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Westminster Hall

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 15 April 2021

Westminster Hall

Thursday 15 April 2021

[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]

Backbench Business

Covronavirus, Disability and Access to Services

[Relevant documents: First Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, “Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services: interim Report on temporary provisions in the Coronavirus Act”, HC 386; and the Government Response, HC 1172.]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).

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

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of Westminster Hall debates, and that they are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall debates.

The Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee is introducing the debate and will probably take a little longer, but if Back-Bench contributions could be kept to about five minutes, hopefully we can get through everybody on the list without my having to impose a formal time limit. I call Caroline Nokes to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, “Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services: full Report”, HC 1050.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and I thank my colleagues on the Committee for their work on both the inquiry and the report. I am pleased to see the hon. Members for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) participating in the debate.

With your indulgence, Sir Graham, I would like to highlight that some of the issues we will discuss concern children with special educational needs, and when it comes to autistic spectrum disorders, there was one Member of this House who championed the issue, spoke in pretty much every debate on the subject, and chaired the all-party parliamentary group on autism. Cheryl Gillan is already much missed in this place, not least by me today. I know that she was a real expert and spoke with passion and knowledge in debates such as the one we are having today. I am sure she would have been present to put on record her thoughts about access to services for children with autistic spectrum disorders.

Relevant to this debate is our interim report, published in September last year, which was intended to inform the first six-monthly review of the Coronavirus Act 2020 temporary provisions. I will start by drawing attention to an important outstanding issue in this context—one that has not received a great deal of attention. The temporary provisions included unused provisions that relaxed requirements for sectioning under the Mental Health Act 1983, provisions that curtailed or restricted hard-won rights of disabled people to get the care and support that they needed in their everyday lives—the so-called Care Act 2014 easements—and a power to modify duties under the Children and Families Act 2014 in relation to assessment and provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

We welcomed the Government’s decision last year to repeal the unused Mental Health Act 1983 provisions. We very much welcome the recent decision to remove the Care Act 2014 easement provisions, and we look forward to this happening as swiftly as possible. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work will chase that up with the Minister for Care at the Department for Health and Social Care. Although the easements were not widely used, their availability in statute exacerbated a perception, which has existed among disabled people right from the outset of this crisis, that their rights are somehow seen as less important than other people’s.

The outstanding issue from our interim report is that one of the temporary provisions affecting young disabled people remains in place. The power to modify education, health and care plan duties was used by way of national notices issued by the Secretary of State for Education in May, June and July. The power remains available in the Coronavirus Act. My view is that this power must be removed.

We are in a very different place in the pandemic. As the Minister for Children and Families acknowledged in a recent letter to me, there is much less need for the additional flexibilities, yet the power is being retained, for the time being, as a contingency. The Government have said they will act to remove temporary provisions as soon as they are no longer necessary. They have done so in relation to the mental health and social care provisions. It is an important matter of principle: the Government must not hold on to emergency powers a moment longer than they absolutely need to. Removing the power to modify duties in relation to children’s and young people’s education, health and care needs would send a clear message to children and their families that the Government fully support their right to receive the provision they need. I see no reasonable justification for keeping the Secretary of State’s power to modify duties in statute any longer.

Over the last year, my Committee’s work has emphasised the unequal impacts of the pandemic on three groups of people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010; women, groups of black and minority ethnic people, and disabled people—the subject of the debate today, who have received, sadly, relatively little attention. Yet the adverse effects on disabled people have been starkly disproportionate, including tragically high death rates. The chance of dying from covid was more than three times greater for someone with a disability than for someone who was not disabled. The chance of dying for a person with a learning disability was probably more than six times greater than that of the general population. A young person aged between 18 and 34 with a learning disability was some 30 times more likely to die than a young non-disabled person.

Our inquiry heard evidence about decisions and policies that might have contributed to those tragic statistics, such as a relative slowness to protect people in a range of social care settings, and a lack of clear and accessible information for disabled people. That is why we called for a discrete independent inquiry into the causes, including the decisions made by Government. The response, “Now is not the time,” will inevitably start to wear thin. The Government should commit to an independent inquiry, including into what led to disabled people feeling the brunt of the pandemic, and they should set out a timetable not just for its start but for its completion. They should do so now.

A major theme in our full report was the Government’s consultation and communications with disabled people during the pandemic. We heard that disabled people felt excluded and ignored. Witnesses pointed out that effective consultation with disabled people could have made it possible to avoid some of the problems that they faced early in the pandemic, such as a lack of accessible food shopping. Disability charities told us that the Government were talking to them, but in broadcast mode—not listening and not resolving problems effectively. When the Government did communicate with disabled people, their communications were not always psychologically informed, and too often they exacerbated disabled people’s already heightened anxieties. There was confusing guidance on shielding, and it was sometimes poorly thought through and poorly timed—for example, a text message sent at the weekend before important changes to guidance were issued on the Monday.

I want to see evidence that the Government have learned from what happened. Right from the outset, from the Prime Minister’s letter to the nation in March explaining the need to stay at home, communications have not been fully accessible. There were no accessible versions of that letter for several days. I know that a great deal of work is going on in the Cabinet Office to provide the shopping list of accessible communications asks put forward by disability charities last year; but the Government could and should go further and faster. I find it utterly incomprehensible, for example, that the Government have still not arranged in-person British Sign Language interpretation of their televised covid briefings. I raised that issue with the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee in January, and the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) raised it again very effectively at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. On neither occasion was a proper response forthcoming. The reasons relied on in written responses—that there is not enough space in Downing Street, or that there is not enough time to make arrangements—are weak. Surely the Government could have found space during the recent media suite refit. I am unsurprised that campaigners have resorted to judicial review, but I am surprised that the Government have not sought to resolve the issues swiftly and simply by finding both the space and the inclination to include a BSL interpreter.

Practices in health and social care added to disabled people’s perceptions that their lives were less valued than others. The guidelines issued by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on the use of the clinical frailty scale in making decisions about who should receive critical care if NHS resources had been overwhelmed were potentially discriminatory against disabled people. We heard from disabled people that, while they accepted that the guidelines were swiftly amended, it left a very bad taste.

Extremely concerning issues about the inappropriate use of “do not attempt resuscitation” notices, or DNARs, have been much more prolonged. The Government asked the Care Quality Commission to investigate in October last year, and last month the CQC found that that hundreds of inappropriate DNARs had been applied. These issues demonstrate a deeply worrying lack of concern for the rights of some groups of disabled people.

We all understand the pressures that people were under early in the pandemic, but more than 10 years on from the Equality Act 2010, it is shocking that disabled people’s rights were not properly considered in the formulation of policies and practices in health and social care. That is why we recommended a robust response to prevent such mistakes being repeated. We called on the Government to allow the Equality and Human Rights Commission to issue a statutory code of practice on the public sector equality duty, to provide greater legal certainty about the actions that public authorities must take to prevent discrimination. Greater certainty would provide more effective protection, so the Government’s dismissal of our recommendation is extremely disappointing. Their argument that the status quo is sufficient flies in the face of recent experience. If there is not a statutory code of practice, how will the Government prevent these issues from arising in future public health crises? Again, we have to learn from experience.

The pandemic has very clearly emphasised and exacerbated known systemic problems affecting disabled people. We know that the SEND system is facing a crisis. The aims of the Children and Families Act reforms have never been consistently achieved. Services for children with SEND are too often inadequate. In too many places, the integrated education, health and care services envisaged in the 2014 Act have never materialised.

I speak as a member of the Bill Committee that way back in 2012 or 2013 scrutinised the Bill that became that Act. We spoke endlessly in our debates about parents having to fight to get their children the services they need. However, parents are still struggling in an overly bureaucratic system and the evidence that they gave us through our inquiry was that they are still using the word “fight” when describing their attempt to get their children’s needs assessed and provided for. The Government acknowledged that in announcing their SEND review, but that was in September 2019, more than 18 months ago. The experience of children with SEND and their families during the pandemic must provide the impetus to sort these problems out. We called for the review outcome to be published in the first quarter of this year, but we are still waiting. The Government’s response to our report acknowledges the importance of these issues. The Government say they need more time to get the reforms right. Of course time is needed to grapple with the complex issues in the SEND system, but if much more time elapses people will start to question whether SEND is the priority that it ought to be.

The same is true of the review of adult social care. There is no doubt that the devastating experience of the pandemic in social care settings was exacerbated by systemic issues of funding, of workforce—including pay and staff turnover—and a lack of proper integration with NHS services. That is why we were disappointed in the spending review settlement for social care and disappointed that there was nothing on social care in the Budget. We only know that the Government intend to bring forward their proposals for social care later this year. That needs to happen sooner rather than later.

There are positives in the Government’s response and I do not denigrate the hard work that is undeniably going on in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in relation to disabled people’s access to food and in the Cabinet Office on accessible communications; and the work that the Disability Unit is putting into the national strategy for disabled people. The Government have opportunities in the national strategy, the social care review and their SEND review to understand the particular problems faced by disabled people, their carers and their families in the pandemic, to understand the part they have played in those problems, and to start putting things right and restoring trust. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister in his response to make it clear that the Government will grasp those opportunities and do so in a timely fashion.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the Women and Equalities Committee for its work on the report, which shines a light on issues that, sadly, have been too often overlooked throughout the pandemic. Before I get to the main points raised with me in the last year by my disabled constituents, I will echo the Committee’s findings about systemic issues in the SEND system and the way in which covid-19, and in my view the Government’s inadequate response to it, has exacerbated them.

