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Westminster Hall

Volume 672: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2020

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 25 February 2020

[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

UK Oil and Gas Industry

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UK oil and gas industry.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Robertson, for this important and timely debate. It is important because the oil and gas industry is a major employer and a major contributor to the Exchequer, and its success is vital to the economic growth of not just my constituency but all those represented in the Chamber and indeed the entire country. It is timely because never before has an industry—indeed, a country—faced such challenges, had to react to such quick-changing expectations and move at such speed alongside an ever-evolving debate about our future energy needs and how we address the UK’s contribution to anthropogenic climate change.

It was nearly two years ago, in April 2018, that the last debate on the UK’s oil and gas industry was held in this place, led by my former colleague and constituency neighbour, the former MP for Gordon, Colin Clark, and responded to by the then Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, the former MP for Devizes, the right hon. Claire Perry—how times change! When I read that debate in Hansard at the weekend, what really struck me was how little reference there was to climate change: in fact, the phrase was used just four times. There was little comment from anyone on how the UK and indeed the world needed firm, ambitious action to reduce our climate emissions.

That is remarkable, given that but a year later, in May 2019, the UK Committee on Climate Change recommended a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. A month after that, the then Prime Minister Theresa May committed the UK to that target and, a month after that, on 27 June, the United Kingdom passed legislation committing us to net zero by 2050, making us the first, and as yet only, major economy to do that. I bet that no one in the Chamber for that debate two years ago—or here for this one—foresaw the speed of that change. No one could have envisaged Her Majesty’s Government committing to such an ambitious and challenging target. Likewise, I bet that nobody could have ever imagined the chief executive officer of BP saying, as Bernard Looney did last week, that

“The world’s carbon budget is finite and running out fast. We need a rapid transition to net zero…We all want energy that is reliable and affordable, but that is no longer enough…It must also be cleaner.”

He went on to say:

“This will certainly be a challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity. It is clear to me, and to our stakeholders, that for BP to play our part and serve our purpose, we have to change. And we want to change. This is the right thing for the world”.

He did that as he unveiled BP’s commitment to be a net zero company by 2050.

Perhaps we should have foreseen such a speech from one of the world’s largest and the UK’s most successful companies, engaged in the extraction of fossil fuels and with a long history in the North sea; the UK oil and gas industry has, throughout its history, had to battle for its success, be that through economic slumps, environmental challenges, tragedy offshore or simply the difficulties that arise from extracting oil and gas from under the North sea. The industry has had to fight, develop, innovate, experiment and persevere to maintain its continued success. I know, from talking with men and women across the industry at all levels, that it stands ready to do all that again as it plays its part in our future energy mix, leading the way as we transition to net zero.

The hon. Member is making a knowledgeable and impassioned speech about a subject equally dear to my own heart. I would not have settled in Easter Ross and brought up three children if it had not been for the UK oil and gas industry; I owe it everything, as does my family.

More recently, we have assembled wind turbines in the Nigg yard in Easter Ross, which now make up the Beatrice field. The hon. Member talks of reaching targets—surely offshore wind farms such as the Beatrice farm off the coast of Caithness and Sutherland are the way forward.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I could not agree more. The importance to the wider Scottish economy, and indeed the UK economy, is demonstrated by what we see going on in Caithness, Aberdeenshire and further south. Offshore wind is vital to our wider energy mix and meeting our target of net zero by 2050. We have seen such advances in that field over the last few years in terms of reducing the cost of producing energy through offshore wind, so it is incredibly promising and very good to see as part of a wider energy mix.

I represent a constituency in the north-east of Scotland: West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine—a part of the world synonymous with the oil and gas industry. According to the House of Commons Library, some 151,000 people are employed directly by the oil and gas industry across the UK. Of course, in reality, the number is much higher than that: Oil & Gas UK puts the figure at about 270,000, with many support, engineering, technology and even legal recruitment and accounting companies involved, engaged and reliant on a thriving oil and gas sector. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the north-east of Scotland. More than 68% of all direct employment in UK oil and gas is in Scotland and more than 80% of that is in the north-east of Scotland, in and around Aberdeen.

In Westhill, I have the privilege to represent the subsea capital of the world, with more subsea engineering companies per square mile than any other place on the planet. At Badentoy business park in Portlethen, at Blackburn, in the neighbouring constituencies of Aberdeen North, Aberdeen South, Angus and Gordon, and further north along the Banff and Buchan coastline—and even further north than that, in Caithness—there are hundreds of companies employing thousands of people engaged in every imaginable aspect of work in and for the oil and gas industry.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate, which is important for Teesside as well. I join him in paying tribute to the people who ensure that we keep oil and gas flowing and support our economy. Does he share my concern about helicopter safety? The Civil Aviation Authority recently published CAP 1877, its review of measures after the fatal crash in 2013. Is he surprised that 14 of the CAA’s 20-odd recommendations from 2014 are still considered to be ongoing? The CAA really needs to get on with that so we can further reassure offshore workers about their safety.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am not surprised because I was aware of that, but it is regrettable. The CAA should, first, do much more to complete its findings and, secondly, move to reassure all of those who rely on helicopter transport out to the offshore rigs in the North sea.

It would be wrong to think of this solely as a north-east of Scotland industry; that has been demonstrated by the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), whose constituency is in Teesside. This is a UK industry—indeed, a global one—that has contributed over £330 billion to the British economy, supports hundreds of thousands of jobs across the United Kingdom and has a supply chain worth nearly £30 billion, stretching into every nation, region and community across our islands, servicing both domestic activities and exporting almost £12 billion of goods and services to other basins around the world.

Globally, we see British energy companies engaged in work in Mozambique, where, with UK Government support, we are exploiting one of the largest and most recently discovered natural gas fields in the world. In the gulf of Mexico, in the Persian Gulf across the middle east and into the Mediterranean, from Vietnam to Australia, western Africa and the south Atlantic—all those places and more, we find people trained in using technology invented in and working for companies with bases in the United Kingdom.

However, the industry is not without its challenges. It is still emerging from one of the deepest and most sustained downturns in its history. The oil price crash of 2014 to 2016 saw an oil price drop of 70%, which had a huge effect on the industry, particularly in the north-east of Scotland, with many people retraining and leaving the industry altogether. Many of the smaller support companies struggled to survive; some did not. Some, particularly in the supply chain, are not out of the woods yet, but, as I said, resilience, inventiveness and ingenuity are bywords for the oil and gas industry in the United Kingdom and, alongside UK Government support to the tune of £2.3 billion, including investment in the Oil & Gas Technology Centre and the global underwater hub, the industry is confident about its future. We need it to be, for it is from this industry that the skills, technology and investment will come if we are to maximise economic recovery from the basin and reach our target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Many people who do not know the industry—or, indeed, the people in it—might expect it to be averse, even hostile, to the Government’s climate change targets, but nothing could be further from the truth. One need only speak, as I have in recent weeks, to companies such as Total, BP or Equinor, the people at the Oil & Gas Innovation Centre, the technologists and engineers of the Oil & Gas Technology Centre, and the industry body itself, Oil and Gas UK, to learn that the industry is not only not averse to the challenge, but actively embracing it. I recommend the ambitious industry plan Roadmap 2035 to anyone who doubts the industry’s commitment to leading the way, embracing the change and engaging with the challenge as we strive towards net zero, committing the UK continental shelf to be a net zero basin by 2050.

That will, of course, require significant investment and new technology, but it cannot happen in a vacuum and the industry cannot do it by itself. It is committed to developing carbon capture and storage, making it work and making it affordable. That needs to happen. According to the Committee on Climate change, some 175 million tonnes of CO2 a year will have to be stored and captured in the UK alone by 2050 if we are even to come close to meeting our targets.

Teesside is one of the preferred sites for carbon capture and storage, and we hope that the project will go ahead. I wonder what role the hon. Gentleman thinks the industry could play in making sure that the project comes together. To my knowledge, none of the major oil companies is actually involved in the project on Teesside.

I was not aware that no major companies were involved in the project; I think it is important that they should be. If we are to try to engage Government and get governmental support, the industry must lead the way, to show that it has confidence in the technology first.

Far be it from me to override what the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) says, but I have just come from a breakfast briefing on carbon capture and storage, and BP is involved in the Teesside cluster. Hopefully that addresses that concern.

On the vital need to develop carbon capture and storage, does the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) agree that the UK Government cannot pick just one project? At least a few clusters must be given the go-ahead in the forthcoming couple of years.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for enlightening Members about BP’s involvement in the Teesside carbon capture and storage project. I agree with him. He has foresight, because what he said was exactly where I was going next in my speech. We need at least five projects across the UK if we are going to come anywhere near reaching our target in the next few years.

I am grateful. I am always happy to be corrected on such matters, and I had forgotten that BP is involved, but of course there are many other companies—international companies—that could play a far greater role.

I feel as if I am working as an interlocutor between the two hon. Gentlemen. The hon. Member for Stockton North is right. We need every company to be involved at every level to ensure that the projects are a success, but we also need Government.

Having come from the same breakfast briefing as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), I was going to confirm that BP is involved in Teesside. Of course, Shell is involved in the so-called Scottish cluster, between Saint Fergus and Grangemouth. I just wanted to make the point that other clusters are available.

I am glad that everyone enjoyed the breakfast and, yes, I was aware of Shell’s involvement in what is known as the Acorn project, between Saint Fergus and Grangemouth. It is a really promising project and I hope it gets the support that it needs to move forward. However, we also need Government, and that is why I ask the Minister to commit to increasing Government support for the five current carbon capture and storage projects at work across the UK, one of which is the Acorn project in north-east Scotland, and to look to future investment in, and the creation of regulatory and commercial frameworks to support, the future transport and storage of CO2.

We also need the Government to commit to supporting the industry as it exploits the opportunities that it has through the expansion of hydrogen as a key element in the energy mix. According to research, 30% of the UK’s gas supply can be replaced with hydrogen without any modification of domestic appliances, which is quite incredible. Scaling up investment in the creation of hydrogen from natural gas is crucial and shows the importance of natural gas to our future energy requirements as we move forward. I am sure that the Minister will confirm later that all those commitments and more will be outlined in the Government’s forthcoming, soon to be unveiled and long-awaited oil and gas sector deal.

All those advances, however, and all the optimism for the future—embracing the challenge of net zero, investment in new technologies, maintenance of an indigenous energy production sector here in the United Kingdom, investing in British talent and maintaining and creating British jobs—are dependent on one thing: fiscal stability in the North sea.

Teesside, of course, is the centre of the hydrogen production industry in this country. More hydrogen is produced there than anywhere else in the UK, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for encouraging the Government to recognise that they need to play a huge part not just in hydrogen but in carbon capture and storage. After all, the Government removed £1 billion of funding just a few years ago. We really need that to be reinvested, so that such projects can drive places such as Teesside and, of course, large parts of Scotland as well.

I suspect it will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that I could not agree more with what he said: we need Government investment to drive technology in relation to hydrogen. It is great to see Teesside following the north-east of Scotland in developing that technology.

As I was saying, to do any of what I have been describing, we need fiscal stability in the North sea. The North sea is at present one of the most attractive mature basins in the world in which to invest. That is largely because of the long-term and fiscally sensible approach that the Treasury has taken to the industry in recent years. With a Budget but days away, I urge the Government to avoid any abrupt action—any change in the tax regime—that would undermine investment in an industry that is not only embarking on its biggest and most challenging transition in history but still recovering from the shock of the downturn of 2014 to 2016.

We need the oil and gas industry to be a success. We need to maximise economic recovery and support the companies that are investing in our low-carbon future. We need to maintain a local supply chain, local capability and, ultimately, local jobs. The message from this Chamber and this Parliament, and, indeed, from Government, should be that we support the oil and gas industry in the United Kingdom—that it is an industry that we should champion and be proud of, that we understand, and will invest in and work with, as we ensure the North sea’s attractiveness to investors through the maintenance of a steady and sensible fiscal regime for many years to come. It is the industry and the sector from which will come the talent, the ideas and the investment in technologies that are key to addressing the real issues of our age. It is up to us as legislators to support it.

It may help Members if I say that I want to call the first Front-Bench speaker just before 10.30 and to leave two minutes for Mr Bowie to wind up at the end.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) for bringing it forward. He has obtained other debates on this issue in Westminster Hall, and I have been here to support him in them because, as he says, it is not—with great respect—just Teesside and Scotland but the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that benefits from the jobs that are created and from the spin-off to the economy.

We may not get the direct effect of having oilfields or rigs off the coast of Northern Ireland, but people from my constituency and from across Northern Ireland are involved in the work in the North sea. I am always mindful of that, which is why I want to make a contribution to the debate. The industry is important to the economy and to the future of the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so I am pleased we are discussing it today. It is always better when we have the four regions together working as one for the benefit of all. Quite clearly that can happen in this case.

Things have massively changed in the United Kingdom in past years. Having been a net exporter of oil and gas, we are now a net importer. As always, I thank the Library for its succinct briefing, which makes it clear where we stand. Oil and gas made up 75% of the energy supplied in the United Kingdom in 2018. Net imports made up 13% of the oil that the UK used, with the remainder coming from domestic production. Net imports of natural gas were 50% of UK supply. The majority of oil—77% of final consumption—is refined for use in transport. Just over one third of the UK’s total gas is used for domestic heating, and just under one third for electricity generation. The UK is also a net importer of petroleum products, such as petrol, diesel and heating oils.

The oil and gas industry, both onshore and offshore, employs 31,000 people directly and a further 121,000 in relevant supply chains in the United Kingdom. Right across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we all benefit from the oil and gas industry, and we have constituents who make a contribution to this very important sector and industry.

According to estimates from the industry body Oil & Gas UK, overall employment in the industry has fallen by 35% since 2013. In 2016-17, Government revenues from oil and gas production were £1.2 billion, which was a slight increase on previous years, but overall tax revenue from oil and gas has declined sharply over the past decade. Again, we look forward to the Minister’s response on that point.

We have a massive need for oil and gas to meet our energy and transport needs, and we must future-proof how we meet them, to be less reliant on other nations and to be self-sufficient. How do we do that? That is what the hon. Gentleman referred to. I often point to the energy that is all around us, which, if harnessed correctly, can meet our needs. I know it is not oil and gas, but it is energy. I think specifically of the SeaGen current turbine that was in Strangford lough in my constituency. At one stage, it had the capacity to supply one of my major towns with electricity. There were issues with SeaGen as it came to the end of its life, but the fact remains that there is potential there for us to become less reliant on overseas production and more reliant on what God has given us: a reliable, twice-daily tide and strong undersea currents.

My hon. Friend talks about potential; does he agree that the proposed oil and gas sector deal that we hear about from the Government gives them an opportunity to achieve the levelling up they have talked about, and that it should transcend north-east Scotland and cover the entire United Kingdom, so that companies and people involved in the energy sector can benefit from that new deal?

That is exactly what we need to do. Many of the debates we now have, as we are leaving the EU and looking towards a better and more prosperous future for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, are about levelling out. How can we all benefit? It is absolutely right that we should be trying to do that in every way we can. There are opportunities for economic boosts, for employment, for a better society and for people’s quality of living to be increased.

While none of us advocates for endless money’s being poured into research project after research project, the fact is that, for us to understand how best to meet energy needs, we must do the research. That leads me to the issue of exploratory fracking. There are obvious concerns about the impact that that has on the surroundings, and it is clear that we need to know what the impact would be before we could even consider implementing fracking. I remain unconvinced of its safety. People are divided on whether fracking is good for the economy, the rural community or people, and there are concerns.

Back in 2016 I asked a question of the Minister then in place—not the Minister who is here today, by the way:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, if he will update national and planning policies to (a) account for shale operations and (b) introduce buffer zones between shale developments and local communities.”

At the time, I was not entirely convinced by the ministerial reply:

“The National Planning Policy Framework and supporting guidance sets out a comprehensive approach to planning for shale gas extraction in England.”

We had a potential shale exploration outside Larne in East Antrim. That did not go anywhere, because the opposition from people close by was very clear, but we need to find a balance in the process. The reply continued:

“Planning guidance includes the use of buffer zones in the determination of planning applications for hydrocarbon extraction, including from shale. This states that above ground separation distances are acceptable in specific circumstances where it is clear that, based on site specific assessments and other forms of mitigation measures (such as working scheme design and landscaping), a certain distance is required between the boundary of the minerals site and the adjacent development.”

We must try to develop a balance between meeting our constituents’ high demand for energy and the need to address climate change, which the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine referred to in his contribution—we cannot ignore that either. We are committed to the target of net zero carbon by 2045, and many organisations have signed up to it; the National Farmers Union has signed up to it and has come up with some great ideas on how to achieve it. We must ensure that we can deliver our own energy needs in a way that means we are not dependent on others.

I close with this point: it is clear that we have a duty of care to our constituents to protect their environment, but also to secure future energy provision. That is a very delicate balance, which needs to be carefully considered. I look forward to understanding more from the Government and the Minister about their plans for finding and sustaining that delicate balance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

Earlier in my career I was involved with the oil and gas sector as a taxation expert, dealing with the taxation of oil and gas companies. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) that, in the Budget that is coming up, there should be no changes that rock the oil and gas industry. We do not need to throw bricks at an industry that is already doing so much to help with the net zero carbon targets that we are trying to achieve.

The context is the enormous decline in revenues from the oil and gas sector. Back in 2008-09, revenues were at something like £13 billion; they are now down to just over £1 billion. That is a colossal collapse, and we need to do something to encourage the oil and gas sector and to help it survive.

The sector also needs more capital investment. Capital investment has fallen to one of the lowest levels in history and is now down to about £5 billion a year. That is coupled with a decline in drilling and an increase in the rate of decommissioning costs to almost £2 billion, which is quite a large increase—I see that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) is about to intervene on me.

The hon. Gentleman read my body language extremely accurately. Contingent on what he has rightly said about how the industry is changing, thinking about the UK’s future in what—whichever side of the argument we are on—is going to be a period of change, and having been in the industry myself, what worries me is that we do see a slight deskilling in terms of welding techniques and working in stainless steel. Those skills could be pertinent to the hydrogen industry, and they are very hard to replace. I am not saying there should be a fiscal change, but we must be aware of those skills and safeguard them for the future, whichever way this country goes.

In just a second, I will tackle an issue that I hope will help with the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

The figures have already been quoted for the number of people employed in the oil and gas sector in the UK. Just over 30,000 are employed full time, but in the supply chain, which is the most important part and which I want to concentrate on, the number is close to 150,000. That is a phenomenal number of people to have to deal with.

I have been, and still am, the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria. The link here is in the Aberdeen sector of the supply chain, which I have been involved with, to try to get people to go to Nigeria. Why should they be interested in Nigeria? The skills that we have in Aberdeen are just the sort required to set the Nigerian oil and gas sector on the right course. Historically, a huge amount of the income from that sector has not even reached the Ministry of Finance; it has got nowhere near—it has simply been diverted. When so much of the industry is essentially black market, it is difficult to get efficiency, but we have all the expertise in Aberdeen and other places throughout the UK to be able to bring that.

I have been told that Aberdeen has the highest percentage of Nigerians of any place in the world outside Africa, but we have a real problem in Aberdeen with the visa system. When people come over for university and things like that, actually staying afterwards is very difficult for them. I find the visa system incredibly obstructive for my Nigerian constituents. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the flow of information and expertise would work better if the visa system was a bit more flexible, allowing people to develop their expertise in Aberdeen before going back to Nigeria?

I like to think that it is something to do with the activities I have been conducting on behalf of the Government that there are so many Nigerians in Aberdeen. I suspect I cannot claim full credit for that, although I have tried to encourage companies in Aberdeen to go out to Nigeria and encourage people to come back. Nigerians can learn a tremendous amount from companies in Aberdeen, and I think they recognise that. The commitment to the oil and gas sector shown by President Buhari is a good indication that he takes it seriously. I hope we will be able to do something with that—something much better than we have done in the past—in order to take things forward.

This is all about getting better control, including over the net zero target set in not only the UK but globally as well, and our ability to see that target gain traction through what we do and the investments that we make. For somewhere like Nigeria, the ability to get to a net zero approach in the oil and gas sector at the moment is quite low. Again, the expertise that we have here is crucial to getting to that. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine mentioned two elements of that—carbon capture and storage and hydrogen production. The relevance of this to my constituency, which may seem a long way from Aberdeen and the companies I am talking about, is that Invesco, in my constituency, has a great interest in helping to fund hydrogen production as part of the energy mix here.

The other link to my constituency is a former Member and Minister, Tim Eggar, the chairman of the Oil and Gas Authority. I draw the House’s attention to a recent speech in which he made important comments on how the industry could move towards a much better net zero target. This man knows the industry extremely well and has worked in it for much of his life, and I hold his comments in full.

If we keep in mind those remarks about how we are helping the oil and gas sector to stay profitable and to get out and sell its expertise around the world, that will keep us in good stead for the future.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) for bringing this important debate. Like me, he represents a fantastic part of the country. I have a lot more of the city than he does—in fact, very much more—but the issues that impact our constituents, certainly in terms of the oil and gas industry, are incredibly similar.

That trend exists right across the north-east of Scotland: quite frankly, there is not a family or individual who does not know someone directly linked to the oil and gas sector or indirectly linked through the enormous supply chain that we heard about. The effect and influence of the North sea oil and gas sector in the north-east of Scotland is something to behold, and we rightly debate it today. The industry impacts not only the north-east of Scotland and Aberdeen, but the entirety of Scotland and, indeed, this United Kingdom, through the skills and expertise that it puts forward and the economic benefit that it brings to these islands. That is an incredibly important topic that I will come to.

As we heard from the hon. Gentleman, as the Government move towards the Budget, we need stability—everyone in the oil and gas sector at this moment in time craves continued stability. As we heard, the crash had a devastating impact on the lives of so many people. Frankly, the city is still recovering; house prices and the like are still significantly below where they were prior to the crash. That, obviously, had an impact on so many individuals, so we need stability within the tax regime. I certainly hope the Minister will be able to provide clarity about that.

