House of Commons
Monday 9 September 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Tertiary Education
Leaving the European Union with a deal remains the Government’s top priority. We will work in an energetic and determined manner to get the very best deal, and a better deal than has previously been put to this House. We are supporting the sector to manage the transition through Brexit, including providing reassurance on participation in EU-funded programmes, future migration arrangements and access to student support.
The right hon. Gentleman was always energetic and determined when he was the Government Chief Whip and we worked together. What reassurances can he provide to the University of Glasgow in my constituency, which is having to issue emergency advice in the event of a no deal? It is reminding research teams to conduct inventories of their materials in case it is not possible to pre-order perishable goods such as gases. It is reminding staff and students
“that, in the event of a no-deal withdrawal, EU countries may not admit individuals with passports which are due to expire within six months of the date of travel.”
This is the kind of debilitating effect it is having. Would it not be better to accept the inevitable, and rule out no deal and ask for the extension now?
We have worked and will continue to work closely with higher education institutions, including the University of Glasgow, to ensure, if we do leave without any deal with the European Union, that all mitigations are put in place. I very much look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman in this role as I did when we were both Chief Whips together.
Some 96% of EU students who study at Scottish universities enrol on courses that are longer than three years. Does the Secretary of State agree that Scottish universities cannot but be adversely impacted by the Home Office’s current temporary leave to remain scheme, which allows for students being here for three years, as in Scotland they would then need to apply for a tier 4 visa? Does he agree this is unfair?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I know this matter has been raised with me by a number of Scottish Conservative and Unionist MPs and it is certainly something I am looking at closely, but I thank him for taking the time to raise it in the House.
I think leaving the European Union with no deal would be one of the most anti-social mobility steps this country could have taken in many years. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the left-behind communities that are so often talked about by Ministers will be the ones worst hit? Perhaps the only double whammy that could follow that would be to scrap the opportunity areas, which are at least helping some of them to improve education standards.
I have spoken to quite a number of colleagues about the really valuable work the opportunity areas are doing and the impact—the very positive impact—they are having on the communities in which they are operating. We are looking at how we can develop that in the future.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that as well as ensuring our great universities—such as Derby and Nottingham near my constituency—can continue to educate overseas students from the EU, he is working towards reciprocal agreements so that young people in my constituency of Erewash can continue to study in EU countries?
We are having such discussions with European member states, and we are making very good progress on this. It is very important that we ensure the United Kingdom remains a destination that EU students want to come to study in, and we have big ambitions to ensure we continue to deliver on that, but also that our students from our constituencies have the opportunity to study abroad.
There have been alarming reports that the Department for Education is considering an Erasmus+ replacement programme for England only, with potentially no consequential funding for the devolved Administrations. Will the Secretary of State admit that this would amount to a complete abandonment of students across the UK, and will he take this opportunity to confirm that an England-only scheme is not something this Government will consider?
I am not sure that that was an answer. Last Thursday, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) asked the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union about the status of Erasmus students who are currently in Scotland, specifically if they go home, for example at Christmas, whether there is a guarantee that they can return in the event of a no-deal Brexit. In response to her question, the Minister stated, “Yes.” Will the Secretary of State detail how that process will work, given that those students are not applying for settled status?
I am very happy to write to the hon. Lady with more details and give her the reassurance that she seeks. We recognise how important it is for the UK as a whole to remain an attractive destination for people who wish to study, and that is vital in every component part of the United Kingdom, including Scotland.
Well, well, well. The Secretary of State has had quite a start. Rumour has it that he forgot to appoint a Skills Minister, and we are now waiting for our fifth Higher Education Minister in just two years. Will he tell us the fee status of European students after 2020, and will our universities still benefit from Horizon, Erasmus, and the European University Institute or not?
Well, I am sure that the Secretary of State would like me to shut up and go away, but I am not going to do that. He has to try harder with his answers. Will he publish officially his no-deal impact assessment and contingency plans, and tell us how much his Department is spending on no-deal preparations? Can he give us a clear guarantee that his no-deal plans do not include suspending or weakening food standards in our schools?
Funding Educational Facilities: Dudley
Dudley will benefit from the substantial additional investment in education, including £14 billion for schools across England over the next three years, and £400 million for 16-to-19 education next year, on top of additional money provided to cover pension costs.
It is my job to stand up for Dudley, so I am absolutely delighted that our campaign for a new university-level technical skills and apprenticeship centre has paid off, with the announcement on Friday that we were getting £25 million from the stronger towns fund. Is this not exactly what is needed to bring good, new, well-paid jobs in high-tech industries such as advanced manufacturing, digital media, low carbon technologies, autonomous electric vehicles and healthcare to replace those that the Black Country has lost in traditional industries?
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) for all the work they have done in campaigning to deliver this for Dudley, and for the work they have done to deliver the institute of technology in Dudley as well. That will all go towards generating the right skills and the right educational outcomes not only for the whole town of Dudley but much more widely. I very much hope to visit Dudley. Hopefully, the hon. Gentleman will be able to join me to discuss how we can do more for Dudley and the surrounding area.
Following the deeply regrettable closure of Stourbridge College earlier this summer, will my right hon. Friend consider meeting the principals of all the Dudley colleges—Dudley College, Halesowen College and King Edward VI College—with a view to discussing their wish to continue to provide vocational skills training, particularly adult education, in my constituency of Stourbridge.
Further and Higher Education: Quality and Choice
We are increasing the funding for 16-to-19 participation through T-levels, and providing support for college improvement. The Office for Students and Ofsted hold HE and FE providers to account for delivery quality and successful outcomes. The teaching excellence and student outcomes framework and new digital tools provide data support in student choice.
Last week, at the invitation of sixth-former Anna, I visited Cheadle Hulme High School to speak to students. I welcome the announcement that sixth forms across Cheadle will benefit from the £120 million increase in spending. How will the Secretary of State ensure that that funding will help students in Cheadle to access the widest variety of course, opening up opportunities in areas such as high tech, technology, construction, creative industries and so many others that will benefit the Greater Manchester economy?
As part of the funding increase for 16 to 19-year-olds, a key element is to ensure we are able to deliver those high-value courses that are sometimes more expensive to put on for students. A key element of the funding is preserved for that. I very much hope it will support my hon. Friend’s constituents. I look forward to continuing to work with her. She has campaigned long and hard to deliver this extra money for the colleges in her constituency.
Mr Speaker, I feel as though I have to make an apology to the House. Last time I was at the Dispatch Box, I forgot to mention that the hon. Gentleman had been the principal of a college. I said he was lecturing at a college, so I apologise for demoting him.