The report correctly concludes that there must be targeted support for pupils with SEND to recover, and fundamental reform of the broken SEND system. I share the Committee’s hope that the Government’s SEND review will bring forth a blueprint for reform at the earliest opportunity. I feel that disabled people, much like children, have been an afterthought for the Government in the pandemic even though they have been disproportionally affected by the virus in health and social terms. We have seen that particularly in engagement and communications this past year, which the report rightly focuses on as a key issue facing disabled people.

Straight after the very first coronavirus press conference on 16 March 2020, I wrote to the Prime Minister requesting a British Sign Language interpreter. We eventually got one for the BBC coverage, but, despite the hefty £2.6 million price tag for the flash new press suite at Downing Street, no one thought to make provision for a BSL interpreter, as the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said. Similarly, at the start of the crisis, it took weeks for written Government communications to be available in accessible formats or large fonts. As evidence gathered by the Committee shows, many deaf people and people with learning disabilities were not properly informed about what was happening around them or about the latest public health advice as Britain was plunged into lockdown. Lessons should have been learned from those early failures, but I am afraid that recent failures to provide BSL interpretation for Government communications indicate that they were not.

Face masks are another issue for deaf people and the hard of hearing. They are of course essential to protecting us against coronavirus, but they can be profoundly isolating for those who rely on lip-reading and facial expressions to communicate. In Parliament last year I raised several times the importance of rolling out clear face masks—those with a transparent strip over the mouth. Like the Committee, I was pleased to see procurement of clear face masks for NHS trusts towards the end of last year, and I echo the Committee’s call for a proper evaluation of the roll-out and an assessment of need across services. However, I remain concerned that the Department for Education’s guidance continues to state that there is

“currently very limited evidence regarding the effectiveness or safety of transparent face coverings”

given that they have been rolled out in health and care settings. I urge Ministers to take another look at that guidance to avoid teachers being unnecessarily put off using clear face masks and impeding the education of children with hearing loss.

I want to focus briefly on “do not attempt resuscitation” notices being issued without consent, which in the last year has, perhaps more than anything else, sowed mistrust among the disabled community and made many feel their lives were valued less than others’. During the first wave of coronavirus, some people with learning disabilities were told, shockingly, without prior consultation, that they would not be resuscitated if they were to fall ill from covid-19. The Care Quality Commission found that, since March 2020, more than 500 DNAR decisions were made without being agreed with the individual or their family beforehand and, in some cases, such decisions caused potentially avoidable deaths.

Given the outcry when that first happened, I was appalled to hear reports from Mencap that the same practice was happening again at the start of this year. As one constituent, who has been a care home operator and seen this issue affect elderly people in hospitals, wrote to me,

“imagine the horror and terrible stress now imposed on parents or relatives to think that their child or adult will not be given the absolute best care and may be abandoned by the NHS in their hour of most need”.

The truth is it that this is unimaginable, and it is something that we have fought to address.

I urge Ministers to heed the advice of the CQC by making urgent and wide-ranging improvements to care planning, including better training and information storage, and creating better oversight structures. What struck me most when reading this report is that there seems to be no one at the highest levels of Government actively thinking about the impact of policies and communications on disabled people. This failure to consider the needs of disabled people has to change, and I hope that this report and this debate can be part of that push to ensure that disabled people are properly represented and accounted for in policy making and Government decision taking, especially at moments of crisis.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and her Committee for producing such an important report and for securing this debate.

I welcome the Committee’s approach to looking at the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. Although the pandemic has affected everyone, it is clear that those groups in society that already faced structural barriers and discrimination have been hardest hit. It is for this reason that last year I worked with an organisation in my local area to produce a report on the effect of the pandemic on people in Erith and Thamesmead with one or more protected characteristics.

In April last year, I met members and representatives from Inclusion London and the Greenwich Association of Disabled People to discuss the local and regional impacts of covid-19 on disabled people. In the time available to me, I will set out a few of our key findings relating to disabled people in my constituency, and steps that I believe the Government must now take.

A number of organisations and individuals have raised concerns about measures in the Coronavirus Act 2020 relating to the Care Act, the Mental Health Act and the Children and Families Act. I am pleased that the Government have now listened and ended the provisions related to the Care Act, but I know that there are still concerns about the risk to disabled young people due to the easements to the Children and Families Act.

Research by Inclusion London has found that only 32% of disabled children received all the SEND provision in their education and health care plan, with the rest either receiving some or none of their usual provision. As we move into the recovery stage of this crisis, I urge the Government to look at this again, and to ensure that disabled people and young children are able to access the support that they need for their education.

Erith and Thamesmead constituents have raised a number of concerns about access to food for disabled people during the pandemic. For example, disabled people who usually rely on supermarket deliveries, but who are not considered clinically extremely vulnerable, struggle to access delivery slots. Food parcels provided by the Government did not take into consideration accessibility needs, such as mobility and available cooking appliances. There were also limited supermarket delivery slots, which meant people were unable to shop at cheaper supermarkets, so grocery outgoings increased for some people. That is something the Royal National Institute of Blind People has also reported.

I welcome the guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to ensure that food retailers make reasonable adjustments for disabled people throughout the pandemic. However, the Government must do more to ensure that disabled people are properly supported in any future pandemic or emergency.

Many constituents have raised concerns about mobility and travel accessibility during the pandemic. Issues included: being unable to access support on public transport due to social distancing; problems visiting certain locations, such as supermarkets, with carers due to one-person shopping rules; and difficulty in hiring personal assistants during the pandemic.

Finally, looking towards the future, disabled people have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of the pandemic on employment. According to Inclusion London, over 37% of disabled people have experienced financial difficulties or employment issues due to covid-19, including problems with the Access to Work scheme, discrimination in the workplace and failure by employers to make reasonable adjustments. I fully support the Committee’s call for an independent inquiry into the profoundly adverse effects that the pandemic has had on disabled people, including the stark disparity of the death rate. We should look into the decisions and policies of the Government and public authorities.

As we begin to recover from the coronavirus, we need to see increased funding for health and care services that are tailored towards disabled people. I strongly believe that legacy benefits should have been uplifted in line with universal credit and that neither should be cut later this year. I want the Government to fund user-led organisations to a level that recognises their essential role in ensuring that all public and private services are accessible to disabled people. A national strategy for disabled people is needed now more than ever, and must contain a long-term plan for employment and accessibility at work. As we begin our social and economic recovery, the Government must ensure that disabled people are never again left behind. Sadly, they have been too often over the last year.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for leading this extremely important debate, and I thank the members of the Women and Equalities Committee, of which I am a member, and, most especially, the witnesses who gave evidence to help form this report.

Yesterday, as other hon. Members have already mentioned, I was pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) highlight at Prime Minister’s questions how disabled people have been overlooked in something that could and should be easily fixed: the lack of a BSL interpreter during Government televised briefings. That is one of the report’s recommendations that I hope will be put in place very soon. We know that this lack of thought for disabled people during the televised briefings is symptomatic of the wider issues that we highlighted in the report.

Throughout the pandemic, disabled people have faced problems with unequal access to food and potentially discriminatory practices in health and social care services. On top of that, the existing systemic problems in education for children and young people with special educational needs have worsened. The pandemic has shone a light on the pre-existing inequalities in the UK and, if we are to build back fairer, we need the fullest possible understanding of why existing inequalities were highlighted and/or reinforced because of the pandemic, so that we do not leave people behind as we recover.

That is why it is so important that this report is listened to in full and why there must now be an independent inquiry into how Government policy and decisions led to disabled people being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. It is disappointing that the Government’s response to the report has not committed to this expert-led inquiry. I hope that the Minister can give a more detailed response and explain the reasons why there is no commitment from the Government on this.

On the report’s wider recommendations, it is pleasing that several were accepted by the Government, but four were rejected and 10 were accepted in part or in principle. For me, one of the most concerning is the lack of commitment to include access to food in future emergency situations within the forthcoming national strategy for disabled people. I hope that the Minister can clear up whether the Government agree with the report’s recommendation that access to food must be included in the national strategy, and explain how they plan to consult with disabled people on the struggles that many have faced in accessing food during the pandemic.

On health and social care, the report recommends a code of practice that lays out what the NHS and local authorities must do, unlike the current situation, where they are told only what they should do. Can the Minister explain the Government’s reasoning for rejecting this proposal, and why they believe that a code of practice would not make life better for disabled people and staff in the NHS and local authorities? The report highlights how the pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing crisis in provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. Can the Minister update us on any progress the Government have made on their SEND review, which was supposed to be published in the spring?

The report widely acknowledges the problems created by a lack of ring-fenced funding for children with SEND in mainstream schools, and evidence that these pupils consistently make less progress than other pupils with the same starting points. It is disappointing that the Government rejected the recommendation that funding be increased to allow for pupils with SEND in mainstream schools to receive £240 per child, ring-fenced for their catch-up support in this academic year. I hope that the Minister can give further explanation as to why the Government have not committed to ring-fencing funding for pupils with SEND in mainstream schools.

In conclusion, although it is welcome that a number of the report’s findings and recommendations have been accepted or will be looked at further, it is still worrying that a number have been rejected. It is also worrying that there is a lack of commitment to an independent inquiry. It is vital that the Government learn from their mistakes in regard to disabled people’s experiences of the pandemic, and it is essential that effective mechanisms are put in place by which disabled people can influence policies and practices that affect them, and ensure that hard-won equality rights are not eroded but built upon.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing this important debate, and to the Women and Equalities Committee for their report. I fully support the Committee’s call for an independent inquiry into the causes of adverse outcomes for disabled people.

