK has significant influence over that, particularly through our position in the UN.

As far as the regional players are concerned, I was—like the hon. Member for Stroud—encouraged that the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, recently visited Khartoum and had discussions with the TMC. There is quite a lot of evidence that the pressure from the international community is changing the attitude of the Gulf states that were fairly equivocal towards Sudan. The latest news is actually fairly encouraging. The protesters have agreed to end their campaign of civil disobedience and resume talks, so we are at a pivotal point. That is why it is absolutely essential that the troika put maximum pressure on the TMC and use the threats that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham referred to. This is an absolutely vital moment for states in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to put pressure on the Transitional Military Council to ensure that if the protesters end their campaign of civil disobedience, as appears to be happening, talks take place immediately. The protesters should end the campaign only if the TMC acts in good faith and enters into dialogue.

There is a great deal at stake for the people of Sudan, who have suffered so much for so long, for the region, given the strategic importance of Sudan in the horn of Africa, and for the UK. We have a historical duty to Sudan, and we must ensure that, if the country can move forward in a democratic direction, its huge potential is exploited and made the most of. The prospects for enhanced trade and building ever greater links between the UK, the diaspora here and Sudan, are limitless. Furthermore, we are obviously very involved in the Khartoum process, which is looking at the refugee crisis in the Sahel and the Maghreb. If this tragedy and disaster is not solved quickly, the refugee crisis will get worse.

Given the country’s tumultuous history and the tragedy since independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule 60 years ago, it is easy to be cautious and pessimistic, but I have always been a glass-half-full person. In my visits to Sudan, I have always been impressed by the optimism and the sense of aspiration among the Sudanese people. That has always struck me as being one of the great features of that country. As we waited patiently for the dictatorial rule of General Bashir to come to an end, that optimism increased.

I will end with a quote from someone many of us know quite well—Alex de Waal, who is a long-time Africa expert. He said that Sudan

“is poised between an inspirational transformation and dangerous disorder.”

Let us hope that, with the Minister’s help and the help of all the other agencies and organisations involved, it will indeed be the former—above all, for the sake of the Sudanese people.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and to follow the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), who chairs the all-party group for Sudan and South Sudan so well. He has demonstrated his great knowledge of that part of the world and his staunch commitment to continuing to shine a light on what is going on in Sudan. We must make it clear, through our voice in this place, that we support the Minister and the shadow Minister in their work to bring about improvements through the leadership that the United Kingdom has always been able to provide in the world. Sudan needs the United Kingdom’s leadership at this time, in this matter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew); his great knowledge of that part of the world shone through his remarks. He cares deeply, and his concerns about what is happening in Sudan, how the situation affects the diaspora living here, and the threats it is creating for neighbouring countries, are important.

I am afraid I do not have the knowledge or expertise of the hon. Members who have already spoken and said so much. The hon. Member for North West Norfolk was right when he said that when these disturbances began in December, around bread and grain shortages, and gathered pace to become a more general expression of dissatisfaction about the need for this regime to come to an end and to move on to a new chapter, there was a sense of optimism in the world, and among friends of Sudan who saw what was going on. Sadly, on 3 June, when peaceful protesters were killed in Khartoum and the images broadcast across the world, that initial hope was dashed.

We have continued to receive reports of the military killing unarmed people in hospitals and elsewhere, and shocking reports of other dreadful things taking place. It was right for the African Union to cut off all activities with Sudan following the extreme bloodshed, demonstrating its clear position. It is good that the pressure from the United Kingdom, the United States and others, and the clear voice of the EU have led some Gulf states to soften their behaviours since their initial reaction.

It is a very difficult situation at the moment. As both my colleagues have said, everyone who knows Sudan well remains hopeful about what is going on with civic society, and about what is going on with younger people, but there is a need to provide the opportunity for that hope to thrive. As has been said, it is important that it is made very clear that the people responsible for what is happening at the moment will be held to account by the international community, and that the temporary Transitional Military Council should be exactly that—transitional—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said. There should be a clear path to proper democracy and order in government, in which the people of Sudan can have confidence.

It is a troubled region. Darfur is synonymous with awful historical events and we do not want that awfulness to return. Leadership from all of us, working together, is needed to support the UK Government to provide leadership through the Troika, the United Nations and the EU. The United Kingdom has a pivotal position. I look forward to what the Minister and the shadow Minister have to say about how we move forward, building on the strong, unified messages that have already been coming across the political landscape in the UK. I hope those messages are being well heard in Sudan, and that we can take the necessary steps forward to help that troubled country to a better future—the future it deserves.

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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) for securing this important debate.

The SNP would like to see a multilateral approach to this issue, where we can work with colleagues in the European Union and the African Union. It is an exceptionally distressing conflict situation, as other Members have rightly highlighted. There are incredibly worrying reports of civilians being killed, and, as the chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), highlighted, there are also reports of sexual violence being used as a tool of war.

Those responsible must be held to account; that includes the militias. As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) pointed out, even if they are not held accountable tomorrow, the day after or even the month after, they need to know that they will be held accountable. He was right to say that; I recognise the work that he has done and his track record in helping to ensure that people are brought to justice for heinous crimes, even years afterwards. The international community does not, and should not, go away just because these things have disappeared from the front pages of the newspapers or are no longer being debated in Parliament.

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I intervene on my friend because if 100 civilians had been killed in a European country there would be one hell of a row about it. Although people here, such as my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), and the Opposition speakers are raising this issue, there are not many people here today. That is sad, because what has happened is something approaching genocide. We have not even touched on some of the other issues, such as the persecution of Christians.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman; as usual he raises an incredibly important point that, given his experiences and his track record, has particular resonance. I pay credit to him. As I have said to him, I was a great admirer of his before I came to Parliament because of his work on this. I acknowledge that we may disagree on an issue or two, but I pay credit to the work he has done, and continues to do, in pursuing these issues.

Years from now, we will continue that work and accountability will be key. I know that in her remarks the Minister will reaffirm our utter steadfastness in defending human rights, along with our partners in the African Union and the European Union. I add my words to those of the hon. Member for Beckenham in expressing my thanks to the UK ambassador to Sudan and members of staff in the embassy in Khartoum, who have an extraordinarily difficult job and who are carrying out their duties in a brave and dignified fashion. I hope the Minister will pass on that message from me and other Members.

In terms of the UK Government’s own powers, I hope the Minister will continue to make clear statements of condemnation about militias like the Janjaweed and make it clear that although militias appear to be involved in the Transitional Military Council, the council will bear full responsibility for the actions of the militias, as well as their own army. That is a lesson taken from other conflict situations.

I am not sure whether the Minister is able to touch on issues about misinformation; there are concerns about it and we have seen it deployed as a tactic elsewhere in the world. Will she and her Department look at instances of misinformation and how we can counter them? Ensuring that there is a true and accurate reflection of what is going on is important for accountability, but also for our own policy making and making sure that we respond in an appropriate manner. Misinformation is appearing increasingly often throughout the world.

I add my support for the argument that inclusion must be at the heart of any transfer of powers, and I hope that the UK will pursue it, but I also add my voice to those saying that we must halt the deportations to Sudan. I know it is a Home Office issue, but will the Minister pass on that message from this debate? The deportations must be halted; it is not appropriate, and especially now, on World Refugee Day of all days, it is fitting to stress that again. Can we also learn from mistakes elsewhere—as we have learned in Myanmar, for example—that sufficient time and capacity must be given to any transfer to a democracy, along with de-escalation work? That takes investment and it takes more time.

