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Commons Chamber

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 January 2021

House of Commons

Monday 18 January 2021

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Further and Higher Education: End of Transition Period

What assessment he has made of the effect of the end of the transition period on (a) further and (b) higher education. (910834)

What assessment he has made of the effect of the end of the transition period on (a) further and (b) higher education. (910859)

We have worked with the sector on the steps it needed to take following the transition period. This included questions around participation in European Union programmes, migration and student support arrangements. We are replacing the European social fund via the UK shared prosperity fund and introducing the new Turing scheme.

Before Brexit, EU students contributed £1.2 billion to the UK economy annually, boosting the profile of UK universities globally and helping to support the pipeline of talented science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates and medical graduates. With the reality of excessively high international student fees, many EU students will choose to study elsewhere, so how will the Secretary of State ensure that the Turing scheme, a poor replacement for Erasmus, is as effective in encouraging inward student mobility?

The Turing scheme is not a poor replacement, but a brilliant replacement for Erasmus. It is about us looking around the globe as to how we can expand opportunities for students. Yes, there are many, many brilliant higher education student institutes right across Europe, but there are so many more right across the world, whether in the United States or Canada, whether in India or China or whether in Australia and so many other places. That is what we are going to be giving young people the opportunity to release, and they will have the opportunity to go and study there as well.

Under the Horizon 2020 programme, the UK consistently received more money out than it put in. Under the terms of this agreement, the UK is set to receive no more than it contributes. While universities in Scotland were relieved to see a commitment to Horizon Europe in the joint agreement, what additional funding will the Secretary of State make available to ensure that our overall level of research funding is maintained?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government have been very clear in our commitment to research. The Prime Minister has stated time and time again that our investment in research is absolutely there, ensuring that we deliver Britain as a global scientific superpower. That is why more money has been going into research, and universities will continue to play an incredibly important role in that, but as he will be aware, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy manages the research element that goes into the funding of universities.

The anxiety caused by the lack of answers on the impact of the end of transition upon students is only adding to the anxiety that they already feel because of the impact that covid-19 has had on their educational experience, their finances and their graduate job prospects, which is all made worse by the fact that students do not feel that their voice is being heard by Government. Perhaps the greatest injustice of them all, they feel, is being made to pay rent for accommodation that the Secretary of State has mandated they should not use. What is he going to do to right this wrong?

As the hon. Lady will know, before Christmas we set out plans to support youngsters who were going to be facing the greatest hardship. We continue to keep this under review, and we will continue to work with the sector to provide the best support to students up and down the land.

Covid-19: Remote Education

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of remote education for children during the covid-19 lockdown. (910835)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of remote education for children during the covid-19 lockdown. (910853)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of remote education for children during the covid-19 lockdown. (910860)

Teachers and leaders are working incredibly hard, making tremendous efforts to provide and to improve their high- quality remote education. We have set clear strengthened expectations for schools and further education providers, and our “Get help with remote education” page on provides a range of support, training and good practice for schools and parents to look at.

All schools are under huge pressure, delivering teaching both in class and online at the same time, and many are doing an absolutely fantastic job. However, some parents are naturally worried that their children are not getting as much direct live teaching as pupils at other schools they have heard about, and they have a right to understand why. Does my right hon. Friend agree that parents should challenge their school directly and discuss their concerns with the head of the governing body and that making a complaint to Ofsted, as Ministers have suggested they do, should only be the last resort?

Absolutely. We have always been clear—and I stated this to the House just a couple of weeks ago—that we encourage parents, in the first instance, to speak with a teacher or headteacher, and only as a last resort to go to Ofsted. We want to see and encourage as much live teaching as possible, which is shown to be the best way of delivering teaching, but a whole spectrum of resources can be offered. It is really important to work with schools, with parents supporting those schools, to ensure that we get the best solutions for all our children.

I know from my experience with my own children that having live lessons taught online is much more effective than simply placing learning resources online. With more than 750,000 laptops already delivered and 2.9 million laptops already available in schools for the use of children, the digital divide has been substantially overcome. With that in mind, can my right hon. Friend give an indication of the percentage of schools providing live teaching online? Does he have plans to increase that further?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the great strides that have been made in supporting schools, and in schools supporting parents, on the provision of remote education. We obviously encourage schools to put on as much live provision as possible, which is very beneficial, and we are working with the whole school and further education sector to support them with that request. We are seeing substantial gains, and we are monitoring the situation closely, as is Ofsted.

I thank all the teachers in Ipswich, many of whom are balancing still teaching some kids physically and teaching some remotely. On the theme of live learning, does the Secretary of State consider the impact on those with special educational needs? For them, live lessons are particularly important, especially if they have speech and language difficulties, because live engagement gives them the opportunity to question and is very valuable. Live lessons can also be hugely beneficial for the mental health of many pupils, because even if it is just a couple of hours a day, they have that live engagement, and they see other pupils and their teacher.

As always, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head: it is so important to ensure that we get the right balance for young people, especially those with special educational needs. That is why we took the decision to ensure that children who have an education, health and care plan are able to go into school, as part of the category of vulnerable children who may need extra face-to-face support from their teachers.

The fact is that up to 1.8 million children in this country do not have access to a device at home, and more than 800,000 do not have access to the internet needed. Even with the laptops that the Secretary of State has already provided and those he intends to provide, the provision of devices and dongles falls well short. Why is the Secretary of State willing to accept standards for other people’s children that he would never accept for his own, and why is it that, once again, the incompetence of his Department has left children across the country seriously disadvantaged?

At every stage, we on the Government Benches—and, I am sure, those on the Opposition Benches—want to deliver the very best for every single child, wherever they live and whatever background they come from. The hon. Gentleman may want to play politics over children’s lives, but we are focused on delivering for those children. That is why, on top of the stock of 2.9 million laptops and tablets that are already out there, we took the decision to invest £400 million in purchasing and distributing an additional 1.3 million devices, making a total of 4.2 million devices in the school system.

Of course, a laptop or a device is really just a glorified typewriter if you cannot access the internet. We know that nearly 1 million youngsters in the UK are in that situation. Given that BT’s offer of free internet access was rejected by the Secretary of State, how does he plan to help such children to access the internet for remote education?

At every stage, we work with many companies, including EE, Three and BT, to ensure that we maximise the amount of data that is available for those children who are most vulnerable. The hon. Lady will be pleased that many children in Scotland are able to benefit from the work we have been doing with those providers. I imagine that she will be keen to pass on her thanks and appreciation for that work, which has been undertaken to the benefit of all children in the United Kingdom.

Of course, I welcome the support that these internet companies have provided; I only wish the Secretary of State would take his responsibility in this area more seriously, and had moved more quickly. The success of remote learning is not just about the right equipment. It is also about youngsters’ readiness to learn, and that includes whether or not they have eaten. The Scottish Government are ensuring that no child is left hungry during remote learning by ensuring either a cash-first response or vouchers, depending on the preference of the family. Having seen the meagre offerings in these free school meals from some private providers in England, will the UK Government make a similar commitment, and provide either cash or voucher support to the families who are entitled to free school meals?

As the hon. Lady is probably aware, we have opened up the national voucher scheme to all schools in England. We give those schools the option of providing food parcels or locally procured vouchers, or of making use of the national voucher scheme. This is a broad range of options for schools, enabling them to ensure that all children are fed, which I believe is both her priority and mine.

The Department for Education’s own pre-pandemic study found that pupils’ wellbeing predicted their later academic progression. Children with better mental health and wellbeing at age seven had a value-added key stage 2 score 2.46 points higher—equivalent to more than one term’s progress—than pupils with poorer wellbeing and mental health. While schools are closed and children are remote learning, mental health worries for millions of children have rocketed, as highlighted by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and others. Will my right hon Friend work with charities such as Place2Be to put mental health councillors in all schools now, so that children can access support whenever they need it and their attainment levels will not suffer even further?

I know that my right hon. Friend speaks for many in the House who have particular concerns about children’s mental health, and about making sure that, as we work through this pandemic, this is not something that is forgotten and on which no action is taken. We have already undertaken work on helping schools to train staff to support not just pupils, but staff. I would be very happy to sit down with my right hon. Friend to discuss the work that many charities and voluntary organisations undertake, and how they can properly and fully support all children and all those who work in the education sector when it comes to their mental health.

Early Years Providers: Financial Stability

What steps he is taking to ensure the financial stability of early years providers during the covid-19 outbreak. (910836)

What steps he is taking to ensure the financial stability of early years providers during the covid-19 outbreak. (910837)

What steps he is taking to ensure the financial stability of early years providers during the covid-19 outbreak. (910838)

We have given unprecedented support to early years throughout the pandemic, through block-buying childcare places, and through the furlough and other schemes. We are monitoring the situation very closely, and are keeping under constant review whether further action is needed. To support providers further, we have issued additional advice to make it clear that children who are temporarily absent from nurseries can be counted in this week’s census, even if they are ill or if their parents are worried about covid.

Nurseries and childcare providers in deprived areas are most likely to close, which is catastrophic for disadvantaged children. Coronavirus presents a significant threat to early years providers in Portsmouth, with many already struggling financially. What action will the Minister take to ensure we do not lose essential childcare places in less well-off communities as a result of the pandemic?

As I have said, we have given unprecedented support to the early years sector. It does an amazing job, and we are keeping the question of whether any further action is needed under constant review. The advice that we gave last week is really important, because this week is the annual census week, and it is really important that those providers know that they can count children who are temporarily absent, provided they remain open for them. That is really important advice to our early years providers.

With so many staff in early years settings having to isolate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to open the maintained nursery schools in my constituency, as they do not have surplus staff to rely on. What funding will be made available to mitigate that, so that support staff can be employed to cover staff who are shielding or self-isolating?

We are taking two actions urgently to support our early years. The first is the roll-out of asymptomatic testing for staff. Asymptomatic testing went live through the community testing system last week, and I have written to local authorities to ensure that early years staff are prioritised in their community testing. Secondly, if maintained nursery schools and, indeed, other private providers have a staff shortage that means they need to close temporarily, they can still count those children for this week’s census—just as they can in any year if they have a temporary closure due to, for example, a flood. They can still count those children, provided the closure is only temporary.

Many children’s nurseries in east Hull face severe financial difficulty from years of underfunding, and from exclusion from support during this pandemic. The Minister knows that childcare providers in disadvantaged areas such as east Hull are the most likely to close, and that that would be catastrophic for many young children, whose life chances are shaped by early education. Can she guarantee that we will not lose essential childcare places in less well-off areas such as east Hull as a result of covid-19?

We have already announced in the spending review that we will put additional funding into early years entitlements in the next financial year. That will allow us to increase the hourly funding rates for all local authorities by at least 8p an hour for two-year-olds, and by 6p an hour for three and four-year-olds; of course, those in areas of higher disadvantage get higher amounts of money. That will pay for a rate increase that is higher than the cost nurseries may face from the uplift to the national living wage in April.

Ministers are telling everyone to stay at home, yet early years providers are being told to stay open for as many children as possible or lose funding. This month’s funding changes mean that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders will be punished financially for having lower demand than usual, or for limiting their opening during lockdown, and 19,000 providers could close by summer as a result. Is that a price the Minister is willing to pay, or does she think those warning about this are wrong?