From delayed and confusing guidance over shielding to difficulties accessing food, many disabled people have felt abandoned throughout the crisis. To this day, as we have already heard, we are waiting for the live British Sign Language interpretation of the Government’s press briefings on TV. One of my constituents in Bath was born with a rare and incurable breathing problem, and is in a high-risk group. Despite registering as extremely vulnerable on the Government’s website to receive food parcels in March last year, she did not receive her parcel until mid-June. Of the Government’s guidance about ending shielding, another constituent said:

“I don’t understand anything the Prime Minister said at all. It is so confusing. Why can’t they just say this in basic language?”

One of the most obvious failures we see again and again is that services are being designed for disabled people without actually consulting them. This pandemic has hit disabled people particularly hard, and in so many ways. In employment, disabled people have been disproportionately affected by furlough, reduced hours and redundancies. Despite this, the Chancellor’s plan for jobs made only one reference to disabled people, and contained nothing to address the specific challenges facing them. Recent figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions reveal that the number of disability employment advisors has fallen by 32% during the pandemic, at a time when knowledge of the barriers faced by disabled people will be even more necessary. Everyone should have the right to secure employment. I sincerely hope that promotion of inclusive workplace practices will be a top priority in the Government’s national strategy for disabled people. We need a targeted strategy to tackle barriers to work for disabled people as we emerge from the pandemic.

Covid has also exposed how isolated some disabled people can be. Many of those with mental health difficulties in Bath have already been struggling without face-to-face care. The value of our social care sector and its workforce has never been clearer, and I pay tribute in particular to the 7.3 million unpaid carers in the UK, without whom the pressures on adult social care services would be even greater. Many are facing extreme financial hardship. The Liberal Democrats are calling for carer’s allowance to be raised by £1,000 a year—the same as the uplift in universal credit. The underfunding of social care was a problem long before covid. Now its effects will be felt even more severely. I support the Select Committee’s recommendations, which highlight that the £300 million in additional grant funding for local authority social care budgets falls far short of what is needed.

We are now 25 years on from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Unless we truly recognise the value of the social care sector, we risk going backwards on the progress we have made towards equality for disabled people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. This pandemic has been one of poverty and inequality. Pre-existing health, housing, employment and income inequalities have combined to form a perfect storm for disabled people.

In my role on the Women and Equalities Committee, I have listened to so many heartbreaking and shocking stories of the barriers that disabled people have faced during the pandemic. Disabled people have overwhelmingly been abandoned without the basic support they need to survive or live in dignity—from the suspension of local authority’s legal responsibilities to provide basic social care, to the reduction of access to activities and day centres, to an increase in isolation and loneliness, and difficulties in accessing healthcare, education and even food.

Mencap’s “My Health, My Life” report into inaccessible healthcare during covid highlighted some truly shocking realities faced by people with a learning disability during the pandemic. Some people with a learning disability were told that they may not receive life-saving treatment. Some were encouraged to avoid hospital and were asked to consent to DNRs. Overstretched and under-resourced hospitals meant there was a reduction in learning disability nurses, and some acute learning disability nurses were redeployed to other units.

While we welcome the Government’s commitment in their written response to the report to more funding for local authorities, their reference to the recent hike in the social care council precept raised concerns that they intend to place the burden for social care on those least able to pay for it. Such an approach is both unfair and completely unable to meet the scale of the challenge. This Government are in denial of the social care crisis that we are facing.

Can the Minister explain how this Government can claim a levelling-up agenda while forcing the costs of the crisis in social care on to the worst-off through this regressive taxation? About 60% of people in the UK who have died from coronavirus are disabled. Will the Minister please explain in clear terms why the Government have not taken up our report’s recommendation for an independent inquiry into the disproportionate deaths and adverse outcomes for disabled people from the pandemic? Also, why did the Government reject the recommendation for a statutory code of practice on the public sector equality duty?

We are having this debate in the most tragic of circumstances. What will it take for this Government to act? Disabled people’s lives must be valued equally. This Government have a responsibility to take action against the disadvantage and discrimination that put the mental and physical health of disabled people at risk. To do that, the Government must commit to full and transparent engagement with disabled people and groups about their concerns during the pandemic when forming a proposed national strategy for disabled people, upholding the principle of “nothing about us without us”.

Everyone has the fundamental right to live in safety and in dignity, with full access to health, social care and education. The report and the evidence we have heard has shown that we have failed disabled people by not upholding these basic rights during the pandemic. The report must be a turning point. The Government must investigate their failures, involve disabled people in developing a national strategy to uphold, protect and strength the rights of disabled people, and commit to significant and progressive funding to tackle our crisis in social care and ensure that disabled people can live in safety and in dignity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I am grateful to the Women and Equalities Committee for all its work. It is also a pleasure to follow such a powerful speech advocating for the rights of disabled people. For too many disabled people, the pandemic has raised new challenges and barriers to accessing services as they go about their daily lives. We need to be clear that equality for disabled people should be central to what we do here every day, but the attitude of Westminster and the Tory Government towards disabled people is nothing short of a disgrace. Scotland has not voted for a right-wing Tory Government for decades, but the harmful policies that they inflict daily on disabled people come none the less.

The SNP’s manifesto includes a disability manifesto, and I am sure that anyone watching its launch this morning—there was a BSL interpreter and subtitles; perhaps the Prime Minister could take note of that— will have thought very deeply about that. It focuses on strengthening rights and opportunities, investing in the NHS, supporting disabled young people, a commissioner for autism, fairer social security, improving accessibility and employment representation. Those critical steps matter all the more now because of the disproportionate impact of covid on disabled people. The UK Government’s response to the Select Committee report landed in inboxes only last night. I am afraid that does not speak well of the Tory Government’s priorities or their views of this important issue.

All of us surely know, from our constituency work and from discussions with local and national organisations, about the impact of covid on disabled people and on existing inequalities. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), I have had extremely useful meetings with organisations such as Epilepsy Action, looking specifically at how we can support people through this period. More locally, I have had great cause to value the excellent work of East Renfrewshire Disability Action, Cosgrove Care and Include Me 2 Club, among so many other excellent third sector and voluntary groups making a huge impact on the ground. That work has been vital, along with the work of NHS and care professionals, because of the stark fact that disabled people were more likely than non-disabled people to have died of covid-19.

We know that nearly half of all people in poverty in the UK are disabled or live with someone who is disabled, and we can easily predict a very challenging period ahead because of decisions this Government are taking, which we know will disproportionately impact on people with disabilities. We know that 82% of disabled claimants have had to spend more money than normal during the pandemic as a result of increased costs. Two thirds of those disabled claimants have had to go without essential items at some point during the pandemic, and almost half say that they have been unable to meet financial commitments such as rent and household bills. Those are the most fundamental things, so we should not be surprised to learn from research by Scope that disabled people were increasingly worried about extra utilities costs because of the pandemic.

In that context, there is no exaggeration when I say that Westminster’s policies are damaging lives, and the Government’s response to the report does not give me great confidence that that will change. I am hugely concerned at the prospect of people who receive universal credit facing benefit cuts later this year, when unemployment is likely to hit its peak, and that is before we get on to the lack of support for people on legacy benefits, including many disabled people. The SNP has been very clear that failing to extend an equivalent uplift to legacy benefits is discriminatory to the core and disproportionately impacts on disabled claimants.

The Social Market Foundation and Scope have found that, despite decades of reforms and political promises from successive Westminster Governments, more than four in 10 of all people in homes relying on disability benefits live in poverty. There can be no more compelling evidence that the UK Government must commit to making permanent the £20 uplift to universal credit and to extending it to other legacy benefits. The system is simply not fit for purpose, and that includes the work capability assessments. The SNP welcomed the suspension of face-to-face assessments, but some have started again and the anxiety and practical issues that that has caused cannot be underestimated.

To conclude, I would like to focus briefly on the issue of work. For so many disabled people, the disability employment gap and the challenges of work are so important and will become so much more pressing as we move out of the pandemic period. This is a time for the UK Government to step up and look at what is happening in Scotland and to show the leadership that will allow flexible, sustainable and continued work for many disabled people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing this important debate, and I thank the members of the Women and Equalities Committee and those who further contributed to this report. I also want to thank the right hon. Lady for her tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan, who is indeed sorely missed.

It is important to note that the coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities and has in fact exacerbated the inequalities that they face. Disabled people are more likely to have died as a result of covid-19. Notwithstanding this Government’s aversion to independent judge-led inquiries, there must be one on this issue. We must understand why people with disabilities were so much more affected than others. Is it because of poverty? A recently published report by the Social Market Foundation, commissioned by Scope, revealed that almost half of all people in poverty in the UK are disabled or live with someone who is disabled. The Disability Benefits Consortium reports that 82% of disabled benefit claimants have had to spend “more money than normal” during the pandemic. Almost two thirds have had to go without essential items, and almost half report being unable to pay basic bills for rent and utilities.

Scope recently reported on difficulties with employment and support allowance, such as work capability assessments not being scheduled before the end of the 365-day period. This means that entitlement to the supplementary benefits that claimants should receive is withheld and they can become between £54 and £39 a week worse off. If someone then has to claim universal credit instead, they face a five-week wait. If they have earnings above the threshold, they might not qualify at all, leaving them without adequate support.

The SNP has repeatedly called for the £20 per week uplift in universal credit to be applied to legacy benefits such as ESA, but the Government have completely refused to do so. When that lifeline ends, 700,000 UK families will be pushed into poverty when their incomes fall by £1,000 a year.