I am more than happy to continuously look at how we can give the maximum amount of support for our further education colleges and the 16-to-19 sector. We saw one of the largest increases in the base rate with the announcement last week. That is a good foundation on which to build.
The extra money for post-16 providers is extremely welcome. It has been warmly welcomed by Havering Sixth Form College in my constituency. However, it appears to be a one-year funding deal, rather than the three-year settlement that five to 16 education providers received. Will the Secretary of State look at giving colleges more long-term certainty by delivering future increases in line with inflation and raising the overall rate for 16 to 18-year-olds?
My hon. Friend raises a very valuable point about the importance of long-term certainty for all parts of the education sector. That was very clearly explained in the report from the Select Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). We will continue to look at it. It was a one-year settlement for 16 to 19-year-olds. We made sure we gave as much certainty in the schools sector as possible. We continue to look at what more we can do to give confidence to the further education sector on how to invest in the future of our young people.
What conversations has my right hon. Friend had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, specifically to talk about continuing the process of devolving further education to our locally elected mayors?
This is something we are taking a lead on. We are already in the process of devolving many responsibilities to locally elected mayors. I will be having further discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on how we can make that work as efficiently and as well as possible to deliver the skills that are needed for our urban areas.
We have fundamentally changed what apprenticeships involve. We have new high-quality standards developed by industry for industry. Apprentices are now getting more off-the-job training, while endpoint assessment ensures they are fully competent. Our new quality strategy will ensure that all apprenticeships are of the highest quality both in design and delivery.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he work with and support the New Anglia local enterprise partnership in setting up its levy pool, which will ensure that more SMEs in Suffolk and Norfolk obtain funding for training and apprenticeships?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have already increased the amount of the levy being directed in that way from 10% to 25%. We will very much look at working closely across the whole region of East Anglia on how best we can support this important initiative that makes sure that young people who want the training and people who are retraining have the right skills to be competitive in the jobs market.
Last Friday, I met graduates of the Forging Futures scheme at Kirkstall Forge in my constituency. Those young people, who were previously not in education, employment or training, now have a bright future to look forward to, but because that is a pre-apprenticeship scheme it gets no Government funding. Will the Government look again at funding such schemes to give young people, such as those I met on Friday, a better future to look forward to?
I take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that she has done for this sector. Much of the work that we have inherited is down to her close attention to detail in delivering for a sector that she is so passionate about. I also thank her for the work that she did as a Deputy Chief Whip, when she was slightly less friendly, but equally effective.
I will certainly look at how we ensure that we have the right funding for apprenticeships. Apprenticeships have been one of the greatest successes of the Government. We have achieved so much over the last nine years, encouraging so many young people to take up the opportunity to train in an apprenticeship and have the skills that they need to succeed in future. We will be determined to build on that success.
This Government are making a complete hash of the apprenticeship levy in quality and quantity. It is running out of money, so the trainers who provide 70% of all apprenticeships cannot meet the demand from small businesses, such as the two I met recently in Blackpool that have had no money from the Department for Education. There was nothing new in the spending review for providers or for small businesses for apprentices. Starts for 16 to 18-year-olds are down 23% on the pre-levy numbers. There was nothing for the 800,000 young people who are stagnating in the NEET category, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) pointed out. There is not even a dedicated day-to-day Skills Minister to tell them, or us, why they are in this mess. Has anyone in this disappearing Government left the lights on?
We have seen a change in attitudes as to what apprenticeships are able to deliver. After a decade and more under the Labour party, when we saw apprenticeships devalued and reduced, we have seen a seismic change in what we are doing, driving up the quality and status of apprenticeships. I know that colleagues on the Conservative Benches take great pride in what has been achieved, but we are always conscious that so much more needs to be done.
Funding Increases for Schools: Timetable
In August, the Prime Minister announced an extra £14 billion for schools in England over the next three years. That will bring the schools budget to £52.2 billion in 2022-23. This will allow funding increases for all schools. In particular, our pledge to level up pupil funding means that every secondary school will receive a minimum of at least £5,000 per pupil next year, with every primary school getting a minimum of at least £4,000 from 2021-22. This is the largest cash boost in a generation, and that has only been possible because of our balanced approach to public finances and careful stewardship of the economy since 2010.
What the hon. Gentleman says is not actually true. We have given extra money to fund employer pension contributions this year and to partially fund the pay grant over and above the 1%, and now the 2%, that is affordable, so we have provided schools with extra money this financial year.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate the Minister and the Secretary of State on securing the extra funding from the Chancellor in the spending review. As the Minister knows, I have been arguing for this for some time. Can I urge him to front-load this money, because we know that school costs have been outstripping their incomes? They need this money as soon as possible. And while he’s there, as the Secretary of State is Bradford educated, will the Minister encourage him to return to Bradford district in order to visit some schools in my constituency?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work and campaigning he has done to secure extra funding for schools in his constituency. He has been successful in ensuring we have the most generous schools settlement in a generation, and that is in part a tribute to his work, as well as that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has heard his request for a visit to Bradford and I am sure will comply.
Not that I would ever wish to appear ungrateful to the unmoveable Schools Minister, but he will be aware that there is a funding shortfall of £1.2 billion for children with special needs and disabilities. In Hull alone, the shortfall is £4 million. Will he please ensure that all our children can have their needs met by urgently addressing this funding shortfall?
We take this issue as seriously as the hon. Lady does, which is why we have announced within the £14 billion a £700 million increase for special needs. That is an 11% increase. We absolutely understand the pressures that local authorities have been under and we are addressing it.
I welcome the extra £14 billion of school funding that the Government have committed to. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that some of that money goes to schools in my constituency, some of which have been historically underfunded? They are fantastic schools but could do even better with more money.
My hon. Friend has been a redoubtable campaigner for school funding in her constituency. Thanks to her efforts and the balanced approach we have taken to the public finances, the school funding settlement will mean that every school in her constituency will attract an increase in funding and that 75% of secondary schools there will benefit from our pledge to level up school funding to at least £5,000 per secondary school pupil.
Could I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that it does not cost any money at all to save children’s lives in a measles epidemic by making every school see a certificate of MMR vaccination before they get to the school? Will he take on board another point? My schools tell me that after all these years of deprivation—since 2010—in schools it will take a long time to come back, even with the quick fix of the money he is now throwing at them.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that this funding represents a large increase in per pupil spending and reverses the reductions to real-terms per pupil funding for five to 16-year-olds. The hon. Gentleman is right about MMR. It is very important that parents vaccinate their children. There is a lot of information available about the safety of the MMR vaccine from the NHS, and we would encourage parents to look at that information before making a decision.