However, this discussion should not only be about stability and the here and now; it also has to be about what the future entails for the oil and gas sector. As we heard—and rightly so—we want a net zero future for Scotland and the United Kingdom, and it is vital for all our future prosperity that we get to that point sooner rather than later. Perhaps the best way in which that could be achieved, certainly from my perspective, is through harnessing some of the economic gain from the oil and gas sector.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that roughly £8.5 billion of revenue from the sector will be incoming in the years up to 2022. We should take some of that money—roughly 12%; £1 billion—and reinvest it into cities such as Aberdeen, to protect the workforce going forward as we make that transition. It should be a sustainable transition that reflects the fact that the industry has an incredibly important role to play in all our collective futures. Simply turning off the tap will not work, but we can ring-fence that money to protect cities such as Aberdeen, where energy is the key industry and where jobs are on the line. I sincerely hope that the Minister will be forthcoming in agreeing to such remarks.

Obviously, we have heard a lot about an oil and gas sector deal. I have heard questions in the Chamber about it and we saw it in the Conservative manifesto; in fact, we have heard it talked about for a number of years now, although I have yet to see any substantive detail. The Minister has the opportunity today to clarify the detail, including what will be in an oil and gas sector deal and whether it will include actions, rather than just a few words in a manifesto.

Hopefully, within the sector deal the Minister will take forward the proposal that I just suggested. It was overwhelmingly supported by the people of Scotland in the general election in December, as a key tenet of the Scottish National party manifesto. It will not have missed the gaze of Government Members that the SNP did extremely well in that election, based on that manifesto commitment. Indeed, there were changes in some seats, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson).

I will labour the point: we have an opportunity to ring-fence some of the income. We have, of course, heard words from the UK Government over many decades about how they will seek to protect the oil and gas industry, yet when we look across the North sea at Norway—enviously—we see a nation with a trillion-dollar oil and gas fund while we have nothing. It is perhaps too late to introduce an oil and gas fund, but it is not too late to ring-fence some of the income that will be generated, to protect the future prosperity of cities such as Aberdeen and, indeed, other energy hotspots throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom.

The issue is important because, as I have said, we need to make an energy transition. We heard earlier about BP wanting to make a rapid transition. I have had the opportunity to meet with BP, Shell and Equinor in recent weeks—since the election—to hear about what they are seeking to do to overcome the challenges that face them and, indeed, all of us. Equinor, I think, is heavily involved in the likes of the high wind turbine off the coast of the UK, which is a fantastic initiative.

As an Aberdonian—I point out that I am an adopted Aberdonian, but an Aberdonian none the less, before my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) says anything—I will labour the point that just off the coast of our city is the Vattenfall development. That single development has the energy capacity to provide for 88,000 homes, the entire population of Aberdeen. It is brilliant not just because it is able to do that; it has the added bonus of annoying the President of the United States, whose golf course has apparently been impacted.

Aberdeen is of course an oil and gas city, but, as I just mentioned, the Vattenfall development is off the coast and we are also a leader in hydrogen technology, which has a role to play as we seek to move into a more sustainable future. I am very fortunate in living extremely close to one of the hydrogen developments in Aberdeen, and I know that if we seek to build on that industry, it can be successful. I hope that the Minister, as he sums up the debate, will refer to the hydrogen industry with regard to where the future of the UK lies in terms of an energy transition.

My final comment is about what the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said about skills and harnessing them. I congratulate him on the work that he has done, which I am sure has benefited my city and my constituents. We need to harness skills, not just for export but to allow the sustainable transition to take place in the oil and gas sector. If we are to have a sustainable future, we need the expertise of individuals who have managed to build the oil and gas sector to transfer over and to lead that renewable future. We cannot have a sustainable future without the oil and gas sector; the people behind it have to be at the forefront.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on securing the debate. Two weeks ago, I was privileged to be re-elected chair of the British offshore oil and gas industry all-party parliamentary group; one of the first tasks that I was assigned was to secure a Backbench Business debate on this subject—my hon. Friend has eased my workload considerably.

The oil and gas industry has been an integral part of the East Anglian economy for more than 50 years. Until recently, the industry’s sole focus was on maximising recovery from the UK continental shelf. That has changed as we set about decarbonising the economy and delivering on our legally binding target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Oil & Gas UK has published “Roadmap 2035: A blueprint for net-zero”, which outlines the role that the industry will play in a net zero future. It is very welcome that the industry recognises the difficult and enormous challenge that we face, not just in the UK but all around the world. It is important that the industry steps up to the plate and plays a lead role in delivering the transformation. It should continually ask itself, “Can we do more? Can we do better?”

At the same time, it is important for the Government and policy makers to work with the industry, acknowledging the key role that oil and gas played in the UK economy in the second part of the 20th century and continues to play in the 21st century. We must not unfairly stigmatise the industry and those who work in it, but should recognise that they are part of the solution and not the problem.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being re-elected chair of the APPG. He has had one burden taken off him; may I provide him with another by asking that the APPG start to look at some of the safety issues? He knows that I bang on about that. I hope that he will join me in welcoming the proposed wider review of the helicopter elements of the basic offshore and emergency training, given the distances that people have to travel offshore. Will he join me in encouraging the Minister to engage, like the RMT, Unite and the other unions, in that review, so that the recommendations we get out at the end actually enhance safety rather than diminishing it?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and wholeheartedly endorse the point that safety is paramount. There have been some horrific accidents while we have been working on the UKCS; Piper Alpha comes immediately to mind. Post-Piper Alpha, following Lord Justice Cullen’s report, we did put in place a very good safety system, but we must never forget the vital importance of the responsibility that we owe to all those people who work in the industry.

Both hon. Members have made the excellent point that, like our environmental performance, health and safety in the oil and gas sector across the UK has been world class—in fact, world envied for a number of years—so that it is one of our exportable commodities as well. Does my hon. Friend agree that we and the Government need to continue looking at the export opportunities of not just the technology but the expertise?

My hon. Friend is spot on; I will make this point in the little time that I have. Extracting oil and gas from the UKCS has not been straightforward, but as a result this country has developed expertise and specialisations that we have been able to take all around the world. As we transform to zero carbon, to renewables, we must not lose sight of that: we must continue to play that world-leading role in energy production.

I shall briefly highlight what I see as the future features of the UK oil and gas industry. First, it has an ongoing key role to play in the country’s energy security. The demand for petrochemicals will be with us for some time. It makes sense for that to be supplied, as much as possible, from our own resources, in as carbon neutral a manner as possible.

Secondly, the industry must be a bridge to a low-carbon future, promoting the use of gas, hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage. As the Committee on Climate Change has highlighted, the latter has a pivotal role to play if we are to achieve—and hopefully better—the 2050 zero carbon target. It is welcome that the Government recognise that, have published the CCUS action plan and have committed £50 million of innovation funding to drive down the costs.

Thirdly, the oil and gas industry has an important role to play in collaborating and working with its counterparts in offshore renewables. The skills required are in many respects transferable. Such work is already taking place, with both oil and gas and offshore wind learning from each other and with opportunities emerging to pioneer inter-sector training and currency certifications. Gas-to-wire technology and gas platform electrification, powered by offshore wind, are emerging as new advances that provide additional resilience in supply, while assisting in decarbonising traditional methods of generation.

Fourthly and finally, it is vital that we do not forget the enormous amount of work that needs to be done in decommissioning oil and gas assets on the UKCS. In the southern North sea—that is what I am interested in, but it is a very small part of the basin—late-life and decommissioning expenditure is forecast at about £4.4 billion for the period up to 2027. That amounts to an average spend of about £445 million. It is important that we have a policy framework and investment strategy that ensures we secure as much of that work as possible for the UK and for East Anglian businesses.

For the oil and gas industry to deliver on those opportunities, Government and industry must work together. That will be done best through an oil and gas sector deal, which was included in the Conservative manifesto in the general election. I look forward to the Minister updating us on its preparation. I request, as have others, an assurance that the Government recognise the need for ongoing fiscal stability in the forthcoming Budget.

I conclude with a point that I have made during many debates on the oil and gas industry, in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber. One of the best features of the industry is the UK’s ability to export skills and expertise, learnt on the UKCS, all around the world. In any oil and gas basin around the world, one can hear Scottish, Geordie, Norfolk and Suffolk accents. We must ensure that that remains the case, with the UK leading the world in the transition to and delivery of low-carbon energy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on securing this debate. I was shocked to hear we have not debated this subject since April 2018—quite some time ago. I was present at that debate, and I was one of the few people the hon. Gentleman did not mention—perhaps because I am a constant in these oil and gas debates. I am afraid I will make the same, or a pretty similar, speech to the one I made last time, but the Minister was not here then, so it will all be new to him.

Previous debates on this issue have generally come in the run-up to a Budget, to try to make clear the asks of the oil and gas sector in the Budget. We were particularly successful around transferable tax history where we all worked together to push the Government to ensure that it was put in place so that new players could come into the oil and gas fields. That was incredibly useful and a good opportunity for us to work together.

We do not agree on everything, but we all feel strongly—I think everybody in this room feels strongly—that we should move towards a sector deal. If the Minister cannot give us full details of the sector deal, it would be helpful if he could at least let us know the timeline for announcements on it. The issue has been hanging around for a long time, and the industry has been waiting quite some time to hear what will happen. The more certainty the industry has on the timeline, the better.

In the last debate on this issue, I mentioned Vision 2035, which has been followed by Roadmap 2035, both of which are about ensuring we move towards net zero while continuing to have a successful oil and gas sector in the UK for many years. We spoke about the importing of oil and gas to the UK to meet our energy needs, and that is a concern for a number of reasons. There is a carbon cost to importing oil and gas, because of the ships or however it gets here. There is also an additional carbon cost in its extraction. If we are moving to net zero extraction under Vision 2035 in the UK, we will ensure that as little carbon as possible is expended in the extraction process, but other countries that extract oil and gas may not be so far along that route, so there may be a differential in the carbon costs of extraction. If the Government intend to import more oil and gas in the future, I ask that they look closely at where we are getting it from and at the related carbon cost. We cannot say it is not our problem because it is being extracted somewhere else, so it is somebody else’s problem; that is not how this works. If we are using that oil and gas, we need to own up to the carbon created in its extraction. That is incredibly important.

Vision 2035 and Roadmap 2035 also focus on the supply chain. Our supply chain is phenomenal. It is recognised as the gold standard across the world in several areas, but particularly safety. On safety, the UK continental shelf is absolutely up there—it is tip-top. Everybody does everything they can to ensure the highest possible levels of safety. If our supply chain is going to continue exporting around the world, we need to export that safety culture too. That relates not only to any oil and gas we import, but to ensuring that we lead the way on improving safety around the world.

We can also export our capability to move towards net zero extraction to ensure that we level up places around the world that extract oil and gas, and reduce the amount of carbon they create during the extraction process. We can be real world leaders not only, as I mentioned last time, in working in a super-mature basin, which we already are, but in exporting our safety culture and net zero culture in the extraction process.

Carbon capture and storage has been spoken about a number of times. Like many others, I am still sore about the previous Government’s pulling of carbon capture and storage. While that was not done by this Government, there is a concern, and it is difficult for the Government to build trust in this place. I am pleased the Government have moved forward with commitments to carbon capture and storage. It is incredibly important that the UK Government support a number of carbon capture and storage clusters, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and ensure they get off the ground as quickly as possible, with real projects that work, so that we can be world leaders in exporting our expertise in carbon capture and storage to the world and assisting the world by storing its carbon.

If we have surplus capacity in, for example, the Acorn system, once it is up and running, we should store carbon from countries around the world and charge them to do so. That is a great way for us to make additional revenue. I hope that we will do what we can, and the Government will do what they can, to ensure that CCS gets off the ground and gets working as quickly as possible, and that the Government make it unequivocally clear that they support CCS and will not pull the rug out from under it again. We cannot afford to do that; we cannot afford to look at a net zero future without carbon capture and storage. We must make those moves.

Moving away from oil and gas at some point in the future means that we will need a transition in place. It means we will have to utilise the expertise in our industry to better harness our renewable capability. Those who work in subsea technologies, mostly in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, have a massive amount of expertise that can be utilised for tidal, wave and offshore wind power. We must ensure that we utilise those skills and transfer them to these emerging industries, and that those industries are made viable in the UK. If it requires Government support to kick-start them, that is fine with me. We will get to the stage where are exporting that expertise as well—we are good at exporting things.

In Scotland, we have the capacity to have lots more floating offshore wind and lots more offshore wind in general, but also lots more onshore wind. Again, we can utilise the skills we have. I urge the Government to reconsider whether they will have contract for difference support rounds for onshore wind and solar. We strongly feel that we can do more in that space in Scotland. About 75% of our electricity in 2018 was generated from renewable sources. We want to do better than that, but we can only do better if the Government reconsider their position on CfD support. We will continue to push strongly on that.

As I mentioned, there is a significant issue with visas for my constituents. In Aberdeen, we have people from the UK. The next nationality is Polish. I understand that the next is Romanian, and the next one after that is Nigerian. We have a significant percentage of Nigerians living in Aberdeen, and it is incredibly difficult for them to get visas, whether that is to work, to come as contractors or just to get their mum to come over to see their graduation. The knock-back in visitor visa numbers is significant. When the Government look at their new visa system, I urge them to think carefully about ensuring that we can access the expertise we need and that Nigeria and other Commonwealth countries, in particular, can access the expertise they need by having a flow of people between the two countries.

Brexit is also an issue in relation to visas. A significant number of people in the oil and gas industry are from the EU, and we need to ensure they can continue to move freely between the EU and Scotland. For example, Total has a presence in Aberdeen, and many people move between there and France. That movement needs to continue.

Lastly, on a just transition and net zero, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) mentioned that we want to ring-fence oil and gas revenues to ensure that we are moving towards net zero. That is not about changing the tax regime, but about hypothecating that tax. During the Budget process, we do not have the opportunity to make amendments to say that that is what we want. During the estimates process, there is not the opportunity to make amendments to ask for hypothecation to happen. However, we can press strongly and say that that is what we want to happen. We want the money to be ring-fenced so that we can move towards net zero. We ask that 12% of the revenue is ring-fenced for places such as Aberdeen, Falkirk and Shetland, which rely heavily on oil and gas and will need assistance to make a just transition.

My constituency has one of the highest numbers of public sector workers of any constituency in the UK. There are two council headquarters, a major teaching hospital and a university in my constituency. For people working in the public sector, providing support in order that we have a successful oil and gas industry, issues such as housing costs have been significant. When we move towards the transition period and there is a reduction in oil and gas, I do not want the people who have not worked in that industry, and who have found it incredibly difficult to scrape by living in such an expensive city, to be hit again.

I want the entire city to be assisted in the transition process, and all the people in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, not just those who work in oil and gas, to be helped to access the services they need and housing they can afford. That goes for Moray, Banffshire and other places. The just transition needs to happen for people working in oil and gas, but also for our city and region as a whole.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on securing the debate. I follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), and I am also somewhat of a veteran in debates on this subject.

Cynics have mentioned that such debates are called on the cusp of a Budget to talk about why the oil and gas industry should have lots more support from Government. However, it is significant that the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine did not talk just about that. I concur with the sentiment expressed around the Chamber that the Government should not continue to treat the oil and gas industry as a cash cow, as has happened on previous occasions. The industry has come out of a difficult period and is recovering, but it still has enormous challenges ahead and needs considerable support in the next phase of its development. That support will be of a different nature to that needed hitherto, because of the context mentioned by the hon. Gentleman: climate emergency, climate change and the challenge of net zero. Those issues suffuse our considerations of the future of the oil and gas industry.

Our considerations therefore need to be sober and varied in reach. For example, the North sea basin is a highly mature basin from which 43 billion barrels of oil have been extracted, and it is estimated that there are about 10 billion barrels left. There will probably not be any new oilfield discoveries in the North sea. However, a large number of small pools have been found. They remain unexploited and have not been developed for various economic reasons. The sector should perhaps concentrate on those in the future. The gains in efficiency in the industry in recent years, and the net reduction in carbon intensity of production, suggests that small pool extraction could be a viable proposition in the not-too-distant future. The infrastructure already in the North sea needs to be available for small pool extraction, rather than being taken away and decommissioned, and then having to be recommissioned for those small pools to be developed.

Decommissioning is another enormous industry that the North sea oil and gas community can benefit from, not just in the North sea but worldwide. We can export the decommissioning expertise we have in the UK to projects elsewhere in the world. In the North sea, some 250 platforms, 10,000 km of pipelines and 50,000 wells are to be decommissioned. That is an enormous industry that needs to be taken forward solidly over the next period, notwithstanding the need to retain some structure for small pools and the other major potential industry, which is carbon capture and storage.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), mentioned the possibility—indeed, I think, the absolute necessity—of developing not just carbon capture and storage capacity, but carbon capture and storage nodes. That would mean we could develop entire chain arrangements of CCS, from inland to nodes and out to the North sea, and that we could get involved in the production of hydrogen. All those exciting developments could provide an enormous and bright future for the North sea oil and gas industry. There should be better collaboration between the oil and gas industry and the offshore wind industry to look at the necessary skills, infrastructure and supply chains, so that the similar technologies involved can be better developed, which would be in the UK’s interests.

In the context of climate change, we need to recognise not only that there is going to be a different future for North sea oil and gas, but that oil and gas will be needed in different forms in the UK over a long period. We are not simply going to dispense with oil and gas. All sorts of applications need oil and gas. For example, the production of hydrogen over the next period will conceivably substantially involve steam-methane reformation from gas. Even if we are bringing hydrogen forward with CCS, that will be a substantial part of the process.

We therefore cannot say that there will be no oil and gas in the future in the UK, but the projections by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the amount of oil and gas we are going to use show a substantial decline up to 2035. That is the period of Oil & Gas UK’s Vision 2035. I very much commend to hon. Members its approach to changing the nature of the oil and gas industry to be climate change-facing, as far as developments are concerned. We then have the prospect, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, of seeking self-sufficiency in a declining market for UK oil and gas products. That would be centred on those different uses for oil and gas, and it seems to me to be an essential part of the future of the oil and gas industry. That is what a bright future looks like.

My final thought is that the sooner we get a sector deal for the industry that recognises those imperatives and those particular ways forward, and that produces stability for the sector in the context of those changes, the better off we will be.

The hon. Member mentions stability. The Labour party stood on a manifesto commitment for a windfall tax. Is that something it still supports?

The question of a windfall tax depends to a considerable extent on the health of the industry as a whole. Members have mentioned what revenues may arise for development purposes, and that is essentially what we are talking about. I emphasise that the ability to provide revenue very much depends on whether the industry reshapes itself in the way I have described, and that is why a sector deal is imperative.

As a veteran of these debates—I am sure the hon. Member for Aberdeen North will recall this—I remember Richard Harrington, the then Minister, saying in October 2018 that we were at

“the final stage of the process”.—[Official Report, 9 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 22WH.]

He said that we would be at the end of the process soon. In the debate in March 2019 on sector deals, he said:

“I am very much looking forward to advancing these proposals.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 222WH.]

We received a knock-back shortly after that, when the Government said they did not think it was such a good idea to have a sector deal after the Select Committee had produced its report. Then, the Conservative manifesto stated that there would be a sector deal after all.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister whether there is a sector deal in the pipeline, so to speak, in the way we are talking about this morning. If there is, when will that sector deal come out of the end of the pipeline and secure the industry for the future, in the way that every Member in this Chamber would want? The Minister could greatly advance our discussion—I am sure he will—by putting those points on the table today.

It is a real pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) for securing it. I was surprised to hear that we had not debated these issues since April 2018.

Far be it from me to try to correct the record again, but there was a debate in this Chamber in October 2018, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally). I spoke in that debate as well.

I am glad to hear we have debated these issues more recently. Certainly in my recollection, we have discussed this issue many times in this forum and in the main Chamber. The sector is vitally important. It has been for many decades now, and the Government take it extremely seriously.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine used a phrase that struck me: “quick-changing expectations”. That is clearly what has happened. Where we are today is very different from where we were when we had the debate in April 2018 and where we were even last year. Some people have kindly observed that we have a new Government. We had a general election at the end of 2019, and we now have a new Government with a new mandate who are very much concerned with this issue.

Oil and gas is an important sector not only for energy security but, crucially, for the economy and jobs. It has contributed something like £340 billion in production taxes over the past six decades, and it has added £570 billion of gross value added to the economy since 1990. Many speakers in the debate observed that in excess of 250,000 jobs across the UK are dependent on the sector, so there is no question but that the oil and gas sector is vital.

However, we have to deal with the conditions that we find ourselves in. As the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) pointed out, the UK continental shelf is now a highly mature basin. We are looking to reduce our fossil fuel use, which is inevitable, given that in June 2019 we made the very significant commitment to achieve net zero carbon by 2050. It is important to stress that, as of today, we are the only nation in the world—certainly among the advanced economies—that has enshrined that aspiration in law, meaning that it is no longer an aspiration but the law of the land to reach that target by 2050.

One very useful phrase that came out of the debate and that we need to think about was from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who suggested that the oil and gas industry could act as “a bridge” to a low-carbon future. That is exactly the right sentiment and expresses succinctly how the Government think about the sector and our future as a low-carbon economy.

One of the key themes in the Just Transition Commission and the moves towards net zero has been carbon capture development. There have been requests that the Government support far more than one cluster. The suggestion from the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) was for five clusters. Can the Minister outline where the Government are going on that issue?

With permission, Mr Robertson, I will address carbon capture later in my speech. There is plenty of food for thought and actual policy that I would like to address, but I want to talk about the transition. It is important, as the hon. Member for Southampton Test suggested, that we get the message out that we do not see the end of the oil and gas industry in this energy transition. Oil and gas has a crucial part to play in that transition, not least because of some of the carbon capture issues I want to address later.

Let us be clear where we are today. Currently, 70% of primary energy demand in the UK is met by oil or gas. Some 85% of houses—I suspect this includes the houses, apartments and dwellings of most people in this room—rely on gas central heating. The Committee on Climate Change has said that there will be a continued need for oil and gas as we make our transition to net zero emissions. That is extremely important, and on that basis I would like to talk about some of the announcements we have made, particularly in regard to carbon capture, usage and storage.