The UK Government have had difficulty in communicating with people with disabilities, as pointed out in the report. Even an easy thing to do such as having a BSL signer at No. 10 briefings during the pandemic was not in place, whereas in Scotland the daily briefings with the First Minister were signed from the start. It is not hard to arrange, but the lack of that basic tool for the deaf community reveals a lack of thought on the best way to communicate directly with deaf members of the population who need to understand what is going on. They feel cut off at the best of times.

The report notes that the use of “do not resuscitate” notices, which emerged in the early days of the pandemic, is “deeply concerning”. These issues caused disabled people great distress and anxiety and left them feeling that their lives were less valued than others. Indeed, one of my staff was deeply affected by the rising panic on UK forums where this was being discussed. I was really pleased that I could reassure her that such a practice was not being carried out in Scotland. Bad communication makes bad situations worse.

People with disabilities must never be othered by Government, which is why the SNP Scottish Government have built a social security system based on the principle of dignity and respect. As set out in their Budget, the Scottish Government have committed £3.5 billion in benefits to support people with disabilities in 2020-21. Those payments will reach more than 800,000 people. The money will go directly to the people in Scotland who need it most.

The first disability assistance benefit to be introduced by the Scottish Government was the child winter heating assistance annual payment of £200. That is the only annual winter heating payment for children in the UK, and it represents a £2.9 million investment in the health and wellbeing of the most severely disabled children and young people. Payments have already been made to people who are able to benefit from the care component of child disability living allowance.

The Cabinet Office disability unit is developing a national strategy for disabled people, and the Minister for Care has said that that will be published “later this spring”, but later this spring is not an exact enough date. We need to know when it will be published. May I suggest that the Minister look at what the Scottish Government have already done in publishing a delivery plan called “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People”? That is our delivery plan to incorporate the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. It covers the period from 2016 to 2021, and it aims to make equality of opportunity, access to services and independent living a reality for all disabled people in Scotland.

The Scottish SNP Government are already delivering things such as free bus travel for disabled people and have protected the disabled students allowance and bursaries. They have changed the rules on war disablement pensions so that they are exempt from the assessment of income. The Scottish Government will continue to fund support payments to severely disabled people, enabling them to live as independently as possible. This Government should do as much.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Graham, and to have the opportunity to discuss the Women and Equalities Committee report on the unequal impact of covid in relation to disability and access to services.

I put on record my thanks to the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for her leadership, and to my Committee colleagues, the hon. Members for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), as well as all those who contributed their work on the issue. As a member of the Committee, I am pleased that the report puts on record the lived experience of disabled people throughout the pandemic, which has exacerbated the inequalities they face. One of the report’s most import findings is, sadly, the fact that disabled people are more likely than non-disabled people to have died of covid-19 in the past year. At this time of mourning, it is worth remembering them. I hope the Government will take seriously the report’s recommendations.

Many disabled people came before the Committee to describe their lived experience of the issues of food insecurity and the struggle to access online shopping delivery slots. Ultimately, the UK Government must ensure that they continue to make their messaging, whether on the pandemic or on other Government announcements and communications, accessible, through BSL interpreters and in other formats. Today, we have heard the SNP’s announcement in its manifesto in relation to such commitments.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who highlighted the fact that this is a tale of two Governments. In relation to the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister has announced that the Scottish Government have introduced the first social security system of any devolved Government and that the SNP will continue to address the issues of social care by investing £800 million in a national care service over the next Parliament, as well as many, many more commitments to reduce inequality and to improve the life chances of many Scots.

The manifesto also contains announcements on the four-day working week and a pilot on greater flexible working, for which I have been calling for some years. The benefits outweigh all of the associated costs by reducing the gender pay gap, allowing those with disabilities to maintain working lives and improving the life-work balance of so many families.

The report summarises what we now know is for many people and for many lives the long-term impact of covid. Following on from the report, we need to highlight and bring attention to the need to prepare for the issue of long covid, and to consider the response the Government make to that. Today, the SNP has made a commitment to work with GPs to co-ordinate a multidisciplinary response on the issue of long covid. I call on the Minister to consider what more his Government can do to ensure that they are supporting those suffering from long covid.

As we listen to each of those who have contributed to the debate, it is worth noting that the report makes it clear that in many respects the UK Government have failed disabled people throughout this pandemic. I call on the Minister to consider what more his Government can do, specifically on issues of food insecurity. As we have heard, many disabled people who relied on others to shop for them or to deliver food to them during the national pandemic faced struggles to access online shopping and delivery slots, as well as websites and telephone lines that were inaccessible to people with sensory impairment. On accessibility, the report recommends that Ministers and officials involved in communicating public health messages to disabled people should undergo training on psychologically informed communications that fully take into account and emphasise disabled people’s lived experience.

The report highlights that many of the issues in the social care sector have been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic, such as the lack of long-term sustainable funding and workforce issues, including low pay and high staff turnover. Often, poor integration of NHS services meant that many people were even further impacted on by an already inequitable system.

Finally, it is worth noting that as we make our way through the vaccination programme and can see a way out of this pandemic, covid might continue to impact on the lives and life chances of many disabled people. There is little research at this point on the effects of long covid, but I am sure I am not alone in hearing from constituents about the effects of this virus on previously fit and healthy people. Long covid is an invisible illness that needs much more medical research and support, and the Government should provide desperately needed support to those experiencing the long-term impact of the health effects of the viral infection.

This really is a tale of two Governments and a matter of choices, so I hope that we will see a real commitment from this Government and this Minister to improve the life chances and opportunities of those most adversely affected by long covid, and of all those experiencing disabilities who are affected by the adverse impacts of the covid pandemic.

Before I call the shadow Minister, I thank everybody who has participated for being considerate in their use of time, which has made it possible to let everybody have their say.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Graham. May I begin by thanking the Women and Equalities Committee for its invaluable work in writing this incredibly important and serious report? The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who is the Chair of the Committee, made a number of vital points in her opening address, which I hope the Minister will respond to fully. I thank the Labour Members of the Committee, including my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for their robust contributions both to the report and to this debate. I join them in thanking the individuals and organisations that contributed evidence to the inquiry so that the Committee could provide the focus and consideration that the Government have failed to give to the lived experience of disabled people in this country.

The whole country has looked to the Government for action to keep us safe, and they have a particular obligation to protect the most vulnerable, who have been especially exposed to the virus. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) highlighted that the virus has exacerbated existing inequalities. Although the past year has been difficult, depressing and frightening for us all, disabled people have suffered even more than the rest. I join her in paying tribute to the work of Inclusion London, which I have also met recently, in highlighting the multiple injustices that disabled people have faced during this pandemic.

As the report states, the Office for National Statistics found in September that almost 60% of deaths with coronavirus were of disabled people, even though they make up only around 16% of the country’s population. In November, Public Health England estimated that the death rate with coronavirus of people with learning disabilities might be more than 6.3 times higher than that of the general population. The report clearly sets out a number of areas where disabled people were unfortunately let down by a Government who should have done better to protect them. Instead, they were failed. The report sets out how too often they were an afterthought throughout the pandemic.

On the provision of food, 60% of disabled people struggled to access essential supplies in the early months of the pandemic, but the report notes that the Government’s definition of “clinically extremely vulnerable”—those medically shielding—“was an inappropriate proxy” for disabled people who needed help accessing food. That influenced the policies of the supermarkets, as the British Retail Consortium made it clear that it had been directed by the Government to prioritise the clinically extremely vulnerable group for online deliveries. We all know that demand for delivery slots increased vastly, and many disabled people who were not considered clinically extremely vulnerable had to rely on community volunteers. We thank everyone who stepped up to assist in that way, but it is not the standard of support that disabled people deserve.

The report calls for a Government assessment of the effectiveness of using the clinically extremely vulnerable definition for food provision, and we would welcome that assessment as well, because, in the words of the report, the definition

“may have contributed to some supermarkets overlooking their legal obligations to make reasonable adjustments for the broader population of disabled people”.

The report quotes the evidence of Fazilet Hadi of Disability Rights UK, who said that

“tens of thousands of other…disabled people felt that, for various reasons, maybe not medical, they could not go out either. It may have been that they were blind or had learning disabilities and felt social distancing would have been difficult. […] it might have been because they could not stand in queues for a long time. There are a whole host of reasons.”

That is why Labour agrees with the report that the Government need to adopt a social model of disability that recognises the challenges of lived experience that go beyond medical impairments to consideration of how we remove societal barriers.

The Government’s response to the report does not address that issue, even though it was the subject of a specific recommendation. Will the Minister explain why the Government did not recognise this issue sooner and urge supermarkets to use definitions other than “clinically extremely vulnerable”? When the NICE guidelines for critical care put too much emphasis on the clinical frailty scale, a revised set was published four days later. Why could the Government not make adjustments as they saw the real world impacts of their decisions?

I have discussed a number of the impacts on people with learning disabilities before, such as in a debate in December. At that time, the Minister for Social Care assured me that the blanket “do not resuscitate” orders were unacceptable and had been stopped, that the CQC was reviewing them and that an updated framework required GPs to review all such decisions for people with learning disabilities, to make sure that they are appropriate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) was absolutely right to highlight the horror it has caused disabled people and their families to learn that they may not receive the care that they deserve and should be able to expect in their time of greatest need.

The CQC has since reported, saying that

“poor record keeping and lack of audits meant that we could not always be assured that…decisions…were being made on individual assessments. Once…decisions were in place, it varied whether providers and local systems reviewed them.”