As the Opposition spokesperson knows very well, because I called her last week, we are providing that advice to settings to ensure that it is very clear that if parents are keeping their children at home because they are concerned about covid, settings can still count those children for the census, provided they are open. If they choose to close, they can furlough their staff using the other Government schemes. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely to see whether further support is needed.

Early Years Settings: Educational Development

What steps his Department is taking to support the educational development of children in early years settings during the covid-19 outbreak. (910839)

What steps his Department is taking to support the educational development of children in early years settings during the covid-19 outbreak. (910852)

The early years are a crucial period for a child’s development, and early years education cannot be delivered online. That is why, in June last year, the Government prioritised getting children back to nurseries and childminders. Given the negative impact of children missing education, Public Health England’s advice that the early years sector is a less significant driver of community transmission, and the low rates of infection among the very young, we advise that early years settings should remain open to all children, and we are working with early years organisations to ensure that no young child gets left behind.

I am proud to support and be a member of the early years healthy development review, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). We will share our recommendations in February. The review team has found, from discussions with early years professionals, that family hubs play a vital role in ensuring that every infant gets the best start in life, including as regards their educational development. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I so agree with my hon. Friend. That is why we are setting up a national centre for family hubs. There are already many family hubs across the country providing a wide range of integrated services, including support for families in the early years. I visited the family hub in Westminster in her constituency to see the difference it makes to families. We want to ensure that successful approaches, such as that in Westminster, can be spread across the country.

As a father with a son in nursery, I know just how important it is to keep early years open for all children. I thank the Government for doing so, and thank all our schools and early years providers across Stoke-on-Trent for everything they are doing to stay open for those eligible. Given the impact on children who are currently unable to attend school, and their families, will my hon. Friend outline what action will be taken to ensure those children catch up quickly when schools can fully reopen?

We have committed to a £1 billion catch-up package, which is a universal £650 million catch-up premium, and the £350 million national tutoring programme to support the most disadvantaged pupils. We expect providers to prioritise support for pupils by individual need. The Education Endowment Foundation has published guidance to support catch-up. To help the very youngest children to catch up, we are delivering the Nuffield Early Language Intervention in reception year. Some 40% of primary schools have signed up for the programme. These programmes will help many children in Stoke and across the country.

Remote Learning: Laptops and Other Devices

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of (a) laptops and (b) other devices to disadvantaged pupils to support remote learning during the covid-19 outbreak. (910840)

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of (a) laptops and (b) other devices to disadvantaged pupils to support remote learning during the covid-19 outbreak. (910855)

What assessment he has made of the availability of (a) devices and (b) access to broadband for school and college pupils working from home during the covid-19 outbreak. (910857)

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of (a) laptops and (b) other devices to disadvantaged pupils to support remote learning during the covid-19 outbreak. (910863)

We are investing over £400 million to support access to remote education, including by providing 1.3 million laptops and tablets to disadvantaged children. We are partnering with the UK’s leading mobile operators to provide free data, as well as deliver 4G wireless routers for pupils without a connection at home.

Wingate Community Nursery School in my Sedgefield constituency has continued to provide excellent early years education to its students throughout the covid-19 pandemic. As a result of the change to the early years education funding process, which will see nurseries receive funding per hour if a student is in attendance, and with many parents struggling with the decision of whether to send their children to nursery, Wingate nursery may find itself financially worse off. Will the Secretary of State look again at the changes to the funding process and confirm that they will not have a negative impact on nurseries financially?

I would very much like to join my hon. Friend in thanking the staff at Wingate for all the work they do to support children, including in these incredibly difficult times. He is right to point out how we proceeded with the funding mechanism prior to Christmas. Obviously, in the light of the changing course of the pandemic, we had to make revisions to ensure that nurseries such as Wingate across the country get the support they need. That is why we have changed the approach to the census being carried out this week.

The Welsh Government, which is led by Labour with a Liberal Democrat Education Minister, have presided over an 8.4% real-terms reduction in education spending in the past 10 years. Last week, my office identified that dozens of the most deprived households in my constituency still do not have access to suitable devices for learning remotely. What advice can my right hon. Friend give me on assisting the young learners in my constituency, who are being let down once again by the Welsh Government?

Of course, we will always want to work very closely with all the devolved Administrations, sharing good practice and good ideas across the board. I understand that the Welsh Government are still sitting on £1 billion-worth of covid funding provided to them by the UK Government. We would ensure that that was not sat in their coffers, but was spent wisely to support children in my hon. Friend’s constituency and right across Wales.

In the city of Cambridge last week, 1,748 children were without a suitable device for learning. Across the county as a whole, almost 6,500 were. Ministers have had almost a year to sort this out. When will every child have access to the learning they need?

I point the hon. Gentleman to an answer I gave earlier. Over 2.9 million devices are already in circulation within the school system. That has been supplemented by an additional 1.3 million, of which 750,000 have already been dispatched. Over the last two weeks, we have been seeing the dispatch of devices to schools running at approximately 20,000 each day.

I thank Ministers and education officers for their work, and most of all, I thank teachers on the Isle of Wight for keeping education going in these very difficult circumstances; I am sure that the Secretary of State would want to do so as well. Can he explain what further support is being planned for children in need on the Island and what is being done to ensure adequate virtual learning across all schools?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking teachers and support staff on the Isle of Wight for their work over the last few months and for their continued work and efforts in terms of ensuring that every child on the Isle of Wight gets the very best education. We have already announced the increase in the number of devices that we are procuring—increasing that from the initial 200,000 that we announced a number of months ago to 1.3 million; this is very much there to complement the offer—and we have set out explicitly the expectations that we have of all schools and colleges in terms of the provision of remote education in these truly unprecedented times.

Technical and Vocational Exams

What steps he is taking to support students (a) preparing for and (b) taking vocational exams during the covid-19 outbreak. (910842)

What steps his Department is taking to support students to sit their (a) technical and (b) vocational exams in 2021. (910856)

Students due to undergo assessments in 2020-21 deserve the opportunity to progress successfully on to the next stage of their lives. That is why, alongside Ofqual, the Government are currently consulting on the alternative arrangements needed for vocational and technical examinations due to take place from April onwards. In the meantime, we are investing over £400 million to support access to remote education and, having already delivered 700,000 laptops and tablets to schools up and down the country, we are now rolling out the programme to 16 to 19 year-olds in colleges. The majority of FE providers will be invited to order their devices by the end of January.

As my hon. Friend will know, schools and colleges—for instance, Havering college in my constituency—were asked to make their own decisions about whether or not students should sit vocational exams in January, meaning that some exams went ahead while others were cancelled. What measures are the Government taking to ensure that students will not be unfairly disadvantaged, whether they were able to sit their exams or not?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question because it gives me the opportunity to make one thing absolutely clear to the House: no student will be disadvantaged by their decision either to sit their January assessment or to defer it. That means that, for those learners requiring a licence to practise, which can be fulfilled only through practical assessment, that assessment can go ahead, and, indeed, many did. Launched on Friday, Ofqual’s consultation is seeking views on what the alternative arrangements should be and how those alternative arrangements will ensure fairness for all learners and give everybody the opportunity to progress on to their next stage.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for those replies. It is very important that the students and apprentices taking technical and vocational exams are not overlooked. Will she assure the House that the work of making alternative arrangements for them will be given a high priority and the necessary resources; that these arrangements will be conveyed quickly; that priority will be given to returning to buildings when on-site assessments are a key part of a course; and that exam support services will be available to colleges as well as to schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I could not agree more about the importance of ensuring vocational and technical qualification students are treated fairly and not disadvantaged compared with their peers. We have been working at pace with Ofqual to ensure appropriate arrangements are in place specifically for vocational and technical qualification learners, and the joint consultation we published on Friday seeks views specifically on those qualifications. As soon as possible, we will prioritise safe attendance for those students who need to attend on site in order to prepare for practical assessments, where it is impossible for that training to take place remotely. I can confirm that the exam support service is indeed available to colleges as well as schools.

I pay tribute to everyone in the further education sector, and particularly those college leaders who have been left with very difficult decisions to make this January because of the BTEC exam fiasco. The Government’s farcical approach to those exams has left college leaders to show leadership and concern for pupil and teacher safety, in the absence of any from the Government. As the question from the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has just exposed, we now have students and colleges on different tracks to the same exams. It is all so unnecessary. How many more vocational students must suffer as a result of the Secretary of State’s inability to make the right decisions at the right time?

I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to everyone in the further education sector. They have done an amazing job in keeping learning going, whether remotely—they have been absolutely outstanding in that area—or by preparing colleges to take students.

Learners up and down the country have faced unprecedented challenges this year. For those who have worked so hard over recent months preparing for their January exams, particularly those who require a practical licence to practise, it is right that we allow them the opportunity to progress, because no alternative arrangements are capable of being put in place for those types of exams. Schools and colleges are best placed to know whether they are in a position to deliver the January exams and what mix of students they have, which is why in the light of rapidly evolving public health advice, we took the decision to give them the final say on whether proceeding with January exams was right for their learners. I am sure the hon. Gentleman, and indeed the whole House, will join me in wishing those learners all the very best for their results.

Covid-19: Additional Costs to Schools

What financial support his Department is providing to schools to fund additional costs relating to the covid-19 outbreak. (910843)

Some £102 million of funding for exceptional covid-related costs incurred by schools in the first lockdown period of March to July 2020 has already been distributed to schools, and for November and December, schools under financial pressure that have exceptional additional staffing costs due to covid-related absences have been able to claim from the covid workforce fund.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He is aware from our discussions that many Twickenham schools have incurred significant one-off and ongoing costs to become covid secure that they have not been able to reclaim, at the same time as losing tens of thousands of pounds from lettings and fundraising. Many of them do not have significant cash reserves to rely on, nor does the council have the money to bail them out, so if schools are to reopen fully and safely as soon as possible, could the Minister please advise which staff and activities he thinks are expendable so that they can make ends meet?

The hon. Member will be aware that we secured a three-year funding settlement for schools, with a 4% increase in funding for the next financial year, and we have also secured for this year a £1 billion catch-up fund and the covid workforce fund. If a school is genuinely in financial difficulties, it should talk to the local authority if it is a maintained school, or to the Education and Skills Funding Agency if it is an academy.

Covid-19 Lockdown: Safety of Staff

What steps he is taking to help ensure the safety of staff at (a) early years settings, (b) special schools and (c) alternative provision during the covid-19 lockdown announced in January 2021. (910844)

What steps he is taking to help ensure the safety of staff at (a) early years settings, (b) special schools and (c) alternative provision during the covid-19 lockdown announced in January 2021. (910854)

Ensuring the safety of children, the workforce and families is our overriding priority. The early years and schools workforce are classed as essential workers for the purposes of accessing testing, and we continue to update our guidance to help specific settings provide a safe and secure environment for children and staff.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has contradicted the Government by saying that it has not authorised the use of 30-minute lateral flow tests to allow students to remain in classrooms instead of sending whole groups or bubbles home. Will the Minister confirm that no tests are being done on our children that have not met with regulatory approval, and will the Government commit to putting the health and safety of children first, instead of the PM’s deregulatory ideology that is turning our schools into experimentation labs for big pharma?

