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English Language Sector

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 15 April 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

It is a pleasure to rise to speak in this Adjournment debate this afternoon and to conclude the formal business of the House this week, in which we gathered to pay tribute to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. I would like to add my own tributes to the Duke. The Duke held a popular misconception about the town of Bournemouth, which I represent, which he demonstrated to me on one occasion in Buckingham Palace when he said, “Where are you from?” I said, “Bournemouth, Sir.” He said, “Bournemouth, hmm. Full of old people.” I said, “Indeed, Sir. Many of them a good deal younger than you.” He looked thunderous for about three seconds, then burst out laughing and called the Queen over to tell her about the exchange.

I rise to speak on a constituency interest, but also on a national interest. This debate is about the future of the English language sector. My constituency of Bournemouth West has a very high proportion of English language schools within it. It is one of the things that adds to the cultural social diversity of the town that I have the privilege to serve.

It is—I rather sadly looked this up earlier—3,948 days since I rose in this Chamber to deliver my maiden speech in an Adjournment debate on the subject of the future of the English language sector. At the time, we were trying to persuade the Government to introduce an extended student visitor visa to allow those coming from beyond the nations with which we share an alphabet—places such as Japan, China and Korea—to have longer to visit to learn the fundamentals of the alphabet before they learned the language, which of course took a longer time. I am pleased to say that we were successful in persuading the Government to go down that course.

In that debate, I tried to outline the importance of the English language sector to the UK. I said:

“The English language is one of our greatest assets. English is the language of world commerce, and if we shut off the ability of those schools to thrive, to welcome people to our shores and to enable them to immerse themselves in our language, our culture and our values, in time we will look back and realise that we made a very fundamental mistake.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 538.]

I am pleased to say that we did not make that mistake. Despite various challenges, the sector has thrived over the years.

The Prime Minister, when he was Foreign Secretary, used to boast of the statistic that one in seven of the kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers around the world had their education here in the United Kingdom. When I had the privilege of serving as the Minister of State for Trade Policy, I had co-responsibility for the international education strategy alongside the Minister of State in the Department for Education. We saw the vital importance of English in promoting Britain’s interests overseas commercially, politically and socially.

My right hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech about the importance of the English language sector and English language in schools, and he rightly identifies the point about soft power. Will he also reflect a little on the positive impact that being able to welcome people has on our constituencies and our local economies? I have two English language schools in Totnes, one of which sadly has not made it through this crisis, but the other, which has, I hope will have a long and prosperous future. Does he agree that by securing their future, we can benefit both our soft power and our local community’s interest?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who as ever demonstrates what a powerful champion he is for the community he serves. He is absolutely right, it is not just about the direct employment provided by the schools in terms of their teaching staff and ancillary staff who support their work, but the host families who welcome students into their home as a vital part of the experience. One of the reasons, which I will come on to a little bit later, why the response to the sector going online is not quite as compelling as it at first may seem is that part of the experience is actually coming to the UK and going on cultural visits to Stonehenge, to see Westminster Abbey, Parliament and Salisbury Cathedral, and do all the things that people do when they are here.

My hon. Friend is very wise to point out that the spend of these visitors is much higher than that of traditional visitors in the time they are here, so the benefit to our local economies is enormous. That is before we even consider the long-term, slow-burn benefit we get as the people who have come here, studied here and immersed themselves in our language, culture and cultural traditions —and have been, although perhaps not in recent years, inspired by our parliamentary democracy—return as champions for the United Kingdom in their home countries. As they grow into positions of political and commercial leadership in their home countries, often that benefit is returned to the UK in contracts awarded and supply chains enhanced, so it is very powerful indeed.

Of the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, I note that in The Times yesterday the brilliant sketch writer Quentin Letts referred to him coming to do an urgent question earlier in the week, saying that

“the Whips fielded their second-string punchbag, a business minister”.

Well, I am not going to punch my hon. Friend, but I know he understands this issue and this sector, and is indeed sympathetic to the cause I am trying to advance on its behalf.

I want to get on to the business end of the problem we currently face. Like many other sectors, those in this sector have been profoundly affected by the implications of the covid crisis. One of the things they need is financial support to survive and be in a position to reopen when normal commercial travel is resumed and we can welcome students again to the United Kingdom to study. They have been disappointed and I think perhaps even bemused to find this in the guidance issued by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in February 2021. Question 4 in the question and answer section asks:

“Are schools and education providers eligible to receive grants under the LRSG (Closed) Addendum: 5 January onwards, and Closed Businesses Lockdown Payment Schemes?”