I thank the chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk, for his reference to the situation in South Sudan, which is also incredibly important. I pay tribute to non-governmental organisations from across the United Kingdom that are working in both South Sudan and Sudan in very difficult circumstances. I know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development try to support them, but I wonder whether there is any additional support or capacity building with those NGOs. I hope that colleagues will not mind if I thank in particular Ian Macaulay and the Church of Scotland for their fantastic work across Sudan and South Sudan.

Finally, what interventions does the Foreign Office plan to make with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over their links with and influence over the militias and the Transitional Military Council? What conversations have been had with those countries? If they have the influence that has been reported, we need to have some pretty tough conversations with them, to say that we are paying attention and that what is happening is unacceptable. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and I particularly thank the hon. Member for Stroud for bringing this debate to Parliament.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Dame Cheryl.

I thank everybody who has made a contribution to the debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew). He spoke about the delegation to Sudan that he and I took part in last year, and he is right to say that we had an idea of the problems that were brewing at the time. President Bashir had been selected as the candidate for the next elections; there was a feeling in the country that, while there were issues, he had brought stability to the country. There was a strong feeling that he was the candidate—with serious reservations. We had many meetings with politicians in Sudan, and that thread ran through all our discussions. But as my hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, none of us quite anticipated the scale of the current crisis. I think of the relative calm we encountered in September last year, and the protests and killings that have taken place since in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan. Everybody has talked about the difficulties of accessing information from Sudan. The news we have had does not cover the whole story, and I will go on to talk about press freedom later in my remarks.

I thank all hon. Members who have spoken—the chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), who is a fount of knowledge on Sudan and South Sudan, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), who made some pertinent points. He put one question to the Minister that I would also like to ask, about calling a halt to deportations to Sudan in the midst of the current crisis. I would be interested to hear from the Minister in her closing remarks whether she has had any discussions with the Home Office on that issue. It is vital that we do not send people back to a conflict zone.

Many MPs with Sudanese diasporas in their constituencies have approached me in the past few weeks, bringing messages from their constituents and asking me why we are not talking more about Sudan. I am therefore grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud secured this important debate, and there was also an urgent question last week. However, although it is important that we have these debates, talking on its own is not enough. What we need is action, and with that in mind I have several asks of the Minister, which I hope she will be able to address.

The first thing I want to ask the Minister is what we can do to put pressure on the internet providers in Sudan. I have already mentioned the difficulties we have in getting information out of Sudan, and one problem is that the internet providers have shut down the internet, or have been shut down by the Sudanese authorities. The major providers are the South African company MTN and a Kuwaiti company. It is unlikely that the UK can do much about them, but, nevertheless, I would be interested to hear what action the Foreign Office is taking to try at least to restore internet access to the people of Sudan.

There is also the important issue of press freedom—I know it is an issue dear to the Foreign Secretary’s heart, because he is holding a conference on it next month. Sudanese journalists have been targeted since the public protests began. Their media accreditations have been revoked, and many journalists have been detained. The International Federation of Journalists has joined its affiliate, the Sudanese Journalists Union, in condemning any attempts to intimidate the press. The IFJ is urging the authorities to end the clampdown and respect journalists’ rights to report in a safe working environment.

In May, the Sudanese authorities closed al-Jazeera’s offices in Khartoum and withdrew the work permits of all its staff. Again, the IFJ and the Federation of African Journalists have condemned the move as an attack on freedom of information and called for an immediate end to the clampdown on the media. Given the Foreign Secretary’s major and important work on press freedom, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on how the UK intends to support press freedom in Sudan, which is vital.

It has been noted already that the Ethiopian Prime Minister has tried to mediate; sadly, one result was that some of the opposition politicians he spoke to were then imprisoned. It is important to note that, while the Ethiopian position is that Sudan should move to any civilian Government, many people, including many members of the Sudanese diaspora, would prefer groups that are already in the Forces of Freedom and Change and not Islamist or unheard-of groups. I would be interested to the Minister’s thoughts on that and on whether it should be UK foreign policy to support groups from the Forces of Freedom and Change.

The African Union has quite rightly suspended Sudan’s membership until a civilian-led transitional authority has been established. We need to place further pressure on the Transitional Military Council to continue the political transition. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is right to raise the UK’s important role as part of the troika, and it is vital that we use our influence there.

We need an internationally led independent investigation into the recent events. We need an investigation into the killings, the rapes and the injuries inflicted on innocent, peaceful protestors. Britain must recognise its historical duty to Sudan and play a key part in enabling that.

I want to make a few remarks about UK aid. My hon. Friend raised the issue of EU moneys finding their way to the RSF, but I will concentrate on DFID moneys. We will provide £65 million of aid in 2018-19 and £50 million in 2019-20, the majority of which will go on humanitarian assistance and development work. However, given the current crisis, has the Minister given any thought to increasing or redirecting UK aid, and will she make aid conditional on achieving a peaceful transition to a civilian Government?

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North East Fife both talked about the bravery of the UK ambassador, and I support those remarks. He provides people with support, and it is vital that we keep up that vital diplomatic role in Sudan.

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On bravery, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) raised the issue of the number of casualties among non-governmental organisation workers. My wife was a delegate in South Sudan and was actually taken hostage for three weeks, so I am speaking out of self-interest here. The people who operate for non-governmental organisations in Sudan and South Sudan put their lives at risk all the time, because they are incredibly brave. We should mark that point. I am in awe of some of those I have met.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to comment on the bravery of people who work for our NGOs, including his wife, who I have had the pleasure of meeting. She is an indomitable woman. We had a debate here a while ago on South Sudan, and my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe talked about South Sudan being the most dangerous place in the world for aid workers—in our discussion on Sudan, we must not forget the work that goes on in South Sudan as well. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that timely intervention.

I agree with the chair of the all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk, that we need more action and a strong resolution from the UN. We are grateful to the UN for halting the drawdown of UNAMID. When my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and I were in Sudan, we visited Darfur and spoke to people involved in UNAMID, the police and the military, who told us their concerns about the drawdown, but this crisis has necessitated the UN’s keeping UNAMID as it is. Rather than a policy of no further drawdown, does the Minister think we should engage in talks about increasing UNAMID’s presence? I am interested to hear her thoughts on that.

The two final points I want to make are on the involvement of the ICC and the investigation of war crimes, which I think have been mentioned by everybody who has spoken. We absolutely have to hold the TMC to account for what has happened in recent months. There are also the outstanding ICC charges against President Bashir for war crimes and human rights abuses. All these issues need to be investigated, and we in the UK should put pressure on Sudan to ensure that those investigations take place.

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For the last, I think, 10 years, General Omar al-Bashir has avoided travel to countries where he might be arrested, having been indicted for war crimes by the ICC. Now is surely the time when he must be taken to The Hague to face those serious charges regarding crimes against humanity.

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I entirely agree. This situation has been allowed to sit in limbo for far too long. It is a matter of international law that President Bashir should face up to the charges against him.

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As soon as possible.

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Yes.