We have added NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England, and we have asked them to provide rapid updated public health advice on daily contact covid testing in schools. This is in the context of the current prevalence of the virus and the high transmission rates. The Department, NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England encourage the weekly testing of all staff, although this remains a voluntary matter for individual staff members. As I said earlier, early years staff will be prioritised through community testing.

Last week, I was contacted by the inspirational headteacher of Tunstall Nursery School in my constituency. She and her team have worked so hard to ensure that vital education is provided to kids as safely as possible, but she contacted me to express urgent concern over the safety of her pupils and staff because of covid-19. Other nurseries and special schools in my constituency have contacted me with the same concern. Does the Minister agree that this situation is unacceptable and that, at the very least, they deserve to see the clear detailed scientific evidence and advice that the Government have received about the safety of early years settings? Why have we still not seen that?

All the advice that we have been given has been made public. There are three reasons why we have kept early years settings open and they are all important. Early education gives the child communication and social skills that set them up for life. You cannot teach a small child online, and they cannot get those months back. Our public health advice remains that younger children play a lower role in community transmission, and the evidence at the moment is that the confirmed cases of covid among the very youngest children are the lowest of all age groups.

Nursery School Funding

If he will increase funding for nursery schools to meet costs resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (910845)

We have already increased the hourly funding rates for local authorities for the next financial year, and this will pay for a rate increase that is higher than the cost that nurseries may face from the uplift for the national living wage in April. We are also increasing the minimum funding floor. We have provided further advice on how the census will work this year, and we are continuing to monitor the situation closely.

Maintained nursery schools in my constituency not only provide first-class early education but support many working families with childcare, yet many are facing huge financial pressures because of the pandemic, because they are not able to access the same support as schools and businesses. When will the Government live up to their promise of giving them a long-term future by guaranteeing their funding?

Maintained nursery schools are a really important part of the early years environment. We give them extra supplemental funding, and we have already announced that we will be giving them the supplemental funding for the next financial year. Obviously, this was a three-year spending review process, so I cannot go further than this financial year, but they will also get the other benefits from the uplift that we are doing for the Government-paid entitlements for two, three and four-year-olds on top of that. I would like to thank all the maintained nursery schools and early years providers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

International Baccalaureate Examinations

What arrangements his Department has made for examinations in 2021 for international baccalaureate students. (910847)

Although exams are the fairest way of assessing what a student knows, it is no longer viable for exams to go ahead as planned, so international baccalaureate students should be subject to a similar approach to GCSEs and A-levels. Working with Ofqual, we are consulting on alternative arrangements for fairly awarding grades in qualifications, including the IB, when exams do not take place, so that students can progress to the next stage of their lives.

Some of the schools in my constituency elect to take the IB examinations rather than A-levels. No final decision has yet been taken as to whether those exams will take place this spring, so will my right hon. Friend commit to assisting these schools, so that no child who takes the IB exam will be disadvantaged compared with those who are due to take A-levels?

I am aware of some excellent schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency, particularly Dartford Grammar School, under the excellent headteacher, Mr Oakes, that do offer the IB. The joint consultation document that we published on Friday says that

“it is the Department’s policy position that external exams for many vocational, technical and other general qualifications should not take place as planned.”

It goes on to say:

“For other general qualifications that are not GCSEs…or A levels, such as…the International Baccalaureate, the awarding approach should be similar to GCSEs, AS and A levels”.

In other words, we are talking about teacher-assessed grades but with the evidence base and checks and balances, as set out in the consultation document.

Secondary Schools: Refurbishment and Rebuilding

The Prime Minister announced a new 10-year school rebuilding programme, which will transform education for thousands of pupils. It was launched with a commitment to 50 new school building projects a year, targeted at school buildings in the worst condition. We have also committed £1.8 billion next year to improve the condition of school buildings.

Upton-by-Chester High School in my constituency is a good school with an outstanding sixth form, but its buildings are not fit for purpose. What would the Minister advise me and the school leadership that they need to do to make sure they catch his eye in future programmes? Will he come to Upton, as soon as he is allowed, to visit the school?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that since 2015 we have allocated £9.5 billion to maintaining and improving school buildings. In addition, the priority school building programme is rebuilding or refurbishing buildings in the worst condition at more than 500 schools. I would be delighted to discuss with him Upton-by-Chester High School, which has a very high EBacc entry figure of 60%. It is a good school and I congratulate its headteacher, Mr Cummins, on what he has achieved.

Topical Questions

I very much wish to start by thanking all those who work in our schools, colleges, early years settings and universities for the work they have been doing over the past few weeks to ensure that youngsters and people of all ages who are using our education establishment get the very best education. In the light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have confirmed that GCSE, A-level and AS-level exams will not be going ahead as planned this summer. This year’s grades will be awarded based on the judgment of teachers, not algorithms. I am pleased to confirm that Ofqual, with the Department, has launched a two-week consultation to seek views on how to fairly award all pupils, including private candidates and students taking vocational qualifications, the grades they truly deserve.

May I, too, start by thanking all teachers and educational staff in Stourbridge, who continue to do a vital job in the most difficult of circumstances? Although we are asking the vast majority of schools to move to remote provision, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only right that we, once again, keep schools open for vulnerable children and those whose parents are working on the frontline of our response to this pandemic?

I very much join my hon. Friend and neighbour in thanking all those teachers and support staff who have been doing a brilliant job in Stourbridge in keeping schools open for children of critical workers and for vulnerable children. It is important to emphasise the need to encourage children, especially those in most vulnerable categories, to come into school and continue to have that support and protection that school offers them, and the importance of doing so—it gives them so much support, in sometimes difficult circumstances. I thank all teaching staff for ensuring that schools remain open for children of critical workers.

The utterly inadequate school food parcels we saw last week were an absolute scandal, one that was, however, entirely in line with the Government’s own guidance. So why has it taken the Secretary of State until the third week of term to initiate a voucher system? Can he tell the House how many parents received vouchers today?

As the hon. Lady would know if she had taken the time to read our guidance, those food parcels did not meet the expectations or the guidance that we set out. They are not acceptable and we have made that clear. We are very keen to ensure that schools have the choice and freedom to choose what is best for children in their school. That is why we have given schools—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady stopped chuntering from a sedentary position she would have the opportunity to hear my answer. That is why we have given schools the opportunity to choose food parcels, vouchers that are locally procured or the national voucher scheme. More than 15,000 of those vouchers have already been dispatched today.

Ah, so we got the answer in the end. The truth is that the Secretary of State was late in planning the voucher scheme, late in getting laptops to students, late in consulting on replacing exams, and late in announcing that students will not return to school in January. After delay after delay, has he finally realised what parents, pupils and staff have known for months, which is that he is just not up to the job?

Time and again, we have recognised where there are real challenges in dealing with the global pandemic. That is why we have taken the action that we have. That is why we are distributing 1.3 million laptops right across the country.

That is why we have put the national voucher scheme in place. That is why we are supporting families who are often the most vulnerable and why we will continue supporting families who are the most vulnerable.

I wish to start by putting on the record my thank you to all those early years and nursery workers in Radcliffe, Whitefield and Prestwich in my constituency. During the pandemic, private nurseries have seen their cleaning costs and the costs of PPE increase fourfold, but, as they are not state run, they get no assistance with those increased costs. Will the Minister meet me to discuss a funding solution that will address this immediate concern while also working towards a meaningful review of early years funding? (910897)

We have provided unprecedented support to the early years sector throughout the pandemic, through the block-buying childcare places, furlough and other schemes. We are monitoring the current situation really closely and will continue to review it if further measures are needed. For example, where education and childcare settings have an unmet need for PPE, they can access it via their local authority or local resilience forums. We will continue to keep supporting our early years sector.

As Ministers know, both the children’s commissioner and I are keen to get their support for a ban on placing looked-after children in unregulated accommodation, but I understand that the Department wants to do this only for under-16s, which would currently affect 90 or so children. There are many, many more 16 to 18-year-olds in unsafe accommodation who are still legally children and who are still meant to be in our care. Can the Minister explain the justification for treating them differently and, in doing so, potentially putting them at risk of harm? (910895)

Independent and semi-independent provision can be the right choice for older children who are ready for this where it is high quality and meets their needs. It can enable them to develop their independence as they transition into adult life. However, we are absolutely clear that we need to do more to ensure that the quality of this provision is consistently good, and that this type of provision is simply not appropriate for children under the age of 16 who should be placed in children’s homes or foster care. We have consulted on introducing national quality standards and we will publish the Government’s response to the consultation in due course.

I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has received a lot of ill-informed and abusive emails and posts on social media about the school lunches. I am pleased that the Department has established a hotline for complaints about the lunch parcels. I am absolutely certain that most schools are providing good quality parcels for children. Please will she confirm how many complaints about food parcels the newly established hotline has received? (910899)

DFE helplines have been giving support to schools and others on a wide range of matters. On Wednesday morning, after seeing some of the photos of unacceptable parcels, we announced that parents could call the DFE if they had a problem with a lunch parcel, but that they should try to resolve it with the school first. There are around 1.4 million children on free school meals. By the end of last week, we had received a total of seven calls in relation to unacceptable lunch parcels. Each has been fully investigated. We expect high-quality lunch parcels for our children.

Ninety primary school headteachers from across Bradford have written to the Secretary of State to express their disappointment in his ability to support teachers and pupils. School-age children in my constituency have some of the lowest social mobility rates in the country. The Government say that they have a plan to ensure that children catch up on the learning that they have lost, but there are currently only enough places on the national tutoring programme for one in every five disadvantaged pupils in England. Will the Minister increase this as a matter of urgency, and commit to publishing a fully funded plan to ensure that the most disadvantaged children do not fall even further behind? (910896)

Ensuring that no child suffers a loss to their education or damage to their long-term prospects as a consequence of the pandemic is a key priority of education policy. That is why we have secured £1 billion of catch-up funding from the Treasury; £350 million of that is for the national tutoring programme, and £650 million is being distributed to all schools across the country on the basis of £80 per pupil and £240 per pupil in special school settings. That money can be used to target the children who most need to catch up.

A headteacher in my constituency has been in touch to express real concern about Ofsted assessing schools when there are no agreed standards or established precedents that relate to education in lockdown, so may I urge the Schools Minister to engage closely with headteachers and Ofsted to ensure that any assessment process is fair to schools as they operate now, and reflects the hugely difficult circumstances to which they have been subjected? (910903)

Formal Ofsted inspections have been suspended until the summer term. What is happening is that Ofsted is engaged in monitoring visits for schools rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement”, and having discussions about the quality of the curriculum and the challenges that schools are facing with remote education. We have set out clear expectations for what we expect schools to do with regard to remote education, including the fact that at key stage 1 there should be three hours of remote education, at key stage 2 four hours, and at key stages 3 and 4 five hours a day.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Erasmus, I have a vested interest in ensuring that British students across the country have access to the best international education programme possible, so two weeks ago I wrote a letter, which was signed by colleagues across the House, about the Turing scheme that is replacing Erasmus. I have yet to receive a response from Ministers. Although we welcome the Turing programme, it could be greatly improved to become a notable and truly beneficial exchange programme, so will the Secretary of State commit today to arranging a meeting with my colleagues and I to discuss this further? (910898)

We are very much looking forward to the APPG being rechristened the Turing APPG, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. I can confirm that the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group to see what more can be done to expand these truly great opportunities for all young people right across the United Kingdom to see the world and to learn from the experience of studying in so many institutions right across the globe.