The CQC also said that of the 508 decisions put in place during the pandemic that had not been agreed in discussion with the person, their relative or carer, around a third— 180 out of 508—were still in place by mid-December. Is the Minister confident that all of these decisions have now been properly reviewed?

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside powerfully raised the crisis in social care and its impact on disabled people, alongside the harmful easements in the restrictions under the Coronavirus Act that affect the quality of care that they can expect to receive and the impact on their dignity. The report highlights the Government’s initial focus on the health service at the expense of social care, and the lack of personal protective equipment provision. That speaks to the Government’s ongoing neglect, as spending on adult social care has fallen in real terms by 2.1% since 2010-11, despite an increase in demand. Adult social care needs both funding and reform.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow spoke at length about the impact on children with special educational needs or disabilities during the pandemic. On SEND, the report sets out how many children and young people received little or no support for three months, and it stresses the importance of the Government’s SEND review. I hope that the Minister can tell us in his response what scope the review will have to consider the focus on SEND in mainstream schools, including funding arrangements, and when the review is expected to be published.

Across all of these areas, the report says that

“we have been disappointed…with the Government’s attention to equality issues.”

It will not come as a surprise to those of us who see Ministers’ attitudes to equalities as just another opportunity to wage their tired and divisive “war on woke”, but this is where we see the real world impact.

The report states that, because of the need to restore disabled people’s confidence that their needs are given equal consideration, the Government

“should consent to the Equality and Human Rights Commission issuing a statutory Code of Practice on the Public Sector Equality Duty.”

Labour supports that call.

One issue not mentioned in the report, but which has a massive impact on disabled people, is the Government’s failure to uplift legacy social security benefits, even in line with the temporary £20 increase in universal credit. They have failed to support more than 1.9 million disabled people who have faced increased costs as a result of the pandemic, such as to pay for PPE for their carers. That once again exposes the fact that the Government’s priorities do not include the most vulnerable. There is some unintentional comedy in the report, about consultation:

“Ministers described a very positive, inclusive approach with open lines of communication.”

Most witnesses had a different perspective.

All of us understand and, indeed, sympathise about the difficulties of setting up new rules and systems in a hurry at the beginning of the pandemic, but Ministers should learn from mistakes and not deny reality. Something that has been raised in the debate by several hon. Members, and repeatedly with the Government over months, is the question why they—and not least the Prime Minister—have been so resistant to having British Sign Language interpreters at the briefings. The report makes it clear that that has been alienating and dangerous for deaf people, and people with hearing difficulties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn rightly raised the question of other barriers that deaf people face, including the lack of provision of clear face coverings in public sector settings, which made communication extremely difficult for those who rely on lip-reading. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead also raised important issues about the adverse effects in connection with accessibility of public transport—something that the shadow Women and Equalities and Transport teams have raised with the Government—particularly for such things as pre-booked passenger assistance.

The lack of progress in those areas says much about how the needs of disabled people have been overlooked or neglected during the crisis. The Select Committee report calls for a separate independent inquiry on the impact on disabled people, once the situation is stable, as I hope it now is. I look forward to the findings of that inquiry, so that disabled people cannot be overlooked again. I look forward to the Minister setting out a timeline for the beginning and conclusion of the inquiry. We cannot accept more delay while the needs of our disabled constituents continue to be unmet by the Government.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I, too, want to put on record my personal tribute to Cheryl Gillan—a sad loss. No parliamentarian did more to champion the rights and opportunities of those with autism, and it was a great pleasure for me as the Minister for Disabled People to meet and work with her, and respond to her comprehensive, proactive and constructive letters, asks and challenges. With my ministerial hat on, I would say that her greatest legacy is how much she achieved for those who were reliant on having that strong voice in Parliament.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) who not only spoke passionately in the debate but has, through her excellent chairmanship of the Women and Equalities Committee, held the Government and the whole of Parliament to account on a number of serious issues. She is a formidable parliamentarian, and is held in the highest regard among colleagues. Frankly, it is staggering that she is not in the Cabinet helping to lead the challenges that are often raised, and on which we must keep a laser focus.

The unprecedented challenges of covid have impacted all, including disabled people, as has been highlighted by the important report by the Women and Equalities Committee. In my role as the Minister for Disabled People I welcome the opportunity to talk through the measures that the Government have put in place for disabled people throughout the pandemic, and how we are responding to those serious recommendations. My involvement in my cross-Government capacity, and that of the Disability Unit for which I am responsible, is to influence and shape Government policies, sharing our subject matter expertise, data, and knowledge of lived experiences and connecting relevant stakeholders with colleagues across Government to reach the best outcomes for disabled people.

Before I turn to the specific points raised by my right hon. Friend and the report, I would like to say how proud I am of the roll-out of the vaccination programme, which was an absolutely key issue and ask of the disability stakeholders that I regularly meet with. The Government are now offering vaccines to all those aged over 45, those on the learning disability register or clinically extremely vulnerable people, and health and social care staff. I am very pleased that my own Department has linked with NHS services in England to share data on over 600,000 carers, allowing the NHS to invite those carers to book an appointment for a vaccine. This is a huge achievement, and makes a significant impact on the lives of disabled people as they navigate this pandemic. This is a good example of cross-Government work.

Turning to the specific points raised, from the very start of the pandemic, we have ensured that the views of disabled people and their families and carers have been taken into account when considering how best to support disabled people and link through to the relevant Ministers, Departments and agencies. Casting our minds back to the beginning of the pandemic, there was real concern about access to food and medicine, as a number of the people who have spoken in this debate have highlighted. In normal circumstances, Governments would typically take 12 to 18 months to develop policies, engaging, consulting and piloting before implementing new legislation. However, with the challenges of covid, that time was simply not available.

Therefore, by connecting key stakeholders with real lived experience, we were able to help relevant Ministers and Departments develop responses quickly. For example, we linked stakeholders including Disability Rights UK, Scope, Sense, Leonard Cheshire and the RNIB with the Minister for farming, fishing and food, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), and her officials to engage through the food vulnerability stakeholder group. Within days, they were able to resolve this potentially serious issue, as the Committee report highlights. This is an example of best practice. Several speakers raised the challenge faced by those who did not get included in the clinically extremely vulnerable list, but an additional scheme was organised through 305 local authorities, Age UK, Mind, Scope and RNIB, which were able to then make referrals for priority online shopping slots. Again, these important changes were vital.

More widely, to identify potential issues and areas of real lived experiences, we have an extensive programme of engagement. I regularly meet with the Disability Charities Consortium, which includes Scope, Leonard Cheshire, Disability Rights UK, the National Autistic Society, Mind, Mencap, Sense, RNIB, RNID and the Business Disability Forum. That includes being joined by relevant ministerial colleagues to discuss aspects of the pandemic’s impact on disabled people. During covid-19, this forum’s work has included meetings with the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi); the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately); and the Minister for Civil Society. It has been a real opportunity to share their expertise and help shape the urgent new policies that are needed to support those who are most vulnerable in society.

Furthermore, the Cabinet Office covid-19 taskforce considers disproportionately impacted groups, including disabled people, through policy development to tackle the pandemic. They do this through close working with the Equalities Hub and, within it, the Disability Unit, co-ordinating with other Government Departments and wider stakeholders to ensure a holistic approach to policy implications and delivery. In addition, we have regular stakeholder engagement through our regional network, which includes disabled people, carers, and crucially those with real lived experiences.

Turning to accessibility, I reaffirm that it is vital that public information on covid-19 is accessible to all, and we have made key strides in this area. These are things I was challenged on during my stakeholder engagement, and I happily raise these across Government. The Government are committed to providing both key covid-related guidance and communications in alternative formats, including large print, easy read, British Sign Language and audio. Most recently, this has covered ensuring that national restrictions, vaccination testing and the Government’s road map are accessible. We have now established BSL interpretation at the No. 10 press conference via the BBC News channel and iPlayer, available on all TV packages as part of Freeview. Accessible information is also available on the Government’s social media channels.

A significant further improvement, following the Committee’s report, is that the Cabinet Office now has a senior lead for accessible communications as part of the national resilience communications hub, who meets with a group of disability charities on a monthly basis. The group is briefed on the latest covid-19 guidance, including accessible versions, and works to ensure that communications to disabled people continue to be accessible and timely. Most recently, we held bespoke briefing sessions with the disability communications working group on 25 March, explaining the road map and communications activity, enabling charities to brief their audiences, prepare and share accessible communications through their network. I have personally pushed hard for that and I thank the Women and Equalities Committee for its support on the need for this vital additional layer of support.

Turning to health and social care, as we have seen, the covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the NHS and social care systems. Recognising the challenges in care settings, the Department of Health and Social Care made £546 million available in its adult social care winter plan, including money for vital infection control measures to ensure that disabled people getting social care and support are kept as safe as possible. The Government has also made £4.6 billion available to local authorities to address pressures on local services, including adult social care. Furthermore, the Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention announced £500 million for mental health recovery, of which £31 million will be used to support learning disability and autism services, alongside an additional £3.6 million announced by the Minister for Care for disability voluntary sector organisations to provide practical support to disabled people to mitigate the impacts of covid-19.

I know many disabled people and their families have raised concerns about easements to the Care Act, which were introduced as a temporary measure to help local authorities continue to meet the most urgent and acute needs in the face of covid-19, when local authorities were experiencing extraordinary pressures. The measure was used sparingly and has now ended. In response to concerns about the use of “do not resuscitate” decisions and the clinical frailty scale, the Government recognised the issues and guidance was changed strongly and quickly.