Finally, I want to press the Minister on UK attempts to strike trade deals with Sudan, which I raised with her last week. I would also be grateful if she could comment on our current approach to trade with Sudan. Given the current political crisis, I am really interested to hear her view on potential trading relationships and on whether we will see a change of view from the current Foreign Secretary, given that his predecessor was very keen to hold UK-Sudan trade and investment forum talks in December 2017.

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It is an absolute honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, particularly while you are having such a busy and prominent role on national television. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) on securing the debate and on showing the importance of persistence when applying for these things.

What has come through loud and clear, through the participation of so many members of the all-party parliamentary group, is that the British people and the British Parliament have certainly not in any way forgotten this crisis. We will continue to play close attention, both through our diplomatic networks but also as parliamentarians, to the situation in Sudan. We stand with the Sudanese people and their desire to move from 30 years under the military rule of President Bashir to a brighter future under civilian-led government.

It is been an historic year for that transition. If someone had said to me when the shadow Minister and I visited that there would be a popular uprising and that Bashir would be gone at this point, I think we would all have found it very difficult to believe, but it has happened. As a number of Members noted, the situation in Sudan is incredibly fragile. It does not have the strength of the democratic institutions that we have here. Clearly, the talks between the Transitional Military Council and the protestors represented by the Forces of Freedom and Change have been fraught and require a certain amount of external pressure and mediation to make sure that they continue to progress.

The quality of the debate raised a range of important points, which I will try to tackle. A number of them were common points. There was common acknowledgement that we value the strength of the diaspora here in the UK and those people-to-people links. We all send our great respect to our ambassador in Khartoum and his team, who have twice had to draw down to essential staff only and are working under difficult circumstances. I certainly have great pleasure in passing that on from parliamentarians. There was also a request that the UK continue, in all the different international forums in which we participate, to use our diplomatic connections to make sure that we not only keep this at the forefront of international forums but that we try to unite the international messaging around a common position. That is important.

We have been playing that role, whether on Monday, when I was at the EU Foreign Affairs Council or in our ongoing discussions with representatives from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or with other friends of Sudan. Importantly, we row in behind our friends in the African Union and the initiative shown by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, always remembering how important it is that we send a unified and coherent message at every diplomatic opportunity. That has been more challenging in the context of the United Nations Security Council, where we have been able to get a statement issued, but probably not as strong as the one that we would have wanted to put out on our own. We will also, at next week’s United Nations Human Rights Council, be able to lead a discussion; we are giving leadership on that as well. The UK has in a range of ways been trying to ensure that the diplomatic community and the international community are sending a common message, and I can assure colleagues that we will continue to use every single one of those opportunities.

A number of different points were raised by hon. Members. On the important point about returns, we have been in contact with colleagues at the Home Office. I can tell the House that the Government’s published statistics for the year up to the end of March 2019 show six returns in total, for non-asylum cases and asylum cases. The Home Office recognises that the human rights situation is very difficult in Sudan. In the first quarter of 2019, three quarters of the people claiming to be Sudanese asylum seekers were granted protection. All asylum claims made by Sudanese nationals in the UK are considered on their individual merits against relevant case law and up-to-date country information.

A number of colleagues raised the important question of overseas development assistance and whether any of that is inadvertently supporting the Government or Transitional Military Council, or finding its way to the Rapid Support Forces. I can assure colleagues that last December I took the decision to suspend some of the work that we were doing, after a full look at some of the economic support work that we were proposing to take forward in terms of the Government. On the EU’s work specifically in relation to the regional operations centre in Khartoum, which is funded by EU funds and obviously therefore has a 15% contribution from the UK, I can inform colleagues that as a consequence of recent events, EU-funded work on the regional operations centre is currently suspended. That suspension lasts until the end of this week. There will be a decision tomorrow on a resumption of activities; that will take place after tomorrow’s management board, but I cannot see that anyone will argue for a resumption in the current situation. There are often reports that the UK, via the EU, funds the Rapid Support Forces, but I can assure colleagues that that is not the case. The question of misinformation came up, and I think it is always important to be factual on these things.

I think that accountability was mentioned by everyone in the debate—by the hon. Member for Stroud, by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) in his intervention and by the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). We would encourage the Sudanese people to retain and preserve evidence to enable future investigations to take place. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is looking to draw on recent experience in other countries—for example, Syria and Myanmar—to see whether it applies in this instance, so I would encourage people to retain evidence for future investigations.

The latest UN reporting on violence in Darfur is the statement made on 17 June by the humanitarian co-ordinator in Sudan. The main points are reports of intercommunal violence in various Darfur states, including recent clashes in Deleij, which left 17 people dead and 100 dwellings destroyed; and calls for the Transitional Military Council to ensure access for humanitarian supplies and timely facilitation of administrative procedures for entry of aid workers into Sudan and internal travel within it. That statement was published. There is also, should people wish to download it, an emergency flash update, dated 12 June, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That is helpful information. I want to reassure colleagues that the UK’s humanitarian assistance is delivered through organisations such as the World Food Programme and other UN bodies.

A range of colleagues asked about current UNAMID troop numbers. After the technical roll-over, which we hope will be adopted on 27 June, there will be 4,375 troops in UNAMID. That is 325 above the mandated ceiling, as the mission has been unable to undertake some planned team site closures because of the issue with the Rapid Support Forces. It is important for colleagues to understand that although I have set out the UK’s position very clearly on a number of occasions, that roll-over has not yet been agreed.

On the question about media freedom and the bravery of journalists—bravery that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is rightly putting at the forefront of next month’s conference—I can update colleagues. Since President Bashir’s removal on 11 April, the BBC has had access to Khartoum and has been able to broadcast its morning programme from there. BBC Arabic TV and radio are quite widely available via satellite, but since 2010 the BBC has been banned from broadcasting on FM radio. Our ambassador has for some time been lobbying the information Ministry for restored access. I concur with the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, that there is a long way to go to a free media in Sudan.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, a clear path is what is needed. This will clearly be a long road; it is not something that can be switched on overnight. Donor countries such as ours, working with like-minded countries, can set out a path, which will have conditions attached in relation to progress. There is huge potential for the Sudanese economy should that transition path be followed and should things evolve. There is enormous potential for us as a member of the international community, working with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, other like-minded countries, EU development assistance and some of our own bilateral funding, not only to step up the humanitarian assistance—bearing in mind how widespread food insecurity is in Sudan—but to make the long-term inward investments that will be needed for that economy to prosper. Although we are not currently able to move forward on trade deals—clearly, there is no trade deal with the EU because the Cotonou conditions were never met—I think the sincere hope of everyone here is that the transition to a civilian-led Government will include our being able to engage more deeply at an economic level.

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I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is already on this one, but in Sudan and South Sudan, there is quite a lot of religious persecution. I hope that the Foreign Office is keeping an eye on that as well as, of course, racism between tribes. We think racism is just in Europe, but there is a heck of a lot of racism between tribes in Africa. But I am particularly concerned about Christians; there is quite a lot of persecution of Christians, still, in Sudan and in South Sudan.

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My hon. and gallant Friend is right to raise that matter. He will be aware that the Foreign Secretary has put freedom of religion and belief at the heart of our work, which is led by the Bishop of Truro, who has visited recently, as has Lord Ahmad, who leads the ministerial team on this work. My hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right that we benefit from a tolerant, multi-faith and multi-ethnic society in the UK, and we encourage other countries to move forward on that agenda.