We made a public commitment in the Conservative manifesto to invest £800 million in carbon capture, usage and storage. It could not be clearer than that. I am very hopeful that we will be able to make a significant announcement along those lines in the Budget, to honour our manifesto commitment. It is important for my Department. However, Members will appreciate that I am not the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that the Budget is a matter for him and the Treasury. In a former capacity, I served as the parliamentary private secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for 18 months, which in the context of the political climate was a very long time.

I congratulate the Minister on his speech. A number of Ministers have had responsibility for this portfolio in recent times. Claire Perry was a very big supporter of CCUS and did what she could to push it forward. I know that the Minister cannot commit to money in the Budget, because that is not his role, but will he commit to personally championing CCUS and doing everything he can to retain the £800 million commitment or to increase it if possible?

I give the hon. Lady an absolute assurance that I have been totally committed to CCUS. In fact, one of the first conversations I had when appointed was with a leading industry figure, who called me to say, “I hope you will deliver on CCUS.” I was very pleased to say, “I will absolutely champion this. It is central to our strategy.” We have legislated for a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050. How we reach that without CCUS is a mystery to me. CCUS should be at the centre of any strategy to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Government are absolutely committed to that.

I assure the hon. Lady that I am as committed, if not more so, than my predecessor to landing the technology, because it is crucial. The net zero carbon legislation was passed in June 2019, and within three weeks I was the Energy Minister, so it has really shaped my entire experience of the portfolio. For most of my predecessor’s tenure, we still had the 80% reduction target. It is now a much more serious and pressing concern, and I hope that we will be able to deliver on that commitment. In our next debate on oil and gas, I hope we will be able to say that we have CCUS investment and potential clusters.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), it seems to me that if we are going to commit large amounts of capital to CCUS, there will be more than one cluster. There is a debate about where those clusters and that deployment of capital will take place, but my understanding is that if we are going to commit that capital, it will not be in just one area.

It is not just about CCUS. The net zero strategy encompasses a wide range of technologies. We committed in the manifesto to 40 GW of offshore wind capacity, which is a huge step from our previous 30 GW commitment. It is a very ambitious commitment, and there will be challenges in meeting it, but I am convinced that the industry, in co-operation with Government, will be able to do so. We have also committed to £9.2 billion to improve the energy efficiency of homes. We are particularly concerned about fuel poverty.

This is slightly off topic, but on improving the energy efficiency of homes, will the Minister support lobbying the Chancellor for a reduction in VAT on repairs and renovations to existing properties?

The hon. Gentleman is making a successful bid to lure me away from the path of the debate. We are going down rabbit holes regarding the Budget and that sort of thing. He will be as interested as I am to find out what is in the Budget next month, and I am sure that we can resume such discussions then. On VAT, to draw on my previous experience, we are obviously still in the transition period, which means that even though we are out of the EU we will be bound in some ways by its VAT regime for the rest of the year. I therefore do not think that it is likely that there will be significant announcements on VAT in the Budget, but who knows? We wait with bated breath, as they say.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) made some interesting remarks regarding the hydrogen economy. For experts and people like ourselves who are interested in such subjects, it is difficult to see how we can have CCUS without hydrogen production, as they are linked. The chemical processes that lead to carbon capture also produce hydrogen, so any movement in the development of CCUS—any investment in improving capacity—will, I think, be a boon to the nascent hydrogen industry. That is one of the most exciting areas of my job. We are potentially at the beginning of a new industry in this country, and hydrogen generates a great deal of interest, debate and excitement in the sector.

On the different technologies for which carbon capture and storage is a critical factor, will the Minister consider talking to colleagues in the Department for Transport about alternative aviation fuel, some of which will also require carbon capture and storage for its creation?

Naturally—my hon. Friend appreciates that reaching the net zero carbon target is a cross-Government endeavour. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, for which I am responsible, and other Departments, including the Treasury, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport, must all be engaged to reach those targets. I am therefore happy to engage in such conversations; they are crucial to our ability to reach the target.

A lot has been said about the oil and gas sector deal. I am not bound by any promises made by previous Governments, but I assure Members that we are committed to an oil and gas sector deal in the course of this Parliament. It would be premature of me to go into details, because those are precisely what we are negotiating. I look forward, hopefully as Energy Minister, to being able to celebrate and launch the deal.

I appreciate that the Minister just said “in the course of this Parliament”, but the next five years is not the best timeline. Could he be a little more specific? Will the deal come in the next year or in the next year and a half? Alternatively, perhaps he could let us know when he will be able to tell us when it will come. That would be really helpful.

I am not going to play the game of saying some arbitrary date. It is a serious, ongoing discussion. As I said, we will have a sector deal in the course of this Parliament. I will not be drawn any more on the timings.

Time is short; I am afraid that I have to wrap up my remarks. I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine for raising this important issue for our economy. It was a full and comprehensive debate. I am sorry that we did not have time to deal with every point raised, but the debate was very constructive.

I thank the Minister for his remarks. Indeed, I thank everybody for coming along and contributing to an important and timely debate. What has been demonstrated is that, although we are very proud of being home to the subsea capital of the world, and to the oil and gas and energy capital of the world, in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, it is a UK-wide industry. We have heard contributions from Strangford to Strathdon, and everywhere in between, down to Suffolk, Teesside and elsewhere.

The industry obviously faces challenges, but it is embracing the challenge of reaching net zero by 2050. Its commitment to being a net zero basin is world leading; we have not heard that from any other industry around the world. The Government must work with the industry to face its challenges, not least on visa issues. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) talked about the visa problems in Aberdeen, but in Aberdeenshire, and especially in Portlethen, where we have a large Nigerian diaspora, I too have seen issues occur because of visas.

I am delighted to hear that the Government are committed to CCUS. I would have been even more delighted to hear a more detailed timeline for when we might see the oil and gas sector deal, but we live in hope, and we will be watching with bated breath for it to be very soon.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the UK oil and gas industry.

Special Educational Needs: Isle of Wight

I beg to move,

That this House has considered special educational needs on the Isle of Wight.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, for what I think is the first time, and I am most grateful to the Minister and her team for being here. As she is aware, the purpose of Westminster Hall debates is often to raise issues that are of considerable importance in Members’ constituencies or to groups of their constituents. I have secured this debate in order to discuss the Isle of Wight’s needs in two areas that are important to many parents on the Island: special educational needs and disability, and education, health and care plans, which I know the Minister is familiar with and which she will become more familiar with in her new role. EHCPs outline the special educational needs a child has and the plan that a local authority has to put in place to support that child.

I will speak for probably no more than 10 minutes, just to outline some background and ask the Minister a series of questions. I am aware that she has not received a copy of my speech, for which I apologise—I do tend to write them at the last minute. I am not expecting specific verbal answers from her today, but it would be great to get written responses to some of the questions I raise, because as I say, they are important to my constituents and the children of the Isle of Wight.

Right from the outset, I want the Minister to be aware of the higher percentage of not only SEND provision but provision of ECHPs on the Island compared with the national average. On the Island, 4.4% of kids have an EHCP, compared with a national average of 3.1%, so our level is roughly a third higher. Some 12.7% of our school population has special educational needs or disabilities; the national average is 11.9%, so our level is nearly 1 percentage point higher.

Over the past decade, we on the Island have undergone quite substantial educational reforms, which were the right things to do but which have put education there under pressure. In November last year, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission conducted a week-long joint inspection of the Isle of Wight to judge our effectiveness in implementing the disability and special educational needs reforms set out in the Children and Families Act 2014, with which I am sure the Minister is familiar. Overall, they were content with what they saw. In a letter to the Island’s authority, they wrote that

“Children and young people were getting an improved deal on the Isle of Wight”,

which is excellent to know. They also wrote that

“Leaders across education, health and care are committed to tackling the historically poor support that these children have received.”

It is highly regrettable that there has been historically poor support on the Island, which may be one reason for the high level of EHCPs we now have. I will come on to the potential reasons for that in a little bit. Our strengths were seen to be

“Strong early identification and support in early years…A strong early help offer…Joint working supporting early identification …Increasingly effective identifying and supporting CYP”—

that is, children and young people—

“who may have Autism Spectrum Disorder”,

and generally,

“Well informed EHC Plans”.

As I say, education on the Isle of Wight has generally undergone significant reform and improvement. To an extent, we went backwards to go forwards a few years ago, which was highly regrettable, but our Ofsted reports are steadily improving. There have been difficulties, but our partnership with Hampshire is a good one; we are now in that partnership voluntarily, working to improve standards. On that point, I thank the Island’s teachers for the excellent work they do in helping to raise standards, as well as kids and parents on the Island. I also recognise the excellent work done by our education officers Brian Pope and Steve Crocker, as well as by Councillor Paul Brading, who leads on education for the council at the political level.

The inspection found three areas that needed improvement. First, although leaders were committed to putting the needs of children at the heart of their work, that was not always effectively communicated. Secondly, children and parents were not always able to influence the support that they received. Although there are good examples of that process—which, as I am sure the Minister knows, is known as co-production—that experience has not been consistently good for all parents, which is clearly regrettable. Thirdly, although EHCPs have improved, the targets that they had were sometimes imprecise and older plans were not always kept up to date. Those issues, particularly the first and third, have meant that some parents lack confidence in the system.

One of the groups of people who come to see me at my surgeries on the Island the most consistently are parents—almost always mums—of children with special educational needs and disabilities or with an EHCP. During the last Parliament, I held a roundtable for parents of kids with either SEND or ECHPs to meet council and education officers. It was clear that one of the parents’ main issues was that the council and the authorities needed to communicate more and engage in more joint working with officers, schools and parents, so that parents could fully trust in the system. That trust was sometimes lacking, especially because we were going through so many other reforms and improvements that needed to take place at the time. In fact, the Island being in the top half of last year’s review is testament to the fact that we are improving. Despite the upheavals that have taken place in Island education, we were still able to produce significant, decent work on SEND and ECHPs under the 2014 Act. Our education authority has pledged to work harder at creating a co-producing strategy with parents, and to communicate better.

More generally, I welcome much of what this Government are doing, and congratulate the Minister on it. They are boosting higher needs funding by over £750 million, an increase of 12%, to ensure that children can reach their full potential. Over the past decade, the number of teaching assistants has increased by 50,000 to over a quarter of a million—the figure is now 264,000. The Government have pledged that from September 2020, a further £31.6 million will be allocated for additional educational psychologists, who clearly play an important role in identifying children who may have SEND issues and may need to have care plans. On the Island, there has been considerable delay in assessing children for autism spectrum disorder because of a lack of appropriate qualified people. I know that problem has now been sorted out, but at the time, it caused considerable distress.

Most importantly in the context of this debate, I understand that a review has been launched into the 2014 Act and how we support children with special educational needs. The review will consider how to boost outcomes and ensure that the right support is in place for children with those needs. I remind the Minister of my key point: we on the Island have a considerably higher proportion of children requiring EHCPs than the national average—4.4%, compared with 3.1%—and children covered by SEND make up 12.7% of our school population, or nearly 13%, as opposed to nearly 12% nationally. Because we are getting EHCPs to children quickly, the costs kick in more quickly than they would in other authorities where the plans take longer to come to fruition. In effect, our efficiency in producing plans results in additional cost.

There are some theories that potentially explain the higher level of plans on the Island. I have been talking consistently to education officers and some headteachers over the past few years, and it seems that the previous gaps in educational attainment caused by some historically lower standards may be one reason for the higher level of ECHPs now. I have questioned whether we have a more paternal attitude on the Island that means that we want to not statement, but identify kids with SEND or who may need education, health and care plans. In the last week, I have talked to headteachers, education officials and Councillor Paul Brading—in fact, we spoke last night—about whether there is a pushy parent factor, which could be an issue in some parts of the UK. They are all adamant that our standards for whether young people get EHCPs are consistent with the national average and that we on the Island are not statementing—or whatever phrase the Minister is comfortable with—children to a higher percentage because we have a lower threshold or hurdle than elsewhere. Our assessment standards are consistent and produce higher numbers of children needing an EHCP.

Either way, it is important to say that, because we have higher than average requirements for SEND and EHCPs, there is greater pressure on our school system and on our funding, both the funding we get for specialised care and general funding. As my education authority explains, if a child has an EHCP, the school funds approximately the first £6,000, then the local authority finds the money from the higher needs block. As I am sure the Minister can see, the more children and young people we have with plans, the greater the cost to overall budgets and the greater the pressure on schools that are already under pressure to produce better results because of historical failings in the past decade.

The critical point is that the more children we have with EHCPs and a SEND statement or diagnosis, the more costs our schools have to bear. That will put our budgets under severe strain, despite the increased funding that I am sure the Minister will mention and that I am delighted about. It will mean that, certainly from next year, a primary school will have £4,000 per pupil and a secondary school will have £5,000 per pupil. Almost every school on the Island will benefit from those increases, which is excellent. We want to level up everywhere, not just in the north, which means helping poorer areas and constituencies in the south-east and the south-west. Importantly, the constituency of the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), is not dissimilar when it comes to those issues.

To come to the crux of what I want to ask the Minister, I have five questions. There is a rumour that the first £10,000 for EHCPs and SEND provision will have to be found from school budgets. Can she quash the idea that the commitment for the first £6,000 to be found by schools will go up to £10,000? Is she aware of the pressure that that would put schools with a higher commitment for EHCPs and SEND under everywhere in the UK, but especially in constituencies such as mine? The higher the number of EHCPs, the higher the pressure.

Does the Minister accept that the pressure on Island education resources is nearly 50% higher than on the mainland, because of the increased number of children with a education, health and care plan? Apart from general responses, what support can she offer to Island schools to cope with a case load that is significantly higher than the national average? If she is more comfortable writing to me on that, I would be delighted to receive a letter from her.

How will the review better support Island children and families? Can the Minister reassure me that the review will consider evidence from education authorities in places such as the Island, and from Members of Parliament who represent such constituencies?

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely). He is a passionate advocate for the Island and all its people.

Supporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities is one of the most important roles for the Government. It is our ambition for every child, no matter what challenges they face, to have access to the world-class education that will help to set them up for life. I welcome the opportunity to talk about our work on behalf of those children and young people.

As the new Minister for Children and Families, I will build on the work of my predecessors, who have all shown tireless commitment to the issue: my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), and, now, for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill). I thank them all. I look forward to working in partnership with leaders from across education, health and care, and with fellow Ministers across Departments, to build on their progress.

Across England, more than 1.3 million pupils have special educational needs. On the Isle of Wight alone, more than 1,000 children and young people have education, health and care plans and a further 2,250 are in receipt of SEND support. As my hon. Friend mentioned, in 2014 we introduced major reforms to improve and streamline the support provided to children and young people with SEND, and to put their needs, and those of their families, at the heart of the SEND system. Local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, parents, teachers, and health and care workers have worked to shape and implement the reforms. I put on the record my thanks for the vital contributions they continue to make to the lives of children, young people and families.

In October 2019, a detailed report from the Education Committee said that the 2014 reforms were “the right ones”. Most parents support them and, through parent carer forums, are providing a crucial voice in local SEND decision-making. However, the implementation of the reforms has been variable.

I thank Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission for their work on the inspections of SEND services, which were introduced in May 2016. All local areas in England will be inspected by 2021. The inspections have identified a range of strengths in the way that local areas are delivering the reforms, as well as areas for improvement. The inspections and reports are a key driver for change. Concerns remain in some areas, however, particularly from parents, about the way the reforms have been delivered across the country. Some 54 of the 108 reports published so far have required the completion of a written statement of action to set out how partners will bring about the required improvement. We are working with partners, including NHS England, to support and challenge local areas to address their areas for development, as well as areas of significant weakness that require an action plan.

Ofsted and CQC revisits to local areas show that progress is being made to improve services, but there is more work to do. In six of the 17 areas revisited so far, inspectors found that sufficient progress had been made against every area of weakness previously identified. Where progress had been strongest, the role of senior local leaders in driving improvement had been pivotal: leadership matters.

The Isle of Wight SEND inspection report was published earlier this month. Inspectors report that leaders across education, health and care are working hard to tackle the “historically poor support” received by children and young people with SEND. Leaders are complimented for having a “good understanding” of what is going well for children and young people with SEND; the early identification of SEND in babies and young children is strong; and there is a well-established model of early help.

The inspectors also highlighted positive employment outcomes for young people on the Island. Almost all young people with SEND go on to education, employment or training as a result of the support provided. The Island’s local council’s supported internship programme is worthy of specific note. I want to see more young people with complex needs getting that type of opportunity and being able to move into paid work, both on the Island and across England. These are all positive results for children and young people on the Isle of Wight and I do not underestimate the work involved in getting to that point. I congratulate local leaders across education, health and care on their commitment to improving the services.

However, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight pointed out, the inspectors identified some further areas of development, particularly around improving communications with parents and increasing opportunities for them to help shape local services in their local area—not just for their own children, but for the wider community. The Department has invested £2.3 million in the development of parent carer forums each year since the reforms were introduced. With the support of the charity Contact and the National Network of Parent Carer Forums, membership of parent carer forums has now risen to more than 90,000. We are also supporting the Council for Disabled Children and the charity KIDS to improve participation by children and young people. Every local authority has in place an information, advice and support service, which provides free impartial advice for families.

We know that demand for education, health and care plans is high on the Isle of Wight. Some 4.4% of children have a plan, which puts them in the top quintile for all EHCP plans. That can cause challenges in ensuring that every child and young person has the provision to meet their needs. A high level of EHCPs does not necessarily mean that that area has higher than average underlying need, and we do not allocate high-needs funding to local authorities just on the basis of the number of EHC plans they have. That would encourage local authorities to put more children and their parents through the statutory approach assessment process than is necessary to meet those needs. Our funding formula includes proxies that indicate relative levels of need, such as the numbers of pupils with low attainment at key stages of the education, the number of disabled children whose parents receive disability allowance and other factors.

We are planning to start a review of the high-needs funding formula later this year, which will include the £6,000 contribution as part of the call for evidence. We will comment on that in due course and I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight about that. In the review, we want to make sure that we fund local authorities using the most appropriate measures of need going forward, and every local authority will see an increase in high-needs funding. Next year, there will be an increase of 12%—£780 million—for those with the most complex special educational needs and disabilities.

We have invested a total of £365 million—£1 million for every day of the year—through the special provision capital fund from 2018-19 to 2020-21, to create places and improve facilities for children with SEND. That is a challenging issue for most local areas, perhaps even more so in an island context. The Isle of Wight has been allocated a total of £849,000 to review its special schools capital provision, which is a key part of making sure specialist school places are available where needed for those with the most complex issues.

However, it is worth remembering that most children with SEND are educated within mainstream schools and colleges. Children, young people and parents should and do have a strong say. Mainstream schools and colleges, with the right level of support and training, should be able to meet the needs of the vast majority of children with SEND without the need for an education, health and care plan. To support them in that, my Department has awarded a two-year contract to NASEN—the National Association of Special Educational Needs—and University College London to help embed SEND into school improvement. We are also funding regional SEND leaders to bring together local networks of schools in a community of practice and help schools to improve provision for children and young people with SEND.

Our ambitious vision for education must be backed with strong investment in schools, and that is why we have announced the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade. We have delivered on the Prime Minister’s pledge to level up school funding, providing an increase for our lowest funded schools so that every child can benefit from an outstanding education. In 2021, every secondary school will be allocated at least £5,000 per pupil and every primary school will be allocated at least £3,750, setting those primary schools firmly on the path to receiving £4,000 per pupil the following year. On the Isle of Wight, that includes schools such as Cowes Primary School and Gurnard Primary School, which will see per-pupil funding level up to at least £3,750 per pupil next year. Through the national funding formula, mainstream schools on the Isle of Wight will attract 3.9% more per pupil in 2021. That is an additional £3.5 million in total cash funding.

We know that increasing the amount of funding cannot be our only response to the pressures that local authorities and schools are facing, which is why we concluded a children-in-need review last year. We are taking action to improve the outcomes of children in need of help and protection, as well as those with special educational needs and disabilities, making sure that their needs are recognised and that they are able to succeed through high aspiration and effective support in schools.

Furthermore, last year the Government launched a review of the special educational needs and disabilities system to see what further improvements are necessary to establish a sustainable and effective SEND system in the future. The review will look at how the system has evolved since the reforms were first introduced in 2014 and how it can be made to work better for all families and children. The review will ensure that quality of provision is the same across the country and is joined up across health, care and education. It will ensure that public money is spent in an effective, efficient and sustainable manner, placing a premium on securing high-quality outcomes for those children and young people who need additional support the most. The Government have invested heavily in reforms to the system of support for our most vulnerable children and young people, but we know that there is further to go and we are determined to tackle the issues that remain.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight for securing this important debate today. I know he cares passionately about all the people of the Island, and especially for those who need the most support. Improving the system is no easy task, but inspection reports such as that for the Isle of Wight show that services can work together to achieve real improvements. Working with my colleagues across Government, I am determined to ensure that they achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Equality of Funding: Post-16 Education

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered equality of funding for post-16 education.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the funding of post-16 education. I will focus on the critical phase of 16-to-18 education, which has been described by the Institute for Fiscal Studies as

“the big loser in the changes to education funding over the last 25 years.”

The IFS calculates that funding for 16 to 18-year-olds is now 6% lower than funding for students in secondary schools, having been 50% higher at the start of the 1990s.

When I did my A-levels, I had a full timetable. I reckon that we now fund two and half days’ tuition. Is that enough? If we consider it to be enough, should we not acknowledge that A-levels are part time and expect people to go out to work? I do not think that is realistic.

I agree that it is not realistic to expect A-level students to go out and work when they should be studying, although a part-time job during A-levels is always positive. I had one myself, and it does grow the person. I will come on to the fact that we are now effectively funding part-time study rather than full-time study.

In this debate, I will focus on the pathways that the vast majority of 16 to 18-year-olds follow: academic pathways through A-levels and the general applied pathways, mainly through BTECs. Technical education has dominated the debate over the past few years. It is a very important area of development and is now the subject of a lot of necessary focus and reforms. What has lacked focus, reforms and money are the A-level pathways and, as I said, the BTEC pathways.

Academic and applied general qualifications are delivered in the main by three institutions: sixth forms in schools, sixth-form colleges that are separate from schools, and general further education colleges. Along with specialist colleges and training centres, they make up the vast majority of the FE sector. I therefore hope that the Minister will focus on those pathways and not on T-levels, which we have debated previously in this place.