It is important to recognise the particular challenges the covid-19 outbreak has had on families of children with disabilities or serious illnesses. Supporting vulnerable children is a priority for this Government and has been central to our response throughout the pandemic. Turning to the work done by the Minister for Children and Families, the Government provided £40.8 million for the family fund in 2020-21, which supported more than 90,000 low-income families who are raising children who are disabled or seriously ill.

I know there are concerns about the legal duties to provide support to children and young people with education, health and care plans. The Secretary of State for Education has not used this power since July last year and has made it clear that he would need a compelling reason before doing so again.

I thank the Minister for giving way on the point about the Secretary of State for Education’s powers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that he would require a compelling reason to use them, but he has not used them, he does not plan to use them and there is much less need to use them. Will my hon. Friend indicate whether there might be a timescale for when they are going to go?

That is a fair challenge. I do not have the answer, but I will certainly make sure that the Secretary of State for Education gives a clear response to that question.

While the covid-19 pandemic has unavoidably delayed the completion of the special educational needs and disabilities review, the Secretary of State for Education is clear that it remains a key priority for this Government. It is vital that we deliver on our promises to children and young people and the DFE intends to publish proposals for consultation in the coming months.

Several speakers talked about the importance of disability employment. I am incredibly proud, as the Minister for Disabled People, to have presided over record disability employment. In normal times, when I have the pleasure of travelling around the country on visits, when I talk to young disabled people and say, “If you were the Minister, what would be the single thing that you would want to see?” the answer is nearly always, “I just want to have the same opportunities that my friends have for work and career progression.” I have never lost sight of that. I speak as somebody who has employed and benefited from employing disabled people, both prior to being an MP and as an MP. We have faced unprecedented challenges, but we have not lessened our ambition to have a million more disabled people in work by 2027. I want to reiterate that that has not changed.

During covid, we have made changes to the support provided. We have recently announced over 300 more disability employment advisers, taking the figure to over 1,000. We continue to review our Work and Health programme. All of the plan for jobs is fully inclusive, and we have made changes to schemes such as Access to Work, where we now provide support within the workplace. We will keep that beyond covid-19, which will perhaps open up opportunities for more people who have not been able to access work opportunities up to now. I am proud that we have reached 20,000 employers signed up to Disability Confident. The equivalent of 11.2 million employees are now represented by businesses in the Disability Confident scheme, sharing best practice about helping disabled people into work, to progress in work and be retained in work. That is very much a priority for me and the Department.

While there will undoubtedly be opportunities to learn from our covid-19 response in the longer term, the overall picture is that the Government have moved fast and flexibly to provide support for disabled people in these unprecedented times. The importance of cross-Government work linked to and supported by those with real lived experiences is absolutely clear, as it allows us to move faster and more flexibly to provide support to those most in need, including those with disabilities.

To ensure that that notion is embedded at the heart of the Government, we now have ministerial disability champions in every Department, with whom I meet regularly, with the full authority of the Prime Minister. They are genuinely enthused, engaged and determined to play their part on behalf of their respective Departments. In our forthcoming ambitious national strategy for disabled people, we will demonstrate the very real and vital focus on cross-Government work to remove barriers and create a fully inclusive society as we return to normality.

In conclusion, I thank all the staff and volunteers across the country working on the frontline, and in particular those supporting people with disabilities, as we navigate these challenges. I thank again my right hon. Friend and her Committee for their fantastic ongoing work, the Committee’s important report and the recommendations it made. The Government and I personally take them very seriously, and we are acting on them.

I put on record my thanks to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I recognise that lots of Government Departments are very much in the frame here, whether it be the DHSC, the DWP, the DFE or, indeed, DEFRA, and my hon. Friend the Minister has not done a bad job of answering for all of them. However, what has been singularly lacking is the provision to him by those Departments of dates. When might we see an independent inquiry? When might we see the SEND review from the DFE? When might we see measures to integrate health and social care effectively from the DHSC? I ask him in particular to take back to fellow Ministers the message we heard repeatedly from colleagues about social care, the lack of attention on it, and the impact that has had on the lived experience of way too many disabled people up and down the country in every single one of our constituencies.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the pandemic gave the Government an unprecedented challenge, and in many instances there was really good cross-Government working to rise to the challenge. What Members need now is some sort of assurance that lessons have been learned and will continue to be learned because, should another public health crisis like covid hit us in future, we cannot afford to have disabled people pushed to the back of the queue, have their needs forgotten and feel, as too many of those who spoke to us of their lived experiences said, forgotten, marginalised and as if they did not matter. I urge him to ensure that that sensation is not left with them.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, “Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services: full Report”, HC 1050.

Sitting suspended.

Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning

[Christina Rees in the Chair]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating, physically and virtually, that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I now call Robert Halfon, Chair of the Select Committee on Education, to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Third Report of the Education Committee, “A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution”, HC 278.

It is an honour to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I am grateful to have secured this debate today on the Education Committee’s adult skills and lifelong learning report. Let me start by giving special thanks to the Education Committee officers and advisers, who have spent so much time working on the inquiry with Members. And I pay tribute to all my parliamentary colleagues on the Committee, who worked so hard on the report and evidence sessions. I welcome here today two of my colleagues on the Committee: my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson)—I know that I am not supposed to say “hon. Friend” about an Opposition Member, but in this capacity I hope that you will allow me to do so, Ms Rees—and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).

There are overwhelming benefits to lifelong learning—benefits for productivity and the economy, for health and wellbeing and for social justice and our communities. Our nation faces significant skills challenges from the fourth industrial revolution, automation, an ageing workforce and the devastating impact of covid-19. The Government are rising to those major challenges by providing some new funding for adult education, and I welcome the recent increases in finances that the Government have announced. The further education White Paper marks a sea change in Government thinking about skills. The flagship £2.5 billion national skills fund offers a significant opportunity to transform adult skills and lifelong learning. It will fund a lifetime skills guarantee, supporting adults to access about 400 fully funded level 3 courses. The Government have also funded a number of important schemes to support a post-covid skills recovery. There is the £2 billion kickstart scheme, the hiring incentive of £3,000 for employers who hire new apprentices—and much more besides.

However, despite the recent increases in funding, the welcome White Paper, the kickstart fund and the other programmes that I have just mentioned, participation in adult skills and lifelong learning is in a dire state; it is at its lowest level in 23 years. It is the case that 38% of adults have not participated in any learning since leaving full-time education. Participation rates in adult education have almost halved since 2004. Even worse, lifelong learning is an affluent person’s game; those who might benefit most from adult learning and training, low-skilled adults in low-income work or the unemployed, are by far the least likely to be doing it. It is the case that 49% of adults from the lowest socioeconomic group have received no training since leaving school.

It is the already well-educated and the well-off who are far more likely to participate. In 2016 92% of adults with a degree-level qualification undertook adult learning, compared with 53% of adults with no qualifications. I would argue that poor access to lifelong learning is one of the great social injustices of our time. We must reverse the decline in participation and offer a way forward for those left-behind adults. There are haves and have-nots in terms of adult education in our country.

There is a significant problem with low basic skills. It is hard to believe the fifth largest economy in the world has 9 million working-age adults with poor literacy or numeracy skills or both. Nine million adults also lack the basic digital skills that nowadays are essential for getting on in modern life, and 6 million adults do not even have a qualification at level two, which is equivalent to GCSE. In the past 10 years, just 17% of low-paid workers moved permanently out of low pay.

Unequal access to lifelong learning is a social injustice that traps millions of workers in below-average earnings. Even before covid kicked in, our nation faced significant skills gaps. By 2024, there will be a shortfall of 4 million highly skilled workers. Colleges up and down the country, such as Harlow College, an exceptional further education college in my constituency, will be central to the skills-led recovery, and we have to do all we can to support them.

Support for colleges is especially important now. This week, an Association of Colleges report found that three quarters of college students are between one and four months behind where they would normally be expected to be at this stage of the academic year. The advanced manufacturing centre at Harlow College—a multimillion pound investment—is a leading example of what can be achieved when business, FE and the Government work together to make sure young adults are retrained.

Part-time higher education has fallen into disrepair. Part-time student numbers collapsed by 53% between 2008-09 and 2017-18, resulting in over 1 million lost learners. When I think of potential part-time higher education students, I think of a single parent in my constituency who will not take that part-time opportunity because they are worried about the loan that they may have to take on.

Adult community learning is vital to social justice. It gives a helping hand to the hardest to reach adults, including those with no qualifications, learners in the most deprived communities, and those furthest from the job market. There has been, however, a 25% decline in adult community learning participation since 2011-12 and a 32% fall since 2008-09.

Finally, we should all be concerned about the decline in employer-led training. During our inquiry, our Committee heard that 39% of employers admit to training none of their staff. Employer-led training has dropped by half since the end of the 1990s. Previously, the Committee visited the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Germany. This kind of lack of training by businesses for their workforce is unthinkable in those countries.

Investment in workplace training favours the already well qualified, and workers with the lowest prior qualifications are the least likely to have received job-related training in the first place. Some 32% of adults with degrees participated in in-work training, compared with just 9% of workers with no qualifications.

I have set out some stark statistics about what is wrong. Our Committee tried to look at some of the solutions. I do believe that we can solve some of these issues. Just 40 or 50 years ago Britain had an adult education system that was world-leading. Despite well-intentioned reforms over recent years, adult education policy making has too often suffered from initiative-itis, lurching from one policy priority to the next.