The shadow Minister asked some sensible questions on internet access. There has been an 80% drop in connectivity—it has not been completely obliterated. There is some food for thought there about what we can do through the International Telecommunication Union. I will take that away and see whether we can do something internationally on that.

In conclusion, the political situation in Sudan is very difficult. We know it is extremely fragile. The transition from authoritarian rule to a civilian-led Government will be difficult. The UK will row in behind the legitimate demands of the Sudanese people for a better future for Sudan. Ensuring a swift, orderly and peaceful transition to civilian-led Government is an important priority. The UK will continue, as part of the troika, to work with our international partners, including the African Union-led initiatives and our friends in the European Union. We will use our seat at the United Nations Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council, and work with regional allies, to continue to further those objectives.

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Although we have not had great numbers, we have had a very thoughtful and comprehensive debate on Sudan. No doubt, we will have to revisit this matter. In conclusion, the role of the Americans cannot be underestimated. When we were there, we were always told that the Americans sent their heavy battalions to talk to the Sudanese when President Bashir was out of the country. Now that Bashir is no longer the key player, it is important that we directly address the new special envoy, Donald Booth, as well as Tibor Nagy, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

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Donald Booth is in town today, and I met with him earlier.

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That is good news from the horse’s mouth. It is important that we understand that the Americans may not have played the role of removing Bashir, but the impacts of the sanctions—remember that the country is still seen as a potential threat for terrorism—have brought the country to where it is. We need to lift the country to ensure that we, with the Americans and Norwegians, can bring some sort of ceasefire to the streets, and then we can move forward to a proper peace settlement.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the political situation in Sudan.

Sitting suspended.

Secondary Education: Raising Aspiration

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered raising aspiration in secondary education.

I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Sharma. I am not sure whether anything else is happening in the House today that means that Members might be otherwise engaged, but I am very pleased to have the opportunity to have this debate and to ask the Minister some questions about how the Government are addressing the issue of aspiration.

Aspiration is important to me. In my maiden speech on 24 June 2010, I told the House about a constituent whose only aspiration in life was for her child to receive the tenancy of her socially rented property. On the other side of my constituency, parents told me about their children—about how they were going to go to university, how they would certainly buy their own home in the local area and how they hoped to get married as well. That really illustrated to me the disparity in aspiration between different parts of my constituency and, I believe, across the country as a whole. I repeat today what I said in my maiden speech nine years ago: we live in one of the most prosperous cities in the western world, but there remain yawning chasms between the aspirations of some of the people I and other MPs represent and the aspirations of others. However, for some people, including Members of this place, aspiration is not that important—I will not take the number of Members here as a reflection of that, although I have to say to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), that I will take any interventions at any time he wishes to intervene on me.

The reason aspiration is not important to everyone is that some people are of the view that people are either born with a spirit of aspiration or have had it bought on their behalf. That view fosters an assumption that some people are born into this world with a natural capacity to lead, while everybody else does not have that capacity, and that nothing can therefore be done to change the situation.

I certainly do not agree with that view, but we have only to consider our recent record on Prime Ministers to see the strength of it. Only three of the last 11 British Prime Ministers have attended state secondary schools. In total, 28 Prime Ministers have been educated at Oxford University and 14 at Cambridge, and nine Prime Ministers were educated at Eton and Christ Church. John Major was the last Prime Minister not to have attended a university; overall, only nine British Prime Ministers did not graduate from university after leaving secondary education. I present those figures not as an attack on private education—I believe strongly in private education and anyone’s right to attend a private institution—but as an illustration that aspiration is imbued in some people.

People may know that tonight there is the premiere of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s biographical film “Farming”. It tells the story of how Adewale, who is Nigerian, was “farmed out” as a boy by his parents to a white British family in Dagenham, in the hope that he would have a better future than he might otherwise have had. When I heard that this morning on the radio, it illustrated to me that aspiration is affected by not only class and financial attainment but racial and nationality backgrounds.

However, I would go further. When I conducted my PhD research, I attempted to discover whether UK legislation was implemented consistently across different rural areas and, if not, how that affected social exclusion and particularly tackling the problem. The first criterion was objective, as the law is the law, but the issue of social exclusion is subjective in the eyes of decision makers. On many occasions, I was told things such as, “We don’t do things like that here”, “That is not something that would be part of our local economy” and “Access to higher education, certain public services, housing or financial attainment is difficult to achieve in places like this.”

Those views are borne out by the Department for Education’s own research. In its report “School and College-level Strategies to Raise Aspirations of High-achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to Pursue Higher Education”, which was published more than five years ago in January 2014, the DFE said:

“Prioritisation of aspiration-raising varies by geographical location, with London schools making this a particular priority…the difference appears to relate to the relatively high proportion of disadvantaged students in London schools and colleges as well as their close proximity to a large number of HEIs”—

higher education institutions—

“including selective or leading universities”.

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I am listening with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman is saying; he has spoken previously in the House on these issues and commanded my attention. Does he believe, as I do, that London is, of course, a great place, but it also has many cold spots as well as hot ones, and that is also true of coastal and rural areas and schools? As a Blackpool MP, one of the problems I have found over the years is that the overall statistics for a constituency might look great, but the cold spots, which are often difficult to address in policy terms, are also substantial.

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I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I will take this opportunity to say that my PhD—I am sure he has not read it—was about rural areas and coastal communities, which are very similar in terms of their ability not only to attract inward investment but to provide the kind of public services that many people want. I know well not only the coastline of his own constituency, but that further up the coast, around Cumbria, where I have also lived. There are some coastal communities in that part of the world—I look towards my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) as I say this—in places such as Flimby, where it is difficult to obtain access to not only employment but higher and indeed secondary education; in those kinds of places, gaining access is not as easy as it is in parts of London. I attribute that to issues such as the difficulty of attending schools or further education colleges because of their geographical location.

When I was preparing for this debate, George and Hilary in my office asked me what I meant by “aspiration”, and it is important that I set out what I mean. By “aspiration” I mean what a child or young person hopes to achieve for themselves in the future. In my mind, that is very different from educational attainment, although for people to achieve their aspirations—in particular, for young people to achieve their aspirations for careers and education and their financial aspirations—they need good educational outcomes. Consequently, I believe that raising aspiration incentivises improved educational attainment.

In an attempt to focus on what I would like the Government to direct their attention towards, I have identified three categories of interventions that I believe foster aspiration: first, interventions that focus on children’s parents and families; secondly, interventions that focus on teaching practice; and, thirdly, out-of-school interventions or extracurricular activities, sometimes involving peers or mentors. The approaches used in these interventions are particularly diverse. Some aim to change aspirations directly by exposing children to new opportunities, while others aim to raise aspirations by developing children’s general self-esteem, motivation or self-efficacy.

I spoke in a recent education funding debate about Copthall School in my constituency, which is for girls. Around 80% of the pupils speak English as a second language, and around half are entitled to free school meals or the pupil premium. The staff and governors are making a great effort to promote aspiration among their pupils, and I am enormously encouraged by what they are achieving. One initiative they are very pleased to promote is the Gatsby career benchmarks, which they describe as

“aspirational and absolutely necessary as a vehicle for social justice.”