Since 2010, the pressure on 16-to-18 education has increased significantly. The coalition Government made the right decision to protect the education budget, but that applies only to students up to 16 years of age. That means that 16-to-18 education has shouldered the burden of the cuts that had to be made in the Department for Education. The three deep cuts to funding, combined with significant increases in running costs, mean that the purchasing power of 16-to-18 funding has declined sharply over the past decade.

I will come on to the impacts that the disproportionate funding arrangements have had on students and institutions, but first I want to highlight two key issues that must be addressed if we are to ensure that the education of the 1.1 million 16 to 18-year-olds in England is properly resourced.

I think the hon. Member would acknowledge the very welcome recent funding announcement in this area. Peter Symonds College is in my constituency; it is one of the largest sixth-form colleges in England and has had a 30% increase in student numbers over the past decade.

Although the funding announcement is welcome, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it is a long way short of what the Raise the Rate campaign asked for. More pertinently, the one-year stopgap funding settlement is the problem. The sector now needs—we are looking to the spending review for it—a much longer-term settlement, so that it can undertake strategic planning.

Quite right. I will come on to three things: sufficiency, equality and parity. Sixth forms are particularly disadvantaged in the current system, and we need to start fixing these things.

Fundamentally, the funding that sixth forms in schools, colleges, academies and sixth-form centres in general FE receive to educate 16 to 18-year-olds is not sufficient to provide the high-quality education that young people need, and that the economy needs to prosper. Cuts to courses, support staff and extra-curricular activities mean that sixth form, by which I mean academic education and general education in England, is now a part-time endeavour for many students. Although a calculation based on part-time education in technical training may have made some sense in the past—such students spend significant amounts of time in the workplace or another training location—academic and general vocational education has never had that component, and all learning time is spent in the institution. The institution therefore needs the resources for that to happen.

The only way to address the key issue of sufficiency is to increase the national funding rate, which is by far the biggest element of 16-to-18 funding. It is extraordinary that the rate for 16 to 18-year-olds has remained frozen at £4,000 per student since 2013, whereas the rate for 18-year-olds who enter their third year of study—often the young people who require the most help—has fallen to £3,300.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate and making a very important contribution in his opening remarks.

Does he agree that a significant issue faces many further education colleges: some of them are left to pick up the pieces when young people do not have the numeracy and literacy skills that we would hope for by the time they are 16? The current underfunding and lack of funding for further education in such colleges is particularly impacting on the life chances of that group.

Exactly. That is why the cut to the third year of funding is particularly pernicious. A young person who comes in might need some extra support for a year before they can move on to their final stage of BTECs or A-levels, and the college is actually punished for doing that remedial work.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate.

Does the perniciousness not work in two ways? Teachers in my constituency have pointed out that they are punished in terms of funding, and that the results they achieve for those students do not count towards their post-16 results.

Yes, it does. I hope the Minister will address that point.

I pay tribute to the work of the Sixth Form Colleges Association in co-ordinating the Raise the Rate campaign, which has been highly effective. As has been mentioned, the Government have responded by pledging an increase of £188 this coming September. That is still far below the £4,700 per student that Raise the Rate is asking for, and it is £822 below the £5,000 that schools receive for each pupil.

That brings me to the second key issue: equality. Young people are now required to participate in education and training until the age of 18, but education funding is reduced for students who have reached 16. This inequality is impossible to defend. It is worth noting that, in the independent sector, fees usually increase at the age of 16 to reflect the additional cost needed to train and educate 16 to 18-year-olds.

The Yorkshire College of Beauty Therapy is in my constituency. It is suffering from the fact that the new T-levels in the relevant subjects are being introduced but are not yet ready. The whole area of vocational education is suffering from the same lack of sufficiency that my hon. Friend describes for academic subjects.

My hon. Friend is quite right. We have debated T-levels previously, and there is the difficulty of transition as we go forward. I hope that we will eventually get to a situation where we have A-levels; good general vocational training, with BTECs continuing as a strong component of that; and T-levels. They all offer something different and important.

Until 2011, the funding for a student at a sixth form in a school continued at the school rate, not at the college rate. Given the concerns about the inequality that that caused, there was quite rightly a campaign. Organisations such as the Institute for Public Policy Research said that we needed to equalise the funding. The Government did that but they equalised it down, meaning that we took away about £800 per pupil in today’s terms from the budget, rather than adding to the college budget. That hurts sixth-form colleges even more, as they generally pay teachers’ terms and conditions and do not get additional remuneration for it. For many years, general FE colleges have got away with underpaying their staff, or rather, the Government have got away without giving them additional resources.

Will my hon. Friend comment on the impact on the availability of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects and modern language courses, as well as on our competitiveness? The 15 hours per week contact time compares very poorly with, for example, the 25 to 30 hours per week in Canada, Singapore and elsewhere.

My hon. Friend is quite right; that is very worrying. A headteacher in my area talks about the difficulty of recruitment into the sector when there are far better options for pay within the wider teaching sector, let alone the idea that teachers of STEM subjects can often get better pay elsewhere. That seems wrong.

With the Budget and a spending review looming, the Government’s short-term priority should be to raise the rate, but the long-term ambition must be to level up funding and undo the mistake of 2011 to ensure that 16 to 18-year-olds receive the same investment in their education as younger students. There is little point in investing heavily in pre-16 education and even more heavily in higher education at £9,000 per student—depending on current moves in the HE review—if the pivotal stage in the middle continues to be overlooked and underfunded.

Sixth-form colleges and general FE colleges also face a number of specific disadvantages that exacerbate the issue. For example, since incorporation, colleges cannot reclaim their VAT costs, but schools and academies can. The Sixth Form Colleges Association estimates that the average sixth-form college has to redirect around £350,000 per year—4% of their income—away from frontline education of students to pay the VAT “learning tax”. What sits behind that and many other funding inequalities is the inexplicable decision to classify colleges as private sector bodies. Even private schools and private sixth-form colleges are not classified in such a way because they are third sector charities

My hon. Friend is making a passionate speech. I would add to his list another disadvantage to colleges. Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College was in massive arrears. The current principal, Karen Redhead, has turned it around towards being back in the black again, but the insolvency regime promises to punish her even further, while other people are being bailed out for not managing things as well as she has. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

We need to look at those issues, particularly the way that we manage debts linked to buildings, which has got a lot of colleges into trouble in the past.

For sixth-form colleges in particular, the vast majority of their income comes from the Government, and a private sector classification is simply impossible to justify. A few years ago, the Government allowed a pathway for sixth-form colleges to become academies, but it is not right that the Government require a change of governance in the organisation for it to be classified as part of a particular tax band, rather than working out the best governance for the institution to give the best education, which is what we should focus on.

All colleges suffer when the Government decide to exclude them from initiatives such as early career payments, or funding streams such as the teachers’ pay grant, which was afforded to schools. Their incorporation in 1983 by the then Secretary of State, Keith Joseph, removing them from local authority oversight—a historic mistake that has led to a widening of the gap since the 1990s. Only the equalisation of structures across the board will solve the problem.

Brighton, Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College—or BHASVIC—is one of the sixth-form colleges in my constituency. It has grown by 630 students since 2014, but its income has grown by £1.5 million only, meaning that the student body is up by 21.7% but the income is up by 13% only. The principal of BHASVIC wrote to me saying that

“Whilst the additional income for 2020-21 is welcome, it barely makes up for inflationary cost pressures over the last couple of years”.

BHASVIC will use the money simply to plug the gap, rather than actually investing in IT, teacher development and other things that are needed, particularly for student wellbeing—colleges also face the burden of rising rates of mental health problems.

BHASVIC is one of the lucky few. It has been able to bid and draw from a limited pool of funding for capital works on academies. Unlike school sixth forms, colleges do not hav a dedicated pot of money and must bid against academies for building and maintenance. For general FE colleges, it is even more complicated in that they have to bid with local economic partnerships for funding. The myriad capital funding streams to pay for buildings leads to a lack of joined-up thinking and a postcode lottery of facilities in our education system.

The views of education providers, teachers and principals are unanimous: the funding gap has a devastating impact and is felt widely. When I secured this debate, the House of Commons digital engagement team posted on Facebook asking for feedback from students and staff. Abi, one of the respondents, said that her sixth form cannot even afford basic items such as extension cables for computers, and teachers are having to pay out of their own pockets for printing. That is totally wrong. A Reddit user said that A-level politics was dropped midway through their course because the teacher left and the school could not afford a new specialist in the department. Another student reported that their college has had to shut its canteen, which it cannot afford to maintain, so students now eat at the fast-food joints across the road, blowing out of the water any aspirations for healthy living and eating.

One way colleges have tried to manage those difficulties is through a flurry of mergers into super colleges in an attempt to pool costs or recreate the services that the local education authority provided before 1993, but such mergers often mean a centralising of course provision in just one or two campuses across the network, and lead to teachers and management being further away from the students and communities they serve. I do not want to say anything bad about any individual colleges—many have staff who do fantastic work—but the mergers render the Ofsted regime not fit for purpose. Multi-academy trusts are inspected per campus, but for a multi-campus set of FE colleges, there is only one inspection, so we have no idea of the differences between two campuses offering the same courses and options. That lack of granularity renders the Ofsted inspections almost worthless.

On the point about mergers, the Dinnington campus college recently merged with the RNN Group in Rotherham. Since then, it has had problem after problem. Currently, it is slated for closure, which would have a devastating effect on my constituents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some mergers do not take into account some important aspects of colleges, such as location, teaching and staff, and that we need to ensure that colleges such as Dinnington campus remain open?

I totally agree. I was on the board of the corporation at one college that merged into a sixth-form college. I was one of the few corporation members who voted against that merger. I am afraid that sixth-form college has not prospered since the merger. I have been involved in other colleges that have merged. In Haywards Heath, just north of my constituency, the sixth-form college did not prosper following a merger into general FE and ended up shutting. The initiative has led to a number of campuses suffering and shutting and, although it has been successful in other areas, its record is not good enough, with a number of failures.

To solve the problem, will the Minister commit to sufficiency, to ensure that schools and colleges can continue to deliver a high-quality, internationally competitive education? The Government need to raise the national funding. There is no justification for a funding cut at the age of 18. The rate should be at least £4,760 per student per year in 2020, and it needs to increase in line with inflation in the rest of the sector. Will the Government ensure that providers of sixth-form education can operate on an equal basis and a level playing field by removing the imposition of VAT learning tax and allowing them access to all the funds available to other education providers?

I will end by asking the Minister three questions sent to me by the head of the other sixth-form college next to my constituency. First, Phil Harland, the principal of Varndean, said that by 2025 the number of Brighton and Hove 16 to 18-year-olds wishing to continue post-16 education will have increased by 500. Similar increases are expected elsewhere across the country. Without any additional buildings, the city and the college sector more generally will not be able to accommodate those students. Will the Minister confirm that his Department is working with colleagues in the Treasury to secure a dedicated post-16 capital expansion fund for those colleges to draw on when their numbers increase?

Secondly, the three Brighton and Hove college principals met the city’s chief executive just before half-term to talk about the growing mental health crisis. The meeting was helpful in finding ways forward, but all parties recognise that without additional funding dedicated to support the mental health and wellbeing of students in that vital period, little progress will be made. Is the Minister aware of the problem, and does she recognise that dedicated resources for in-house counsellors are needed, so that nothing is taken from teaching budgets?

Thirdly, the sixth-form college sector was identified by a previous Minister as the jewel in the crown of the UK’s education system. That jewel might have dulled slightly in recent years, caused in part by the difficulty of recruiting teachers to the sector. The difference between school teachers and college staff is increasing. The School Teachers Review Body is an independent body that sets the level of school teachers’ annual pay awards. The Government usually accept the recommendations and fully fund them, but they do not fund pay in the college sector. Will the Government commit to fund the STRB increases for colleges as well, so that they can pay their staff properly?

This year, 2020, is the year to raise the rate to at least £4,760 per student and to level up funding between different stages of education. Within 16-to-18 education itself, I hope that the Minister will agree that we need to invest in our college sector.

Due to the number of people seeking to catch my eye, I will impose an immediate time limit of five minutes on speeches. I might have to revisit that downwards, but I will start with five minutes and see how we go.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on his wide-ranging comments and thoughts and on the feedback from his local sixth-form colleges about this subject. I also congratulate him on having secured this important debate.

I have just been elected co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on sixth-form education, and very much to the forefront of my mind are the staff and students of Huddersfield New College and Greenhead College, which serve my constituents. In fact, none of my schools has sixth forms, but I have two sixth-form colleges, and both provide outstanding sixth-form education.

If you will indulge me for about 30 seconds, Mr Davies, I would like to highlight those two colleges. In August last year, 34 students from Greenhead College met their offer to study at an Oxbridge university. Based on the Department for Education school and college performance tables published in January last year, Greenhead College is the best performing sixth-form college in Yorkshire and one of the best such colleges in the country. The college claimed top spot in the prestigious Sunday Times “Parent Power” list back in 2014.

Meanwhile, Huddersfield New College also provides outstanding education. Last year, it was shortlisted for the prestigious Tes further education sixth-form college of the year award for the third year running. Last year, too, students achieved record-breaking results, confirming Ofsted’s judgment that learner outcomes at the college are outstanding. Also last year, the college was crowned the Tes national sixth-form college of the year—the Tes awards, of course, celebrate the extraordinary commitment, quality and innovation shown by teachers and support staff across the UK.

This debate is to highlight the campaign for improved education funding for the 1.1 million 16 to 18-year-olds across England. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown clearly demonstrated, the narrow funding rate for 16 and 17-year-olds has been frozen at £4,000 per student per year since 2013. Funding for 18-year-olds was actually cut to £3,300 in 2014, at a time when running costs have increased. That has put huge financial pressures not just on my local colleges but, I am sure, on the local colleges of all the Members present.

Last year, the Government made the welcome announcement that they will raise the rate to £4,188 per student by this year. That was a welcome first step but, as we heard, the Raise the Rate campaign is making a strong case for funding of £4,760 per student. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said, there is very much a need for a long-term settlement for sixth-form education for at least the length of this Parliament.

In addition to the rate, our sixth-form colleges need support with updating college estates. On top of the asks made of the Minister by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, may I call on the Government to commit to a capital expansion fund for FE and, in particular, my sixth-form colleges?

Unlike schools and academies, as we heard, sixth-form colleges are not eligible for the teachers’ pay grant, even though they have the same workforce pay rates as almost every 16 to 19-year-old academy. My colleges are ambitious in providing outstanding sixth-form education for local students, and I have clearly demonstrated how both Greenhead College and Huddersfield New College do that. In another ask from me, and to reiterate what we have already heard, will the Minister please look at the VAT rebate? That is important.

Finally—so other Members may have a say—school funding was a big feature of the general election campaign. Higher education featured heavily in the 2017 campaign and was looked at in the Augar review. We hope that the debate this afternoon highlights the value of sixth-form colleges. As we approach the Budget on 11 March, we call on the Government to raise the rate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle).

I am always happy to speak up for my outstanding sixth-form colleges and to praise their achievements, but I also need to raise their issues. Peter McGhee, the head of St John Rigby College, puts their problems much better than I ever could. He says that we have outstanding provision in Wigan for school leavers, thanks to years and years of hard work dedicated to the needs of the young people in the community, but that is under threat due to chronic underfunding.

Peter is constantly in the difficult position of deciding between increasing the workload of staff members, who are paid £7,000 less on average than those in schools, reducing staff numbers, or restricting maintenance and equipment. What his college did was to restrict the maintenance and investment in equipment, despite the growth in student numbers. It prioritised teaching and staffing, and the essential support services that we hear so much about, because those enable students to learn successfully. However, it is now essential for the head to invest in equipment and in the estate. I support the need for some fund that colleges can make bids to, because they are now considering previously unpalatable decisions.

St John Rigby College is looking at the “Future Pathways” options, which inspire the next generation of scientists, leaders and teachers, and provide exceptional opportunities for young people to explore career options. However, they are not funded, and something has to give. In my area, where many young people traditionally have low aspirations, if those doors are closed, there will just be a further decline in the number of graduates, and young people’s horizons will be limited, just as we should be encouraging them to move forward.

Peter says that the marginal increase in rate will do little to address the years of catch-up investment needed, never mind the opportunity to provide exciting unfunded enrichment programmes, to forward plan or to provide the facilities and investment that young people in Wigan richly deserve. The wider community loses out too. This community college meets the needs of the wider community because it has weekend community sports provision, but that is desperate for investment. Winstanley College has not been able to offer German A-level for the past couple of years. Every year, it pays £200,000 to the Government in VAT.

I want to finish with some questions and comments, not from me, but from someone much better placed to speak about this issue—the principal at St John Rigby, who said:

“Why are we presenting our college leaders with such unpalatable decisions? Why do they have to decide each year on getting rid of the next ‘best worst option’? These colleges function as a whole package for our young people, educating the whole person, providing a college experience which transforms lives. We can dilute this experience no more. We must invest in the futures of our young people and we must put their educational experience at the heart of this investment.”

Hearing such heartfelt questions and comments from a dedicated professional who has spent his life working to benefit young people, and who heads a college designated as outstanding, will the Minister not agree that it is time to raise the rate?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on securing the debate.

In my constituency, post-16 education is provided at East Coast College in Lowestoft, which incorporates Lowestoft Sixth Form College, Sir John Leman High School in Beccles, and Bungay High School. Lowestoft Sixth Form College has had to contend with the inequalities mentioned: the inability to reclaim VAT and ineligibility for both the teachers’ pay grant and early career payments. At East Coast College, there have been some significant recent investments, including the opening last November of the energy skills centre and the subsequent launch of the eastern civil engineering and construction campus at Lound, between Lowestoft and Yarmouth.

Those initiatives are extremely welcome and vital to the future of the area, but to be successful, revenue funding must be set at a realistic level, so that the college can deliver a high-quality competitive education. The sixth forms at St John Leman High School and Bungay High School both provide high-quality A-level education, with many students going on to top universities. However, it is a continual challenge to operate sixth forms that serve large rural catchment areas.

The increase in the 16-to-18 funding rate announced last September, from £4,000 to £4,188 per student, is welcome. However, it is only one step in the right direction. I fully support the Sixth Form Colleges Association campaign for the rate to be increased to £4,760.

It seems perverse that children up to the age of 16 will receive one figure and young people beyond that will receive another, and that schools can claim back VAT on costs but colleges cannot. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if nothing else, the Government should look at those two things and ensure that there is equality for FE and secondary schools?

I agree with my hon. Friend. A number of issues need to be raised, but those two appear to come out above all else.

The proposed rate increase has been endorsed by both London Economics and the Select Committee on Education. It will enable schools and colleges to provide high-quality education and training, and also the necessary support services, extracurricular activities, work experience and mental health support.

In my constituency, the increase is vital for three reasons. First, it will improve social mobility. Education from 16 to 18 is the bridge between school and the rest of one’s life, which may include further and higher education, before moving on to the workplace. If it is not properly funded, and a great gulf remains, many young people will face a struggle to realise their full potential. That is not only a grave social injustice, but means that the UK’s productivity gap will remain stubbornly in place.

Secondly, there is a need for economic regeneration in Lowestoft. To achieve that, some important developments are being put in place—not only the energy skills centre, but the redevelopment of the offices and laboratories of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science at Pakefield, and Scottish Power’s new operations and maintenance base. Investment in buildings and infrastructure is vital, but for those initiatives to be fully successful, we must invest in our young people.

Thirdly, it is important to have in mind the particular challenges in coastal communities. There is a need to go that extra mile to overcome the obstacles that have become deeply embedded in so many seaside towns. That is a vital element of levelling up that must not be overlooked.

I am afraid that 16-to-18 education has been overlooked for too long. In the post-Brexit economy, there will be no hiding place. It is vital that we raise our game. A good way to do that is to raise the rate to £4,760.

I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for securing this debate. It is focused on post-16 education in England and, as a Northern Ireland MP, I do not have a role to play in it, but I want to offer the Minister some observations and a wee bit of perspective from Northern Ireland, to give a flavour of where we are. She will not have to answer the questions that I bring to her attention, because education is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, but the issues are none the less important, and are certainly a UK-wide problem.

Let me thank the Library for the background information it has provided. Analysis published by the Education Policy Institute in May 2019 showed that funding per 16-to-19 student fell by 16% in real terms, from £5,900 to £4,960. That is twice the rate at which all school spending fell from 2009-10 to 2017-18. Funding per 16-to-19 full-time equivalent student in the FE sector fell by 18% in real terms, from £6,250 to £5,150. The fall was 26% in school sixth forms, from £6,280 to £4,680. Even more worrying, funding for student support, including bursaries to learners aged 16 to 18, fell more than other funding streams, by 71% in real terms. Funding for programme delivery decreased by 30%, while disadvantaged and high-needs funding combined grew by 68%.

As a Northern Ireland MP, looking at the information in front of us, I have to draw the conclusion that others have drawn: the figures are simply shocking and are replicated throughout the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have held debates in which it has been highlighted that there are pockets of young men in this country who are unemployed and have no qualifications. Clearly, the root of the issue is inadequate funding of schools, and post-school funding is woeful. It is little wonder that young men and women cannot find anything to excel in—there is funding only for the bare essentials. That, along with the changes to apprenticeship funding, makes it clear that young men are being failed by the system.

In Northern Ireland, there is an abject failure of the education system to help young Protestants aged 16 to 19; they fail to get educational qualifications and apprenticeships, and society lets them down. I have been in touch with the Minister, Peter Weir, a colleague and friend who is a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Strangford, to see whether we can bring in the changes that we need. It is quite clear that we have to address that issue in Northern Ireland; we need to give people focus, vision and hope for the future. That is what I want to see.

This debate is about the fact that people are failing to be given the hope, vision, incentives and opportunities they need. The figures I cited show that it is not just young men being failed; put simply, it is any young person who does not have the desire or the ability to continue academically on the pathway from A-levels to university. How could that happen? How have society and the Department for Education allowed themselves to undo years of understanding that succeeding does not simply mean getting good A-levels and that there is not just one route for people to take to further education and their dream job?