I warmly welcome the recent education financial settlement, which is good news for all schools across our country. Does the Minister agree that such resources will help to make schools and education provision even better so that all children across the country can benefit?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This funding will mean that we can continue our education reforms and continue to drive up standards—standards of reading and maths in our primary schools and in the whole range of the curriculum in our secondary schools.
They say that faith is the substance of things hoped for over the evidence of things not seen. At the time of her resignation, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) said “Judge a man by what he does, not what he says.” The Secretary of State has been part of a Government who have slashed £1.9 million from schools in his own constituency in the last four years. Codsall Community High School has lost £700,000, and Staffordshire has had to slash £60 million from its budget. The electoral promises are not worth the textbook that they are written on, are they?
I wish that the hon. Gentleman had cited the figures in my constituency, given that he is asking me the question although it was pre-prepared for the Secretary of State.
As I have said, the IFS has stated that this funding fully reverses cuts in funding for five-to-16-year-olds. We have only been able to deliver such a large increase in school funding because of the way in which we have managed the public finances since the banking crisis in 2008. That is why we can do this today, and why we have been able to announce the three-year spending package that all schools, including schools in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, have been seeking.
Children with Higher Needs: Stoke-on-Trent
Next year local authorities, including Stoke-on-Trent City Council, will share in an increase of more than £700 million in higher-needs funding. We will hold separate discussions with the authorities that have raised specific issues with us.
The Minister will be well aware that, as part of its higher-needs recovery plan, Stoke-on-Trent City Council proposes to plunder classroom budgets by £14.5 million over the next four years. The headteachers in the city are opposed to the plan, which will require a sign-off from the Department in order to go ahead. Will the Minister make a commitment today that rather than signing it off, she will convene a meeting of the headteachers in Stoke-on-Trent, so that alternative arrangements can be found that do not necessitate robbing Peter to pay Paul?
We are aware of the issues that have arisen in Stoke-on-Trent. The commissioner is due to submit a report to the Department today, and officials will review it and submit recommendations to me in due course. Once a decision has been made, the report will be published.
A number of children with higher needs in Stoke-on-Trent attend Horton Lodge Community Special School in my constituency, where there is great concern about the provision of funds for residential care and the possibility that the school will become unviable. Will the Minister meet me, and perhaps consider visiting Horton Lodge, to see what we can do to ensure that that wonderful, special place continues to operate for many years to come?
The Minister has just referred to a report which is currently under way, and which relates to children’s social services rather than the high-needs budget. The cuts proposed by Stoke-on-Trent City Council will cost every secondary school £100,000 and every primary school £50,000. That is money we cannot afford to spend. Will the Minister undertake to accept the request from my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), and convene a meeting of headteachers before the Secretary of State signs off a deal?
We are aware that local authorities are facing significant pressures. That is why we are making an additional investment of more than £700 million, which will help them to manage those pressures next year. The Department has been looking at this matter, and we will be in touch with Stoke-on-Trent in due course to decide on the best possible actions to be taken in the future.
I welcome the new Minister to her post. As she will know, children with special needs rely on help with speech and language and on counselling support, but the Children’s Commissioner has published research showing that the severe underfunding of those services is seriously damaging children’s lives and futures. Even after the spending review and the additional funding to which the Minister has referred, we still face a £1 billion shortfall in special educational needs services by 2021. Given that the Government could so easily find £1 billion to bribe the Democratic Unionist party, will the Minister agree, here and now, to find the same amount to fully fund the services that the country’s most vulnerable children so desperately need?
I met the Children’s Commissioner last week, and discussed this issue among many others. We welcome her report. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government are spending £7 billion on special educational needs, and are adding an additional £700 million. That is part of the extra £14 billion that we are spending over three years, and I think that it is to be welcomed.[Official Report, 25 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 7MC.]
School Admissions Code: Summer-born and Premature Children
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will know that it is four years since we had an Adjournment debate on this and two years since I last asked him a question on this. I am very pleased to hear his answer, but can he commit to laying out the timetable as to when the Government might be able to publish that and potentially have a meeting with me to discuss the unintended consequences?
My hon. Friend has been a formidable campaigner on this issue, and I pay tribute to him for his work in this area. He will be aware that since my letter to local authorities the evidence shows that school admission authorities are becoming more flexible when receiving requests for children to start reception at age five.
But of course this will not be right for all children; the majority will do well in reception at age four, and the Government are therefore giving careful consideration to how we will make these changes in a way that avoids unintended consequences.
Does the Minister not agree with me that the best way to get all students, even those who are summer-born, ready for school is proper investment in the early years, and will he therefore pledge today that the Government will do what they said they would do a few weeks ago and ensure our maintained nursery schools get the full funding they need to continue?
Has there been any discussion with counterparts in the devolved Assemblies to bring in a UK-wide strategy? If no discussion has taken place, when will it take place with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to ensure that this does happen?
Specialist Maths Schools
In 2019 King’s College London mathematics school reports that 100% of its students achieved a grade A or A* in A-level maths and 90% achieved an A* in A-level maths. The school also reports that more than 25% of its students in 2019 have secured Oxbridge places. This school and Exeter mathematics school are spectacular examples of the success of this Government’s free school programme, a programme that the Labour party wants to abolish.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and commend the Government for what they are doing to level up funding, which I understand will mean another £2.9 million per year for schools in North East Hampshire, but will he expand that excellent specialist maths schools programme so that we can do even more for every child across this country?
Given the success of the two maths schools so far, we are committed to opening more maths schools as we continue to drive up academic standards and social mobility. There are four more in the pipeline, including the Surrey mathematics school, which should benefit young people in North East Hampshire. My hon. Friend will also be pleased to know that, due to the large increase in school funding announced last week, 100% of secondary schools in his constituency will benefit from the new minimum of at least £5,000 per pupil.
College Spending: Effect of VAT
We have announced a £400 million increase in 16-to-19 funding in 2020-21; this is the biggest year-on-year increase since 2010 and will have great benefits for FE and sixth-form colleges. Colleges are independent organisations and are responsible for managing their own financial sustainability, which includes their liability for VAT.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but does he believe, as I do, that no matter where a 16 to 19-year-old student studies they should have the same funding, resource and status, and if he does why do school sixth forms and 16-to-19 academies get their VAT refunded and the teacher pay grant but FE institutions, such as the brilliant Abingdon and Witney college in my constituency, do not?