It is worth commenting on that programme, as it achieves three vital outcomes: first, it raises aspirations among young people and promotes access to all career paths, not just academic ones; secondly, it enables the development of the skills and the outlook that pupils need to achieve career wellbeing, including adaptability and resilience; and, finally, it underpins the Department for Education’s own guidance to schools on meeting their statutory responsibility to offer career guidance.

As I was writing this speech yesterday, I received a letter from the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), about the Gatsby programme. In concluding, she requested feedback from colleagues about any conversations they might have with schools in their constituencies in the coming weeks. However, I can give some feedback right now to the Minister here today. I have been advised by Copthall School:

“As you will see from the list at the end of this email, at Copthall we are doing a lot to meet the eight Gatsby benchmarks. However, it is a challenge to meet them all, particularly at a time when school funding is in crisis. Most schools have insufficient funding to fully implement the Gatsby benchmarks.”

Yesterday, the Minister and I had a discussion in the corridor, and he said he looked forward to this debate to hear more about my education history, following some of my revelations in previous debates. However, I have to disappoint him: I do not consider this as a confessional chamber, but as somewhere where I represent my constituents, so on this occasion I will not reveal more. My experience at school certainly had a dramatic impact on my views on aspiration and education, but it would be unfair of me to criticise my school, and particularly the teachers, 30 years after I left, because most people have moved on from their posts, and life was a great deal different then. It would also be wrong of me to comment on the life achievements of others—my peers—who are completely content with their personal history, although I am keen that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

One mistake that existed in the past and that continues to exist today is the tendency to separate academic and technical education routes into two simplistic alternatives. The problem is that that does not reflect the learner’s journey, which often moves between academic and technical routes at different times in their life. Permeability and flexibility between types of learning in our education system are vital if we are to enable learners to fulfil their potential and progress through both A and T-levels to higher level learning, and to achieve the goals in the Government’s industrial strategy of increasing social mobility and productivity.

As T-levels are introduced, it will be important to avoid sweeping away other qualifications, such as BTECs, which provide important and established progression routes into higher education, in the interests of creating a tidy qualification landscape. More than 100,000 students a year progress with a BTEC on its own or in combination with A-levels. UCAS data shows that, for the 2017 application cycle, only 61% of 18-year-olds held only A-level qualifications, with 11% of remaining applicants holding BTECs only, and 8% a combination of BTECs and A-levels. As a higher proportion of students opting for BTECs come from disadvantaged backgrounds, those qualifications play a critical role in supporting social mobility, providing a pathway for disadvantaged students to progress through to higher-level learning, either on an academic programme or on a higher or degree apprenticeship.

Our most disadvantaged children are often those in care and in need, something that the Secretary of State has also written to me about. Many have little aspiration and currently fall unacceptably far behind in attainment. Last year, the equivalent of one in 10 children needed a social worker at some point. The attainment of children who require such help is greater than that of those who come from a low-income background. What hope do we give to those children? We must raise their aspiration so they expect more of themselves and believe they can succeed, and we must support schools to support children themselves.

Last year, the number of looked-after children in England reached 75,420, an increase of 4% on the previous year, and it has been increasing since 2008, when the total was 60,000. Young people in care are six times more likely to be excluded from school and more likely to be unemployed after leaving school, and 45% of them suffer from mental ill health. They are clearly being failed.

When I was deputy leader of Barnet Council, I introduced a scheme whereby the council would effectively act as a family business. If we have a family business, we often employ our own children or relatives. My initiative allowed the looked-after children, who we were corporate parents to, to have a place in a family firm. I was very pleased that one individual not only took the opportunity to involve himself in marketing, but went on to university and provided a career for himself. Others fell by the wayside. It was not a scheme where everyone had an automatic right to a place, but there was an opportunity for them to aspire to achieve something through the services available through the local council. I was keen on the scheme because, as a child, I had a friend who lived in a children’s home, and I always understood that the opportunities available to him and other people in the care home were not the same as those available to someone like me, who lived in a loving family environment. I would like the Government to promote such initiatives. Indeed, local authorities could take the initiative to promote themselves within their communities.

To return to A-levels, high-quality careers information, advice and guidance for students and parents is essential to ensure successful implementation in the coming years. Clear signposting is needed within the curriculum to create awareness of the T-level option and ensure that young people avoid shutting down options—for example, by choosing academic subjects that will not feed into T-level study. That is particularly important, as the choices made about post-16 study will narrow further study and career options. Students at this age are still forming their identities and expectations of life, so it is vital that early information is provided.

Universities have direct experience of recruiting students from a diverse range of qualification backgrounds to access and succeed in higher education. It will be important to engage with higher education admissions professionals on T-levels to ensure that universities develop an understanding of T-levels and are able to communicate entry requirements to prospective students and level 3 providers. It will also be important to assist universities in meeting the specific needs of students progressing from those qualifications into higher education. Information around access to higher education from T-levels should also be communicated to students further down the line when they are making choices about level 3 study in schools and considering pathways and routes from T-levels.

The promotion of aspiration should occur not only in the secondary school sector. Middlesex University is located in my constituency. It has demonstrated to me on numerous occasions its considerable experience and expertise in raising aspiration and boosting social mobility. Some 52% of its current students are eligible for free school meals; 85% of the cohort falls into one of the five widening participation categories; and 50% of students are the first in their families to go to university. There seems to be a link between the university’s promotion of aspiration and its student numbers, as can be seen in its innovative Make your Mark initiative.

In 2018-19, Middlesex University engaged 6,986 school and college students and 286 parents through its outreach activity in 86 workshops in local schools. The outreach work helps young people to understand the opportunities available to them. The Make Your Mark initiative provides guidance for young people on what is likely to be the best pathway for them, including vocational routes such as apprenticeships, through an interactive web microsite. The university has produced a guide and website for 11 to 16-year-olds, featuring blogs, quizzes, insight into what university life and study are all about, and tips on exam success and money matters.

Universities, given the access that they have to schools, have more potential to be the one-stop shops for careers information and guidance at every level. There is also scope for employers, FE and HE to collaborate more effectively in providing high-quality careers information and guidance in schools, centred around the key themes in the Government’s industrial strategy. The careers and qualifications landscape is becoming increasingly complex, and school careers teams struggle to provide guidance where it is needed most.

Instilling a sense of aspiration in young people would set their lives on a trajectory for success, so I would like the Government to take certain actions. A sense of aspiration would create an inclination for learning that continues after formal education and would create a foundation that can be built on in future years to achieve what, for some people, would be incredible results.

I want the Government to engage with the aspiration agenda; the last time it was considered was five years ago in the report that I mentioned. In that time, life has certainly moved on. I want the agenda to expand beyond education attainment and higher education and to promote not only lifelong learning, but other aspects of vocational qualifications. I want more action to address imbalances in connections and opportunities between deprived pupils from comprehensive schools and those from private and grammar schools with more affluent governing bodies. And, as I said, I want lifelong learning promoted.

Finally, I ask the Minister to recognise that not all parts of the United Kingdom are the same. There are places in my constituency where there is still a yawning chasm in aspiration, and they are not the same as other parts of the country, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South mentioned.