Importantly, the Sixth Form Colleges Association states in the concluding paragraph of the information it provided for the debate:

“The post-Brexit economy will be driven by leaders, scientists, technicians, engineers and others who will all pass through the pivotal phase of 16 to 18 education, so we must ensure that funding is both sufficient and equal.”

We must be up to that challenge in relation to Brexit.

The Minister and the Government must take a real, sincere look at why funding has so consistently been cut and why these particular young people are worth less investment. They are not. We need that perception to change, and that can happen only through enhanced funding. I say with the greatest respect that we can accept no excuses from the respective Ministers. We must accept only change for young people. I look to see whether that change will come from this place and whether it will spread into a United Kingdom-wide system that invests in every young life equally, as it should.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on securing this crucial debate.

Our children and young people are being let down by their Government yet again. Education funding for 16 to 18-year-olds has been slashed by the Tories since 2010. At the same time, the costs of teaching have soared and the needs of students have become much more complex. Research by London Economics shows that the Government have presided over a 22% decline in sixth-form funding since 2010, with a further pointless cut for 18-year-olds.

My constituency is home to some high-performing sixth forms, such as Featherstone High School, Dormers Wells High School, Elthorne Park High School and Villiers High School. Like so many other schools across the country, they have worked under tremendous financial pressure to deliver for our young people. With the population of 16 to 18-year-olds expected to grow in the next few years, it is vital that schools in my constituency are given the capacity they need to continue their great work.

Further education is a critical point in the life of a young person, whether they live in my constituency or in any other part of the country, and it provides many with the education and training they need to go on to skilled work or university. Although the Government have rightly required young people to continue their education until the age of 18, they have overseen swingeing cuts to further education. The Government’s drastic funding cuts in that sector relative to secondary and higher education seem illogical, given that all students now move through that crucial stage in their development.

The impact of Government cuts on students could not be clearer. We see larger classes, fewer available courses, and poorer mental health and careers support, and foreign language and STEM tuition has been decimated. That is the legacy of 10 years of this Government’s education policy, the consequences of which are declining social mobility for those in state education, and less hope and prosperity for children and young people.

Let us look at the Conservative Government’s rhetoric versus their record. The Government aspire to foster an outward-looking global Britain, yet have caused 50% of colleges to drop courses in foreign languages. The Government pledge to develop a skilled workforce that is internationally competitive post Brexit, yet 38% of colleges have dropped courses in science, technology, engineering and maths. The Government say they take children’s mental health and careers advice seriously, yet 78% of sixth forms have been forced to make significant cuts to those services. The Government speak of levelling up, yet inequality of funding between state and private schools means that 60% of private school students but just 18% in the state sector go to the UK’s most selective universities. Tory rhetoric rings hollow.

If the Government are going to turn off the tap of international talent with their harsh new immigration regime, they must put their money where their mouth is when it comes to education funding. We will need many multiples of the paltry increase the Government announced last September. Funding cuts in further education have undoubtedly led to greater inequality in society and hurt our hard-working schools and colleges. The Sixth Form Colleges Association has called for a reasonable increase in the rate to £4,800 per year for every student, and we should go further. In a post-Brexit economy, we will need to foster a new generation of home-grown scientists, engineers, technicians and skilled workers. That can happen only if the Government properly fund further education and give our children the chance to flourish.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for securing this much-needed debate.

Many of these things have been said before, but they need to be repeated until we get the answers we deserve. Education is fundamental to our country; it is the beating heart of our economy and necessary for a functioning democracy and, arguably, society itself. It is therefore beyond disappointing that sixth-form education is so woefully underfunded by this Government.

I am proud of Carmel College in my constituency. The absolute commitment of its staff to serve its pupils with a good education makes it an outstanding college, despite the lack of funding from central Government; as my hon. Friend so clearly articulated, sixth-form education is one of the most underfunded areas of our education system. Carmel’s funding issues are compounded by the fact that it is a Catholic college and therefore cannot access what extra funding—underwhelming though it is—is available to academy colleges.

As my hon. Friend clearly outlined, sixth-form colleges received £1,380 less per student in real terms in 2016-17 than in 2010-11. That is a 22% decline in funding while costs in other areas have increased year on year. That is a disgrace. We should be investing more in our children’s futures, not less.

That underfunding has a number of detrimental effects on our society and economy. Most colleges have reduced drastically the number of extracurricular activities they provide, including sport, music, drama, educational visits and even debating clubs, to name but a few. That has a negative effect on equality and social mobility in our nation, since such activities help to provide the well-rounded education that is essential in the modern world. Privately funded colleges such as Eton continue to offer those extremely beneficial activities, while the colleges used by the majority of the population can no longer afford to do so.

Class sizes are increasing. Sadly, that is not limited to sixth-form education. The number of A-levels that young people study has reduced from four to three. The situation is worsened by the lack of student support workers and teaching support in schools; as schools’ budgets are tightened, those immensely valuable roles are removed. Students with special educational needs get less of the support they need to be the best they can be, and young people in general are not provided with support at one of the most stressful times of their lives. We see all too often in the media how that lack of support leads to negative outcomes, which extend to young people taking their lives.

When we look beyond the classroom, we see sixth-form provision that does not provide for the long-term needs of our nation. STEM subjects have long been the backbone of our economy. It was through those subjects that the United Kingdom began the industrial revolution and we became a leader in so many fields, such as pharmaceuticals. Yet, because of current funding arrangements, sixth form colleges struggle to provide those subjects, as they are less popular. We risk a generational gap in the number of people learning those vital subjects.

Failing to invest in young people now is failing to invest in the future of the country. We will lose our edge in the global economy. Indeed, foreign languages are declining in sixth-form colleges. The Government has plans for a global post-Brexit Britain, in a landscape of growing economic giants such as China, Brazil, Japan, India and a resurgent Russia that will lead to more diversity in the language of business. Foreign languages are even more vital to British success following Brexit. I therefore call on the Government to raise the rate of funding for 16 to 18-year-olds to a minimum of £4,760. I also call on them to refrain from innovative accounting and to ensure that the rise is in addition to existing money, rather than shifting it around and rebranding it. Let us put a stop to smoke-and-mirrors funding. Education is vital to our country, community and society. Let us give young people the tools to revolutionise their futures and the country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on securing this important debate.

For the past five years, I have been a governor at Luton Sixth Form College, which is the oldest in the country and, with more than 3,100 students, one of the largest. It is the college that I am proud to have attended. I have seen how vital further education provided by sixth-form colleges is to improving young people’s life chances and laying the foundations for a successful life. In deprived areas or places with limited employment opportunities, education is integral to setting young people up with the skill set to improve their living standards and their surrounding community.

I welcome the comments already made about ensuring that we retain a mix of A-levels, BTEC and T-levels to meet students’ varied demands; that applies equally to the vital opportunities that some students at Luton Sixth Form College have to take the extended project qualification, for example, enabling them to broaden their horizons in independent study. Those things are at risk as a consequence of underfunding.

The fact that funding has been squeezed leads to pressures on both teaching and support staff, as has been said. It is absolutely unacceptable that since 2010 the Government have frozen the rate for 16 and 17-year-olds and cut it for 18-year-olds. As to funding for support staff, student services have been slashed in 78% of cases, and in 81% there are larger class sizes. The Home Secretary yesterday said that the Government are levelling up our country’s skills, but in reality that could not be further from the truth.

VAT is another point that it is vital to cover. Under the area-based review a few years ago, Luton Sixth Form College was commended and it was agreed that it would stand alone as a sixth-form college. However, it has to pay £350,000 to £400,000 in VAT. It was told that to consider becoming an academy, to claim that back for students, it could not be a stand-alone academy but would have to go into a multi-academy trust. We felt that that would detract from our core education mission, which had already been praised. We need a joined-up approach to all that.

The effect of underfunding on state schools and colleges is clear. Only 18% of state-schooled A-level students went on to attend the most selective universities in 2016-17, compared with students from the independent system. Another consideration that particularly affects my town and constituency is that the population is growing. The Office for National Statistics forecasts a 29% rise in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds in Luton by 2028, which equates to nearly 1,500 more students. Luton’s sixth-form sector will struggle to accommodate that growth. Therefore, colleges such as Luton Sixth Form College, and other school sixth forms in my constituency, such as Stockwood Park Academy and Manshead Academy, will need additional funding to ensure adequate additional capacity for those students. The rate must be raised to £4,760 per student per annum, and yearly increases must be tied to inflation. The increase must be taken alongside the wider aim of achieving funding parity with secondary schools.

As colleagues have mentioned, the funding commitment constitutes only a one-year deal for 2020-21 for sixth forms and colleges, whereas schools in the five-to-16 sector received a three-year funding deal, with a further commitment to keeping pace with inflation. We want to hear from the Minister why five-to-16 education receives funding certainty but the 16-to-18 education sector does not. Properly funding sixth-form colleges creates a bridge between school education and higher education that facilitates effective social mobility. Ten years of underinvestment have damaged that bridge, but there is a clear way forward: raise the rate and set a sustainable further education funding model.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for securing the debate, which is timely given that the Budget is just a few weeks away. I sincerely hope that the Minister recognises that underfunding of post-16 education only undermines the Government’s skills strategy. It is a serious loss of opportunity for young people and perpetuates a cycle of low-paid, insecure work, which, as Professor Marmot has reminded us today, devastates life chances. The eye-watering cuts to post-16 provision cause students to drop down, if not drop out of education entirely, which adds to the already wide skills gap that exists in Bristol South. Importantly, that is devastating communities and having a terrible effect on social mobility.

There is a lot of agreement in the Chamber this afternoon about the Raise the Rate campaign and the cuts it has identified. That matters in Bristol South because many young people come from some of the most deprived wards in the country. Many care for other family members and some come from families where domestic violence is rife. Those young people are falling behind in GCSEs. Student support—so called extra-curricular activity or pastoral support—is not a “nice to have” for those families; it is how we nurture, protect and develop those young people before adulthood.

We have learned a lot in recent years about preparing children for reception class and for year 7. It is crucial to get things right at the next stage of the education journey, but we seem to have little regard for transition at 16. Often at that time parents are not as present in a young person’s life. Sometimes, as I find in my household, that is the choice of the young person. They need other people to help them through that important opportunity. Post-16 provision offers, as we have heard, new paths, and for those who have done well at GCSE the opportunity to take the next step along the road to university.

In the recent Queen’s Speech debate, I spoke about A-level provision in Bristol South, which is poor. We send the lowest number of people in the country to higher education. Research by the University of Bristol found many “gap wards” in Bristol South. The term refers to places where pupils are expected to continue to higher education based on GCSE results, but do not. They fall through the cracks—some dropping down and some dropping out altogether because of the difficulty of transitioning to college life. That is why this debate is so important.

Our main provider, City of Bristol College, has had an almost 40% cut in its funding in the past decade—no wonder it is struggling. It has done remarkable work, but the cuts are falling on student support and staff wages, so that it is now difficult to recruit the high-quality staff we need. Secondary school teachers, university lecturers and experienced electricians are all earning more than those college lecturers. Why do the Government seem so averse to levelling up post-16 education?

I went to an FE college, as I think did many of the Members present for the debate. So did the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid). His loss from that post is perhaps a problem for us, facing up to the Budget. I hope that the Minister is different. The Select Committee on Education has given some pointers about what needs to happen and what is wrong in the Department to explain why the colleges are not supported. A briefing by the Sixth Form Colleges Association points out that there is little point investing in pre-16 and higher education if the crucial middle sector is left out.

Of course, the Government could ask the experts. Like other Members, I am grateful to college principals—the principals of City of Bristol College and of St Brendan’s College, which is in a neighbouring constituency—for the advice and support they give, for informing me of what is going on, and for the work they do. They do remarkable work and need our support. If the Government are serious about levelling up, they need to start with equality of funding post-16. Now that some form of education or training is compulsory until the age of 18 in England, the Government must stop refusing to fund the extension of the pupil premium to support 16 to 18-year-olds. They need to level up and recognise that transition into and through post-16 is as crucial as starting primary and secondary school.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Unusually for me, I want to start not by talking immediately about Newham—I shall get to it later: I want to talk about further education cuts and how they can affect our towns.

In my role as a shadow social justice Minister, I had the privilege of visiting Leigh and my friend Jo Platt, who was its MP until December. I heard how unless young people could afford to travel for hours every day once they left school, all they were offered were courses in beauty and social care at the local college. It is a bit like when my mum left school and was offered a choice of two careers—dressmaking or hairdressing. That was almost 100 years ago. I am not decrying those professions, which are both incredibly valuable, and many young people have a real passion for them, but others have different ambitions, and rightly so—they should not have to travel for hours to access the learning or training they need to achieve their dreams. There cannot be any doubt that putting these barriers to different careers in front of young people will hold them, their communities and our economy back.

As we know, across the country some crucial subjects are simply not available anymore. We know that 50% of our schools have dropped modern foreign languages—global Britain? Almost 40% of schools and colleges have felt the need to drop STEM subjects, and almost 80% of schools have removed extracurricular activities and support services. More than 80% have to teach in larger classes. Does the Minister honestly believe that will not affect the quality of learning for those students? I do not. This is not global Britain; this is going backwards.

I see these struggles in the sixth-form colleges in West Ham, where there are fabulous teachers, bright young students and real, real ambition—there is no doubt about it—but those ambitions and aspirations alone cannot replace the money that has been lost. Newvic—Newham sixth-form college—is just down the road from where I live. The head, Mandeep Gill, the staff and the students are an inspiration. They work well together and they work so hard, but, as in so many sixth-form colleges around the country, it is having to make really difficult decisions.

I know how agonising the college’s decision was to stop teaching modern foreign languages and the arts classes because there simply was not the money. Mandeep has also been forced into galling decisions about which students’ services to cut. One of the toughest decisions was to cut back on some of the counselling and wellbeing staff, including very recently a mental health adviser. The college simply could not afford to keep that support, even though it recognises it is sorely needed. Many of its students will already have been let down by the waiting lists and absurdly high criteria to access child and adolescent mental health services in an area that has massive problems with youth crime and knife crime in particular.

Frankly, the failure to fund colleges properly is storing up problems for the future. It is not creating potential and it is not assisting the future of our society. The young people in my constituency are already suffering in so many ways after a decade of austerity. Child poverty is at 50% locally, youth services have all but disappeared and violent crime, as I said, is tragically a common feature of our lives. College counselling services provide the only adults that some of our young people can have access to and confide in. Those have been cut away as well.

I genuinely believe that the Minister can recognise just how dire the funding situation is. It is helping to create geographical inequalities, and it is selling our future short. If my young people cannot access mental health services and other services to get themselves out of gangs, what will that do for their futures and our futures? For heaven’s sake, raise the rate!

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow the excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who represents so many young people in Newham—one of the youngest parts of the country. I want my voice to join those across the Chamber. It is great to speak last in the debate, because everyone is saying the same thing. We all support the call for per head funding to go up from £4,000 to £4,760 per student and I am pleased that the campaign enjoys the support of the Education Committee, Ofsted inspectors and the Social Mobility Commission. It has always struck me as perverse that, while the apprenticeship levy cannot seem to be spent locally and is being given back to the Treasury because of that, FE has experienced a 50% cut. Surely that needs swapping over.

I am a strong supporter of the campaign and want to bring three new points to the debate. The first is capital spend, which is perhaps not included in the £4,760 figure. Many Members will have visited facilities for 16 to 19-year-olds in their constituencies. I was recently in Highgate Wood School in my constituency where PE is taught at GCSE and A-level to such a high specification, with excellent teaching staff, supportive parents and fantastic families, that the young people are inspired to take up careers in sport. Tragically, however, the bathrooms and changing facilities are Dickensian, with almost no running water, rusty taps and toilets that girls do not like to use at certain times of the month. All those basics really put people off choosing PE.

I beg for an improvement in the capital budget because everyone has the right to learn in a high-quality facility. It is not just sport; other Members have mentioned science and technology, where we are seriously behind in terms of the hardware we need. In languages, we need not just teaching staff but up-to-date learning facilities—computers and so on. We need to see an improvement in our music. Tragically, while we have wonderful universal provision in the Haringey music service up to about year 8, suddenly there is a cliff edge. This year, despite being one of the most populous boroughs in London, with a lot of young people, only about a dozen are learning music at A-level. That is a real pity. At university level, music is the subject with the lowest proportion of state school students achieving admission into university. We have seen some progress in Cambridge and Oxford on the basic subjects—philosophy, politics and economics, and so on—but not music, because music teachers have to be paid properly, and it can cost up to £40 an hour to learn the saxophone or a particular instrument. That cannot be left only to certain parts of society; it must be provided to every single child who is gifted musically.

We have had many debates about education maintenance allowance since I became an MP in 2015. I want the Minister to look at that as well. Is EMA coming back? We know what a crucial lifeline it was for students, and particularly those in households with two or three teenagers who needed help getting to college. My hon. Friend talked about Leigh, and asked how do students get to college if they have not got money to get on a bus? We also need education maintenance allowance for things such as books—the cost of textbooks has gone up. We also need it for food, so young people can buy lunch at college.

Please can we have a response from the Minister on education maintenance allowance, capital funding and, finally, pay rates? Some other Members mentioned that, but at a recent lobby here in the last Parliament, an English as a second or foreign language teacher said that if she worked in one setting, she would have been paid £33,000, but because she is so committed to social justice and serving her community, she wants to work in a college, where she is paid £26,000. Please can we look at parity of esteem for teachers and lecturers within the college sector and this issue a key driver of social mobility for all our communities?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on securing this important debate. The neglect of further education over many decades, but in particular since 2010, is a critical issue that is not given enough attention in this place, so I thank Members on all sides who have made excellent contributions to the debate.

As some said during the debate, if global Britain is to have any meaning at all, we cannot keep underfunding further education. The latest figures available show that OECD countries spend, on average, 8% more on vocational programmes than academic ones, while the UK spends 11% less. FE funding has been cut to the bone, with spending this year similar in real terms to levels in 1991, nearly 30 years ago. We are falling behind, which damages young people’s futures and our economy in a way that affects every one of us.

The DFE’s own report into the FE sector, which was published this month, lays bare the scale of the problem. It says that courses and apprenticeships continue to be reduced or lost, class sizes and teachers’ workloads are increasing, while jobs are being cut and wages held down in a way that makes it difficult to retain staff or recruit new staff. One sixth-form college leader put it like this:

“If we do not receive additional funding in real terms…we will fail financially.”

They went on:

“Our aim is for this college not to be in the half of SFCs that fail first in the hope that, once half have gone…something will have to be done.”

How irresponsible that the Government have reduced our sixth-form colleges to this appalling state.

FE colleges complain that severe underfunding means much of what they can offer has become—in their own words—

“out of date and not relevant to what is current in the workplace.”

I ask the Minister, can we allow our FE colleges to fall so far behind that they are unable to equip their students for the world of work?

I regularly speak to leaders at Croydon College, which many of my younger constituents attend. They are distraught at how self-defeating and short term the Government’s approach to FE has been. Many young people growing up in places like Croydon fail to achieve their full potential at school, often because of challenging circumstances in the home that hold them back. Later on, they want to return to education and gain the basic qualifications they missed out on, in subjects such as English and maths, so they can get a better job, make themselves more employable and make a bigger contribution to society. It is inexplicable that this Government have chosen to close down these opportunities and leave young people to fail, when a little more investment at this crucial stage would pay dividends, not just to the young person affected, but to the public purse as they get jobs, earn more and pay taxes.

We should pay tribute to the Education Select Committee for its recent report into FE. The Committee was unable to discern overarching strategic objectives or funding prioritisation behind the Government’s policy announcements. It could not find evidence that the Government’s funding decisions were aligned with real-world costs. Instead of the blinkered short-termism that currently defines the Government’s approach to spending, the Committee called for a 10-year plan for education funding, so schools and colleges can plan strategically in the future. I hope the Minister will abandon the failure that has characterised this Government’s approach to further education and embrace a fresh approach that will equip the UK to compete globally.

Will the Minister confirm that per-pupil funding will rise, in real terms, every year of this Parliament? Will adult education and apprenticeship spending be maintained in real terms, in addition to the announced spending increase on education for 16 to 18-year-olds? When does she expect to raise the rate for funding education for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds to the £4,760 a year that the Sixth Form Colleges Association says is required and that Members on all sides have called for? When will she level up funding for 16 to 18-year-olds with funding for those under-16, and abolish the VAT on FE learning?

The high-skills economy that Britain needs to compete globally must draw on all routes through education, whether that is academic, technical or vocational. By failing to recognise and properly fund education, this Government are letting down Britain’s young people, and failing to equip Britain to succeed in an increasingly competitive world. After a decade of failure, I hope today’s debate will mark a turning point. It is time to raise the rate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on securing this important debate. It is fantastic to see so many colleagues from across the House here today. The subject is of great interest to a number of our constituents up and down the country, so I welcome the debate, and I have listened to Members’ input.

Our excellent schools and colleges deliver high-quality provision for 16 to 19-year-olds, often alongside vital lifelong learning for adults, providing opportunities to retrain. Employers also play a vital role in supporting this country’s future, by preparing young people and adults to meet the challenges of the changing workplace. I pay tribute to the colleges and schools that have been mentioned throughout the debate.

Does the Minister accept that there is a co-ordinating role that should be played by local government in directing, and helping to bring together, the local picture around skills?

There is indeed, but there is also a role for many different bodies and organisations to bring that picture together. Our colleges and schools should be at the heart of our local communities.

The Government are committed to improving the country’s education system, and recognise the importance of equality of funding, particularly for sixth forms—I myself am the product of a sixth-form college. We have increased funding for education for 16 to 19-year-olds by £400 million for 2020-21—a 7% increase in overall funding, and the biggest injection of new money in a single year since 2010. While I have heard the challenges referenced today, it is important to note that funding has increased faster for 16 to 19-year-olds than for schooling for 5 to 16-year-olds. That will allow us to raise the base rate of funding for all types of institutions, from £4,000 at present to £4,188 for the next academic year. I reiterate that I have heard the calls made today.