We can rebuild this by pursuing an ambitious long-term strategy for adult skills and lifelong learning. The strategy has four pillars. First, let us fund an adult community learning centre in every town. Community learning supports adults who cannot even see the ladder of opportunity, let alone climb it. In Harlow, we are lucky to have a remarkable adult learning community centre, and it will soon be relocated to the beating heart of the town, in the main Harlow library building. Just because there is an adult community learning centre does not mean that millions have to be spent on a new building or estate, but there should be one for residents who need it.

Some 92% of community learning centres are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, and I have seen time and again how they are an important bridge for people— many from disadvantaged backgrounds—to begin the first stage of education. Community learning centres are places of social capital: they are real places that bring people together and that often get people who go there to go on to further or additional education. Organisations such as the Workers’ Educational Association, and HOLEX members, do an incredible job at bringing learning to disadvantaged communities. About 38% of Workers’ Educational Association learners are from disadvantaged postcodes, 44% are on income-related benefits, and 41% have no or very low previous qualifications.

Secondly, let us kickstart participation by introducing individual learning accounts, funded through the national skills fund. Individual learning accounts would evolve funding into the hands of learners, giving them choice and agency over their skills development. They should have a strong social justice focus and initially be aimed at those who would benefit the most, including low-skilled, low-paid adults. A further option might be to introduce them for vital skills deficit subject areas, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We can start small and learn lessons from the success of individual learning schemes in countries such as Singapore and Scotland.

Thirdly, part-time higher education needs to be nursed back to health. The fall in part-time higher education numbers undermines organisations such as the Open University and Birkbeck that do so much to widen access to learning for disadvantaged adults. Part-time study provides a route to higher skills and higher pay for adults alongside work or caring responsibilities. It offers a crucial second-chance route for mature students.

The lifelong loan entitlement for modules at higher technical and degree levels, which was set out in the FE White Paper, is a step forward in the right direction and will improve access to flexible part-time learning, but as I mentioned earlier when I gave the example of a single parent in my constituency, the part-time learner cohort is very different from the full-time one. Learners tend to be more mature and highly debt-averse. On average, they are older and have more financial commitments. Over a third have dependants to think about, and many are from very disadvantaged or modest backgrounds. Offering fee grants to part-time learners from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who study courses that meet the skills needs of the nation would really transform adult learning. Let us end the unfair anomaly that excludes part-time distance learners from receiving maintenance support.

Another way to encourage adults to pursue higher education, particularly those who might be more debt-averse, is to champion degree apprenticeships. Students earn while they learn, gaining the skills and qualifications to climb the ladder of opportunity. Allocating the £800 million-plus spent by universities and the Office for Students on access and participation to those universities growing their degree apprentice student numbers would help rocket-boost degree apprenticeships. If the recent upwards trend in degree-level apprenticeships continues at the same rate, with some serious policy encouragement it could take as little as 10 years for half of all university students to be doing such courses. I think the Minister is the only person in the House who has done a degree apprenticeship, or at least the only Minister who has done a degree apprenticeship.

Fourthly, to revitalise employer-led training, the Government should introduce tax credits for employers who invest in training for their workforce. The Government have a research and development tax credit and tax refunds for construction companies investing in machinery, as announced in the Budget, so why not invest in a skills tax credit for the skills that are regarded as having strategic importance for the nation? Those are the four pillars needed for an ambitious long-term strategy for adult skills and lifelong learning. To make a success of these reforms, we need flexible and modular hop-on, hop-off learning. It should be like taking a train journey—stopping at stations and then getting back on the train again towards the destination.

There are not nearly enough qualifications that can be taken in a bite-sized modular way. This is a huge barrier to participation for adults with busy working lives and caring responsibilities. Much better careers advice, individually tailored to help adults find the best learning opportunities for them, without the huge replication and duplication that already exists, is essential. Although there are incredible career organisations and grassroots organisations on the ground, I despair of the replication and duplication and the huge amount of money that goes into organisations such as the Careers and Enterprise Company, the National Careers Service and many other organisations in the Department for Work and Pensions that replicate a lot of things and create a lot of the work that each of these organisations do. Careers advice, in terms of the Department for Education, should be predominantly focused on skills, skills, skills.

Despite all that, there is much to be proud of in our adult education landscape. The four pillars set out in our report—a community learning centre in every town, individual learning accounts, boosting part-time higher education and introducing a skills tax credit—must be at the centre of the country’s adult learning revolution. Let us build a lifelong learning system that supports all adults to thrive. For too long our country has underinvested in adult lifelong learning. Our businesses have underinvested in training. Our skills deficit should be regarded as unacceptable. The Prime Minister’s lifetime guarantee signals recognition that change is needed. So, too, does the Education Secretary’s acknowledgement that further education has been historically underfunded and the subsequent FE White Paper. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Government need to build on the lifetime skills guarantee and really offer an adult learning experience fit for the 21st century.

I intend to start the wind-ups no later than 4.20 pm, so I would appreciate it if the five Back-Bench speakers tailored the length of their remarks to fit in with that timescale. I call Mick Whitley.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I thank the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing it. I also draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Looking at the current state of post-16 education, I cannot help but think of how dramatically things have changed in the years since I was a young man. When I left school there were proper training opportunities that paved the way to secure, well-paid and lifelong employment. That all changed in the 1980s when the Thatcher Government took a wrecking ball to our industrial heartlands and ripped the heart out of towns such as Birkenhead. As the factories, steelworks and shipyards slammed their gates shut, the day-release apprenticeship that gave my generation skills, jobs and hope all but vanished. Since then we have been stuck on a policy merry-go-round that has taken us nowhere. Adult education and training now face a massive crisis since the incorporation of further education colleges in 1993.

There have been around 40 Green Papers on adult education policy, yet today participation in adult learning is at its lowest level in 24 years. Nearly half the poorest people in our country have had no additional training since leaving compulsory education. Well-paid quality apprenticeships are in scarce supply, too. In 2021, it is easier for a young person to get an offer from Cambridge than it is to get an apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce.

I therefore welcome the Education Select Committee’s call for a well-funded long-term adult education strategy that gives adult workers the opportunity to learn new skills. That is key to our being able to ensure that our workforce can adapt and thrive in an economy convulsed by covid-19, Brexit, climate meltdown and the fourth industrial revolution. However, I feel that the Select Committee, like me, will be bitterly disappointed by the Department for Education’s recent White Paper on further education. It falls short of the further education revolution that was promised.

I worry that the Government have ignored a key factor that is essential for success. Any adult skills and training strategy must be backed up by a comprehensive industrial strategy that delivers economic justice for towns like Birkenhead. I welcome the work that employers are doing with Wirral Met College to develop training programmes for young people in my constituency. I hope that the Committee’s proposed individual learning accounts and skills tax credits will help to support adult learners.

What is urgently needed is for the Government to get serious about creating jobs and training opportunities for adult workers in the industries of the future, such as green energy and the digital economy. Yet, it is not clear how the recent further education White Paper relates to the 10-year industrial strategy unveiled in 2017. Moreover, the Business Secretary’s disastrous decision to axe the Industrial Strategy Council suggests that this Government are not interested in the long-term, joined-up planning that will be essential to deal with the unemployment and skills crisis that confronts us today.

The Committee is also right to call on the Government to reinstate the union learning fund. As a lifelong trade unionist, I have seen at first hand the transformative role that the ULF plays in equipping those workers least able to access learning opportunities with the basic skills they need to survive in the job market. With every pound invested in the scheme returning £12.30 to the wider economy, the Government’s decision to scrap it seems to me to be petty and ideologically driven—an act of industrial sabotage. It flies in the face of the Government’s pledge to level up the country.

I urge the Education Secretary to go even further. In much of Europe, trade unions play a vital role alongside colleges and employers as a provider of adult learning opportunities, but there is not a single mention of the unions in the White Paper. It is time he finally stops treating the unions as the enemy and realises the vital role that they can play in any attempt to reach out to or to level up left-behind workers.

The Committee’s report calls for bold and ambitious action to prepare British workers for the immense challenges of the coming decades. That must mean apprenticeships, training, education, skills and jobs. Sadly, it appears such action is not on the Government’s agenda.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate and on the pioneering work that he and his Committee are carrying out, both generally with their inquiries and specifically with the publication of this report.

My interest is twofold: first, as a constituency MP, where securing this revolution is vital, if we are to deliver sustained economic regeneration that transforms the lives of local people, and secondly, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning. Local colleges, deeply embedded in their communities, such as East Coast College, with campuses in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, will be the cornerstone on which this revolution is founded.

There has been a need for this transformation for a very long time, but we are now at the zero hour. If it is not delivered now, the long-term implications for the country and for many people will be profound. The challenges of improving productivity, enhancing social mobility and eliminating pockets of deprivation have been with us for a long time, but they are now compounded by the need to ensure as smooth as possible a pandemic recovery, which includes the shock that there is likely to be from the ending of furlough, as well as making sure that people of all ages have the skills required in a period of rapid technological change.

In East Anglia there are enormous opportunities in the low-carbon economy. It is vital that local people are able to acquire the necessary skills that are required for the rewarding and exciting jobs that will be available. It is also important to bear in mind that if we do not properly prepare for these challenges, many communities will remain left behind and for many people there will be a sense of personal despair and despondency.

The good news is that the Government recognise the need for change. The skills White Paper sets out a compelling vision, and there is a welcome recognition of the important role to be played by existing institutions—whether that is local authorities, local colleges or local businesses.

Both the lifetime skills guarantee and the lifetime loan guarantee are welcome steps in the right direction. With the former, the restriction that it is available only for those who do not hold a level 3 qualification should be revisited, as many people will need to reskill and upskill as the world of work changes. With the latter, there is a need to ensure that—where necessary—maintenance funding is provided as, without it, lifelong learning will remain unaffordable for many.