Stockton South has some of the best teachers in the country, and they are working hard to ensure that youngsters who might lack the support and resources that they need at home are not left behind as a result of school closures. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that when schools reopen, deprived youngsters can catch up and still reach their full potential? (910905)

I echo my hon. Friend’s thanks to all teachers in Stockton South, and not only for the amazing work they did last term, but for what they are continuing to do. He is absolutely right to highlight children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why our covid catch-up fund is so incredibly important in helping them to catch up, and why our roll-out of 1.3 million laptops right across the country is so important in helping to support schools. The best thing that we can do is see all schools return at the earliest possible date, with children benefiting from being back in the classroom and learning directly from their teachers.

A really concerning new report from the National Union of Students has found that 69% of student renters are worried about not being able to meet their rental payments. With rent arrears building up, along with tuition fee debt in England, what additional support can be provided, and why not give more students access to universal credit and, therefore, the housing support that they really need? (910900)

We will always look at how best we can support students. We have announced an additional £20 million of hardship funding for students, to be administered through universities in England, and we will continue to keep that under review.

Many students have suffered as a result of inadequate teaching and pastoral care at their universities, in addition to unfair costs for accommodation that they are not even allowed to stay in. What action will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the Government are a voice for students, that they stand up for students and that they allow them to be compensated in some way by their universities when those universities fail them and let them down? (910907)

There can be no excuses when universities are not offering the type of remote teaching and educational support that is expected. That is why it is so critical that, where that remote teaching and support is not happening, students’ rights are upheld. We saw at the tail end of last year that students’ rights were upheld and universities had to redress that. That is the right approach. We recognise how important it is to support students, which is why we will continue to look at how best we can support them through programmes such as the hardship fund.

Ministers will have heard the concern across the House about the safety of special needs schools and nurseries. To reassure us, can they tell us what meetings they have had over the past two weeks with Public Health England about the evidence of transmission associated with special educational needs pupils, their parents and staff at those schools, and the pupils, parents and staff in nursery settings? What does that evidence tell us about transmission over the last two weeks? (910901)

We are in continual contact with Public Health England, through the Department, and we also meet early years representatives. I have been touring special schools virtually throughout. Our early years are vital years of education for the youngest, which they cannot get back, our special schools provide vital support for young people with disabilities, and alternative provision settings are vital for our most vulnerable. All those settings are usually smaller than other settings, which is why they have less of an impact on community transmission —it should be remembered that we closed schools to reduce community transmission—and why PHE continues to advise us that closing them is not needed to bring down the R number.

I thank all those teachers who are going over and beyond to ensure that their pupils can access education, virtual or otherwise. What measures is the Department taking to ensure that children can continue to go through the statementing process for educational needs while our schools are closed due to covid restrictions, and after they open? (910902)

We have kept our schools open to those with the most severe special needs and disabilities and those with an education, health and care plan. We continue to back up and support local authorities to improve their special educational needs and disabilities provision, to make sure that those young people who need an EHC plan can get one as soon as possible. We are working with councils all across the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary for bringing forward the independent review of children’s social care. I am hugely grateful that this important manifesto commitment did not find itself on the back burner given all the other challenges we face. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what he expects the review to achieve for those children in care or on the fringes of care? (910911)

This is something everyone in this House feels incredibly passionately about. I know through seeing at first hand, coming from a family with parents who fostered for many years, how important it is to get high-quality children’s social care right in this country. I want a real revolution to come out of this report, and I am incredibly pleased that Josh MacAlister has taken on this role to deliver the changes that I think Members on both sides of the House want. I have said quite clearly that I do not want him to hold back in tackling difficult issues. I want to see change, improvement and children’s lives transformed. By working on a cross-party basis, I believe that that is what we can deliver.

Unfortunately, that brings us to the end of the time for questions, due to a connection failure. I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.

Police National Computer

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the technical issues that we have experienced with the police national computer over the past week.

The records and information held by the police help to keep us safe, but they, like many other public bodies, have an obligation to ensure that the information they hold is properly managed. As I am sure you are aware, Mr Speaker, not all information and records held by the police can be held indefinitely. To ensure that the police are complying with their legal obligations in respect of the records they hold, a regular housekeeping process is undertaken to delete personal data and records from the police national computer and linked databases: in this case, data relating to individuals who were investigated by the police but where no further action was taken. This is undertaken for a variety of reasons, but chiefly to abide by legal obligations.

With such a large database, holding some 13 million records, an automated process is used to remove records that the police national computer has no legal right to hold. A weekly update was designed by engineers and applied to the police national computer, which then automatically triggers deletions across the PNC, and other linked databases. Last week, the Home Office became aware that, as a result of human error, the software that triggers these automatic deletions contained defective coding and had inadvertently deleted records that it should not have, and indeed had not deleted some records that should have been deleted. An estimated 213,000 offence records, 175,000 arrest records and 15,000 person records are being investigated as potentially having been deleted. It is worth the House noting that multiple records can be held against the same individual, so the number of individuals affected by this incident is likely to be lower. Operational partners are still able to access the police national computer, which holds, as I say, over 13 million records. Clearly this situation is very serious, and I understand that colleagues across this House will have concerns, which of course I share.

By your leave, Mr Speaker, I want to set out for the House the steps that we have taken to deal with this complex incident. On the evening of 10 January—the same day the Home Office became aware of the incident—engineers put a stop on the automated process to ensure that no further deletions took place. All similar automated processes have also been suspended. Early last week, Home Office civil servants and engineers worked quickly to alert the police and other operational colleagues, and established a bronze, silver and gold command to manage the incident and co-ordinate a rapid response. The gold command provided rapid guidance for police forces and other partners to ensure that they were kept abreast of the situation.

Secondly, Home Office officials and engineers, working closely with the National Police Chiefs Council, police forces and other partners, immediately initiated rapid work, through the gold command, to assess the full scale and impact of the incident. This included undertaking a robust and detailed assessment and verification of all affected records, followed by developing and implementing a plan to recover as much of the data and records as is possible, and to develop plans to mitigate the impacts of any lost data. This is being done in four phases. Phase 1 involves writing and testing a code to bring back accurate lists of what has been deleted as a result of the incident. Phase 2 will involve running that code and then doing detailed analysis on the return to fully analyse the records that have been lost and establish the full impact. Phase 3 will be to begin the recovery of the data from the police national computer and other linked systems. Phase 4 will involve work to ensure that we are deleting any data that should have been deleted as usual when this incident first began. Phase 1 of the process has taken place over the weekend, and I am assured that it has gone well. The second phase is now under way, and I will hopefully have an update in the next few days.

While any loss of data is unacceptable, other tried-and-tested law enforcement systems are in place that contain linked data and reports to support policing partners in their day-to-day efforts to keep us safe: for example, the police national database or other local systems. The police are able to use these systems to do simultaneous checks.

I urge patience while we continue our rapid internal investigation and begin the recovery. I hope the House will appreciate that the task in front of us is a complex one. Public safety is the top priority of everyone working at the Home Office, and I have full faith that Home Office engineers, our partners in the National Police Chiefs Council and police forces throughout the country, with whom we are working, are doing all they can to restore the data. Although that is rightly our immediate priority, the Home Secretary and I have commissioned an internal review as to the circumstances that led to this incident, so that lessons can be learned. I will update the House regularly on the process. I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the policing Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it, and I am grateful to him for his briefing over the weekend, but I must ask where the Home Secretary is. The loss of hundreds of thousands of pieces of data—data so important for apprehending suspects and safeguarding vulnerable people—is extraordinarily serious. It was the Home Secretary who needed to show leadership and take control. That is what previous Home Secretaries have done in a crisis. On the Passport Office, Windrush and knife crime, whatever their mistakes, Home Secretaries came to and answered to this House; they did not just offer a media clip, as has happened today. This Home Secretary, who is failing on violent crime and failing on the Windrush compensation scheme, with chaos on border testing, and who was found to have broken the ministerial code, will now not even answer to Parliament and the public on this most serious of issues. The Home Secretary likes to talk tough, but when the going gets tough, she is nowhere to be seen.

Will the Minister tell us when the Home Secretary first knew about the data loss and why the public had to find out from the media? Given that the initial reports were of 150,000 items of data, and the figure now seems to be over 400,000, can the Minister be sure of how much data has actually been lost? In his statement, the Minister said that on 10 January the process of deletion was stopped, but will he confirm that the faulty script was introduced into the police national computer on 23 November, meaning that the problem was not identified for 48 days?

The Minister said in his statement on Friday that

“the loss relates to individuals who were arrested and then released with no further action”.

This is serious in itself. For example, let us consider cases of domestic abuse: when suspects are released, the data becomes very important to protecting victims and making further arrests. In a letter, Deputy Chief Constable Malik, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for the police national computer, said that the deleted DNA contains

“records…marked for indefinite retention following conviction of serious offences.”

This is, therefore, not only data on individuals released with no further action; it includes data about convicted criminals, so will the Minister now correct the statement that he issued on Friday?

Will the Minister confirm whether 26,000 DNA records and 30,000 fingerprint records held on separate databases have been deleted? Will he assure the House that the engagement with the PNC to delete the Schengen information system—SIS II—database was unrelated? What is the full impact on the UK visa system from the data loss, and how is it affecting ongoing police investigations and intelligence gathering?

The PNC and the police national database are due to be replaced by the national law enforcement data programme, but the assessment by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority is that the successful delivery of the project is in doubt. Is it still in doubt? If so, why? There are reports that 18 months ago senior police outlined that the Home Office was not investing in the PNC and that it presented a significant risk to the police’s ability to protect the public. Was that warning heeded?

Finally, if it is not possible to recover data via the process currently under way, what contingency plans are in place to seek to recover the data via other means? Does the Minister accept that maintaining the security of this vital data is critical to addressing crime, bringing criminals to justice and keeping our communities safe, and that if the Home Office is not doing that, it is failing the public?

The hon. Gentleman has given me a long series of questions, which I shall try to answer as efficiently as I possibly can. Once the error became clear to the team, they escalated it up through the Home Office, first of all on Monday, and then through Wednesday into ministerial and other offices, in accordance with normal protocols.

As to the scale of the data, while the figure of 400,000 has been quoted, that is an accumulation of the various bits of information that may or may not have been deleted. As I said, a number of bits of information may apply to one individual, so the number of individual records on the PNC that might be affected could be smaller, but we will not know exactly until later this week, once the programme that is being analysed has come to an end.

As for when the script was introduced, that was indeed six weeks prior to what is called the weeding date, which is when the deletion was due to take place. That is standard practice, to load the script into the system some weeks before it is due to run. It did not run until the Saturday, when the error within it became immediately apparent.