As part of the extra funding, the Government have committed to providing £120 million for more expensive and high-value subjects, along with £35 million to support students on level 3 courses who did not achieve a grade 4 in GCSE maths and/or English. The additional funding will ensure that we are able to continue building the skills that our country needs, and to invest in the next generation of young people.

We are also introducing T-levels. I noted the comment by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown that we have had several debates on the subject, but the issue was raised by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). T-levels will be offered by a number of colleges that were spoken about today. We will be spending an additional £500 million a year on these new programmes, once they are fully rolled out.

On the subject of T-levels, one issue is creating a pathway for students who have not obtained the grades necessary at key stage 4 to go straight into the T-level. Obviously, the Government are interested in opening up that pathway for those students, many of whom could massively benefit in terms of social mobility by being able to move on to T-levels. Can she say what the Government are doing to clarify the pathway for those students?

There will be a one-year transition course designed to target those students and make sure they are ready for T-levels. A T-level will not be right for every student, but it will provide an excellent pathway for further education, higher education, apprenticeships or going straight into the job market. We want as many people as possible to take T-levels, if those are suited to them.

To ensure that the institutions delivering T-levels have the up-to-date technical facilities and equipment required, we are also injecting capital funding. Earlier this month we announced up to £95 million for providers offering T-levels from 2021.

Capital funding was mentioned many times today. It is not just in relation to T-levels that we are increasing capital funding. We need to ensure local colleges are excellent places to learn, so we will invest £1.8 billion over five years to upgrade the FE estate. That was mentioned by the hon. Members for Brighton, Kemptown and for Croydon North (Steve Reed) among others. Sixth-form colleges and academies for 16 to 19-year-olds currently receive annual devolved capital allocations. They also either receive the school condition allocation or can bid for the condition improvement fund for larger projects. However, I have heard the calls today for a specific capital expansion fund, which came from my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), to mention but two. A full multi-year spending review is expected to be conducted in 2020, and that includes capital budgets for 2020-21.

The FE workforce is an important issue, because we need to secure the best outcomes for our students, and I always believe that that is reliant on the teachers who teach them. We need to give providers the ability to recruit, develop and retain the best staff. That is why we have invested more than £140 million in FE teachers and leaders since 2013-14. In the two years to March 2020, we will have invested up to £20 million to support providers as they prepare for the introduction of T-levels.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown and others, including the hon. Member for Croydon North, raised the issue of VAT. I recognise that that is a concern. As has been noted, sixth-form colleges can convert to 16-to-19 academies, which can resolve the issue, but we do keep it under review and will continue to monitor it.

Earlier this month, we announced a £24 million package for 2020-21 to strengthen the FE workforce. That includes a professional development offer for teachers delivering T-levels and funding to attract the best and most talented individuals, including industry professionals, into FE teaching.

The issue of mental health was raised by a number of hon. Members and, in particular, the hon. Members for Brighton, Kemptown and for West Ham (Ms Brown). I agree that we need to do more on that. It is a vital issue in our era. We have already provided more than £500 million to support disadvantaged students, but I can assure hon. Members here today that I will raise the topic with, and relay the concerns and comments to, the newly appointed Minister responsible for apprenticeships and skills—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan). My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), who unfortunately has had to leave the Chamber, mentioned the specific issue of a college closure in his constituency. Again, I will relay that issue to the Minister responsible for apprenticeships and skills and ensure that he has a meeting.

The issue of teacher pay came up. That is an issue when we are considering investment in our workforce and retention. It is not as simple as just ensuring that the teacher pay grant is in fact applied to colleges, because they are independent, so it is not necessarily appropriate, but we are concerned about this topic, and I know that the newly appointed Minister will be looking at it.

The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) brought up the issue of STEM and the fact that we need to be investing heavily in this sector to fill the skills gap. That is why, in 2020-21, we have made an additional £120 million available for the more expensive and high-value STEM subjects.

The investment that we are making in post-16 education will ensure that we can continue to develop a world-class education system to rival the systems of other countries, so that we have the highly skilled and productive workforce that we need for the future. The range and cost of the different programmes, the age and characteristics of students, and the types of institution that we fund all vary considerably. It is right that the amount of funding that different providers receive varies to reflect that.

The Minister is extremely generous in giving way. Will she just clarify the issue about education maintenance allowance?

I will. Although we have moved away from that particular programme, the most vulnerable young people, in defined groups, do have access to up to £1,200 a year to support their participation costs, and I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss that in further detail.

It is a strength of our funding system that we are able to provide the funding for students and institutions when and where it is needed, to meet such a wide range of different circumstances and needs. The Government are doing much to level up funding for post-16 education, but I know that there is concern that it does not go far enough. The Raise the Rate campaign, especially in relation to sixth-form colleges, has done an excellent job in drawing attention to the financial pressures that some providers are experiencing. Sixth-form and wider post-16 education is incredibly important and something that we will reflect on in our input into the spending review.

A number of hon. Members mentioned that the settlement was only for one year. I point out that most areas of Government achieved only a one-year settlement and that this year’s spending review offers many more opportunities.

I finish by thanking again the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown and all the hon. Members who participated in this extremely important debate.

I thank the Minister, who has given a very good holding reply to most of the points. It was very skilfully done—to some extent. I will summarise by saying that there are lots of little pots around that colleges can probably bid for here and there, but there is not yet a strategic view of how we will increase the money going into this sector and how we will equalise the funding between the different providers.

There is no real vision on how we will sort out the VAT problem, apart from by wanting to fiddle about with governance issues. Surely it would be easier and more cost-effective to rule these institutions out of VAT, rather than requiring them to go through the cost of converting, which is not necessarily appropriate in all cases. We have not really been offered an answer to the questions there. I hope that in the spending review the Minister will go back to the Department and there will be some more movement on these things. We were not expecting a pronouncement today.

We heard from many hon. Members. We heard about the work that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) continues to do with the APPG. The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned the need for long-term funding. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) talked about the need to catch up because of the cuts that have happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) talked about needing to put students first and was worried about the larger class sizes. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) talked about the college in her constituency and the danger to STEM subjects. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), who serves on a board of governors and is a graduate of that sixth-form college herself, also talked about the need for long-term funding—over a number of years.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) about how young people are falling through the gaps because we do not have the resources to support young people, when they are moving on, between institutions. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) talked about how the need to travel cuts people off from opportunities in which they might excel, but also about the mental health burden that has been put on our young people. There have not only been cuts to school counselling services; those have been exacerbated by the wider cuts that we have seen in youth services and elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) of course pushed again on capital grants and on EMA for young people.

I come from a family of people who have worked in sixth-form colleges. My mother worked all her life as a sixth-form college teacher—first at Taunton’s in Southampton, then at Bexhill sixth-form college, then at Park sixth-form college and then at Lewes sixth-form centre—before retiring. My sister has just gone to start teaching A-levels in Essex and has worked at a number of sixth forms herself. I come from a family who care passionately about sixth forms, and I went to a sixth-form centre myself. I hope we can ensure that this vital pathway through education is properly resourced and funded, as it deserves to be.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered equality of funding for post-16 education.

Sitting suspended.

Landfill Sites: Odour

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered odour emanating from landfill sites.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and welcome the Minister to her place. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the important matter of odour emanating from landfill sites, which is an issue of great concern to a number of my constituents, particularly in Silverdale, Knutton and Poolfields—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

The waste industry is one that most people would rather not think about, but that is not an option for people who live close to a landfill site, because of the impact that it can have on their lives. I am sure that other Members here will recognise some of the problems we face from experience in their own constituencies. It may come as a surprise to some that there was in fact a great deal of interest in the debate from other Members hoping to speak, but with it being only a 30-minute debate, unfortunately they will have to do so through interventions. It seems that the people of Newcastle-under-Lyme are not alone in their worries. I will give other Members the chance to put on the record their constituents’ concerns, and I will share a few comments from Members who cannot be here today.

I commend the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the incredible amount of work going on to reduce waste going to landfill. The Government are working hard to minimise waste and to promote recycling and resource efficiency. We are moving towards a circular economy in England, and I acknowledge that, as we actively encourage individuals and companies to recycle more and produce less waste, in time we will become less reliant on landfill. Nevertheless, for the time being, landfill sites remain an important part of waste management in this country.

In my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme, odour is not a new issue. It has been a problem for a number of years and causes a great deal of anxiety and stress for those affected. We have one landfill site in my constituency, the Walley’s Quarry landfill in Silverdale. Problems arising from the site have been reported on and off for many years, but my constituents complain of the odour increasing during the last 12 months.

I will expand on the history of the site in a moment, but there is an important point that I highlight first: we must take into account the character of an area when considering the issue of odour. In the countryside, for example, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a certain amount of odour from farming activities or similar. However, this landfill is not located in the countryside; it is in a built-up area, with residential properties within around 100 metres of the site boundary in multiple directions. True, some of these properties were approved and built in more recent years, and no doubt some will say that the principle of caveat emptor should apply in those circumstances, even if the odour issues have been getting worse. However, a number of longer standing properties belonging to people who have lived in their village and community all their lives are also badly affected, and it is in that context that the debate and the concern of my constituents should be understood.

The landfill has been in operation since 2007 and has planning permission for the tipping of non-hazardous waste until 2026, after which it will be capped with inert material. A number of improvements and technological advancements have been made to the landfill over the past few years, and I recognise that the operator, RED Industries, complies with the law as it stands, which requires it to use the best available technology to minimise emissions and odour. However, despite these best efforts, there remains a persistent odour issue affecting residents in neighbouring communities.

As the name suggests, Walley’s Quarry is a former clay extraction quarry that was converted to landfill use. The local borough and county council objected to the original application in 1997 but were overruled by the then Secretary of State, John Prescott. Local campaigners have since raised this issue over a number of years, including the former county and borough councillor for the area, Alderman Derrick Huckfield, who convened many meetings with affected parties, his residents and the Environment Agency. More recently, local residents Graham Eagles and Steve Meakin established a local “Stop the Stink” group and Facebook page, and in around a fortnight secured 2,400 signatures on a petition that they set up. I have not been able to verify each and every signature, but I believe that this response and the response that I had on the doorsteps during the election campaign and on my own Facebook page are an accurate expression of the strength of feeling in these communities.

There is also a liaison committee for the landfill, which brings together the operator, the local community and the local council, which has been ably chaired by my council leader, Simon Tagg. However, the feeling among residents and many committee members is that it is too often just a talking shop. RED Industries attends the meetings and has supported a number of local projects with its communities fund. However, it has been unwilling to concede that the site does in fact smell, in spite of the Environment Agency’s findings, which I will come to shortly. This has understandably led to an element of mistrust on the part of those affected.

I commend my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which, as he has rightly said, has provoked a lot of interest from hon. Members. Does he agree that the issue is the threshold at which the Environment Agency can act, not only on landfill odour, but on biodigester odour, too? Residents near Kennel Farm in my constituency are experiencing problems with biodigester odour. As I understand it, the Environment Agency can act to revoke the permit only if the operation poses a risk to human health or the environment. Why on earth are residents’ needs not better taken into account?

I am sorry to hear that my right hon. Friend is having similar issues in her constituency. I agree that we should not be relying on World Health Organisation standards of danger to health as our minimum standard. We should take residents’ concerns much more seriously. I believe odour can cause significant mental health concerns for residents.

My constituents in Royal Wootton Bassett suffer badly from the Crapper & Sons Landfill Ltd site—the name, incidentally, is indicative—next to that great town. When I visited them last week, they told me that the rain has made the odour much worse. The site operators admit to the odour and are taking steps to put it right. The real way to put it right is by capping it off, which they are starting to do, and by reducing the amount we put into landfill. They are now bringing in innovative ways of recycling, reducing landfill, so that soon the people of Wootton Bassett will no longer suffer from the appalling smell, as they have for the past year or so.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know of that case, as my father-in-law lives nearby in the village of Purton. Capping the sites off, as will eventually happen at Walley’s Quarry, offers residents some hope in the end. I recognise that operators are employing better technology all the time, but that is no consolation to people enduring the smell now.

I asked my constituents to contribute their thoughts and I will quote from some of their emails. Some constituents report “retching” and feeling sick from the odour, with others describing feeling as though they can taste the smell and it is catching the back of their throat. One described the smell as

“a blight on our community.”

Many residents report that they can identify the smell further away, sometimes in the centre of Newcastle, which is bad for its nightlife and day activities, or further north in Wolstanston and Bradwell. Other constituents highlight that they feel unable to use their garden, to open their windows or to hang washing outside. Most worrying are the cases of those for whom the smell is persistent inside their homes. The odour is also worrying for those with existing breathing difficulties and conditions such as asthma. They believe it is making their health worse.

I myself smelt the tell-tale “rotten egg” odour at times during my canvassing and campaigning for the general election, though it was notable that residents on the same estate had vastly differing responses to the smell on the same day.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. In my constituency there is a landfill site—which I call a dump—that deals with about 60% of all waste in Northern Ireland. Even after such sites are closed off, if the gase is not flares off, methane leaks into the atmosphere and still causes a problem years after. We have no way of policing this. Minimum standards are employed by our Environment Agency, but we need to go way beyond that. We need to set higher standards and enforce them, so that operators abide by them. We do not currently see best practice.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. In the case I am discussing, the operators do flare off the methane that has been produced and that will be an ongoing requirement for them after they start capping it off, but where the Environment Agency is not strong enough, we need to do more, as I will say in my requests to the Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who as a Minister cannot speak in this debate, told me of similar problems in her constituency. She relates that her residents have happily lived by a landfill site for many years, but in the last few months they have experienced a pungent eggy smell, which has at times engulfed their homes. They have experienced inertia on the part of the Environment Agency in effectively managing their concerns.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) discussed with me the landfill site in Arden Quarry in Birch Vale, which is a major concern for many of his constituents, even though the operator is working hard to reduce odours. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling)—a fellow Staffordshire MP, who as a member of the Cabinet also cannot speak in this debate, though she wanted to attend—has had similar problems in her constituency with landfills emitting odourous gases and she has worked hard to improve the situation for local residents. This is affecting constituents around the country and Members in all parts of the House.

Since being elected in December, I have held meetings with local campaigners, some of whom I mentioned earlier, the Environment Agency, and RED Industries Ltd, which runs the site. The Environment Agency is responsible for the regulation of the environmental permit for Walley’s Quarry landfill site, and it carried out an ambient air monitoring study between 15 January and 25 June 2019. The objective of the study was to identify the local sources of air pollution and to quantify the environmental impact of the emissions on the surrounding area and the local community. The most recent survey demonstrated that there was a continuous source of methane and hydrogen sulphide—the latter being the “rotten egg” smell that people find so distasteful—coming from the direction of the landfill, and it found that hydrogen sulphide concentrations occasionally exceeded odour limits, though not health limits, which are measured against WHO guidelines, as I mentioned earlier.

Further, I find it disappointing that the Environment Agency does not go so far as to say that the smell is coming from the landfill in its report. Rather, it says:

“Directional analysis showed that there was a continuous source of CH4 and H2S from the direction of Walleys Quarry landfill site and that a build-up of these compounds was seen under conditions of low wind speed and temperature and high pressure.”

It is disappointing that the agency that is supposed to be looking out for people cannot point the finger when it should.

What am I asking the Minister to do? First, it would be extremely helpful if the she or her departmental colleagues came to Newcastle-under-Lyme to see—or perhaps smell—the problem for themselves. I believe my residents and the operator would also welcome dialogue with the Department. The Environment Agency needs a stronger hand in dealing with operators. I think my constituents would agree with me when I say that at present the Environment Agency is a little bit toothless in dealing with issues as they arise. What is really needed is an empowered agency, able to properly hold operators accountable. Will the Minister consider giving the Environment Agency a broader range of powers to allow it to deal more quickly and effectively with minor and frequent breaches that do not necessarily lead to the revocation of a licence?

We also need to look at the role of local communities. Local communities have few options for remedy against a waste operator where the operator acts in compliance with its environmental permit and is not causing demonstrable adverse health effects. Odour is not something which can be measured objectively; quantifying and characterising odours is very challenging because each person’s sensitivity to odours varies. Further, reaching a judgment on whether odour constitutes a statutory nuisance can take time, especially if the occurrence is unpredictable and only apparent for short periods, or is dependent on particular weather patterns. Local communities know best how their lives are affected. Their needs should be considered throughout monitoring and investigation, so that their concerns are taken seriously.

More generally, the regulations governing odour are not fit for purpose. A site that smells may not be causing health issues, as judged by World Health Organisation criteria, but that is not to say that it should be allowed to smell. The example of Walley’s Quarry landfill site highlights that an operator may be compliant with its permit and planning permission, but that does not mean that it is not causing offence to its neighbours. As one of the richest and most developed countries in the world, we should aspire to higher standards than the bare minimum stipulations of WHO. I argue that the bar of statutory nuisance is too high. Will the Minister look again at whether that is the best measure to determine if a landfill site’s smell is at an acceptable level in view of its location? The level of odour in Silverdale is not fair to residents. It has a significant impact on their quality of life, even though it is at a legally permissible level. That needs to change.

I also argue that the practices of the Environment Agency fuel a lack of trust between communities and the agency. Communities want to feel that they have been listened to; they want to know that their concerns are being taken seriously, and that they can trust that effective monitoring is taking place when they express concerns. The persistence of the problem of odour in Newcastle-under-Lyme has understandably created a sense of powerlessness in the community, and residents do not feel that their concerns have been taken seriously enough by the Environment Agency. It took nearly six months for the findings of the monitoring exercise last year to be made public, which contributed to a regrettable sense of suspicion among some of my constituents. Will the Minister consider asking the agency to make the data from site monitoring more easily available to residents and the general public? If such data were made available publicly, live on a website or with a short delay for quality assurance, communities would be able to see directly for themselves that monitoring is taking place; they would be able to understand the levels of air pollution and odour being detected. That small change could go some way to help communities to feel less anxious, fitting in with the general agenda of the greater government transparency.

Finally, will the Minister work with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that no future landfill sites are allowed to be built so close to where people live, as is the case in Newcastle-under-Lyme? Living next to a landfill site will never be pleasant, and the Environment Agency acknowledges that no landfill site will ever be odour-free. To avoid problems in the duture, we should tighten up planning rules to ensure that landfill sites cannot be permitted within a certain distance of existing housing. I am grateful to the Minister for listening so attentively, and I look forward to her response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher; I do not think I have had the pleasure of doing so before. I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on bringing this debate to our attention. I know that his predecessor worked hard locally with the Environment Agency and other partners to try to identify a solution for the problems that he raises, and I commend him for standing up vociferously for his constituency. It is absolutely the right thing to do.

I appreciate concerns about material entering landfill, and I have stressed in many other recent debates on landfill and incineration—it seems to be flavour of the month—that the Government’s attention remains very firmly on reduce, reuse and recycle so that we can level up the country and move towards a much more circular economy with greater resource efficiency. My hon. Friend referred to that and acknowledged that we are moving in that direction. The measures set out in our ambitious resources and waste strategy and in our landmark Environment Bill, which will receive its Second Reading tomorrow in the Chamber, will minimise the amount of waste that reaches the lower levels of the waste hierarchy. That of course includes landfill, because that is right at the end of the chain.

Does the Minister agree that Crapper & Sons Landfill is a classic example of what she is talking about? Of the 280,000 tonnes that arrives on its site every year, only 95,000 tonnes goes into landfill. In other words, 185,000 tonnes is recycled onsite.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point; I thought he was going to make a negative intervention, but it was positive. The example he raises is the direction we are going in, and I commend the company on that figure. By reducing the quantity of waste through using it in other ways—recycling and all those things—we will end up with less going into landfill, and that is the intention.

The Environment Bill contains a whole range of measures, including a deposit return scheme and an extended producer responsibility scheme, and it will stipulate the much more consistent collection of waste, including food waste, by all our local authorities from the doorstep and from businesses. All those things will reduce waste.

Is the Minister not disappointed, as I am, that biodigesters, which should be part of the future of how we dispose of waste, are also part of the odour problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) has raised today? She has to act on that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention, but I want to go on about landfill in particular, because we are desperately trying to reduce the amount going to landfill. The Environment Bill wants us to drive towards 65% municipal waste recycling by 2033, with no more than 10% going to landfill. I commend the people of the west midlands for assisting with that aim, because they only send 7.3% of their municipal waste to landfill. Aside from the issue being raised today, the west midlands is doing a good job.

Planning and deciding where landfill sites and waste facilities should go is very much a local decision. It is not a Government decision, but something to be talked about locally. If it is not considered a risk to the environment or to public health, it is very much for the local authorities to decide whether a site will be a statutory nuisance. It is for them to make these decisions when allocating sites.

I will move on to Walley’s Quarry landfill. Obviously, I sympathise with residents who have raised complaints about the odour. No landfill will ever be completely odour-free, but the level and type of odour arising from such operations should not cause offence. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that Walley’s Quarry landfill is operated under an environmental permit. Since 2005, it has been actively managed for municipal and industrial non-hazardous waste. Environmental permits of that type are regulated by the Environment Agency in England; to protect the environment and people, it sets the conditions for the permitted activities.

In response to odour complaints from my hon. Friend’s constituents, from July 2017 to February 2018 and again from January to June 2019, the Environment Agency undertook specialist continuous air quality monitoring, including for hydrogen sulphide: the typical rotten egg smell that we all remember from our chemistry lessons—I am sure you do, Sir Christopher. The monitoring undertaken in 2019 found emissions to be within all relevant health and air quality limits; hydrogen sulphide exceeded an odour limit above which complaints would be expected for just 1% of the monitoring period. Contrary to my hon. Friend’s information, the results of that monitoring are publicly available and were shared with Public Health England, which confirmed that the levels recorded were low and that it would not expect any long-term health consequences.

There was an initial monitoring period where odour limits were breached for 6% of the time. Residents feel that that measure is not an accurate reflection of what they are experiencing, and they feel that the public health measure is not the one we should be testing against. We should be testing the experience they are having and the effect that is having on their quality of life.

I get my hon. Friend’s point, but the permit conditions require an Environment Agency officer to make a judgment about whether the odour is offensive. Enforcement action can be taken only when the odour is deemed to be offensive and the operator is not using all appropriate measures to control the odour.