The answer is:

“Schools and education providers, including English language schools, tutoring services, private and state schools, are not mandated to close in the regulations and are therefore not eligible to receive a grant under these schemes.”

Of course, it is absolutely correct to say that the schools were not mandated, but the reality is that, because of the number of other very difficult decisions that the Government rightly had to take to protect the safety of our population, they have had to close because their customers have not been able to travel to the UK to enrol on those courses and their business have been dramatically impacted. I will say a word about that in a moment.

The Department says, and I understand why it is saying this, that the schools are not eligible for the restart grants as this funding is for the businesses in the non-essential retail, hospitality, leisure, personal care and accommodation sectors, and they were not mandated to close and therefore they are not eligible for support from the mandatory grants scheme, but they are eligible for support through the discretionary funding available to local authorities. In my own case, my local council is doing its level best to get support to those businesses. Of course, it is not as generous as it would have been under the preceding scheme had they been brought under its auspices.

Business rates are in fact the largest single fixed costs— non-controllable costs—that businesses face and, bluntly, it will make the difference between their surviving or going under. As I said 10 years ago or nearly 11 years ago, I think we will look back with regret if we see this sector go under for the want of a relatively modest element of support. Ministers these days—I suppose I was guilty of it as well—use the word “investment” as though it is synonymous with spending, and much of it is actually just spending, not investment, because one gets a return on investment.

This would be an investment because, for the reasons I have articulated, this sector is so vital to the UK. It is worth about £1.4 billion in value added, with 35,000 jobs, and is part of the wider £20 billion international education sector. Some 91% of the employees in the sector have been either furloughed or sacked. Student numbers are down by 79% on 2019. The hopes of a longed-for summer recovery have been hit badly by the outbreak of and renewed rise in cases in some of the main countries that we attract students from. Only 17 local authorities across the whole UK are providing business rate relief to these schools.

The ask of the sector is straightforward. I am not asking for a commitment from the Minister today, but could he undertake to go away and look at this and meet me and representatives of the sector to talk about what further support could be put in place to help the sector? Could we extend the business rate relief to language schools in the same way as we have for other leisure and hospitality businesses for the current financial year and into the next financial year? We have already seen 13%—more than 50 educational centres—close during the pandemic, which is a serious and regrettable situation and, sadly, one that I predict will get worse if we do not do something in the coming months.

Could we extend the List of Travellers scheme post October 2021, so that third party national school groups would not need visas to come to the United Kingdom? Could we look at extending again something that was offered up 11 years ago in return for the extended student visitor visa: limited rights to work for students who are in the UK? I see my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) on the Treasury Bench, and the hospitality sector is very important to our part of the UK in Dorset. Businesses in the sector are struggling, post our departure from the European Union, to find the staff to populate hotels and restaurants as they prepare to reopen, due to people returning from this country to their home countries. This could be a very good way to give them some respite. Those are just some of the small things that we could look to do.

I apologise for having two bites at the cherry, as it were, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we might try to make it easier for people to set up English language schools? We have lost some, as he has outlined, but being able to set up English language schools when normality returns would be a strong way to fulfil the points that he has made.

I absolutely agree with and endorse the sentiment that my hon. Friend expresses. When I travelled as a Trade Minister, I was struck by the very fond reflections that the people I met had of their time in the UK—people in Chile, Brazil and even in Vietnam. Through the GREAT brand, we put some extra money into promoting the English language sector and other aspects of our educational provision. One massively untapped area where the UK is a world leader is special educational needs, and we could do an awful lot to share that with other countries around the world.

We are not the only place where can come to learn English—we might be the best, but we are not the only one. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Ireland are all competing for students in this market, and they are doing lots of things to make life easier for those seeking to come and study in those countries, such as accessible visa applications, in-country visa extensions and part-time work rights. The Prime Minister very much shared my long-term bugbear about the fact that we should remove international students from the net migration figures, because it sends a very negative message internationally and confuses our offer to the wider world.

That is all that I want to say on this subject, because I want to leave plenty of time for the Minister to reply, but what I am really saying to him is, will he undertake to look at this and work with me and the sector to see what we can do to support this incredibly powerful national asset that is so pivotal to our ambition to be global Britain?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) on securing today’s important debate and want to start by noting that the Government have introduced an unprecedented package of support for businesses, including grants for those businesses that are required to close or that are severely affected by restrictions put in place to tackle covid-19 and save lives. With the new restart grant scheme available from April the Government will have allocated a total of £25 billion solely on business grants in the £352 billion total package. To put that in context, that is about two or three times greater than the NHS budget for a normal year.