As to the records that are affected, I am informed that the records that have been deleted are those that relate to people who were apprehended or put under investigation by the police. When there was subsequently a declaration of no further action to be taken, if there were prior convictions or offences on the police national computer, my information—what I have been told thus far—is that that those will remain. Only information relating to that specific incident, which was no further action, may or may not have been deleted. To a certain extent, that helps to mitigate some of the risk.

It is also worth pointing out that, as I said in my statement, there are other databases, both locally and those held nationally, such as IDENT the fingerprint database or the national DNA database, which may also be searched. The PNC draws its data from a number of other databases and when, because of our legal obligations, a deletion request is put on to the police national computer, it cascades deletions down through the other databases in accordance with the law. Those subsequent deletions were halted immediately, and that should help us, we hope, with recoverability of the dataset.

The hon. Gentleman asked about SIS II. That is indeed unrelated, and visa processing was suspended for approximately 24 hours. Everybody whose customer service threshold could not be met as a consequence of that was informed, but processing was resumed pretty quickly. We are assessing the impact on ongoing police investigations, while we analyse the report that has been run, which will give us the full picture of what has actually happened on the system.

Having said that, policing partners and the Home Office have put in place mitigations, not least informing other police forces—as Nav Malik did—that they should be making subsequent checks of their own and other databases, not least the police national database, which is a separate database from the police national computer and holds intelligence and other information.

On the national law enforcement data project, the replacement of the PNC, while that process has had its fair share of problems, it is fair to say we have undergone a reset. There is now a renewed sense of partnership working between the Home Office and the police, to make sure we get that much needed upgrade in technology correct.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point was about accepting the maintenance of data. He is absolutely right: we accept that it is very important that we, and indeed police forces and other governmental bodies that hold people’s personal data, do our best to maintain its integrity and to do so as faultlessly as possible. In these circumstances, we were attempting through this code to comply with our stringent legal obligations to delete personal data where it cannot be held by us or by other databases. Sadly, human error introduced into the code has led to this particular situation, which we hope is rectifiable. I am more than happy to keep the hon. Gentleman updated, as I did on Saturday afternoon, when I briefed him.

I thank the Minister, the Home Secretary and the police leadership around the country for the very professional way in which they have responded to a most unfortunate error, an error that none of them wanted or made personally. Will he give us a little bit more encouragement, however, because is it not the case that there are now many good ways to retrieve data that has been wrongly deleted? Might we be looking at a remedy for this in a few weeks’ time, when the computer experts have finished their job?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the initial assessment was some optimism about the ability to recover this data, not least because it is held in a number of areas. We will not have the full picture until we get to the end of this week, once we have analysed the report and, of course, looked at the data that we should have deleted but have not because of this error. However, he is quite right that we should be optimistic about that and recognise that all is not lost. There are other ways that this data can be cross-checked, in particular as part of a police investigation. We are working with our policing partners to ensure that they make full use of that, so that they can proceed as usual with their investigations.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary was boasting that the United Kingdom is now a safer place because of Brexit. However, before it was disbanded by the Government, the Select Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union heard detailed expert evidence explaining why the United Kingdom is not a safer place as a result of the law enforcement part of the Brexit deal. One of the key reasons is that we have lost real-time access to Europe-wide databases on criminal records, DNA, fingerprints and, indeed, intelligence. That is not just my view but the expert view of Lord Ian Blair, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and Lord Peter Ricketts, the former National Security Adviser. Now that situation has been further exacerbated by this loss of important fingerprint, DNA and arrest history records, which the police use for real-time checks on our own UK-wide databases.

Mr Speaker, you really couldn’t make it up, yet curiously the Home Secretary is nowhere to be seen. Instead, she has sent her junior Minister to take the flak. I have two areas of questions for him. First, was this data cleaning operation in any way connected to the removal of records from the police national computer following the end of the transition period? Does the 400,000 figure include the 40,000 records that were removed from the police national computer post Brexit, or is it on top of that? Secondly, given the UK-wide nature of the database, what discussions have taken place with police forces in the devolved nations? Will the Minister commit to full co-operation with Police Scotland and other devolved forces until this issue is resolved?

On the hon. and learned Lady’s two substantive questions, this had absolutely nothing to do with SIS II—the Schengen information system. These were, as I said earlier, deletions in line with our legal obligations not to hold data for people who are not of continuing interest to the police, under legislation that was enacted by this House some years ago. On the conversations with police forces, obviously the National Police Chiefs Council lead has cascaded throughout policing the information required to put in place mitigations. We will also, of course, co-operate as closely as possible, and I will be keeping my opposite number in the Scottish Government informed.

As to the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) and the hon. and learned Lady about the Home Secretary, I can only apologise that they are facing someone who is an inferior to their own status, but they will understand that the Home Secretary has an enormous draw upon her duties. She takes her duties in this House extremely seriously—there is no doubt about it—but I have been much more, I guess, embedded with this over the last few months, as one would expect for a Minister of State who is standing by his Home Secretary, doing her bidding.

I thank the Minister for providing the House with more detail on this unfortunate issue. Can he confirm that the police have a full understanding of what has happened and that appropriate measures will be taken to ensure that it is not repeated?

That is absolutely right. I understand that the police were informed, along with the senior levels of the Home Office, on the Monday after the incident occurred, and they are part of the Gold group command that is dealing with the incident. As hon. Members will have seen from the letter that was leaked to The Times—the detailed letter that was sent round policing—the NPCC lead on this matter is very much at the table, working with us to ensure that we rectify it as soon as possible.

It is very hard to understand how 400,000 records could be deleted from such a crucial system without there being a proper back-up system in place. If this was the normal weekly process as ever, why was new coding being used? If new coding is often used, why are there not built-in safeguards? Is it true that Ministers were warned many months ago that their approach to the police national computer and database posed a significant risk to policing’s ability to protect the public? What did the Home Secretary do about that?

With a large database of something like 13 million records, it is routine to use mini-programs that run on the database to deal with data. As I understand it, this new coding was put in place as a weeding request from policing itself. Obviously, to ensure that this does not reoccur, one of the questions that we will have to answer is: what went wrong not only in the writing of the code that introduced this error but in the quality and system checking that then sat behind it? Once we have gone through the exercise of ensuring that we have rectified this as much as we can, that will be exactly the kind of lesson that we learn.

There have been concerns about the process of replacing the police national computer and the police national database, but over the last few months, the Home Secretary and I have worked hard to put reset processes in place around that project. I am confident that we are now on a better footing to move forward to a brighter future for police technology.

This incident is not without precedent—the Minister will recall that in 2007, 25 million child benefit records were lost. Can he confirm that everything possible will be done to remedy this and to learn whatever lessons need to be learned?

My hon. Friend is right that, over the years, there have been a number of issues around governmental handling of data. It is a large and complex issue, and we are dealing with huge amounts of data that are very difficult to handle. He can be assured, and I hope the rest of the House will be, that we are working flat out to get on top of this problem and to rectify it. The first stage of our plan has gone well. The second stage is under way, and I expect to report better progress to the House in due course.

The Times reports today that the Home Office was warned in July 2019 that police databases were “creaking” and that they operated on

“end of life, unsupported hardware and software”.

It further reports that the Home Office response was that it would only “fix on fail”. In other words, knowing that there was likely to be failure, the Home Office decided to just let it happen and fix it if it had to. Can the Minister tell the House whether there was ministerial involvement in that response, and if there was not, does he not think there should have been?

I was not necessarily in post at that point, so I do not know whether there was ministerial involvement in that particular decision. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have been working quite hard over the last year or so to get the technology projects in the Home Office—the national law enforcement data programme and the new communications network for the police—back on track. They have had their fair share of problems—that is no national secret—but I am confident that things are in a better position now than they were before.

While I understand the issues claimed in The Times today around the police national computer, it is worth pointing out that this issue had nothing to do with the state or otherwise of the hardware and software of the police national computer. It was pure human error in coding and was not necessarily a reflection of the age of that system. We are committed to putting in place a brand-new system. That project is now back on track after a reset, and I am confident that over the next two or three years, we will see a significant change in the way UK policing uses technology.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, instead of attempting to score political points from this unfortunate error, the Opposition parties should be engaging constructively and working in the national interest?

Yes. It is the hope of all Government Members that Opposition Members will work constructively with us. I had a very constructive briefing over the weekend with the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds); the shadow Policing Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones); and the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). We are committed to as much transparency as the House requires, because with a large, complex database, when human error is introduced, these kinds of issue need to be exposed so that we can all learn from them, whatever situation, political or otherwise, we are in.

The Home Secretary likes to talk tough on crime, but the shocking loss of 400,000 records is a major failing on her watch and she is incapable of facing up to it. She should be here before the House today. The Policing Minister talked in his statement about mitigation. Can he give the House an absolute guarantee that no investigation has been or will be compromised because the deleted information could not be cross-referenced?

The hon. Gentleman again casts aspersions on the Home Secretary, who is one of the hardest-working politicians I have come across in my 20-odd years in politics, and I think it is deeply unfair to make that claim. As he knows, it is perfectly usual for Ministers of State to take urgent questions or indeed make statements in this House, and we are doing no different from what a Government that he supported did in the past.

We will know the full extent of the impact of this issue over the next few days, as our plan swings into action, and we are working very closely with police forces across the country, through the National Police Chiefs Council, to make sure that any operational impact is obviated or mitigated.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for what I know is his personal commitment to resolving this matter. He will appreciate that offences are sometimes continued, which may be for lack of evidence, but that material that is retained may subsequently become valuable if it can be cross-checked in the event of arrests for subsequent offences. Will he make sure that obtaining a back-up of such material, which can be of importance to future prosecutions or investigations, is a top priority, and that all the other related criminal justice agencies will be kept fully informed of progress on this matter?

In his usual succinct way, my hon. Friend puts his finger on the button of the issue. We are working very hard at the moment, as I say, to scope exactly what has happened and make sure we can retrieve exactly the sort of data that he refers to from the various other databases on which it is held—both at force and indeed at national level, or even, for example, at forensic provider level. There is some optimism that we may be able to do that, although we will not know for certain until later this week.

Having said that, as my hon. Friend will know from his very distinguished career at the Bar, the police have a number of other databases and sources of information from which they can seek corroborating evidence or otherwise through an investigation, and as I said before, we are working closely with them to make sure that those mitigations are in place while we get this problem sorted out.

Millions of people, including me, watched ITV’s excellent recent drama series “The Pembrokeshire Murders”, which showed how painstaking police examination of old DNA evidence helped to convict a brutal serial killer many years after he committed his heinous crimes. Is it possible—and I think the public and victims of crime deserve an honest and candid answer from the Minister on this—that records that could help to convict serious offenders in the future have been lost forever?

It is worth stressing, as I said before, that this data loss relates to people who have been subject to no further action from the police, and any biometric data—DNA, fingerprint or otherwise—that may have been deleted from the police national computer relates only to that offence for which no further action has been taken. At the moment—I am trying to be candid with the hon. Gentleman, as he urged me to be—I cannot give him an exact picture of what the downstream impact is, but it is worth pointing out that the police national computer is not the only place in which records such as the DNA records he refers to are held. We obviously have a separate DNA database, and then forensic providers who provide those samples also have their own DNA databases, and there is obviously intelligence that remains on the police national database as opposed to the police national computer. However, our primary effort at the moment is to scope the scale of the issue, and then to seek the rectification that both he and I would be keen to see.