The Environment Agency can make unannounced visits to the site to check what is going on. To date, it has not taken any enforcement action against the operator, as it considers the operator to be compliant with the permit conditions. For the odour to be deemed non-compliant, an Environment Agency officer would need to detect the odour and certify that the site operator had not taken steps to control it. As I said, it is up to the local environmental health practitioner to take action if it is deemed that the odour is a nuisance. If it is not a health issue or an environment issue under the Environment Agency criterion, it goes to the environment health practitioner—somebody based locally at the local council. That is how the issue is handled.

I understand that Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council has undertaken its own investigations in response to its duty to investigate complaints that could constitute a statutory nuisance. It has stepped in, and the council’s environmental health investigations have concluded that while odours have been detected and are likely to cause annoyance, they do not meet the threshold for statutory nuisance abatement action to be taken. However, in response to local concerns—I am sure my hon. Friend has also raised these—the council has decided to establish a scrutiny inquiry to provide a structured and publicly accessible forum to hear residents’ concerns about how the site is managed and the Environment Agency’s monitoring. I welcome that approach and I would be interested to be kept informed as to what is found as a result of that scrutiny.

While the Environment Agency has found Walley’s Quarry landfill to be compliant with its permit conditions based on inspections and air quality monitoring, we must recognise that local residents are raising genuine concerns. The operator of Walley’s Quarry landfill has taken some action already, which I am sure my hon. Friend knows about. In 2019, it installed an additional 19 gas extraction wells to help extract the gas produced from the treatment, which has helped to reduce the odours. I am told that the wells have made a difference. Given my hon. Friend’s constituents’ concerns, the Environment Agency also attends a quarterly local liaison forum with representatives from Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council and Staffordshire County Council, parish councils, the operator of the site and residents. I am sure my hon. Friend is welcome to go to those as well. They discuss all manner of things, including dust, seagulls, noise and traffic, so it sounds very proactive.

The Environment Agency also runs a citizens information page, which is constantly updated. The details of its air quality monitoring are on there and regularly updated for all to see. It also provides a monthly community newsletter. I think there is a great deal going on, although that is not to say that people do not have concerns. All waste management facilities are required to have a written management system designed to minimise the risk of pollution and reduce the impact on local communities and the environment. Those management systems cover all the topics that I have just mentioned—odour, flies, noise and dust management—so it should be pretty inclusive.

Other commitments in our resources and waste strategy, which I mentioned, include work to strengthen the requirement for those operating permitted waste sites to be technically competent, and far-reaching reforms to the ways in which waste is transported and tracked in the UK. That will improve our understanding of how waste is managed and provide better data on the composition and the destination of waste that could be repurposed or recycled, in order to be sure about what is going to landfill. Measures to enable those reforms and others are included in the aforementioned Environment Bill, which is progressing through the House. I urge my hon. Friend to take part in that tomorrow.

I fully sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents who have felt the need to raise their concerns about the odour. I am pleased that the Environment Agency and local partners are taking local action, and I hope that the introduction of additional gas wells demonstrates that the operator is trying to be proactive. I trust that Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council’s upcoming scrutiny inquiry will prove useful. I would be pleased to be kept updated about that, if it throws up any interesting areas that have not been considered.

I reiterate that the Government are committed to reducing the impact of waste in the long term across the board, and for less to end up ultimately in landfill. That is our intention through the waste and resources strategy and the Environment Bill. I know that the Environment Agency is committed to working locally with partners and my hon. Friend. The door to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team is open should further advice be needed. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter to our attention.

Question put and agreed to.

UK Armed Forces: Wales’s Contribution

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Wales’s contribution to the UK armed forces.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to have secured the debate. As the Member of Parliament for the Army’s headquarters in Wales, I am hugely motivated to give the armed forces my full support.

The sons of Wales have a valiant history, marked with courage, bravery and a commitment to strengthening the United Kingdom and our armed forces. From Rorke’s Drift, which saw seven Victoria Cross medals awarded to members of the second 24th Foot brigade, to gaining a battle honour at the Somme, and from the heroic landings on D-day to liberate our European allies to landing in Baghdad in support of Operation Telic, Welsh regiments have proudly contributed to every major campaign of the British Army over a 300-year history.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She described the 300-year history. I am very proud of John Fielding from Torfaen, who is one of those who won a Victoria Cross at Rorke’s Drift. He is commemorated every year in Torfaen. However, does she agree that, although there is great heroism on the battlefield, we must do more to ensure that veterans are looked after, particularly in terms of their mental health?

I completely agree. I thank the hon. Member for raising that point, and I will return to it.

In addition to the celebrated military campaigns I mentioned, the Welsh Guards undertake countless public duties, such as standing guard at royal residences or at the trooping of the colour, which is of huge national importance. On Saturday, I had the pleasure of seeing Fusilier Llywelyn, the regimental goat of the Royal Welsh, lead out the Welsh rugby team to their Six Nations near-victory against France. I am confident that he will bring us much better luck in a couple of weeks against Scotland.

Right now, a battalion from the 1st Royal Welsh is travelling to Sennelager in Germany to take part in a four-week gun camp. Welsh warriors have ventured across the globe in support of our national interest. They have been integral to protecting the British way of life for generations. Welsh regiments contributed to the defeat of Nazism in Europe, as well as to maintaining the rule of law during the troubles of Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing the debate. Does she agree that the fact that the smaller regions, such as Wales and Northern Ireland, supply such a large amount of service personnel per capita to the UK armed forces, as she mentioned, shows the nature of our dedication to this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? That loyalty and dedication should be recognised.

I certainly agree. I thank the hon. Member for raising that important point. I gently point out that Wales is a country—I do not wish to disagree with him on his use of the term “region”, but I gently stress that.

As well as the contribution made during the troubles in Northern Ireland, 32 Welsh Guards lost their lives following an attack on the Sir Galahad as they sought to uphold British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. Welsh regiments have long stood with their brothers and sisters from across the Union as liberators of those who have been unable to liberate themselves.

It would be remiss of me not to intervene on my hon. Friend, having been in the Falkland Islands last week. There was a very moving service at the memorial to mark the events that she talks about. I put on record the thanks of the people of the Falkland Islands, who really underlined the debt of gratitude that they have to the Welsh Guards.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point, and completely associate myself with her comments.

Wales supports the UK armed forces through all three services. More than 60 Ministry of Defence establishments and bases are currently in operation in Wales. RAF Valley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) supports pilots from across the UK with low-flying and fast-jet training, in addition to the search and rescue operations undertaken from that base. Similarly, HMS Cambria near Cardiff is the location of the only Royal Navy reservists in Wales.

My constituency is home to a number of important military sites, particularly Sennybridge training area, which has been used to train soldiers since the outbreak of world war two. We are also home to the Infantry Battle School, which every year equips more than 3,500 men and women with the skills and tactical abilities they require to become exceptional soldiers in the UK armed forces.

Brecon is the location of HQ Wales and 160 Brigade. Originally raised in 1908, the brigade saw service in both world wars, including in Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of north-west Europe. Today, the 160th is the link between the Army in Wales, the UK Government, the Welsh Government and wider Welsh society. This week, the 160th will see the retirement of its commanding officer. I put on record my thanks to Brigadier Alan Richmond for his three decades of service, the last four of which have been as the Army commander in Wales. I wish him and his family all the very best as he moves on to his next post in the Army. I look forward to working closely with his successor, Brigadier Andrew Dawes, as we move into a new era for our security and defence. The Army in Wales will no doubt have to contend with international challenges and challenges closer to home in the coming weeks and years.

The proposed closure of the barracks in Brecon, which is scheduled for 2027, would be a tragic loss to our community. I visited the barracks only yesterday and was given a tour by both brigadiers. One of the buildings they showed me is named after Sir Tasker Watkins VC, who is known by many—certainly by me—as the greatest ever Welshman for the bravery he showed in France in 1944. Closing Brecon barracks would close the door on an essential part of Welsh history. The history of Brecon is one of shared pride and intertwined heritage with the military. Many local businesses are supported by the presence of the barracks, not to mention the revenues from tourism, which support local jobs and growth in the rural economy.

The loss of the barracks at Brecon would result in the headquarters for the Army in Wales being relocated from that site. In addition to its truly historical and social significance, it cannot be overstated how critical the facility is to our national security. During times of regional and national crisis, Brecon barracks is the location of the critical response unit, which co-ordinates the actions of the military. The equipment and expertise housed in Brecon are a source of pride and should be protected. Although I will do all I can to prevent the closure of the barracks, if a compromise cannot be found, I will be working closely with colleagues in both the Ministry of Defence and HQ Wales to ensure the impact on the local economy and local identity is minimal.

UK defence spending now supports over 7,700 jobs in Wales in the public and private sectors, an increase from 6,300 just a year ago.

My hon. Friend mentioned Brigadier Andrew Dawes in passing. It is worth highlighting that when he was in the Ministry of Defence, he masterminded the link between Parliament and the MOD, and particularly the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. He is an absolutely first-class individual, as is his twin brother Ed, who runs the Wiltshire side of things, and he will be a great asset.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I do not want to prejudice my application to the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme by saying anything further, but I thank him very much.

The 2018-19 financial year was the first in history during which the UK spent over £1 billion on defence in Wales, so there has never been a better time to celebrate the prominence of Wales in the UK’s defence estate. Wales is quickly becoming a defence industry hub: thanks to an expansion in cutting-edge innovation and pioneering technologies, the whole of the UK armed forces will benefit from research and development undertaken in Wales. It is encouraging that the MOD’s Defence Electronics and Components Agency, based in Sealand in north Wales, has been selected as the global repair hub for the F-35 Lightning aircraft.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having secured this debate. I agree with her about additional defence spending, the need to have bases in Wales, and the need for that barracks to not leave Brecon, if she can negotiate that with the Minister. However, one of my concerns about spending is that, in my constituency and other constituencies across Wales, because of the austerity we have seen over the past decade, cenotaphs that need refurbishment or improved record keeping are falling behind on maintenance, rather than being kept to the good and proper standard that they should be. In my own constituency, the community in Gilfach Goch has come together to refurbish the cenotaph there. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that, while the MOD is moving forward with all this additional spending, it also makes sure that it marks those who died in conflicts and that we maintain cenotaphs to the very high standard the public expect?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We need to make sure that we remember our war dead in every way possible.

The hon. Lady has mentioned the F-35. The work on that aircraft is based in Alyn and Deeside, which I obviously welcome; it is vital that we have it. However, over the years, there has been a lot of uncertainty regarding that site because of the chopping and changing that has happened, with the MOD changing how contracts are placed and moving work forward or back. We need longer-term planning if we are to maintain that important strategic work.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I will be moving on to a related point in a few minutes.

Although investment in the regional defence industry is increasing, proportionately Wales continues to contribute more personnel to the UK armed forces than any other nation in the Union. Consequently, we have a high number of veterans in Wales. The Government have made huge progress in this area, including through the creation of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. However, when it comes to mental health, we can do more to ensure that returning servicemen and servicewomen can access the care they need. I am grateful that the veterans Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), has agreed to meet me to discuss this issue shortly.

Before my hon. Friend makes further progress, I want to return to the point about veterans. Does she agree that the Government’s important proposal to roll out a veterans’ card should encompass all veterans, wherever they are in the UK and regardless of devolution boundaries? A way must be found to ensure that all veterans across the UK can benefit at the same time.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I know that discussions are ongoing between the UK Government and the Welsh Government, and I am very optimistic that a way forward can, and must, be found.

Despite their admirable pride in being Welsh, none of our regular infantry units is permanently based in Wales. The 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards is based at Robertson barracks, in Norwich in Norfolk. That barracks is scheduled for closure in 2031, which may present an opportunity to bring one of our regiments home to Wales—I know that my constituents in Brecon and Radnorshire would welcome it with open arms. I am confident that the Prime Minister’s major security and defence review will seek to embolden and expand the armed forces presence in Wales. The most significant review for decades will no doubt further commit the UK to NATO’s 2% of GDP spending target. The significance of that target and its impact on spending in Wales cannot be overstated.

With an evolving and complex international security situation, it has never been more appropriate to have the Welsh warriors take a leading role in promoting the UK’s defence and forging policy priorities. Later this year, the Royal Welsh will be conducting joint training exercises with the US, Canada and France, our NATO allies. In testing geopolitical times, that regiment will be underscoring its determination to strengthen the UK’s bond to the alliance. The 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards will be conducting pre-deployment training for operations in Mali, where it will hold the crucial role of supporting the significant peacekeeping effort in that country—a strategic priority for the UK’s interests in the region. The Welsh Guards will be deployed to Kenya and Belize later this year, as well as taking part in the Queen’s birthday parade in the spring. That international outlook should reassure us all regarding the UK’s position as a global security leader.

The Welsh regiments have a brave history matched by few, and a future as bright as any, and it now falls to us all to ensure that our commitment to those regiments matches their commitment to supporting the UK’s armed forces. As many generations before them have done, sons—and now daughters—with the red dragon on their arm will assume their place representing the very best of Wales and the very best of our Union.

Before calling the next speaker, I should say that the winding-up speeches will start at 5.24 pm. Members will be able to do their own maths and work out how long each of them has to speak. We will start with Alex Davies-Jones.

Diolch, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) for having secured this important debate. As a former air cadet with strong family connections to the military, I share her passion for Wales’s proud military history. Only a few weeks ago, we in Parliament were lucky enough to be joined by the three principal Welsh regiments, the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, the Welsh Guards and the Royal Welsh, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for having sponsored that event.

All three of those Welsh regiments have a long and distinguished history and retain a significant footprint back home, in my constituency of Pontypridd and across Rhondda Cynon Taf. That local authority was one of the first in Wales to sign an armed forces community covenant, setting out the support it offers to serving and retired armed forces personnel. I put on the record my thanks to our deputy leader, Maureen Webber, for the massive amount of work she has done in this area. She has been a really strong champion for our armed forces.

Colleagues will be aware that the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, formed in 1959, has roots in Cardiff, which is just down the road from my patch. These regiments work across the world: later this year, the Queen’s Dragoon Guards will be conducting pre-deployment training for operations in west Africa, where it will provide expertise in an effort to keep peace. However, colleagues will also know that following the 2010 defence review, the regiment faced the threat of cuts and was reduced to one regular battalion.

In 2015, the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards returned to the UK from Germany, and is now based in Norfolk. I know Norfolk is a lovely part of the country, but it seems strange that our regiments are not located closer to home. The journey from Wales to Norfolk is not a swift one, so I urge all Members present to support the case for moving the Queen’s Dragoon Guards closer to Wales. Otherwise, the long distance will impact on recruitment and retention: the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that the number of personnel in Wales has already decreased by 900 since 2012.

I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on having secured this excellent debate, and on the manner in which she has opened it. I join the calls to move the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards to Wales, and add that doing so would benefit our cadets across Wales, who we have not mentioned. They do great things across our constituencies, both for civic pride and to encourage young people to get involved in what is a great profession.

As a former air cadet, I totally agree with those points.

Our Welsh soldiers, who have families and partners in Wales, will find the cost of commuting prohibitive. We need to do all we can to encourage new recruits to join, rather than put up barriers to prevent new starters. The cadets have a great offer for people who want to join our Air Force, Army and Navy. We need to encourage those new starters.

The Welsh cavalry will be moved in the next decade due to the planned closure of the Robertson barracks in 2031, so this is the perfect time for the Government to consider moving the regiment to Wales. I hope that the Minister and his Department will support such a move and bring our cavalry home.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on setting out her case excellently and on securing this important and timely debate. I intend to speak for only a few moments; I will make a few brief points about Wales’s contribution to the UK armed forces. Wales has been an important recruitment ground for soldiers for the British Army and for other branches of the armed forces over many generations and centuries. Long may that continue.

My first point relates to the recruitment of soldiers from Wales. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) is present, but I want to address the long-running campaign that some Plaid Cymru politicians have run over the years to try to stop the armed forces from visiting schools in Wales for careers purposes and other events. It is a good thing that members of the armed forces visit schools and have a presence there, so they can demonstrate what excellent role models they are for young people and what interesting and rewarding career paths the armed forces can offer Welsh pupils.

I want Wales to continue to be an important recruitment ground into the UK armed forces. I have concerns, which constituents have raised with me in recent years, about the changes to the structure of recruitment in Wales, and about the move to the Capita contract. I was a Minister when those changes were happening. Concerns were raised internally in Government about the consequences of moving to the Capita contract. I hope that the Minister can provide us with more upbeat information to dispel some of my concerns and gloom about recruitment in Wales. I hope that moving to the Capita contract has not resulted in a decline in recruitment to the armed forces from Wales.

The kinds of issues that constituents have raised with me relate to applications taking a long time; the website not working; and wasted visits to Swansea—a long journey there and back from Pembrokeshire—for meaningless recruitment discussions. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say to show that there have been improvements in the way that the recruitment experience works.

My second point also relates to recruitment, in a way. The armed forces play an important role in social mobility across the United Kingdom, but particularly in Wales. As I have said before in the House, no other institution in our national life comes close to what the British Army does in terms of taking young people from some of the most challenging communities and most difficult backgrounds, giving them excellent training and a career path and moulding them as leaders. The armed forces provide an incredibly transformational thing for young people from challenging and often disadvantaged backgrounds.

I am concerned, however, that when I see senior officers from our armed forces interviewed in the media, and when they come here to brief us as Members of Parliament, I never hear a Welsh accent among them. I meet soldiers from the other ranks with Welsh accents, as when the three Welsh regiments came to the House the other day, and when I visit other regiments I hear Geordie and Liverpudlian accents, but when I meet the senior officers, I do not hear those regional or other national accents. Much emphasis is being placed on demonstrating to people that they can go from the factory floor or the shop floor to the boardroom in other businesses and organisations. We want to demonstrate to people being recruited into the armed forces that there are not twin tracks—that they will not be labelled as “other ranks” and get stuck, while a separate officer track takes people to senior leadership positions.

I have an anecdotal story about my husband, who is a posh Dubliner. When he joined the Royal Navy, he was told that he had to get rid of his regional accent. There are people in the armed forces who are not celebrating regional or national accents in the way that the right hon. Gentleman would like.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I do not want to overstate the point, but it needs to be made in the context of the social mobility that the armed forces provide for many young people. We want opportunities to provide a pathway right to the top of the organisation, and we are not seeing that at the moment.

Finally, as a trailer, my debate in this place tomorrow relates to the base in my constituency, Cawdor barracks, which has been home to the 14th Signal Regiment for more than 15 years. The Minister knows the argument that I will make tomorrow, but I want to flag that, as well as agreeing with the points made about relocating a historical Welsh regiment back to Wales, we already have a base in far-west Wales, in Pembrokeshire, that provides a home to a very important part of the armed forces. The 14th Signal Regiment has unique capabilities in the field of electronic warfare. Because of those capabilities and the kind of work it does, it was used heavily in Operation Telic and other operations that we do not hear about in the media. The soldiers and their families love being in Pembrokeshire. I will say more about that tomorrow.

It is important to maintain the military footprint across Wales. We use that phrase, but it must be meaningful, and we make it meaningful by keeping people and infrastructure in places that might not be convenient to the senior echelons of the armed forces but that, nevertheless, maintain historical roots and connections with local communities.

The right hon. Gentleman refers to local connections. I declare an interest as a former part-time soldier in the Territorial Army and the Royal Artillery. We trained in Wales every second year, so the connection between Wales and Northern Ireland is strong. It is important to have those connections.

Absolutely. I understand that there are resource constraints, but having a wide and deep footprint across the United Kingdom provides the opportunity for connections between different parts of the United Kingdom, which fosters good relationships and is important for the Union.

It is always a pleasure to speak in a debate on the armed forces in Wales. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing the debate. I am sure that she will make an important contribution on these issues, particularly given the presence of the armed forces in her constituency, which I have had the pleasure of visiting.

It is partly through my experience of working with our Welsh regiments in the Army, and with the Royal Navy and the Air Force, locally in the constituency and more broadly, that I have learned to respect and be inspired by their work. I have also seen first hand some of the challenging training that they undergo, particularly in locations in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I had the pleasure of spending time there with the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Welsh, the reserve Army grouping, and with other Army formations, including the special forces, in some of the training areas that she mentioned. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of maintaining those areas in Wales and the crucial role that they play in preparing our armed forces for operations around the world.

As vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, and having spent time on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, the crucial role that the Welsh contribution to our armed forces—the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force—has played is clear to me. That is particularly true in my constituency. We hosted a reception here a couple of weeks ago, as has been mentioned, where I met constituents from St Mellons and Splott who had just joined the Army and were excited about their future careers.

We have a proud Royal Navy and merchant navy tradition in Cardiff and Cardiff Bay. As has been mentioned, HMS Cambria is located on the edge of my constituency, but will be moving into Cardiff Bay as part of a new development, which we all fully welcome. Given that history, we look forward to seeing the progress of the Navy’s work there to build a flagship for the Royal Navy as a base in Cardiff.

There is also a history with the Royal Air Force, particularly due to the location of St Athan down the road in the Vale of Glamorgan. The famous Guy Gibson, one of the Dambusters from 617 Squadron, spent time in Penarth. RAF Pengam Green was based in part of my constituency in the past. We have long been a recruiting ground for the armed forces and there continues to be a significant presence in the near vicinity.

I emphasise the point made by many colleagues: the Army in particular has historically recruited disproportionately from Wales—usually about 7% or 8% of the Army are recruited from Wales, which represents only 5% of the UK population. However, it has been mentioned that the presence of the armed forces in Wales is much lower than that, at just 2%, as highlighted by the Welsh Affairs Committee report, and it is potentially dropping to just 1%.

That is a real concern. I agree with many of the comments made by colleagues from across the Chamber about that presence. It is crucial to ensuring that Wales is properly represented in our United Kingdom armed forces, but also, given the importance of strengthening the Union, to ensuring that that contribution is recognised. We need to maintain that presence. I certainly support calls for the Ministry of Defence to look at rebasing some of the Welsh contribution to the armed forces in Wales itself, particularly through the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and to see the Army coming to Wales.

As someone who undertook her Northern Ireland training in the Brecon Beacons back in the 1980s, I fully support what we all want here. Does the hon. Member—and does the Minister —agree that Wales deserves at least one garrison town, given its past and present commitment to the military?