I am very conscious that this has been a long-running issue, and I remember from when I was a governor at a further education college the impact that this has. We are always looking at how we can reduce the impact, and that is why we have the funding settlement that we have achieved this year of £400 million plus £100 million for pension liability costs.
These funding announcements are extremely welcome in my constituency, and I have lobbied hard at all levels for these funding increases. Does the Secretary of State share my concern, however, that the Labour party has threatened to vote down the Queen’s Speech, which would mean that all these funding improvements would fall by the wayside?
I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s campaigning to deliver better funding for schools and post-16 education in her constituency. Many of the actions of Labour Members and their reckless approach give me great concern as they seem unwilling to listen to the will of the British people.
Leaving the EU: Higher Education
Leaving the European Union with a deal remains the Government’s top priority. We are working energetically and determinedly to get the very best deal. We are supporting the sector’s transition through Brexit, and have provided reassurance for EU nationals on access to student support for 2020-21, and on migration arrangements for staff and students.
But what about Erasmus? The Government’s technical notice has confirmed that if we leave with no deal, we will lose membership of the Erasmus programme. Given the benefits that it provides to tens of thousands of students, what assurance can the Secretary of State give to students that those benefits and the support provided will be maintained, and how is he going to achieve that?
It goes without saying that we will always be looking to ensure that all students in the United Kingdom get the very best in terms of their education, and Erasmus has played an important part in that. If we were in a situation where we did not have access to it, we would look at successor schemes.
Private Higher Education Providers: Financial Sustainability
To be registered under the new regulatory framework, all higher education providers must demonstrate that they are financially viable, sustainable and well-managed organisations that deliver high quality education. The Office for Students has currently registered more than 380 providers, which means that it has assessed those providers to be financially sustainable looking forward over a five-year period.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Greenwich School of Management is unlikely to be the last private higher education provider to go bust in a system where market forces are the ultimate determinant of success, but it is of course the students and staff who pay the price. Can he tell me how many of the 3,500 GSM students—who are overwhelmingly mature, on low incomes and from minority groups—have been found a place at a new institution to date and have the financial support to finish their courses?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important question. We have been working closely with GSM and the administrators to ensure that as many students as possible are transferred on to new courses if they are mid-course. At the moment, I do not have the data to answer his question, because how many accept this will come down to student choice, but as soon as we have the data I will of course write to him. The key focus has been to ensure that all those students get a place with an alternative provider.
Funding Allocation to Schools in Congleton
The Prime Minister has announced a £14 billion increase in investment for schools in England, including for schools in Congleton. This means that by 2022-23, core schools funding will increase by £4.6 billion more than a real-terms protection, and we will be announcing further school-level details in October.
I welcome this announcement, but what has concerned parents and teachers in my constituency and the wider Cheshire East area has been the historical underfunding of our local schools compared with those in other areas. So, to ensure truly fairer funding, will Ministers ensure that the Government’s schools budget boost specifically targets the biggest funding increases at schools in those areas that have been historically relatively underfunded?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, because it was as a result of her intervention that we introduced minimum per pupil funding into the national funding formula. She and her constituents will be pleased to know that, as a result of last week’s funding announcement, all seven of the secondary schools in her constituency will benefit from our pledge to level up per pupil funding to at least £5,000 per pupil, and that 16 primary schools in her constituency will benefit from the new level of at least £3,750 per pupil.
Disadvantaged Schools: Per Pupil Funding Increase
Minimum per pupil values benefit the historically lowest-funded schools. We recognise that schools with more disadvantaged pupils require additional resources, and the national funding formula and pupil premium allocate additional funding in relation to disadvantaged pupils, so that schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils are the highest funded.
Pupils in disadvantaged areas are significantly less likely to pass crucial GCSEs such as English and maths. School funding must reflect different needs in different places, but the Government’s recent funding announcement will do exactly the opposite and sees more money going into affluent schools in the south of England while many schools in Bradford South will continue to lose out. How can the Minister justify that disgraceful situation?
Under this settlement, all schools will receive more money, at least in line with inflation, and schools with the highest proportions of children from disadvantaged backgrounds will receive the highest level of funding. Since 2011, we have closed the attainment gap by 9.5% in secondary schools and by 13% in primary schools.[Official Report, 25 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 8MC.]
I thank the Schools Minister for the particular attention he has given to raising educational attainment in Northamptonshire and welcome the increase in funding for all schools, in particular the 14 primary schools and four secondary schools in Kettering, which have been historically the most underfunded.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. It has been a pleasure working with him and other colleagues from Northamptonshire to raise standards of education in the area. I am sure that he and his constituents will be pleased about the funding settlement for schools in Northamptonshire.
Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, which gives me another opportunity to let everyone know that the Government have announced an additional £14 billion for schools over the next three years, including the £700 million of high-needs funding for special educational needs and disabilities that we have been discussing.
Around 100 children in Harlow are without an education today as the Aspire Academy, run by TBAP, has closed yet again. Despite numerous meetings with Ministers and the academies commissioner, no action has yet been taken. Will my hon. Friend commit to the re-brokering of this school, so that a new academy can take it over and allow the children to return to their learning and the teachers to teaching? Mismanagement by the TBAP academy chain has gone on long enough.
An Ofsted inspection of the Aspire Academy in June 2019 rated the academy as inadequate and requiring special measures. The regional schools commissioner for east of England and north-east London issued a termination warning notice letter to TBAP, but a decision is yet to be made about the Aspire Academy and whether it will remain in the trust.
As the independent inspectorate, Ofsted plays a vital role in providing a rounded assessment of school and college performance, and that role has helped to raise standards in our schools. Ofsted’s latest statement on its performance was set out in its annual report and accounts presented to Parliament in July, which reported solid operating performance across all areas of work.
Two secondary schools in my constituency have had recent inspections, and both headteachers, whom I respect greatly, are appalled at how those inspections have been handled. We complained to Ofsted, and we had one side of A4 on the investigation into those complaints. Can we have a system in which Ofsted does not effectively mark its own homework?
I know the hon. Gentleman has been concerned about those inspections, and he met Ofsted’s north-west regional director. Ofsted is directly accountable to Parliament, and the vast majority of inspections go without incident. Ofsted has a quality assurance process and a complaints procedure to deal with those rare instances where it does not go according to plan.