In conclusion, the Government can do a lot more to work in collaboration with not only schools and universities but local government, which is in a unique place to be able to deliver an agenda that has been included in the industrial strategy.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this afternoon’s debate. We have quality, not quantity, today; quality was certainly there in great profusion in his speech. He placed a very thoughtful focus on the disparity of aspiration and the issues of achievement. He usefully identified the three key areas, which we could all riff off—the focus on parents and families, on teachers and on extracurricular activity. He reminded us that this subject has been a passion of his and was included in his maiden speech some nine years ago.

I listened with great attention to what the hon. Gentleman said. In this House there is a small group of people who are very dedicated on this subject, but we do not always address in an integrated way the issues of those smaller groups of people, such as looked-after children or young care leavers. There are about 1,000 identified young care leavers in Blackpool. I was interested to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s Barnet initiative—I was going to say the Barnett formula—and he may remember from a previous debate that for a small portion of my life as a student, I resided in his constituency, so I know the differentials of which he speaks.

I was particularly interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the Copthall School. The Gatsby benchmarks are great, but they demand a very intensive approach. We have to be careful that for groups such as the Copthall School they do not end up as the equivalent of the freedom to dine at the Ritz. That is an important issue, which politicians of all parties need to address.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said on the flexibility to move between the academic, the technical and the vocational. Those words get bandied about too often in this place as if they were in silos, which then achieves that result. Flexibility has always been vital and it is even more vital now, given the speed at which subjects, their teaching and careers will mutate over the next few years. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), the former Skills Minister—I am proud to call him my friend, although he is on the other side—along with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), is addressing that point as we speak, taking forward a skills commission that will look at some of those areas. What the hon. Member for Hendon said on that subject was absolutely spot on.

I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments on BTECs. We agree with him. A consultation is out, and the Minister might wish to tell us today when he expects to be able to respond to that consultation. The Minister knows that there has been a very broad chorus of concern about the possibility of BTECs and other qualifications being swept away before T-levels have been able to prove their worth in practice.

Finally, the hon. Member for Hendon mentioned the importance of the university contribution, and I shall mention a couple of universities as I go along. He mentioned Middlesex University, which I am familiar with. I am pleased to say that I shared a platform with the current vice-chancellor, Tim Blackman, only a few weeks ago at an event at the Bridge Group, and I am absolutely delighted that, the Open University’s 50th anniversary year, Tim is to become its new vice-chancellor. All those are good and positive things.

I believe that aspiration and austerity are incongruous bedfellows. If a Government of any description decide to implement an austerity programme over a long time, as this one and their predecessors have done, there is a danger of that aspiration diminishing. In our view, the Government’s decision to go down that road was not an inevitability—certainly not for the long period of time that it has continued. I shall not go over the arguments about whether they inherited a growing economy in 2010—we believe that they did, on the base of 2008—but whatever the case, it is concerning that the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights recently said that the Government’s policies of austerity have continued unabated, and that a third of children are now in poverty. Austerity is always a political and ideological choice in some sense or other, and that has been clear in the education system.

I am sad to say that we have seen about 1,000 Sure Start programmes cut from the early years; I genuinely mean that, because Sure Start was one of the great achievements of the Labour Government of 1997 to 2010. Children’s services, schools and further and higher education have also seen considerable cuts since the Conservative Party came to power in 2010. The Minister and his colleagues in the Department, in their heart of hearts—I know he has one—know that this is not acceptable. After all, the Secretary of State only recently said that he had heard the concerns about funding loud and clear, and last year it was reported that he was trying to squeeze more money out of the Treasury. However, the Government took £3.5 billion out of the capital spend at the last Budget, and so far the Treasury—although we await a spending review, of course—has only offered schools £400 million, in October 2018. That is thin gruel indeed.

To summarise, those cuts, along with the impact of the public sector pay freeze and then the cap, have created a serious problem in teacher recruitment and retention. The hon. Member for Hendon referred to the importance of teachers. There have been inevitable consequences. The Government have missed the teacher recruitment and retention target for five years, and in the past two years, more teachers have left the profession than have joined it. The hon. Gentleman referred to that in the House, when he said:

“Under this Government, the number of teachers has not kept pace with increasing pupil numbers.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2018; Vol. 650, c. 482.]

I have a question for the Minister: how can we expect schoolchildren to aspire in the way that the hon. Gentleman talked about when there are not enough teachers to encourage them?

On top of that, we have the Government’s commitment to T-levels. The hon. Gentleman talked about their importance, and I agree with him. We share the long-standing concerns of Lord Sainsbury and support the recommendations of the skills plan that was drawn up and presented to the Government, which the Government approved; my friend, the principal of Blackpool and The Fylde College, Bev Robinson, had a considerable part in that plan. Despite all those things, schools and colleges are still unable to deliver at a secondary level the high-quality education that people deserve, because they simply do not have the funding to make ends meet.

The aim, of course, is to expand and attract the coverage of vocational education schools to the secondary sector, and it is a laudable one, but the question is the same. The Government have talked about the subjects and standards that they want to roll out for T-levels, but as to who will actually teach them, there has barely been a peep. Maybe there will be a peep today—I do not know. Are they going to be existing secondary school teachers? Are they FE college lecturers, or associates, or other people entirely? If the Government are serious about T-levels being an ecosystem and not another shiny brand that goes the way of other initiatives, they really must focus on them and not simply spend a quarter of a million pounds on a T-level logo.

Those are important issues. Aspiration, of course, can be hugely developed by teachers, but there is so much more that we can do to unlock the innate inquisitiveness, interest and ambition of young people as they enter secondary education. That transition from primary to secondary, as they approach puberty, in schools where they may have left their primary school friends behind, is often very challenging, not least for young people with special educational needs and disabilities, as the hon. Member for Hendon said. That is why the Sutton Trust and others have said over the years that we need earlier interventions and encounters to play a vital role in improving that aspiration. As I said, I recently argued at the Bridge Group and at this year’s Annual Apprenticeship Conference that it is as relevant to achieving wider social mobility in the vocational and technical sphere as it is in the academic.

I believe we should be looking at sustained and dedicated programmes with schools, for children at a much earlier age, and for particular social and ethnic groupings. I believe that approach is likely to yield much better results than many of the current interventions, late in secondary school, where universities will spend tens of millions of pounds but sometimes, arguably, only strengthen offers and representations from some young people who are likely to have gone to there in substantial numbers anyway.

Earlier this week, in the House of Lords, I was privileged to be present at the launch of a new initiative by the National Education Opportunities Network. Graeme Atherton, who founded NEON in 2012 and has directed it since then, was launching its initiative to improve access for white students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Some 10 new HE provider initiatives are being brought together to better support that group, which is one of the least able and likely, from a secondary background, to attend higher education. It is about raising horizons and expectations, not about fixing pupils’ future career patterns at the age of 10. However, I believe the Government urgently need to look at how that integrates with their careers advice strategy—focusing on what happens in individual areas and the way in which Labour, as a party in government, would make more sense of the fractured and fragmented system of information, advice and guidance that we currently have at secondary level, which we believe is an important consideration. I and my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner)—our shadow Education Secretary—were at a roundtable with stakeholders only this week, discussing how that work might go forward. The Office for Students also has an important role in this area, and I am pleased that it is encouraging collaborative outreach programmes such as those that I have described.