The Government continue to work closely with local authorities to make sure that grant funding can get to the businesses that need it as soon as is practicable, but, as my right hon. Friend said, there are clearly businesses that we need to continue to work with to see what can be done to support them, because we want to ensure that every business, no matter what area they are trading or working in, that has the reach of language schools and the soft power that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) talked about, can continue to flourish, and indeed attract new businesses to open within that space. I pay tribute to local authority staff, who have been working hard over the course of the pandemic to get these schemes in place and money out to businesses, under extreme pressure of illness to themselves, as well as covering the additional work that local authorities have had to take up.

However, the business grants programme forms only part of the massive support package put in place throughout the course of the pandemic. Since March 2020, in addition to £20 billion in grants, we have provided £10 billion in business rates holidays and £73 billion in loans and guarantees, supporting every sector of the economy.

I recognise the long-standing support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West for the English language schools sector. I forget how many days ago it was, but as he noted he first raised this issue in his maiden speech, in an Adjournment debate, unusually in this place. There are many such businesses in his constituency and he is doing exactly what a constituency MP should do: standing up for businesses in his constituency and the people who benefit from them. My right hon. Friend mentioned that the sketch writer Quentin Letts described me as a “second-string punch-bag”, and it occurs to me that people can only start to pick up such idioms by coming to language schools in this country, otherwise they might be sitting scratching their heads while reading the international press.

Throughout this pandemic we have taken difficult decisions on whether and when to require some businesses to close by law, and they were not taken lightly. We recognise that many businesses have made huge sacrifices in recent months. Where closures have been required, they have been in business units where significant numbers of people are likely to come into contact: retail, hospitality, leisure, personal care, hotels and some others. But, as my right hon. Friend noted, English language schools were not mandated to close in the regulations, as it was believed that these types of businesses, along with other education providers, could access online markets, but he has eloquently outlined their ongoing situation and the pressures they face. Only those businesses that were mandated to close in the regulations were eligible for mandatory scheme support such as the local restrictions support grant (closed) and variations thereof, which includes the scheme that covered the national lockdown period from 5 January onwards.

The restart grant scheme, which launched on 1 April this year and goes hand in hand with the Prime Minister’s road map, supports businesses in the non-essential retail, hospitality, accommodation, leisure, personal care and gym sectors, to enable them to reopen to customers and get those sectors back to as close to normal as possible. Unfortunately, English language schools again find themselves not eligible, as they do not meet the sector definitions set out for the restart grant scheme.

However, a number of business sectors—English language schools among them—have clearly been severely affected by the restrictions, even though they have not been required to close; some home-based businesses and businesses outside the business rates system find themselves in the same position. That is why we have made substantial grant support available for local authorities to develop local discretionary schemes—that is, the additional restrictions grant.

Under the scheme, more than £2 billion has been allocated to local authorities since November 2020. Local authorities have the discretion to use the funding to support businesses as they see fit. The scheme is open to all businesses from all sectors that were severely impacted by restrictions, including English language schools. Crucially, it is for local authorities, which know their local economies better than we in central Government do, to make sure that the discretionary support that they put in place is proportionate and tailored to the local circumstances.

I am personally speaking to local authorities to press them to get funding out of the door as quickly as is practicable. The Chancellor gave an extra £425 million in additional restrictions grant money to local authorities, but only if they had used up their original allocation. I call on local authorities to use that extra allocation either to give more money to the businesses covered by their local policies or, as my right hon. Friend is rightly asking for, to look into expanding their local policies to encompass businesses that continue to fall between the cracks.

I hope that the sector is also making use of the remainder of the Government business support offer, including the job support scheme, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has confirmed will run until June 2021, and the various loan and finance-guarantee schemes that have been in place throughout the pandemic. The position for English language schools is that although they have not been required by law to close, their trade has been affected by the restrictions. I encourage the sector to explore, with the relevant local authorities, whether English language schools are eligible for a covid-19 business grant from the additional restriction grant scheme, at the local authorities’ discretion.

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the Chancellor announced at the Budget the continuation of several business-support measures to provide a platform as the economy reopens. I am hopeful that, taken in the round, the package of support that we have put in place for businesses—the grants, loans, furloughs and others measures—is substantial and offers support both for those businesses required to close and those that have been open but have had their trade affected.

I know that my right hon. Friend will continue to be a strong advocate for the sector and look forward to continuing this conversation. I am happy to take him up on his offer to meet to converse and see what more we can do to support businesses—not just English language schools but other businesses, too—in his constituency with not only reopening but recovery and beyond. I am grateful to him for bringing this matter to the House and being such a strong champion for the sector and for the businesses in his constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.