At the last Ofsted inspection, Red Hill Field Primary School was marked as good. The school is celebrating its 35-year anniversary this Friday. What message does the Minister have for that excellent school, for Mr Snelson, the headteacher, and for all the staff on their excellent work over 35 years?
We recently announced a £14.4 billion investment in primary and secondary education between now and 2022-23. This is in addition to the £4.5 billion we will continue to provide to fund additional pension costs for teachers over the next three years. I will be working with schools to ensure this money delivers on our priorities to recruit and retain the best teachers, to continue boosting school standards and to tackle poor classroom behaviour. We are also investing an extra £400 million in 16-to-19 education next year, demonstrating our commitment to teaching our young people the skills needed for well-paid jobs in the modern economy.[Official Report, 25 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 8MC.]
Universities are desperately keen to see a proper two-year post-study work visa restored, and it looked as if the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill would be the vehicle for that. If that Bill falls because of tonight’s Prorogation outrage, can the Secretary of State say when and how a proper two-year post-study work visa will be restored?
At long last, after years of calls from the Labour party, settings, academics and even Select Committees, last week the Government finally offered some new funding for the 30-hour childcare policy. Sadly, predictions say it is only 10% of what is required to plug the funding black hole.
May I push the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, whom I very much welcome to her place, on how this funding will be spent? Will it be targeted to support outstanding providers that are struggling, to increase the amount of high-quality provision in disadvantaged areas and to reverse the disturbing trend of experienced staff leaving the sector?
Members on both sides of the House care very much about this area. The Government continue to support families with their childcare costs, and we are now spending more than £3.6 billion on support to 2021.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. There are 50,000 more pupils eligible for free school meals at the moment. There is much that this Government are doing, and we will continue to look at ways in which we can improve circumstances for disadvantaged children.
The announcement we made just the other week goes a long way towards rectifying the issue that my hon. Friend has highlighted. The national funding formula will ensure that all schools start to really benefit from the increases in funding, wherever they are in the country. This is making sure that the needs of pupils are the focus, as against where they happen to be in the country. May I pay tribute to him for the campaigning he has done for the schools in his constituency to secure the settlement?
We are spending £3.6 billion on early educational entitlement, and the Government have provided free childcare for children aged three to four years. I am not sure that I heard the right hon. Gentleman’s question properly, but I think that if he writes to me, I will be able to provide him with a more comprehensive response.
I thank my hon. Friend for such a kind invite. I know that he has campaigned hard and vigorously to get a better settlement for schools in his constituency and right around the country. I would be more than delighted to join him in his constituency, and I hope to make the figures available for all schools in the coming weeks.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware, from the funding settlement, that we are increasing funding for high needs—for special needs—by £700 million. That is an 11% increase, and it is because we absolutely recognise the cost pressures that schools and local authorities have been under when it comes to special needs. We hope that the funding announcement made last week by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will go some way to addressing those concerns.
I thank the education team for giving £5.5 million for upgrades in secondary schools in my area. Recently, however, there has been a disturbing turn of events. Skerton Community High School was closed down by the Labour county council, but it is being hypocritically targeted for an erroneous campaign to reopen it by the Labour party. The school has been closed for five years. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State write to me to tell me what is going to happen to this school in the future and whether it could be used for an academy?
May I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the campaigning he always undertakes to deliver the very best for all the schools in his constituency and the campaigning he has done to get the increase in school funding we announced just the other week? I would be more than happy to write to him and to meet with him to discuss this important issue for his constituency.
I always recall that when my hon. Friend and I were first elected to the House we, as constituency neighbours, campaigned very hard to get a better funding settlement for Staffordshire, but also for all schools across the country. We are working on the capital settlement, and we will be working with the Treasury to bring forward announcements in the not-too-distant future.
For pupils on free school meals, buying water at lunchtime can cost up to 80p of their allowance, which is often more than the fruit juices and milkshakes available. Does the Secretary of State agree that free water should be available, with cups and bottles, for all pupils in all our schools?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. No child should ever be expected to pay for water, and no school should ever deny a child access to fresh water. It is a legal requirement for all schools to make water available. If she would be kind enough to forward details of where water is not available, we will be sure to follow it up.
May I thank the Minister for listening to all our lobbying about the need for North Devon schools to have their funding equalised fairly? That investment will make a huge difference. Will he now come back to North Devon to see what a difference it will make, and to thank staff and students for all their hard work?
My hon. Friend is always campaigning for his constituents, whether to save Royal Marine bases or to get more money for his schools. I would be delighted to join him in visiting the schools in his constituency that will receive the extra money that he has campaigned for and delivered.
In the summer of 2019, Wandsworth food bank handed out 1,024 emergency food parcels to families, which was a 40% increase on last year. It has reported to me that families are having to choose between buying food and buying school uniforms. Will the Minister now publish the estimated figures for the number of children who have gone hungry this summer?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. We do not collect that information, but the Department has other schemes that are seeking to address the issue, including our holiday activities and food programme, which has supported children from disadvantaged families over the past two summers.
Female students at Priory School in Lewes were excluded on Friday simply for wearing skirts, which goes against the school’s new uniform policy. They are excluded today and will continue to be excluded until they wear trousers. What support can the Minister give to the families and pupils affected?
Decisions about school uniform are made at school level by headteachers and governing bodies. In formulating a uniform policy, a school must consider its obligations not to discriminate unlawfully. I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss her work to try to resolve the issue locally.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—10 out of 10.
I recently spoke on BBC Radio Leeds about the number of young people who suffer trauma and bereavement just before sitting exams and who often do not get the appropriate support and bereavement counselling. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss adequate counselling provision for those going through such a difficult time?
I really welcome the extra money for special educational needs. Will my right hon. Friend look closely at improving school transport for 16 to 19-year-olds with special needs so that we can further improve conditions for the most needy children?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is important that we allow opportunities to be widely available to children and to young people, regardless of their special needs. Bursaries are available for particular children, and that funding can be used for transport. I would be very happy to meet him so that we can take this issue forward together.
A quarter of people in my constituency are now reported to be living in in-work poverty, so is it no wonder that I know of desperate families unable to pay for their children’s school uniforms. Will the Minister consider introducing a statutory duty for schools to prioritise cost considerations and value for money for parents when deciding uniform policy and a ban on compulsory branding if this means families incurring additional costs?
The Department’s current guidance on school uniform does place an extra emphasis on the need for schools to give the highest priority to cost consideration. No school uniform should be so expensive as to leave pupils or their families feeling unable to apply for or to attend a school of their choice due to the cost of the school uniform. If the hon. Lady has examples of schools that are not abiding by that guidance, I would be very grateful if she let me know.