Effectively, we do already have one garrison town to a degree, through the presence in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, but I agree that we want to see more of the Welsh contribution stationed in Wales, and indeed other units. Given the wide range of training environments, it often makes more sense for forces, particularly Welsh-originating forces, to be located nearer to families so that they can get back at weekends and when they have time off on leave.

I will touch quickly on three issues. The first is recruitment; I am very proud of the history of recruitment from my own constituency, particularly to the Army, but when I have visited recruitment offices in Cardiff, and in the discussions I have had with officials from the Ministry of Defence and with Ministers on this, there does not seem to be the type of recruitment going on to bring in the diversity that I know that the Army wants to see in our armed forces.

The point applies particularly to the black and minority ethnic community. It is absolutely crucial that our armed forces of today, particularly our Army, represent the country that they fight for and defend. We have a fantastic BME contribution in the Army, but that is often made up of Commonwealth contributors. They are absolutely fantastic and do a brilliant job—I have spent time with them out in a Warrior on Salisbury Plain with the Royal Welsh—but it is important that we also ensure that young people from communities such as Butetown, Grangetown and Splott in my constituency get the chances offered by the armed forces. I think there is a disjunct there in the levels of recruitment. I urge the Ministry of Defence officials to work closely with Members of Parliament and others who can ensure that the opportunities provided, including some of the fantastic opportunities offered by places such as Harrogate and Welbeck, are also available to people from my communities.

Secondly, on veterans, I work very closely with a number of veterans’ organisations locally, including the Welsh Veterans Partnership, Woody’s Lodge and many others. They do excellent work, but one of the frustrations that we often have is that there are national programmes announced at a UK-wide level, but when we ask, “What is the Welsh option? What is the Welsh contribution?” it is often not there. I know that has been the case with some of the local organisations. They are doing brilliant work on housing, for example, working with local veterans; yet, when they have approached UK-wide organisations that say, “We are working with Government money to provide housing for veterans,” they are told, “Oh, well, that doesn’t apply in Wales.” There is a bit of a disjunct there. I would like to see the UK Government and the Welsh Government working as closely as they can on these issues.

I met with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs the other day at a reception—the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) was there too—and raised some of those issues. We need to ensure better joined-up working. It is not a competition between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, and we need to ensure that that work is joined up, so we can support all our veterans and all those who have supported our country over many years.

My final point is about the presence of the Navy. I mentioned HMS Cambria coming into Cardiff South and Penarth, which is fantastic, but it was also suggested by, I think, the former Defence Secretary that HMS Severn, which is one of the River-class patrol vessels, was going to be forward deployed, along with the other River-class patrol vessels, at locations near to their namesakes. I was hoping that HMS Severn would perhaps be spending time in Cardiff, Newport and other locations nearby. That seems to be in some doubt at the moment, so perhaps the Minister can provide some clarity.

We are looking forward to the new HMS Cardiff; I visited her previous iteration, but we welcome the naming of one of the new Type-26 frigates. Of course, that naval history was crucial during the NATO summit, which Wales hosted so admirably in Newport and which we all contributed to. It was a highlight for me to see naval vessels from around the world in Cardiff Bay and for local young people to go on board to meet our armed forces personnel. I also spent time recently on HMS Monmouth when it was berthed in Cardiff Bay; I spent time in the galley, cooking with the chef, and with the engineering teams, to really understand some of the realities and day-to-day experiences of our naval personnel.

The armed forces play a huge part in the history of Wales and in the history of Cardiff South and Penarth. They have a huge role to play in the future. I would not be here if not for the armed forces in Wales, because one of my dad’s last postings in the Army was at Maindy barracks in Cardiff, where I will be returning this weekend for the St David’s day dinner. I know the contribution that that has made in my life. My dad went on to serve in youth work in our communities in south Wales, through his involvement in the Army youth teams, which operated in communities across Cardiff in the 1970s and 1980s. It has made a huge impact in my family’s life. I am sure it has a huge contribution to make in the future, but we need to ensure that Wales gets its fair share and fair representation in our armed forces family across the United Kingdom.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on giving us this opportunity today to thank our armed forces, who make such an important contribution to our national life. As she did so very eloquently, I would like to pay tribute to all those who have served, past and present, from my constituency and across Wales.

I will make a few mentions for my constituency, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has just done. Raglan barracks in Newport is an established base for several reservist units, including the 104th Regiment Royal Artillery, which is the only Army Reserve artillery regiment in Wales. The Gwent and Powys Army Cadet Force also has successful detachments in our area, including in Newport and in Caldicot. Llanwern High School in my constituency is one of the very few state schools to play host to the Combined Cadet Force, developing skills and qualifications that I know are valued both by employers and further education institutions, and it provides a brilliant experience. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, which has two branches in my constituency, in Caldicot and in Newport. They undertake great work all year round to support the forces community, including our veterans.

The Welsh Government have a strong track record in supporting the armed forces community in Wales, including through initiatives such as Veterans NHS Wales—we are the only part of the UK to have that. It has supported thousands of veterans since being set up in 2010. Every local authority in Wales has signed the armed forces community covenant, and last year Newport City Council was one of the employers to be recognised by the Ministry of Defence with the gold award.

There is also great work going on in the voluntary sector. Last month, Help for Heroes set up a new hub in Newport International Sports Village to promote sports recovery activities. Newport County AFC—no debate is without a reference to Newport County AFC—working with Newport City Council and veterans’ charities, has helped to establish a local weekly drop-in for veterans at Bar Amber.

Although there is lots to celebrate and lots on offer, we need to reflect on what more can be done for veterans in Wales and across the UK. Service in our armed forces offers young men and young women from Wales a huge range of amazing careers and life-enhancing opportunities, but for some, sadly, there are longer term issues arising from their service experiences, including conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. I am indebted to my constituent Anthony Lock, who served with the Royal Welsh Regiment in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and who has campaigned tirelessly to bring about change and to help others. In his book “Broken by War” he harrowingly describes the life-changing injuries he sustained as a result of two improvised explosive device attacks during his service in Helmand, which left a long-term legacy of depression and PTSD and which, sadly and wrongly, damaged his employment opportunities. It is a really powerful book, which I recommend to others. His experience is not a positive one, but it has encouraged others to seek support and to campaign for change, which is really important. We need a joined-up and robust approach to signposting mental health support services within the community, as well as a better way of handling compensation and pension claims.

I know my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) is keen to speak so I will just make a few final points. As has been mentioned, none of our Regular Army combat units are based in Wales. I too support relocating the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, as do others.

Finally, as the title of today’s debate is Wales’s contribution to the UK armed forces, I want to mention a group of people who have made a huge contribution to the UK’s armed forces. I have the great privilege of representing a number of Afghan interpreters who are settled in Wales and in Newport. They came here under the Government’s scheme following the huge sacrifices that they made to help our armed forces. I very much value their contribution and pay tribute to them. I know there have been a few problems with the scheme in the past, but I hope the Government will do all they can to support them in the years ahead.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing the debate. The last time I saw her, we had completed a 10-mile walk. I am glad the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) is present, because we walked in aid of his close friend, Steffan Lewis, the Assembly Member who sadly lost his life to bowel cancer. We raised a lot of money that day. We often argue about politics, but there is more that unites us than divides us.

I want to begin by talking about the British nuclear test veterans. Why am I talking about them? In 1993, Councillor Stan Jenkins was elected as the mayor for Islwyn Borough Council; in that role, he met some British nuclear test veterans and he was moved by their plight. Many of them were exposed to nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s. They suffered a terrible ordeal; many had illnesses and problems throughout their entire life, but they were largely ignored by Governments throughout the years. In 1993, Stan decided to do something about it. It was one of my privileges when I was first elected to this place—as a very young boy—to walk through Risca town centre with British nuclear test veterans in order to lay a wreath in the memorial garden and to lower the standard, which was put in the local church until it fades away.

That was nine years ago, and the British test veterans still do not have justice. They have not been compensated and, more importantly, they have not been recognised. As we head towards Armed Forces Day on 27 June, what better way is there to celebrate their contribution than for the Government to finally recognise their service by striking medal to thank them for what they have done? It is small compensation, and as their numbers dwindle it would be very important to the families left behind. I hope the Minister will look favourably on that as we move towards June.

Time is of the essence and I want to be critical at this point. We have heard about garrison towns and service accommodation, but there is a scandal that goes back years and years: the state of our service accommodation. It has been an issue under Governments of all colours, but when I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee I was shocked by a report we had from the National Audit Office on the conduct of CarillionAmey. Carillion has gone bust, but its legacy should not be forgotten. The company left many of our service families without heating or hot water in damp and mouldy homes with stained carpets and faulty equipment. They tried to do something about it, but they could not get through for weeks. That says a lot.

This debate is about the respect we have for our armed forces. That respect should extend beyond our servicemen and women, to their families. If we expect people to put their lives on the line—it is not like working for a bank or building society—they should be respected, and their families should be honoured. When we allow them to live in substandard accommodation, we should be rightfully ashamed. The problem is that when the Secretary of State called in CarillionAmey about its performance, it said there had been a miraculous recovery, and then the Government renewed the contract. Carillion went bust, and still the problem continues.

I have two asks for the Minister. The first is on the nuclear test veterans: please give them a medal. Secondly, please—finally—do something about the scandal of service accommodation. I wish I had more time, and I place on record my personal thanks for all the hard work that brave men and women do in our forces. If we love freedom, we should thank our servicemen and women.

It is a pleasure to be here for the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on clearly setting out the importance of the Welsh defence footprint. I totally endorse her remarks: Wales is a country, and one that, much like Scotland, has historically made a great contribution to the UK armed forces by providing bases, training grounds, recruits, and defence and aerospace developments.

We have heard contributions from the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who talked about his experience in the Navy. I was slightly concerned that he was let loose in the chef’s area—maybe I can hear more about that after the debate.

The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about the veterans charities that do such great work, and about her constituent who had life-changing injuries and faced various challenges. By total coincidence, I met British nuclear test veterans this morning, so it was really interesting to hear the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) talk about them. I met Alan Owen, and I fully endorse the hon. Member’s comments about medals: there is absolutely no reason why these people should not have some recognition of what they went through in the Pacific during the British nuclear tests.

It is disappointing that there has been a general declining trend in recent years in the presence of the armed forces in Wales. Although Wales represents 5% of the UK’s population, only 2% of the armed forces are currently stationed in Wales. According to 2018 figures, there are approximately 3,250 MOD personnel in Wales—down 900 from 2012. The Government’s proposals to further reduce the defence estate and to relocate personnel currently based in Wales is a major blow. If the closure of the Brecon barracks goes ahead, the percentage of UK armed forces stationed in Wales could drop to as little as 1%. That figure corresponds with the pattern of over-concentration of forces in England, with the clustering of bases.

The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned the Capita contract. We have been complaining about that for many years now, and it is something that unites Members of different parties. The arrangement has been poorly administered and Capita has failed to meet targets for recruitment, yet it still blunders on.

Given that approximately one third of the defence pound returns to the local community through personnel spending, and that there is a multiplier effect as military families spend money near the base, local communities bear the brunt of bases being closed.

I can understand the frustration of Welsh Members who have noted the proposals to reduce the defence estate in Wales and to relocate personnel currently based there. In Scotland we have a litany of broken promises on this issue, on defence spending and on troop numbers. We were promised all sorts in the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014, including an increase in troop numbers and investment in Scotland’s military footprint. We were told our numbers would increase to 12,500 personnel by 2020. Not only has that target not been delivered; it has actually moved backwards. In 2013 we had 10,600 defence personnel, but that has now fallen to 9,680—7% of the UK’s total, and below Scotland’s personnel share of 8%. To put it bluntly, we have been short-changed by approximately 3,000 full-time personnel.

Like Scotland, Wales needs a properly funded and maintained defence force. The UK Government have a duty to ensure that Wales contains a fair proportion of military presence for the size of its population. Following the recommendations of the Welsh Affairs Committee, will the UK Government reconsider their defence estate strategy to ensure that any base closures do not result in negative outcomes? We need explicit commitments from the Government on the number of personnel based in the other nations. Scotland and Wales need their fair share.

In addition, the UK Government need to protect the remaining bases in Wales and provide certainty about any changes to unit locations that could negatively impact the Welsh economy and local communities. The Government say that all UK countries are valued and that opportunity and investment must be spread to every part, but we question that sentiment when looking at the defence figures, which show that, while the Government focus defence efforts, resources and investment in England, the other nations are being left behind.

Wales plays and wants to continue playing its role in the global community. The Government must support Welsh defence personnel and the Welsh defence industry to enable them do so.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing this important debate. We have had a very consensual and positive debate about the contribution that Wales makes to Her Majesty’s armed forces.

The hon. Lady talked about the historic and significant contribution that Wales has made to the armed forces and highlighted her concerns about the future of the Brecon barracks, which I will come back to later in my remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) talked about bringing the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards closer, if not home, to Wales.

The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) mentioned his concerns, which I am sure we all share, about the Capita contract and the recruitment issues that have beset the armed forces in recent years. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) talked about his vast experience of support for our armed forces and his constituency’s historic links to the merchant navy and other parts of our armed forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke about the role of her constituency, particularly with the Royal British Legion, and about the need to offer better support to our veterans, with which I am sure we all agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke about the need for justice and recognition for the nuclear test veterans, as well as about the issue of service accommodation, which is, I am sure, of concern to many hon. Members.

We in Wales have clearly punched above our weight in terms of our contribution to the armed forces across the United Kingdom. As we have heard, the armed forces—particularly the Army—have a long-standing and significant presence in Wales. Wales is currently home to 2,200 regular forces, 1,490 of whom are Army personnel.

Of the Welsh combat units, which recruit predominantly from Wales, the Royal Welsh Regiment is composed of 731 personnel; the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards has a current size of 403 personnel; and the Welsh Guards has a current size of 579 personnel. Wales therefore continues to contribute meaningfully to our armed forces and that is something to be celebrated.

I will be pleased and proud be in Merthyr Tydfil town centre on Saturday as we welcome the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Welsh to the town for their St David’s day parade, which the whole local community will support and enjoy. Across the House, we all share a pride in our armed forces, and that was demonstrated recently as many—if not most—Welsh MPs attended the reception hosted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth.

As we have heard, the MOD intends to close Cawdor barracks and Brecon barracks, two of the main Army bases in Wales, in 2024 and 2027 respectively, and to dispose of the Sennybridge storage compound in 2025. We appreciate that, as time passes, there is a need to modernise and adapt our defence estate to ensure that it is fit for the 21st century, but we are concerned that the closures will have a negative impact on Wales’ military presence, with a negative spill-over effect on the Welsh economy and local communities. Will the Minister revisit the defence estate strategy to ensure that if the base closures go ahead, they do not result in a reduced military presence in Wales?

There has also been a lack of clarity over the future location of the 14th Signal Regiment based at Cawdor, as well as over the future of MOD St Athan and its No. 4 School of Technical Training. That contributes to significant uncertainty for all personnel, including MOD civilian personnel, as well as the local communities. I would be grateful if the Minister provided a much-needed update on that.

In 2013, the Army basing programme reorganised army units in the UK to accommodate those returning from Germany and to consolidate their presence around seven major centres in the UK. None of those major centres was to be in Wales. The Welsh combat units that I and other hon. Members have mentioned all remain outside Wales. That is quite unlike Scotland, where the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and several battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland are all based.

Given the association of the Welsh combat units with Wales, it makes sense for at least one of them to be based in Wales, as other hon. Members have highlighted. That is important not only for those units to retain their Welsh connections and identity, but for recruitment and retention. From the Robertson barracks to Cardiff is a five-hour car journey and a six-hour journey by rail via London, which no doubt has an effect on recruitment and retention of Welsh personnel. This is also about defence visibility; clustering our troops in certain areas means that fewer people are able to see them in action.

Will the Minister give an assurance that, when moving the Welsh dragoon guards from Norfolk in future, the Government will consider moving them to Wales and working with the Welsh Government, ensuring that the next base for the Welsh cavalry is in Wales?

I echo the remark made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), that the debate has been very consensual. Looking around, I can see that no one in the Chamber would disagree that the first duty of Government is the security of the nation, and this Government are absolutely committed to maintaining a strong defence through well equipped and highly trained armed forces.

The UK’s armed forces are rightly renowned and respected around the world. People from every corner of our country and our Union share pride in what the armed forces achieve. Wales’ contribution to our defence and to the ongoing success of our armed forces is immense. I am delighted that, for my first outing as a Defence Minister, I have the opportunity to reply to this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing it and on her excellent speech. I will respond by drawing out three themes: Wales’ contribution to capability, to defence support, and to recruitment, which is the lifeblood of our armed forces, as many hon. Members have mentioned.

In determining the location of our armed forces, our priority is to have units that not only fight together, but live together and are based close to their training areas, generating centres of military specialisation, which gives the UK the best possible operational capability. Currently, there are 2,200 Regular Army forces personnel based in Wales, many at Brecon’s infantry battle school and associated training facilities and the headquarters of 160th Brigade. I reiterate to my hon. Friend that 160th Brigade headquarters will remain in Wales. My Department is undertaking an assessment study to determine the precise location. She is lobbying hard for the Brecon area, and we hear her loud and clear. We are sympathetic, and I look forward to ongoing discussions.

On balance, the defence estate review is neutral for Wales, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) mentioned and as was picked up by other Members including the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Some planned defence closures are envisaged, including Cawdor barracks—I know I will hear a lot more about that from my right hon. Friend. Questions tomorrow will be interesting, although I would not say that I am anticipating them eagerly. We plan to relocate an infantry unit to Wales, however, and have identified our preferred location as MOD St Athan, on which there will be more to come.

In the air, RAF Valley is our Air Force’s key Welsh location. All new fighter pilots pass through RAF Valley’s fast jet course before reaching their frontline squadrons. Its runway was restored as part of a £20 million refurbishment.

May I press the Minister to revisit the estate strategy? Please will he ask his Department to produce a paper specifically looking at whether one of our Welsh regiments could be based in Brecon? This afternoon, we have heard cross-party support for that idea. It would be great if the Ministry of Defence and the Minister on his first outing—he is doing brilliantly—supported that consensus.

At the risk of labouring the point, as the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) mentioned, there is cross-party unanimity on that. The Minister would therefore not only ensure that a Welsh regiment was based in Wales, but succeed in getting the support of all parties represented Wales. He would also achieve the rare feat for a Minister of fulfilling a recommendation of a Welsh Affairs Committee report on the issue.

I thank both hon. Gentlemen for their honeyed words and kind remarks. I am afraid that I will not respond with an answer to satisfy them fully. We have made clear our preference for the location of the extra infantry unit at St Athan. We recognise the case for Brecon as the ongoing location in some form—in that area—for the 160th Brigade headquarters. I cannot fully satisfy the hon. Gentlemen, but defence is always an area in which tough decisions have to be taken, and we will not always make the ones that either of them like, but we are where we are. There is a decision, in preference, for St Athan as the location for the new military unit.

We have discussed the RAF, so moving on to the Royal Navy, the £11 million Royal Naval Reserve base in Cardiff will be completed in 2020. I see that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is pleased with that, and he referred to it in his speech.

In addition to the physical presence of thousands of armed forces personnel, vital elements of our military equipment capability are manufactured and maintained in Wales. For example, the Army’s next generation of Ajax armoured fighting vehicles are made at General Dynamics UK in Merthyr Tydfil and Oakdale. The RAF’s Shadow aircraft will be supported by Raytheon in Broughton for the next decade under a £250 million contract. Furthermore, MOD Sealand has been designated as the global F-35 component repair and maintenance hub. Sealand is also the home to the Defence Electronics and Components Agency which, as mentioned in the debate, makes north Wales a national centre of excellence in this field.

Not only does Wales supply invaluable equipment to the armed forces, but it generates prosperity and jobs. The F-35 programme alone will generate more than £2 billion in revenue over the next 30 years. I was delighted that my Department’s procurement spend in Wales increased by 11% in the last financial year to £1.08 billion—the highest percentage increase in all the UK’s regions and countries. That investment supports more than 7,500 jobs directly and thousands more across wider supply chains, including 1,150 highly skilled private sector jobs at RAF Valley, making it the second biggest employer on Anglesey. There is more to come, with 200 jobs on Shadow at Raytheon’s intelligence and surveillance hub, additional Qioptiq personnel at St Asaph, and the new Cardiff Royal Naval Reserve centre supporting about 300 jobs locally.

Defence equipment investment supports vital roles across Wales, but all in the Chamber would agree that the most important jobs are those undertaken by the men and women who join our armed forces. Traditionally, Wales has always been a strong recruiting area for our services, especially our land forces, and that proud tradition continues. I have some reassurance for my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. Capita was discussed during the debate but, over the past year, it has been reinvigorated and there has been a far better performance on the contract. I am delighted that 77,000 people applied to be regular soldiers alone in the course of the past year, which is a 33% increase. Change needed to be made, and we have made changes, so that contract is performing far better.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth referred to the need to have diversity, and I could not agree more. It is absolutely the Army’s intention to ensure that the armed forces reflect the country that they serve. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the most recent recruiting campaign, he will see that that is absolutely front and centre to how we perform.

I am afraid I cannot be precise about the numbers of recruits from Wales as we do not maintain regional recruitment figures, but given the strengths of the connections of the Welsh regiments—the Welsh Guards, the Royal Welsh and the Queen’s Dragoon Guards—I am absolutely certain they will get more than their fair share.

I wish to say so much more in the debate, but I am being tugged down to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire to respond. I hope on other occasions we will be able to talk about veterans and service families accommodation. I would be delighted to speak to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) in particular on that issue. I apologise that I have not been able to respond to more of the points made in the debate, but I wish to allow my hon. Friend an opportunity to respond.

I very much welcome the Minister’s reply and welcome him to his place—it was remiss of me not to do so in the first instance. I am extremely grateful for the assurances he has given and look forward to working with him over the next few weeks. He has kindly already agreed to meet me to talk about the future of the barracks, and I am grateful for that. I appreciate we may be far apart, but I will continue to do all I can to ensure that we get the very best outcome for Brecon. I am grateful to him, his Department and indeed all Members for their contributions to this important debate.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).