We have been saying for some time that, in a secondary system in which students in schools, FE and sixth-form colleges gain their all-important A-levels or other qualifications at around the age of 18, there must be a robust, independent and wide-ranging review of admissions processes to higher education. That review should focus on a range of things, but particularly the unconditional offers to students of that age that have exploded in recent times, which some have said put those from disadvantaged backgrounds at a key handicap. That is why we believe there is a case for post-qualification admissions, and we were interested to see that the Government have recently asked the OfS to conduct such an inquiry.

The latest OECD international survey on teaching and learning does not, for us in England, make for great reading. England has the world’s eighth-biggest problem with secondary school teacher shortages and the third-highest level of shortages in Europe. For a long time, our party has called for a laser-like focus on the problem of teacher workload; across the continent, secondary school teachers work 37.5 hours a week on average, but in England, that figure is about 47 hours. The question is how much of that is actual teaching, as opposed to paper or virtual bureaucracy. In an environment that leaves many feeling like the proverbial mouse on the treadmill, how are those teachers going to communicate ambition? The digital world and the fourth industrial revolution are all moving ahead at an incandescent pace, and teachers are an absolutely vital element in taking that forward, whether in colleges or schools.

We have 600,000 young people in the category of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training. The Government tell us that that is a stable figure, but it should not be stable; we should be moving on, and I do not see where the Government are taking that issue at the moment. Perhaps the Minister would like to enlighten us.

The Timpson review, which the Government have received, points out that excluded pupils are more likely to already be disadvantaged by class, income, special educational needs or disabilities, with certain ethnic minority groups at a higher risk. Those are the students most in need of support. “Newsnight” recently uncovered more than 1,500 children with SENs or disabilities who are without a school place in England, which only emphasises the problems that Edward Timpson—a respected former Conservative MP and Education Minister—sought to address. The issue of off-rolling needs to be a priority.

The situation, as I say, puts aspiration at serious risk. Right hon. and hon. Members may be familiar with the House of Lords report on the future of seaside towns and cities by my noble Friend the Lord Bassam. That report found that significantly fewer young people from seaside towns and coastal communities can access higher education than those in other parts of England, and that since 2010, there has been a 27% decline in the number of those young people accessing HE. That is another important issue; the Government have identified opportunity access areas, one of which has been Blackpool, but those need to be dealt with more expansively and progressively. The Government’s disappointingly tepid response to the excellent Lords commission illustrates the urgent need to plug this in as a priority for social mobility and economic progress. Many seaside towns suffer from low educational attainment, and local economies then suffer due to skills shortages. These are obviously areas where educational aspiration needs to rank high, and I hope the Minister will consider his Department’s response to that report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) has spoken in the House about last year’s BBC report that found that malnourished pupils in poorer areas were filling their pockets with food from school canteens due to poverty. My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), the shadow public health Minister, has also raised the issue of food at school, school meals, and the gaps through which pupils will fall. As any teacher will tell us, they cannot teach children properly if those children are starving, let alone encourage aspiration.

The hon. Member for Hendon talked about lifelong learning; we agree with him entirely. Of course, people can have second and third chances if they have failures at secondary level, but the whole process needs to reflect that. That is one of the things that we are trying to do through the Lifelong Learning Commission that we have set up, which is looking at these issues. The hon. Gentleman, however, has given us a great deal of food for thought—the Minister especially, I hope. We await his response.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma; I think it is the first time I have done so. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on having secured this debate, and on the interesting and persuasive way in which he introduced it.

Since 2010, the Government have worked hard to drive up academic standards. Our mission has been to ensure that every state school is a good school, teaching a rigorous and balanced curriculum and offering pupils world-class qualifications. Only by having high standards across the board can we enable secondary schools to raise and meet young people’s aspirations. In schools, we are transforming careers education—something dear to my hon. Friend’s heart—to harness young people’s aspirations. Our 2017 careers strategy committed investment, support and resources to help schools make visible and lasting improvements, and since 2010 we have seen an increase in the proportion of pupils receiving a good-quality education. As of December 2018, 1.9 million more children were in good or outstanding schools compared with 2010. Some 85% of children are in good schools, compared with only 66% in 2010, which is partly due to our reforms.

As with implementing any effective change, there is no single silver bullet that will bring about a significant and sustainable improvement in standards. We are under no illusions: there is still much more to be done. However, since 2010, the Government have made radical reforms with a focus on improving school standards. As part of our aspiration to provide children with a world-class education, we reformed the national curriculum, restoring knowledge to its heart and raising expectations of what children should be taught. That is now being delivered by all maintained schools, and sets an ambitious benchmark for academies that we expect them to at least match.

Too many pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were being entered for low-quality qualifications. We therefore reformed GCSEs to put them on a par with qualifications in the best-performing jurisdictions in the world. The result is a suite of new GCSEs that rigorously assess the knowledge and skills acquired by pupils during key stage 4, and are in line with expected standards in countries with high-performing education systems. A-levels have also been reformed to improve students’ readiness for the demands of higher education.

We introduced the English baccalaureate school performance measure, consisting of English, maths, at least two sciences, history or geography, and a language. Those subjects form part of a compulsory curriculum in many of the highest performing countries internationally, at least up to the age of 15 or 16. The percentage of pupils in state-funded schools taking the EBacc has risen from 22% in 2010 to 38% in 2018. My hon. Friend mentioned Copthall School, and I pay tribute to the headteacher and staff of that school, which has high rates of pupil progress. It is well above average at 0.76 for Progress 8. That does not mean much to many people, but that is a high level of progress. The EBacc entry rate is 50%, which is significantly higher than the national entry rate of 38%. The Government’s ambition is for that entry rate to rise to 75% by 2022 and to 90% by 2025. I do not underestimate the challenge that presents, and I will go on to say what we are doing to support schools to achieve that aim. It is right that we aim to provide the best possible education and therefore more opportunities for young people.

Getting the fundamentals right at an early age is vital for a pupil’s success at secondary school and in later life. Children who are reading well by the age of five are six times more likely than their peers to be on track by age 11 in reading and, counterintuitively, 11 times more likely to be on track in mathematics. Ensuring that all pupils in England’s schools are taught to read effectively has been central to our reforms, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of that work. By the end of year 1, most children should be able to decode simple words using phonics and, once they can do that, they can focus on their wider reading skills and develop a love and habit of reading. In England, phonics performance has significantly improved since we introduced the phonics screening check in 2012. At that time, just 58% of six-year-olds correctly read at least 32 out of the 40 words in the check. In 2018, that figure was 82%.

We can see how that work is having an impact. In 2016, England achieved its highest ever score in the reading ability of nine-year-olds, moving from joint 10th to joint 8th in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study rankings. That follows our greater focus on reading in the primary curriculum and a particular focus on phonics. Continuing improvement in reading ability should mean that more children arrive in secondary school able to access the curriculum and with a higher level of literacy than their predecessors.

Maths, science and computing are also fundamental to raising aspirations. We have funded 35 maths hubs to spread evidence-based approaches to maths teaching through the teaching for mastery programme. An investment of £76 million will expand the programme to reach 11,000 primary and secondary schools by 2023. To encourage more pupils to consider level 3 mathematics qualifications and to continue the rise we have seen in A-level entries over the past eight years, we have launched the advanced mathematics support programme, giving schools an extra £600 a year for each additional pupil taking maths or further maths A-level or any level 3 mathematics qualification.