The correlation between good education and good health has long been known, not least by Professor Sir Michael Marmot in his 2010 report. With that in mind, surely it is now the time to give further education the long-term funding that it needs.
I know that my right hon. Friend is passionate about this matter and has campaigned on it. By setting out a three-year deal for schools, I appreciate that that has raised everyone’s expectation right across the education sector for three-year deals for everyone. It is something that we continue to look at. It was vital that we got the extra £400 million for 16 to 19-year-olds, and we continue to have discussions about how we can set out a longer-term future for all sectors in the education market.
Colleagues, I would like to make a personal statement to the House.
At the 2017 election, I promised my wife and children that it would be my last. This is a pledge that I intend to keep. If the House votes tonight for an early general election, my tenure as Speaker and MP will end when this Parliament ends. If the House does not so vote, I have concluded that the least disruptive and most democratic course of action would be for me to stand down at the close of business on Thursday 31 October. [Applause.] The least disruptive, because that date will fall shortly after the votes on the Queen’s Speech, expected on 21 and 22 October. The week or so after that may be quite lively, and it would be best to have an experienced figure in the Chair for that short period. The most democratic, because it will mean that a ballot is held when all Members have some knowledge of the candidates. This is far preferable to a contest at the beginning of a Parliament, when new MPs will not be similarly informed and may find themselves vulnerable to undue institutional influence. We would not want anyone to be whipped senseless, would we?
Throughout my time as Speaker I have sought to increase the relative authority of this legislature, for which I will make absolutely no apology to anyone, anywhere, at any time. To deploy a perhaps dangerous phrase, I have also sought to be the Back Benchers’ backstop. I could not do so without the support of a small but superb team in Speaker’s House; the wider House staff; my Buckingham constituents; and, above all, my wife Sally and our three children, Oliver, Freddie and Jemima. [Applause.] From the bottom of my heart, I thank them all profusely.
I could also not have served without the repeated support of this House and its Members, past and present. This is a wonderful place, filled overwhelmingly by people who are motivated by their notion of the national interest, by their perception of the public good and by their duty—not as delegates, but as representatives—to do what they believe is right for our country. We degrade this Parliament at our peril.
I have served as a Member of Parliament for 22 years, and for the last 10 years as Speaker. This has been—let me put it explicitly—the greatest privilege and honour of my professional life, for which I will be eternally grateful. I wish my successor in the Chair the very best fortune in standing up for the rights of hon. and right hon. Members individually, and for Parliament institutionally, as the Speaker of the House of Commons. Thank you. [Applause.]
You really are a very, very, very generous bunch of people indeed. Thank you, on both sides of the House, for the expressions of support, which I richly appreciate. I love this place, you love this place, and we look forward to the future with interest, anticipation and enthusiasm.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to put on record my thanks to you for being a superb Speaker of this House, my thanks to you as a colleague in Parliament, and my thanks to your family for the way in which they have supported you through often very difficult times when many of the media have been very unfair on you. Your two sons are getting good at football. I did some kicks with them in Speaker’s Court the other day and I was very impressed, actually; they are coming on well. And I know you support the same club as me.
In your role as Speaker, you have totally changed the way in which the job has been done. You have reached out to people across the whole country. You have visited schools, you have visited factories, you have visited offices; you have talked to people about the role of Parliament and democracy. I have never forgotten you coming to City and Islington College in my constituency and spending the morning with me talking to a group of students, all of whom had learning difficulties, and we discussed with them the roles of democracy and Parliament.
You have taken absolutely on board the words of Speaker Lenthall that you are there to be guided by and act on behalf of our Parliament. This Parliament is the stronger for your being Speaker. Our democracy is the stronger for your being the Speaker. Whatever you do when you finally step down from Parliament, you do so with the thanks of a very large number of people, and as one who has made the role of Speaker in the House more powerful, not less powerful. I welcome that. As somebody who aspires to hold Executive office, I like the idea of a powerful Parliament holding the Executive to account; it is something I have spent the last 35 years doing myself.
So, Mr Speaker, enjoy the last short period in your office, but it is going to be one of the most dramatic there has been. I think your choice of timing and date is incomparable and will be recorded in the history books of parliamentary democracy. Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Labour party I thank you for your work in promoting democracy and this House. Thank you.
Thank you. I just say to the right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition, that he is very much more experienced and senior than I, but I think that as Back Benchers in our respective parties we did have quite a lot in common. Certainly, speaking for myself, as a Back Bencher, and frequently as an Opposition Front Bencher, I found that I had a relationship with my Whips characterised by trust and understanding—I didn’t trust them and they didn’t understand me.
Further to that a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like, perhaps for the first time, to associate myself wholeheartedly with the comments of the Leader of the Opposition. Since you entered the House of Commons in 1997, it has been clear to everyone who has seen you work as a diligent constituency MP, an effective Back Bencher, and also a tenacious Front Bencher in your time, that you love this House of Commons, you love our democracy, and your commitment to your principles and your constituents is unwavering and an example to others.
This evening I shall vote with many of my colleagues for an early general election. I hope you will not take that personally, Mr Speaker, because I have no wish to prematurely truncate your time in the Chair. However controversial the role of a backstop may be in other areas, your role as the Back Benchers’ backstop has certainly been appreciated by individuals across this House. I have spent much, though not all, of the last 10 years as a member of the Executive, but I have also been a Back Bencher in this House, and I have personally appreciated the way in which you have always sought to ensure that the Executive answer for their actions. History will record the way in which you have used the urgent question procedure and other procedures to hold the Executive to account and have restored life and vigour to Parliament, and in so doing, you have been in the very best tradition of Speakers.
From time to time, those of us on the Government Benches might have bridled at some of the judgments you have made, but I have never been in any doubt that you have operated on the basis that the Executive must be answerable to this House in the same way as this House is answerable to the people. You have done everything in your power to ensure not just the continued but the underlined relevance of this place. Your love of democracy is transparent in everything that you say and do, and as such, I want, on behalf of myself as an individual and on behalf of the Conservative party, to thank you. As a fellow parent of pupils at a distinguished west London comprehensive, may I also say how important it is that discipline is maintained in this House? Your energetic efforts to do so are appreciated even by those of us who may not always be the best behaved in class.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. That was characteristically generous and gracious of him. At the risk of inflicting some damage upon his otherwise flourishing political career, I have on more than one occasion paid public tribute to the quality of the right hon. Gentleman. One of the reasons why he does not complain about urgent questions being granted, to which he has at short notice to answer, is that he is quick enough, bright enough, sharp enough, fair-minded enough, articulate enough and dextrous enough to be able to cope with whatever is thrown at him. I do not want this to become a mutual admiration society, because I am not sure whether it would be more damaging to him or me, but I thank him for what he said, for the way in which he said it and for the spirit that his remarks embody.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I would not seek for a minute to challenge your decision, not least because you would rule me out of order, but I have to say that I regret it and respect it. I say that for this reason. When the history books come to be written, you will be described as one of the great reforming Speakers of the House of Commons. You have indeed been the Back Benchers’ friend and supporter, but in every decision you have made, you have put one consideration above everything else: your wish to enable the House of Commons to discuss matters and to express a view.