I thank my hon. Friend for updating the House so swiftly on this unfortunate incident of human error. Can he confirm that everything humanly possible is being done to rectify it, and will he commit to updating the House on the recovery of the data?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I can assure him that we are doing everything we possibly can. We have a very dedicated engineering team who have been working flat out since the incident occurred, including over the weekend, to seek rectification. As soon as I have more information about phase 2, I will make it known to the House through whatever channel is agreed with Mr Speaker.

The Minister has told the House this afternoon that the affected records apply to cases where individuals were arrested and then released with no further action. However, a letter sent from the National Police Chiefs Council to senior officers stated that records potentially deleted in error include records that have previously been marked

“for indefinite retention following conviction of serious offences”.

In light of what the Minister has told the House and in light of his earlier statement of 16 January, was the National Police Chiefs Council incorrect to make that statement to senior officers?

No, the person from the NPCC was not incorrect, I do not believe, although the picture has evolved, it is certainly true to say, over the past few days. The information I have been given thus far is that where an individual may be on the police national computer for a number of offences over time, but on this occasion, for a particular offence, was released with no further action, it is only the information that relates to that particular offence for which there was no further action that may or may not have been deleted.

Having said that—I guess it is safe to put this caveat in—we are in the process of analysing exactly what the impact of this loss has been. Once that becomes clearer, I will be more than happy to give the hon. Gentleman and others in the House the assurance that they need or, indeed, to give the wider conclusions of what that report is telling us. These are all initial views of what we believe may well have been happening. The first phase of our recovery plan has gone well; the second phase, which is analysing what the report is telling us about this frankly huge database, will come in the next few days, and then I will be able to give more certain answers.

Can my hon. Friend confirm for my constituents in Hertford and Stortford that the police national computer database is a really important tool to help our brilliant police and that, thanks to the swift action he has outlined, it remains so, notwithstanding what is an isolated incident of human error?

My hon. Friend speaks the truth, which is that the police national computer sits at the heart of British policing, providing enormously helpful information to police forces across the country seeking to apprehend criminals. It is still in use—it is still being used as we speak for the reasons that it needs to be, not least because we are talking about a very small percentage of the database overall that has been affected—and that is critically why we have committed to investing in a replacement for the police national computer, which is a system that I guess is a legacy from the past. We want to ensure that the police have the best technology and the best data handling available to them, so that they can do their best to fight crime on our behalf.

The Minister will be well aware that this news will have caused great alarm right across the country, and certainly to the residents of Warwick and Leamington. Can he explain to us what assessment he has made in terms of safeguarding and those who are vulnerable, including the victims of domestic abuse? Does he agree that now is not the time to be cutting 87 back office staff from Warwickshire police, including the domestic abuse unit and all the corporate knowledge that goes with that?

As I say, we are in the middle of phase 2 of our recovery plan, which is assessing precisely the scope of the issue we are facing and then moving into the recoverability of the data, so that we can mitigate exactly the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman mentions. As to decisions made by the police and crime commissioner for Warwickshire, I hesitate to inject an element of politics into this matter, but it should come as no surprise that the police and crime commissioner for Warwickshire is a Conservative, and it has routinely been rated as a very high-performing force.

I am grateful for the update that has been provided to the House and the work that is being done to try to recover these records, but does my hon. Friend agree that the strength of condemnation of the Home Secretary from those on the Opposition Benches contrasts with their desire to install as Home Secretary someone who previously said we should not have any of these kinds of records in the first place?

My hon. Friend raises a very pertinent point. Of course, we were trying in this process to do what the law tells us to do, which is to respect people’s privacy and to delete data that we are supposed to delete. It is possibly true that some Members on the Opposition Benches—not, I have to say, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), but others on those Benches—have an interesting relationship with the notion of the police using and interpreting data. This is an issue of technical complexity, which software engineering experts in the Home Office are grappling with day by day. We will bring more information as we have it, but safe to say—I know that my hon. Friend takes a strong interest in policing and the policing family—we are doing our best to ensure that the police are in as good a position as they can be to continue to fight crime.

My goodness, Mr Speaker; thank you very much, whether virtually or in person, but virtually today.

I thank the Minister for his most comprehensive statement. My concern lies in the fact that there are cases that are sensitively linked to Northern Ireland. I would appreciate an understanding that contact has been made with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to go over how the data breach may have affected Northern Ireland citizens and residents and, further, whether it is felt that victims of crimes in particular may be affected and what steps are to be taken if they are affected.

As I say, the whole of UK policing has been involved, through the National Police Chiefs Council, in the effort both to comprehend the scale of the problem and then to put in place mitigation. The hon. Gentleman is quite right; as usual, victims of crime are uppermost in his mind, as they are, hopefully, in all of ours. I will be able to tell him later in the week, hopefully, what the precise impact might or might not have been and what the mitigations that we put in place will do to ensure that victims are not impacted while we recover this data and get ourselves back on an even keel.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Can he confirm that the human error that caused this problem is being designed out of the system and that it would be more helpful for the Opposition to hold to account their own police and crime commissioner in the west midlands, who recently saw more than 16,000 crimes go unrecorded?

It is often hard to design out human error in a system that interacts with humans, but my hon. Friend is quite right that one of the lessons that we need to learn from this process—and we will in time—is not necessarily just how the human error occurred so that we can prevent that from happening in the first place, but how the quality assessment system that should have picked it up over time before it ran did not do so. I suppose the reassuring bit of this incident is that the moment that script did run on the system, it rang alarm bells in the Home Office and a rectification plan swung into place. That should give some assurance that we are at least on top of problems where they occur; the next step is to ensure that they do not occur in the first place.

As to my hon. Friend’s wider point about the conduct or otherwise of the west midlands police and crime commissioner, I think it will become pretty clear in the run-up to the police and crime commissioner elections in May, as people focus on crime performance, where they should put their cross in the box.

This extraordinarily serious scandal happened on the Home Secretary’s watch, yet, disappointingly, she is not here. As a former police officer, I know at first hand the value of the PNC. The reality is that the loss of fingerprints and DNA evidence will mean that the police are unable to tie suspects to crime scenes. In essence, this will result in criminals walking free and evading justice. Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to ensure that this sort of loss never happens again?

I do not know whether I ought to be taking offence at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of my obvious lack of suitability to appear before such an esteemed audience as Her Majesty’s Opposition, given their seeming obsession with the Home Secretary. I would have thought the most important thing was to ensure that the integrity of police data is as good as it can be and that the police are in the best position possible to fight crime. As I outlined in my statement—for the hon. Gentleman’s sake, I will say it once again—we are in the process of making sure that we understand the scale of the problem and then putting in place rectification and retrieving the data that is required. The stage that follows that is learning exactly the lesson that he wants us to learn, which is how we can ensure this it does not happen again.

I thank my hon. Friend for updating the House; he is more than capable of doing this. A previous shadow Home Secretary stated in the Chamber in 2018:

“The state has no business keeping records on people who are not criminals.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 640.]

Does my hon. Friend agree that the outcry from the Opposition Benches is indeed in contrast to that statement?

My hon. Friend, in his usual forthright way, identifies the perhaps interesting relationship that Opposition Members have had with UK policing and, indeed, the data and intelligence tools required by the police to put them in the best position to fight crime. I know that he and I will stand shoulder to shoulder, whatever the Opposition might say, to ensure that British policing gets the best technology and information it needs to ensure that it can fight crime in my constituency and in his, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, as it has been doing over the past 12 months.

The Home Secretary’s office claimed four days ago that no records of criminal or dangerous persons had been deleted. Can the Minister tell the House whether he knows that to be categorically true?

One of the things that I said in my early statements was that I had asked officials from the police to confirm to me their initial assessment about what risk was posed to the public, and we are awaiting the conclusions of that particular report before I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical answer. What we do know is that these particular records that were deleted related to people who were released by the police with no further action. They were either arrested or under investigation, but for that particular crime they were what is called NFA. To a certain extent, that gives some assurance, but I am afraid I cannot I give him the full picture, possibly until later this week or early next week. I am fully committed to doing that.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that those who are currently relying on police national computer data for investigations will be able to rerun their searches once the recovery work on the police national computer is complete?

I can confirm that. The moment we have recovered the data and put things back as they were, and made sure that we have deleted the data that we should have deleted but had not, we will be encouraging police forces across the country to rerun their searches. It is worth reiterating what I said earlier, which is that there are other databases on which these searches can be run, and we are encouraging police officers and, indeed, working with the National Police Chiefs Council, to make sure that those mitigations are used as fully as possible by UK policing.

Could the Minister please update the House on whether the computer glitches reported today are having any impact upon recruiting? Could he also update us on the observation that police forces across the UK may be rejecting applications from re-joiners?

It is very ingenious of my hon. Friend to get the uplift into this particular statement, but I welcome his ingenuity. The uplift is not affected at all. Recruitment is going well and, as he knows, we are ahead of target. He has raised with me the issue of his particular force not necessarily accepting applications from re-joiners. I am in the process of bottoming out that particular issue. As soon as I have an answer for him, I will let him have it.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you would have thought that the Home Secretary would be fronting up a statement on an issue as important as this, but I guess that requires a commitment to the job that she appears to lack. The National Police Chiefs Council was told that the loss and mis-matching of biometrics and DNA samples matched were hampering the investigation of crimes. Are they also interfering with the operation of the visa and immigration system? Will we see visas granted that should not be and visas denied that should have been granted?

First of all, may I object to the hon. Lady offering such a calumny against the Home Secretary? The Home Secretary is 200%—if that is possible—committed to the job. Throughout the covid pandemic, and indeed before, she has been at the helm on the bridge at the Home Office working as hard as any politician I have come across in my 20-odd years in frontline politics. It is deeply, deeply unfair to cast aspersions on her commitment, not least because even before she became Home Secretary I believe she was chair of the all-party group on victims of crime and has a long-standing commitment to doing the best for those who have been subject to heinous acts by others.

On the hon. Lady’s question about visas, there was a brief delay in the processing of visa applications for about 24 hours while the risk was assessed. It was deemed that the process could continue and nobody has subsequently been delayed.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House so swiftly to update us and for committing to continue to do so if there are further developments. Will he confirm that the Home Office is working with the police and partners to try to recover the data and assess the full extent of the problem?

What a novelty to be asked a question in person! I can confirm what my hon. Friend says. We are working extremely closely with policing partners—the National Police Chiefs Council, the National Crime Agency and others—who use the computer system for their vital day-to-day work. They are involved in the gold group on this particular incident and obviously there have been ongoing conversations between the Home Secretary, the chairman of the National Police Chiefs Council and others to make sure we are in lockstep in our plan to mitigate and then restore the database to its previous integrity.

Will the Minister confirm that among types of crime that very often lead to no further action are those involving domestic abuse? In that case, can he give an absolute guarantee to the House that there will be full recovery of all the data, or do we put at risk victims of domestic abuse when we know that building up a pattern of criminal behaviour is so important for the police and other agencies to bring offenders to book and to protect victims of domestic abuse?