For the good of our economy, we need more young people to pursue degrees and careers in the sciences, including computer science. We have already seen excellent progress, with entries to STEM A-levels increasing by 23% since 2010. We have also launched a four-year computing programme supported by £84 million of funding. That includes a national centre for computing education, at least 40 hubs providing training to schools and a continuing professional development programme to train up to 8,000 secondary teachers without a post-A level qualification in computing.

My hon. Friend talked a lot about careers advice. He is right that if young people are to raise their aspirations and capitalise on the opportunities available to them, they need good careers guidance. In December 2017, the Government published our careers strategy, setting out proposals to improve the quality and coverage of careers advice in schools and to give more aspirational careers advice for young people. The strategy identifies how the worlds of work and education can come together to support young people, using the Gatsby benchmarks, to which he referred. They are based on rigorous national and international research and are the gold standard for careers provision in England. As part of meeting the Gatsby benchmarks, schools should make sure that students understand the full range of education and training opportunities available to them. Exposure to further and higher education and apprenticeships helps to raise aspiration and allows young people to make the right choices for them.

Information on education or training options provided by schools at key transition points too often fails to correct, or even reinforces, the impression that technical and professional education and apprenticeships are second best to academic study. My hon. Friend is concerned about that, and we share that concern. A new law, introduced in January 2018—commonly known as the Baker clause—requires all secondary schools and academies to open their doors to university technical colleges, FE colleges and apprenticeship providers. That will give all young people a better understanding of the qualifications, courses and subjects available at key transition points.

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The Minister knows that we strongly welcome the Baker clause. There are anecdotal accounts about how successful or otherwise it has been so far. Does the Department have any statistics on how the Baker reforms have impacted on that area as of yet?

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I do not have those figures to hand, so I will write to the hon. Gentleman when and if we have those statistics. We are as concerned about the issue as he is.

We expect to see schools setting up careers events, assemblies and options evenings so that providers can talk to pupils about what they offer and what it is like to learn in a different environment. The evidence is clear that sustained and varied contacts with mentors, coaches, employer networks, FE colleges, universities, alumni or other high-achieving individuals can motivate pupils to think beyond their immediate experiences, encouraging them to consider a broader and more ambitious range of future education and career options.

Activities involving employers, such as careers insights, mentoring, work tasters and work experience are important in giving young people the skills they need to succeed. Such interactions help open young people’s eyes to choices and opportunities, raise aspirations and prepare them for the world of work. As such, we want to create quality interactions between schools and businesses. The careers statutory guidance makes it clear that schools should offer work placements, work experience and other employer-based activities as part of their careers strategies for pupils in year 8 to year 13. Secondary schools will be expected to provide pupils with at least one meaningful interaction with employers per pupil per year, with a particular focus on STEM employers.

With an expanded role, the Careers & Enterprise Company, which was established in 2014, works to link schools with employers, making sure that every young person has access to inspiring encounters with the world of work, including work experience and other employer-based activities. It does that through its enterprise adviser network, which is delivered in partnership with local enterprise partnerships, providing information tailored to local skills and the local labour market. The network operates in all 38 local enterprise partnership areas and has grown rapidly. More than 2,000 business volunteers have been mobilised to work with schools and colleges on their careers strategies through the enterprise adviser network, and participants have reported a 50% increase in employer encounters for pupils. That partially answers the question raised by the hon. Gentleman, but we will come back to him with a fuller answer.

Through its work, the Careers & Enterprise Company has identified and is targeting those areas where additional provision is most needed. It is funding work during 2019-20 to test new approaches and produce resources to improve careers information, advice and guidance for individuals who are disadvantaged, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, looked-after children and those from minority ethnic groups.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon referred in particular to children in care. Last Monday, we published our children in need review. He also referred to the post-16 qualification review and expressed his view about BTECs. That consultation opened on 19 March 2019 and closed on 10 June 2019. We will respond in due course, and the views that he has expressed today will be taken into account as part of that review process.

Since 2010, the Government have introduced a range of reforms with the sole focus of raising standards. I have set out those standards in relation to secondary education and highlighted how those reforms have been complemented by a range of targeted programmes to support and develop teachers’ practice and to provide timely and effective careers advice for students.

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We have certainly had a good opportunity to discuss the issue. Given the nature of today’s debate, I did not want to intervene on either the Opposition or Government Front Bench. However, I will raise a few issues.

The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), mentioned young carers, which is a very important aspect that is often overlooked. They are a hidden problem within the education system, and it is not always possible for teachers or other school staff to be aware of the requirements being levied on young pupils through disability and other social problems experienced by their parents. We certainly need to take their responsibilities at home into account, particularly with regard to their attainment and aspirational opportunities.

The hon. Gentleman spoke particularly about teachers. However, I discussed the influence of not only the teaching establishment but external education providers, such as the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. It is not just about the number and remuneration of teachers. I disagree profoundly with the Labour party’s recent policy of opposing SATs, and their commitment to abolish them. That would be a retrograde step. Parents need the opportunity to gauge a school’s progress and understand how their children’s education is being advanced.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 600,000 NEETs, which he said has been a stubborn figure that has not moved. That is certainly another area that I would like to look at, and I encourage the Government to do likewise. The Local Government Association should take the lead when it comes to both NEETs and young carers. The Local Government Act 2000 allows local authorities to do anything within their social, environmental and wellbeing powers to address problems in their local areas. It is a particular problem, not only in rural areas but in coastal constituencies, and local authorities are best able to address it.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned a 27% decline in access to higher education among coastal communities. We should be careful with statistics—I certainly have been very careful with the ones that I have used today—because it could simply be that those people have gone into forms of education and training other than higher education. Indeed, they may even have gone into employment of their own accord, such as self-employment.

To address some of the Minister’s comments, I have become a great fan of the EBacc system. Making choices about A-levels at a younger age—often 15 or even younger—is not always the best option. When I visited Middlesex University I was told that when pupils are asked whether they want to be a doctor or surgeon most of them say, “No way! Why would I want to do that?” However, when they are asked questions such as whether they want to work with people, they are more likely to say that they would. That can be extended to considering other opportunities. Whether somebody ultimately engages in medicine and becomes a surgeon or looks at other areas, offering an occupation rather than an opportunity at a young age is the wrong approach.

The Minister and I have previously discussed reading, which he is as passionate about as I am. I know that he reads every day before he goes to sleep, and I read every day, on the tube and whenever I can. I am very encouraged by the statistics that he mentioned about reading ability. For me, reading has become a lifelong passion. It is my mother teaching me to read, as well as my education, that has led to lifelong learning. That has all come from reading, so it can only be good.

Finally, the Minister mentioned the Baker clause, which is very welcome, and the 23% increase in the number of STEM subjects at A-level. I have certainly seen that in schools in my constituency, including Copthall School for girls, which I have now mentioned on two occasions in this place.

Action has been taken by the Government and progress has been made, but raising aspiration cannot be achieved simply by Government. I mentioned the Local Government Association, and the Opposition spokesman mentioned teachers. Parents and relatives also have a responsibility to ensure aspiration in their children by providing guidance and encouragement along their pathway through life. Through a collaboration of all those different influences, we can achieve higher rates of aspiration, and make our country an even better place than it is today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered raising aspiration in secondary education.

Sitting adjourned.