There have been occasions when some in the House have taken umbrage at decisions that you have reached, but you have stood by your beliefs and principles, and many Members of this House are eternally grateful to you for having stood up for our rights, enabling us to debate and then to vote on something. The fact that the Speaker decides that something should be debated is not the Speaker saying that the House should agree it; it is the Speaker saying that we should be able to cast our vote. That is why we will regard you in that light for many, many years to come. Thank you very much indeed.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I—as an elector in the Buckingham constituency, not least—offer an expression of thanks to you for your work as a constituency Member of Parliament over the past 22 years? Talking to neighbours and acquaintances in all parts of the Buckingham constituency over the years that you have represented it, I have been struck by the fact that men and women of very different political persuasions, and indeed those of no particular party affiliation, are united in their appreciation of the fact that you have never allowed your considerable duties as Speaker of the House to detract from your responsibility to represent their interests in Buckingham and to respond to the concerns that they raise with you. Colleagues in all parts of the House will speak about your record as Speaker, but those of us in Buckinghamshire will know how you have continued to speak on and champion local interests and local issues.
I know, too, that you will be missed among the somewhat eclectic team of hon. and right hon. Members representing the county of Buckinghamshire. It is perhaps a good measure of the fact that in this place, despite frequent clashes and disagreements, we can still manage to get on. Those Buckinghamshire parliamentary meetings bring together not just you and me but my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and both my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) in a spirit of harmony, at least on county matters.
I thank you for what you have done for us locally and, if I may say so as a former Leader of the House, for what you have done to communicate more to people, particularly to schoolchildren and students around the country, about how this place works and the constitutional significance of Parliament in defending the liberties and debating the interests of the next generation.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I want to observe—others will bear testimony to this, in the light of what he has just said— that the right hon. Gentleman was, frankly, an outstanding Leader of the House of Commons. He is one of the most co-operative and collaborative colleagues whom one could hope to meet. He gets things done, he is extremely personable, and I think it is fair to say that he works based on periodic political difference but continuing personal amiability. If others of us were able to model ourselves on the way in which he has gone about his work over the last 27 years as a Member of Parliament, we would probably be doing better. I thank him for what he has said.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. On behalf of those of us on the SNP Benches, may I say that we will be sad to see you leave office at the end of October? It is fair to say that you have shown considerable grace and purpose—not just to us, but to Members across this House. We are eternally grateful for the way in which you have conducted yourself, particularly over these last few months—at a time, let us be honest, of constitutional crisis for all of us—and for the way you have facilitated Back Benchers, in particular, in being able to hold the Executive to account and, indeed, in making sure that those of us whom people send to this place are able to do our job to the best of our endeavours in representing their interests.
Like the Leader of the Opposition, we are grateful that you will be with us until the end of October, and we look forward to the guidance and supervision you will give to our affairs over the coming weeks. You have been a great friend to many of us in this House. We wish every good wish to you and your family for the coming period. You will always get a friendly welcome in Scotland, and indeed we would love to see you up in Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Mr Speaker, thank you very much on behalf of all of us.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, at the beginning of this Parliament, you asked me if I would propose you for the Chair, and I was very pleased to do so. I made the immortal statement:
“I think he annoys Members on all the Front Benches from time to time, which is probably testament to his even-handedness.”—[Official Report, 13 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 4.]
I think there was not a dry eye in the House, because that was true.
I have to add my voice to that of my Buckinghamshire colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), for the simple reason that, as a colleague in Buckinghamshire, you have been absolutely superb. Speaking as the only female representative of a constituency in Buckinghamshire, I sometimes find it necessary to keep some of you boys under control, because you do not always quite see eye to eye—with me.
I rise to my feet to say a big thank you to you for something else you have done in your time as Speaker. You have hosted events for more than 1,000 charities in Speaker’s House. You have been a true champion of people with autism. Today, as the all-party parliamentary group publishes a report on the 10 years since the Autism Act 2009, I pay tribute to everything you have done, particularly for charitable works, but also for people and families with autism.
I have one great regret, knowing that you are going to stand down. I will lose a great champion in my fight against HS2, and I very much hope that when you retire from the House, whatever you do, you will continue to join me in the fight against HS2 and continue, most importantly, to champion those people with autism and their families.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I remember that when I first met you I went home to my wife and said, “I’ve met this really bumptious, self-opinionated, right-wing, objectionable character.” I could say that you haven’t changed, but the fact of the matter is that you have been an exemplary Speaker. You have been Parliament’s Speaker. I have been here quite a long time, so I have seen people organising the Speaker’s election—usually the Whips. You broke that tradition—we broke that tradition, cross-party. We wanted you, and we denied the Whips their choice, and we got you. Those of us who have been around this place for some time do not regret for a moment that we got Parliament’s Speaker. You have proved that we were right in our choice.
You have been magnificent in the way you have gone around the country. I remember the occasion—we planned it well in advance—when you chose to come to Huddersfield for the whole day. Unfortunately, it was the day after the referendum. It was quite an interesting atmosphere. I remember you getting to Huddersfield and saying, “This is an awfully long way, isn’t it, Barry?” However, you did get about, and you saw how constituents worked. You came to the University of Huddersfield, and you did the job well.
You also, as Speaker, have been the champion of the Back Bencher. The people on the Front Benches—the Whips—love to have their own way. You were determined to let people like me—a Back Bencher—and other Back Benchers have their say. There has been a renaissance of Parliament under your speakership. I hope only that we get someone half as good as you when we single-mindedly, happily, diversely, and democratically choose your successor. Thank you for everything you have done for parliamentary democracy.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As another Buckinghamshire MP, I could not fail to rise to say words of thanks to you for what you have done.