As I have said before, I am afraid I cannot, as yet, give the absolute cast-iron guarantee that the hon. Gentleman seeks on the restitution of the data. The early indicators are optimistic that we will be able to retrieve it, but until we have analysed the report that has been run today, we will not know for sure. That will take a few days. It is, however, worth pointing out to him that there are other systems elsewhere where the police retain intelligence about criminals and identifying markers, whether database or fingerprints. For example, for somebody who has been accused or for whom there is intelligence around domestic abuse, that detail may well be held on the police national database, which is a separate system to the police national computer. From that, the sort of person he is talking about may well be identifiable. However, I am afraid I cannot give him a full picture until, probably, the early part of next week.

My hon. Friend has repeatedly said that this dreadful state of affairs was caused by human error. Can he confirm to the House that there is no suggestion of any criminal intent? Can he also confirm that one of the strengths of the system is that when this error happened, it immediately set off alarm bells, so that action could be taken?

My hon. Friend has a background in technology, so it is quite right that he should raise such pertinent questions. On his first question, no, there is no allegation of wrongdoing over and above error. On his second, he is absolutely right that we should be reassured by the fact that this human error was picked up the moment that it ran on the system. The ability to keep deleting items was stopped, and general instructions were sent out to the linked databases to stop them also deleting data, so we caught it pretty much as soon as it was happening. The question now is how quickly we can rectify it.

If these 400,000 lost records are not recovered, this human error will have an impact on public safety, will it not?

We will not know entirely until we have analysed the reports, but early indications were optimistic about recovery, as I say, because data is held elsewhere. If, in some circumstances, data is irrecoverable, we will have to consider other mitigations with policing partners to make sure that we remain as safe as we can in this country.

In a few weeks’ time, Colin Pitchfork, who raped and brutally murdered two teenage girls in my South Leicestershire constituency some 30 years ago, will have a parole hearing. I know that the Minister is not responsible directly for the Parole Board, but he is responsible for public protection. First, can he write to me confirming that any records lost did not pertain to Colin Pitchfork? Secondly, and more importantly, can he give an assurance at the Dispatch Box that my constituents, if Colin Pitchfork is released, will not be put at risk by any of the records lost?

I would be more than happy to write to my hon. Friend, as he requests. It is worth pointing out that the issue we are dealing with is people who have been subject to police investigation, or arrested and released with no further action. That would seem to exclude Mr Pitchfork from consideration. However, I will make sure in writing to my hon. Friend. He and I will both want to make sure that the offender management system, which is administered by the Ministry of Justice, ensures that the conditions put on that individual when, or if, he is released mean that people in my hon. Friend’s constituency, who wish to be safe, remain safe.

I thank the Minister for his statement, and for responding to questions from Members. For cleaning purposes, this sitting is now suspended for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Opposition Day

[14th Allotted Day]

Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit

I beg to move,

That this House believes that the Government should stop the planned cut in Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit in April and give certainty today to the six million families for whom it is worth an extra £1,000 a year.

I am not here to claim that Conservative MPs are heartless, lack compassion, or have insufficient regard for the poorest people in this country. I know that after the vote on free school meals, many Conservative MPs, mainly after comments made by other Conservative MPs, received a high degree of personal abuse, and I want to make it clear unequivocally that that is wrong. I am here to put forward a clear and, I believe, compelling case that reducing universal credit and working tax credit this April would be fundamentally the wrong decision. It would be a profound mistake for families, for the economy and for our ability to effectively tackle and recover from the covid pandemic.

Before putting forward that case, I wish to address the Prime Minister’s suggestion that Parliament is somehow not the right place to have this discussion. Opposition days have been a feature of our parliamentary system for many decades. They were used very successfully by the Conservative party when it was in opposition—for example, when the Labour Government were defeated over resettlement rights for Gurkhas in 2009, or over post office closures. All majority Governments, except this one, have accepted that if they cannot win a vote in Parliament on one of their policies, then they have to change that policy. This decision cannot be deferred until a Budget, because the Government cancelled the November Budget and have not brought forward a Finance Bill since March.

I put it to all Members that Parliament is exactly the right place to have a discussion of such consequence to the country. The Government cannot expect to preach parliamentary sovereignty one week, and run away from parliamentary scrutiny the next. Too often, the Prime Minister seems unwilling to abide by basic democratic norms and to accept proper scrutiny and accountability. We have seen in the US where that can end.

Let me also say at the outset that, throughout the pandemic, the Opposition have always sought to be constructive. The official Opposition want the national strategy to succeed. In that spirit, we welcomed the changes that the Government made to universal credit at the beginning of the crisis. The £20-a-week weekly increase, and the suspension of conditionality and the minimum income floor, were necessary steps to support people. Recognition must also go to frontline Department for Work and Pensions staff, who kept our social security system going through the early stages of the crisis, making sure that hundreds of thousands of new claimants received the support they needed. All those staff deserve our praise, from the civil servants working in the Department to the security guards I met recently, who face difficult working conditions keeping Jobcentre Plus offices open.

However, the fact that such urgent changes were required to provide a basic safety net is a telling assessment of where the social security system was when we went into the crisis. If we cannot properly support people in a time of need without emergency surgery to the system, it is not fit for purpose. The fact is that support for people in this country when they lose their job or cannot work is significantly lower than in comparable European countries.

I will address three points: how we got here; the case for reversing this cut to secure our economy; and, finally, the human impact if the Government refuse to change course.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a pressing reason to have a debate and vote on this issue today is the fact that all the evidence suggests that the restrictions resulting from the measures taken to deal with covid have hit the poorest in society hardest? Poverty is up, and those people who most depend on this kind of support are the ones who are most damaged at the moment.

I agree. Inequality, and the differential impact on people, has been one of the defining features of this crisis. I do not think anyone can avoid that. It is relevant to make that point in this debate.

We have to be honest about the state of our social security system going into the crisis. Since 2010, poverty has increased significantly in the UK. In addition, people who were in poverty in 2010 are now so much deeper in poverty than they were. This is not an argument about definitions. Conservatives themselves were the driving influences behind bodies such as the Social Metrics Commission, which came up with a new definition of poverty that was actually very similar to the one that has traditionally been used. The Government’s own estimate is that 4.2 million British children live in poverty. That is shameful, wrong and unnecessary.

The UK, along with Ireland, is an outlier compared with the rest of Europe when it comes to inequality. That means that the reality for millions of families is that they went into this crisis already under significant pressure. As the Resolution Foundation said in 2019, the 1.7% increase to universal credit that year was the first working-age benefit increase for five years. Last year, the real value of basic out-of-work support was lower than when John Major was Prime Minister, so anyone claiming that the system is too generous, or who is trying to resurrect the stigmatising rhetoric of George Osborne, simply has no case to make.

The hon. Gentleman is a reasonable man—I like him. He is making a sensible speech. While we are being honest about social security systems, is it still the Opposition’s policy to abolish universal credit, as it would have been had they won the general election in December 2019, although it is widely accepted to have been successful in flexing to expand in the current crisis? Is it still Her Majesty’s Opposition’s policy to abolish the entire system, and what do they propose putting in its place?

Yes, it is our policy to replace universal credit—not to abolish the welfare state, as some of those videos from Conservative central office have tried to make out today. After I address the causes and the question before us today, I will be happy to talk about some other problems that go beyond the core amount of universal credit, and about why replacing universal credit is the right policy. But before we get to that point, I have to stress that, if this cut goes ahead, it will leave unemployment support at its lowest level ever relative to average earnings. That is not just morally unjustifiable; it is economically incompetent. Cutting unemployment support in the middle of a recession is always the wrong choice, which is why no Government have done so since the great depression.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tone at the beginning of the debate. Just for our understanding, will he tell us whether the Opposition propose making this increase permanent? If so, how do they propose to pay for it?

We believe that this uplift should stay in place during the crisis, and I do not think anyone believes that the crisis will end in April. I will make some points about long-term proposals near the end of my speech, as well as about why the whole system requires much more considerable reform than just tinkering around with the core amount.

The cost of paying for all this is significant: around £6 billion. That would vary depending on the levels of unemployment throughout the year, but any measure right now that cuts public spending or raises taxes in the middle of the biggest economic downturn for 300 years would be the wrong policy. Decisions will have to be made as we get into the middle of this decade to address the levels of debt that have been accrued by the Government during this crisis, but that is not the right choice now.

I want to focus on the point raised by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), because if the Government are seriously thinking about economic recovery, cutting universal credit is like pulling the rug from under the economy’s feet. This £20 a week is not saved by families; it is spent in shops and businesses across the country, stimulating the economy. We all agree that this pandemic and the unemployment crisis will not be over by April this year, and whatever protestations we have heard on social media or in the press—and, frankly, however people vote today—I know that there are many people on the Government Benches who agree with this case. The former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), recently said:

“Withdrawing the uplift would reduce the spending power of people on lowest incomes. This will likely reduce consumption, meaning families going without essentials and household debts rising. It would also see a reduction in spending just when the economy needs it most.”

I could not agree more with that assessment. He is also right to draw attention to the levels of personal debt for some households.

As well as the real value of benefits being historically low as we went into this crisis, the pandemic has meant very real additional costs for most families. There are more meals for people to cook at home, and more days to heat their house. People have devices and lights on at times they would not normally, and have to buy what they need to teach their children at home. The clinically vulnerable have been forced to buy food locally, at a higher cost than in larger supermarkets. Everyone has experienced the pandemic differently, but for some the costs have piled on.

Citizens Advice told me this week that three quarters of the people it helps with debt who currently receive universal credit and working tax credit would have a negative budget if the £20 was cut. That means that they will have less money coming in than going out, and will not be able to cover basic essentials such as food or heating—and it will come at a time when one in three households has lost income because of covid, and 7.3 million people are behind on their bills.

The proposed cut to universal credit and working tax credit is not the only issue causing consternation in the country right now. I would particularly highlight the continuing injustice for those people on employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance, who did not even get the uplift to begin with. That is unjustifiable and discriminatory, and I ask the Minister if he would mind specifically referencing that point in his speech. Reversing the April cut to universal credit is a specific, clear and unavoidable decision that needs to be taken, which is why it is right that we are bringing it to Parliament today.

Some of the speeches that we will hear today will no doubt say that we should focus on jobs and getting people back to work, and not on social security. The Prime Minister said something along these lines at the Liaison Committee last week, but Members will know that universal credit is an in-work as well as an out-of-work benefit—40% of universal credit claimants are in work—so that argument does not work at all. To be frank, it would be helpful if someone told the Prime Minister that. Universal credit is also means-tested, so if people go back to work and do not qualify for it, they will not receive it at all. If we want to have a serious discussion about boosting employment and making work pay, let us discuss work allowances, the taper rate and deductions, but let not the Government try to use that as an excuse to do the wrong thing on this cut.

Others might say that support should be more targeted and the basic allowance is the wrong element to target. In that case, the Government would, logically, scrap the two-child limit or the benefit cap, which disproportionately affect people in the most difficulty—larger families in areas with higher housing costs. However, when we put that forward, it, too, was rejected.