You may recall—it is perhaps worth recalling—that when you were first elected Speaker I think I was the only person in the Chamber who did not stand to applaud you. That was for two reasons. First, I rather disapprove of these displays and, secondly, my preferences lay elsewhere. I think I also indicated to you subsequently that I would do my very best to support you. As the years have gone by, I have come to appreciate that in the extraordinary times in which we live, your leadership of this House has been, in my judgment, exemplary in standing up for the rights of Back Benchers. You will undoubtedly go down as such, setting a benchmark that, built on by future Speakers, will enable the House to operate very much better.
As for Buckinghamshire, Mr Speaker, you will undoubtedly be missed. I sometimes think in the troubled times in which we live, it is time to return to those 17th-century practices of setting up county associations and deciding to keep the rest of the world out, because we would then find that we agree with each other 100%.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am one of those who originally supported you when you stood, in quite troubled times and unexpectedly, to be the Speaker. I did so because you had already demonstrated to me and to others that you were open-minded enough to have gone on a journey. People have not expressed this particular part of you yet in these points of order, but your commitment to equality, women, LGBT people and the disabled, to ensure proper inclusion for everyone in our country and in our politics, is perhaps the thing that has most impressed me.
We worked together behind the scenes when I was shadow Leader of the House. I know how committed, in very difficult times, and wrestling with a rather conservative and hidebound institution, you have been. For that reason alone—for your determination, your judgment, your confidence in your judgment, your deep understanding of the way our Parliament works and your willingness to stand up for the rights of Back Benchers against some of the most ferocious behaviour by Government—you will be remembered as one of the great reforming Speakers.
I hope that, as you get your evenings back, and as you will be able to make a choice about which chair you sit in and for how long—
Well, Mr Speaker, I was not going to mention your bladder, and I am still not.
I hope that as you look back and reflect on all these tumultuous times you will look back with satisfaction on the role you have played, because you deserve to do so. You have been an outstanding Speaker and I wish to add my thanks to the spontaneous tributes we are hearing now. Thank you.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You have been an extraordinary Speaker—an outstanding Speaker. Over the past few weeks, I have very much disagreed with your interpretation of certain Standing Orders, but for the 14 years I have been here you have transformed this place. You used to sit behind me on the Opposition Benches heckling the Government like mad—and then I hear the nerve, Sir, of you telling us off for heckling! I hope, when we forget the Brexit period, you will be remembered for completely transforming this place and allowing Back Benchers to do their job, and for allowing new Members the opportunity to fulfil a career as a Back Bencher while not necessarily wanting to be a Minister.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to associate myself with everything that has been said so far, except perhaps the remarks about HS2.
May I just add a couple of points that have not been mentioned? First, without your family-friendly reforms to this place, particularly the opening of the nursery, your willingness to introduce proxy voting, and allowing babies and young children into the Lobby, I and many others in this place, mothers and fathers alike, would not have been able to carry out our duties and to carry on being Members of Parliament. I thank you enormously for those changes and reforms.
In your time as Speaker, probably the most difficult event was the murder of our friend, Jo Cox. You gave leadership to this whole place, to our collective grief and to the grief of her community and her family, visiting her constituency the day after her terrible murder. I know her family would want me to thank you from the bottom of their hearts for your leadership at that very, very difficult time for this House.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As a Buckinghamshire colleague, it has been a huge pleasure and privilege to work alongside you to further the interests of our constituents—I say “our constituents” because I fondly remember occasions on which I have needed to speak in this place on your behalf, and it has been my privilege and pleasure to do so. It would be graceless of me, of course, to refer to anything where I might possibly have disagreed with you, but I just say that it is perfectly plain to me that you love this place and this Parliament, and I am grateful for all your service.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I express thanks from those on the Liberal Democrat Benches for your decade of service in the Chair.
Very often, to those outside, Parliament can appear stuffy and out of touch. Some of the initiatives that have come in on your watch, including the Wright reforms, with topical questions, and your willingness to grant urgent questions have meant that when people talk about issues outside this place we can discuss them in a timely way in the House, and that has been important.
I was very moved by your tribute to your wife and children, because the families of all of us in this place put up with a lot for us to do the jobs that we do. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) about the reforms that you have made possible, including the parliamentary nursery, babies being able to be in voting Lobbies—indeed, your forbearance in not asking me to leave when I brought baby Gabriel into this House—and the proxy voting reforms, which have already made such a difference for Members with small babies during these rather intense few months of parliamentary debate. Those reforms have been truly important and you have been a truly modernising Speaker. As I am sure you would agree, there is much more to do, and I hope that whoever is your successor will continue in that tradition.
Finally, you have been an absolutely unstinting guardian of parliamentary democracy at a time when people feel the need to take to the streets to argue to defend our democracy. I think back to my first term in this place, between 2005 and 2010. If you had asked me at the time to pinpoint the most important vote that I cast in those five years, I am not convinced that I would have chosen that vote in 2009, but choosing you to be Speaker of this House was arguably the most important vote cast for the future of our country and our parliamentary democracy. I am very glad that I and others in this House made that choice.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. So far, we have mainly heard from distinguished Members on the two Front Benches or immediately prior Members, but I speak on behalf of the permanent, or semi-permanent, Back Benchers, who either by their own wish, or in my case because nobody has ever asked me, have not joined the Front Bench team in recent years. Although I have not followed you in your political journey and on many occasions you have absolutely infuriated me, I have to say, on behalf of Back Benchers, that there is one thing that nobody can ever take away from you: you have been determined to give a voice to those people in this place who want to ask real questions of the Executive. For this, we will always be grateful.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He was, of course, a talented Minister but I have always thought, because I know that his career came to a premature end, that he suffered from the notable disadvantage, as a member of the Government, of not only holding opinions, but feeling inclined, with notable frequency—whether wanted or not—to express them. That seemed to me why he was removed from the Government, but the Executive’s loss was Parliament’s gain.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to add our party’s thanks to you. You have always been the Back Bencher’s champion. You have called me as often as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). You often chastise me gently for saying “you”, but can I say that you have done excellently for Back Benchers? I will try hard not to use that word on other occasions. You have called me to order a few times, but gently, with your humour, kindness and good will, have enabled me to learn the protocols of this House in a way that I hope will stay with me for some time to come. Even with my Ulster Scots and my accent, you always seem to understand me.
You mentioned Sally and your children. The most important thing for us all in the House is the sanity we get when we go back to our families. They are incredibly important. As you know, I turn up for the Adjournment debate every night, and you are always here as well. I will miss you when you are not here. Whatever you do in this world, I know that you will do it well. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Godspeed and God bless.