Finally, there has been a proposal for a one-off payment to compensate people affected by this cut. That is an awful idea. It does not address the real-terms reduction in support, just as unemployment is expected to peak. More than that, although 6 million families are affected by this now, that cohort will change in composition throughout the year. A one-off payment based on who is eligible now will fail to support some of the people who need that help the most. So please, Minister, ask the Chancellor to think that one through again.

I know it sometimes frustrates Conservative Members that we are still determined to replace UC altogether—I was asked that question earlier—but I say to them that, if they will not listen to those on the Opposition Front Bench, they should read the work of the cross-party Select Committee on Work and Pensions and read the report of the cross-party House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Lord Forsyth. They are clear and robust in highlighting the fundamental problems that currently exist: the five-week wait; the two-child limit; the erratic assessment period; the problems with paying for childcare in arrears; and the shocking design that means that many disabled people are worse off on UC. The last one of those is very personal to me and it simply is not right not to replicate how the severe disability premium worked under the previous arrangements. All this means that UC’s brand is severely tarnished. If everything was working as well as Ministers sometimes say, would we really be a country where food banks have gone from being a niche form of support, mainly for those without recourse to public funds, to a mainstream and essential method of keeping people fed? Would we have had the fundamental increase in child poverty, which is getting bigger with every year of Conservative government? Those questions deserve answers.

Throughout the crisis, the Government have often been behind the curve, never out in front, and they have left some decisions, such as on furlough extension, to the very last minute, in a reckless game of brinkmanship. That is heavily why we have, tragically, the highest death toll in Europe and the biggest economic downturn of any major economy. Let us not repeat that with this decision. We all know that families are looking at us, wondering what we will do to help make getting through this crisis just that bit easier. What they do not expect is the Government making it even harder. I hope that one thing we can all agree on is that the crisis has shone a light on some of the problems in the UK, problems that have made tackling the pandemic harder and provoked a discussion about what kind of society we want to rebuild when the pandemic is over.

If the ambition of Conservatives really is to level up the UK, it is hard to see how they can support a cut that would be so regressive to low-income families and which disproportionately affects the places the Government say they want to help. I am talking about families such Bethany and her child in Blackpool. She said to me, “I was made redundant due to coronavirus. As a single parent to a one-year-old, universal credit is now the only income I receive. If the Government does cut £20 a week, I will become one of the statistics needing to use a food bank. It devastates me to think that I will not be able to provide for my child should this decision be finalised.” Margaret, who has been volunteering at a food bank in Luton, says, “A young man came in for a food parcel. He looked thin and his face was grey. He sat down and he said that he thought he could last with no food until the universal credit came through, but he found that he couldn’t. He’d come in on a Wednesday and his universal credit was due on the Friday.” That is the reality before the cut has gone ahead. My inbox is full of personal accounts such as those. I urge every Member to look at what is in their inbox, read about the human cost of what it will be like for people if this cut goes ahead, address the worries people have about not being able to put food on the table, and think long and hard about the uncertainty and fear that all families face after 10 long, hard months of this pandemic.

I want to make a special appeal to the new MPs on the Conservative Benches whose constituents elected them in good faith for the first time in 2019. Many of those people are the first Conservative to ever be elected to those places. They have already made history and their success is a significant personal achievement. They will be remembered, but so will their votes. Most of all, when thinking about how to cast their vote today, I urge everyone to take a moment to reflect on what this cut will mean to the people who send us here: the uncertainty it will add in an already uncertain time; the loss it will bring when we have already lost so much; the fear it will cause when what people need is hope. So, for our constituents, for the economy and for the national interest, we need to cancel this cut and I ask every Member of the House today to support our motion to do so.

Before I call the Minister, I have three points to make. As people in the Chamber can see on the annunciator—I am not sure whether people can see it at home—there is a three-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. For those who are contributing outside the Chamber, there is a timing clock, which you should be able to see on the bottom right hand corner of whatever device you are using. It would be a lot cleaner if Members could bring their contributions to a close before the three-minute limit is up, otherwise you will be interrupted by the Chair. For the convenience of everyone as well, the question will be put at 7.15 before we move on to the next business.

I welcome today’s debate. It gives me the opportunity to highlight some of the unprecedented support that this Government have provided to people right across our country who have been affected by covid-19. I can confirm that the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister will not be moved this afternoon.

Without doubt, this has been a challenging time for many. That is why, since the start of this pandemic, we have mobilised our welfare system like never before in modern times, with a wide-ranging package of measures worth more than £7 billion. Members across the House will raise the future of the £20 per week uplift to universal credit, which I will come on to shortly.

I want to start by talking about how well the Department and universal credit have stood up to the challenge of the pandemic. Many people have sadly lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, or seen their incomes reduced. Universal credit and the Government’s investment in the welfare safety net have been there to help catch many of those affected. That has been hugely important for the 3 million more people who have made a benefit claim since March last year.

I am so incredibly proud of how thousands of work coaches in jobcentres up and down our country have responded at speed and scale to ensure that we have supported those additional people in their hour of need, especially as the number of people on universal credit rose from 2.9 million last February to nearly 6 million in November. Through our £895 million investment, we are well on the way to meet the Government’s pledge to recruit 13,500 new work coaches by the end of the financial year.

This morning, I chaired a meeting of the Northfield covid recovery strategy group with Becky from Northfield Community Partnership. We learnt this morning that, in Birmingham and Solihull, we will see an extra 430 work coaches, 24 of whom will be based at the Longbridge jobcentre. Does the Minister agree that that is a perfect example of how the Government are taking a proactive approach to making sure that we get people back to work as quickly as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right that not just in his constituency, but in constituencies up and down the country, our Jobcentre Plus network of dedicated work coaches have worked incredibly hard to process an unprecedented number of claims and they stand ready to help support people back into work. That is exactly why we have secured this additional investment from Her Majesty’s Treasury to, in effect, almost double the number of work coaches across our network across our country.

Work coaches are just one part of the jigsaw; the other is the universal credit system itself. Universal credit has, without doubt, stood up to the challenge of covid-19, whereas the previous legacy benefits system would have buckled under the pressure. Millions more were able to access financial support that is fairer and more generous than the legacy benefits system. We have made the processing of claims and paying people quickly the top priority for this Department. Over 90% of new claimants receive their payment in full and on time.

We have a modern, dynamic, agile, fairer welfare safety net that, in the face of unprecedented demand, ensured that millions of people were paid in full and on time. So what is Labour’s position? It is to scrap it.

Is it now the policy of the Department, as the Prime Minister suggested at the Liaison Committee last week, that people should move from legacy benefits to universal credit in order to gain the £20 per week increase? If that is now the policy, what about the position of those who have been receiving the severe disability premium, who are not allowed to move to universal credit?

I thank the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee for that intervention. I would be very happy to meet him, alongside the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, to discuss, in particular, those in receipt of the severe disability premium. Yes, it is the position of Her Majesty’s Government that we want more people to move over from legacy benefits, including working tax credits, on to universal credit, because it is a modern, more dynamic benefits system; it is the future. However—this is a very important caveat—I would encourage anybody looking to move over from legacy benefits to universal credit to first go on to and check their eligibility, because it is important to note, as I know the Chairman of the Select Committee knows well, that on application for universal credit, the entitlement to legacy benefits will cease, so it is very important that people do check.

As I said, we have a modern, dynamic, agile, fairer welfare safety net that, in the face of unprecedented demand, ensured that millions of people were paid in full and on time. Therefore, it is quite astonishing that the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition is to scrap it—a system that, by any measure, has passed the most challenging of tests. This weekend they briefed to the papers with a press released entitled, “Cut to universal credit to hammer families in marginal Conservative seats”, playing politics with the lives of nearly 6 million vulnerable people rather than focusing on helping them through this pandemic. We will take no lectures whatsoever from Labour on universal credit. There is little doubt that had we relied on the legacy benefits system, we would have seen queues down the streets outside jobcentres and long delays leaving families facing financial disruption without support.

As the Minister has raised press speculation, will he comment on the news in the papers at the weekend that the reason he is here and not the Secretary of State is that the Secretary of State agrees with us and it is the Treasury that is behind the cut of £20 a week from April?

The reason I am here today responding to this debate is that I am the Minister responsible for universal credit and this is a debate about the £20 per week uplift to universal credit. The Secretary of State is in active discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, of course, the Prime Minister about how best to continue to support the most vulnerable, disadvantaged, lowest-paid and poorest in our society, as the Chancellor has consistently done throughout this pandemic.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that conversations are still ongoing and that one of the reasons for that is that this does need to be fully costed because it is a lot of money? I was hoping that the shadow Minister would lay out how Labour intended to pay for the uplift.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Maintaining the uplift would cost a huge amount of money—somewhere in the region of £6 billion. But it is not just about that. Throughout this pandemic, we have always looked at how best to support the poorest, most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. Because this is an ever-emerging and changing situation—that is the very nature of a pandemic—we have to keep everything under review. That is why the Secretary of the State, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister do meet regularly to discuss all these issues. I want to make one further point because it was raised by the Chairman of the Select Committee: yes, we will continue the roll-out of universal credit, as we committed in our manifesto, ensuring that those on legacy benefits and working tax credits are moved across by 2022.[Official Report, 1 February 2021, Vol. 688, c. 6MC.]

I will now turn to the specific issue of the UC uplift. The Labour party is quite simply wrong in its use of emotive language, saying that the Government plan to cut universal credit. The £20 per week uplift to universal credit and working tax credit was announced by the Chancellor as a temporary measure in March 2020. This additional support increased the universal credit and working tax credit standard allowances by up to £1,040 for a year. We took this approach in order to give those people facing the most financial disruption the financial boost they needed as quickly as possible. The agility and flexibility of the universal credit system allowed us to implement this vital increase rapidly, and was hugely successful in giving claimants—many of whom, incidentally, had not interacted with the DWP before—a foundation by which to navigate the uncertainty of the beginning of this pandemic, and in many ways lessen the drop in earnings.

The Chancellor has always been clear that this measure remains in place until the end of the financial year. I hear the calls from Labour and, indeed, from the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for a decision now on whether the uplift to universal credit will continue post April, and I have sympathy with the argument that it would give claimants certainty. However, one of the evident features of a pandemic is uncertainty: if the hon. Gentleman is certain about what the economic and social picture will look like in April, then to be frank, he must have a crystal ball. The reality is that we simply do not know what the landscape will look like, which is why it is right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before assessing the best way to support low-income families moving forward.

Why is that important? One word: agility. The poorest and most disadvantaged in our society are best served by a Government that have the agility to respond to emerging situations and the facts at the time. None of us in this House can say with any certainty what the economic landscape will be like in April, which is why we continue to work with Her Majesty’s Treasury on the best way to support those in receipt of benefits.

I will add one more thing, which is that I know my right hon. Friend the Chancellor well, and I put it to right hon. and hon. Members that, throughout this pandemic, he has consistently stepped up to support individuals’ jobs and livelihoods. This is the Chancellor who created the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme; uprated universal credit by £1,040 this year; lifted the local housing allowance by £1 billion; protected renters from eviction; protected homeowners; gave grants to businesses; supported rough sleepers to get off our streets; funded the local welfare assistance scheme to the tune of £63 million; and set up the £170 million covid winter grant scheme. This represents one of the largest and most comprehensive support packages in the world.