Moving forward, it is vital that Government work collaboratively with colleges. The report from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, “The English College of the Future”, provides a template of how they should do this, with a statutory entitlement for lifelong learning for every adult, which includes the necessary financial support.

Local colleges should be a touchpoint for people throughout their lives, where they will go to reskill and retrain in response to technological change, such as the move to a carbon-neutral economy.

In many respects, the future is bright and exciting, but there are two immediate issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, there is a need for a long-term funding settlement, which should be addressed at the forthcoming spending review later this year. The recent uplifts are welcome, but there remains a great gulf between what a university student receives, averaging £6,600 per annum, and what a further education college student is provided with, which is just over £1,000 at £1,050 per annum. The funding settlement should be for longer—for three years—and should be simpler.

Secondly, the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s decision to claw back adult skills funding from colleges and local authorities if they missed their 2020-2021 academic year targets by more than 10% must be revisited and reviewed urgently. College finances have been ravaged by the pandemic; the clawback is equivalent to a £60 million cut to adult education funding, and it was announced eight months into the academic year in which it applies. This approach undermines the ethos of collaborative working that we should be promoting, and it is contrary to the aspirations of both the White Paper and the Education Committee’s report, which we are debating today.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know is passionately committed to securing a lifelong learning revolution, to do all she can to ensure that the ESFA work with colleges to come up with a revised approach that will give them the financial security they need at this challenging time.

I shall end on a positive note: the future can be incredibly exciting, with real benefits being secured for communities and people all around the country. My right hon. Friend and his Committee have come up with a compelling vision, and Government have embraced it, as have colleges and businesses in Dorset. We must now get on and deliver it.

It is a pleasure to be called in this debate, with you in the Chair, Ms Rees.

I thank the Education Select Committee for its outstanding report on the adult skills and lifelong learning landscape. It is honest and analytical, and it seeks to provide a route map of reparation and advancement. In what has been an overly complex web of funding streams and reduced opportunities, learning in adult life has become significantly bureaucratic, and nothing can disguise the scale of the cuts to adult learning—which this confusion has presumably been intended to mask.

The sheer scale of lost learning is concerning and it explains why, for a decade, productivity has been suffocated. It explains a decline in wellbeing and in mental and physical health. It most definitely explains a stifling of social mobility and—oh—the lost potential too.

When we talk to colleges of further education and other local providers, it is clear that the Government have failed to understand the power of adult learning. To this day, there is still a woeful insufficiency in funding. College staff are often on low pay and insecure contracts—devalued like no other professionals in the public sector, yet charged with the greatest of responsibilities, which is to nurture adults in a learning environment, which, in turn, unlocks new job opportunities, moves people out of poverty, and brings fulfilment and achievement.

The Minister will put a gloss coating on the tenure of her Government, but I have to say that nothing but regret should drive a commitment to do far more. A 45% cut in skills funding since the Tories came to power, as the Augar review noted, cannot be justified in terms of either economic or social equity. With participation in adult education at a 23-year low, that takes us back to the period when Labour picked up the failure of the previous Tory Government.

Now, 9 million people are abandoned to low literacy and numeracy skills, 6 million are without a GCSE or equivalent qualification—a decline of 87% under this Government—9 million are without the low-level digital skills necessary to navigate an increasingly digitalised society; 15% of 19-year-olds today do not have a level 2 qualification, and 60% do not have a level 3. Those people would have been just nine years old when this Government came in, and their education has taken place on the Government’s watch.

As we heard earlier, 49% of adults from the lowest socioeconomic groups have had no training since leaving school. Just last month, the Minister scrapped the union learning fund, not seeking to immerse herself in the evidence of how it got people who were furthest from education to develop a passion to learn, with the union learning reps at their side, giving them a new confidence. Even now, the threat of the Education and Skills Funding Agency clawing back millions of pounds from the sector is threatening the finances of colleges, as an impossible target of 90% provision of adult learning through the pandemic was set and is unachievable.

Scrapping that threshold today would show some commitment to colleges that a lot more is urgently needed, but, as ever, cuts have consequences, and those must be understood and never repeated. While the National Skills Fund is welcome, it must be recognised as a first step, since it will replace only a fifth of all that has been stripped away in the last decade.

If we are serious about seeing a skills revolution—and I am—we have to take down the barriers to learning, recognise its return, and empower local communities, local colleges and universities with the funding and scope they need to make learning accessible. In York, I see how York College is leading the skills strategy, and how the universities and colleges are shaping the economic strategy for the city. The value of those powerhouses must be understood.

On funding, I agree with the call from the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for a long-term plan, which is an economic necessity, and for Labour it goes to the core of our values. Withholding vital funding chokes off the economy and chokes off opportunity, yet the Minister is significantly holding back on the resources needed, not least at this time of crisis. We have heard about the ageing workforce and the loss of skills through Brexit, advances in technology and automation. Obviously, the fall-out from the pandemic, which we are facing now, and the climate catastrophe will demand real new skills to turn the situation around. Therefore, adult skills and lifelong learning have to be funded effectively.

The report shows that, incredibly, every pound invested in levels 1 to 3 of adult learning returns between £20 and £30. I am not sure that there is a better return anywhere else in the economy, so that is an investment that pays back, but to upskill and reskill, barriers have to be taken down. That is why I support measures that would ensure that adults who were learning received free childcare. I would remove the age gaps, particularly if we are to consider diversification of skills. Yes, invest in community learning centres in every town and city, which would ensure a place-based approach to learning and the economy. We should reinstitute individual learning accounts. Yes, the governance needed changing, but they were transformative, as I witnessed during my time as a union official.

I also call on the Government to look at the kickstart scheme. Many employers have been reluctant to take up this opportunity because they are concerned about what happens to people on the scheme at the end of the six months. Having a learning offer would certainly encourage employers to know that the people they have taught over the last six months and skilled up have an opportunity to move into a secure learning environment.

I also call for a right to learn. It is shameful that 39% of employers do not train any of their staff, yet they play a part in the economy. Everyone must have that responsibility, and a right to learn enshrined in law would secure that.

On digital, we have got a lot of catching up to do as a country, and these last 13 months have shown the deficit that exists. Free broadband, as Labour proposed at the last election, would certainly be a step on the way, but ensuring that people have the tools they need to be digitally savvy enough to navigate their way through the economy is absolutely vital, and there can be no holding back.

We need to have a look at ways of unshackling those opportunities in higher education to see more modular learning and more flexibility in part-time learning. Of course, that will mean that the funding structures need to change. I think it is high time that we look at the way that tuition fees have suffocated opportunities for people, and I certainly am an advocate of free higher education.

In particular, I want to close by bringing to the Minister’s attention an issue that a constituent raised with me. Her story is that she fled domestic violence, but education gave her an opportunity not just to rebuild her skills, but to rebuild herself. As the Domestic Abuse Bill is being debated in the Chamber right now, I ask the Minister to look at what my constituent is calling for: a secure way into further and higher education for people fleeing domestic violence so they have an opportunity to start their lives again.

If we applied that to other people experiencing challenges and vulnerabilities, just think how transformative it would be. I look at the work of Thames Valley police in diverting people out of county lines and the whole area of dealing drugs, and getting those youngsters into a learning framework instead of the criminal justice system. That has been transformational not least in reducing crime but also in giving those youngsters a chance again.

As we come out of this pandemic, more than ever we have seen the need to address mental health and loneliness, and some of the real challenges people have experienced. Social prescribing is at the frontier of that, and having a pathway into learning at this point in time could certainly address many of the health and wellbeing needs that people are facing. A creative Government could do so much to transform the lives of the people we represent as well as our economy, and I trust the Minister will reflect on the power of her portfolio and use it to its fullest.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees, and thank you for calling me in this very important debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate, and on his work chairing the Education Committee and bringing this report forward. I am a member of the Education Committee, and I am pleased to have been able to listen to and review the evidence that we were given from many different quarters and work with the team on this report. I am glad it has got an airing today.

The adult skills and lifelong learning report calls for revolutionary action. It does not deserve to be sitting on a dusty shelf; it deserves to be brought out and put into action because, as we have heard, it is needed now more than ever.

The Education Committee started working on this report before covid, and our recommendations have become even more important since covid. The impact that covid has had on employment, on loss of income, on loss of businesses, on the self-employed, on low earners, on stay-at-home parents and on young people has been very high, but there are many ways forward to address the issues in this report.

As has been said, across England, 9 million adults lack functional literacy and numeracy skills. Over the last decade, adult learner numbers have fallen by 3.8 million. The poorest adults are often the least likely to access the training they need the most. There has been a 45% decline in funding for adult skills in the last decade, so there has never been more of a need for a shake-up in our adult learning. The current system is absolutely failing.

Lifelong learning is essential for skilling up, for enabling people to develop their potential and achieve things, and for tackling inequalities in all our communities, which have grown ever wider under covid. It is essential for mental health and wellbeing, and for tackling isolation. It is also vital for our economic growth as a country, and for keeping our workforce skilled, adaptable and able to respond to climate change and to changing circumstances in the labour market. That is why this report asks for no less than a revolution in lifelong learning.

Before becoming an MP, I used to work for a community learning centre, the Katherine Low Settlement. It provides English for speakers of other languages—ESOL— and other courses, and classes for over 100 local people. It provides the means for building community, empowering parents and getting access to jobs. I have seen in action this kind of organisation, which could provide a community hub, so I know that it is perfectly possible. However, the Government response to the recommendation in the report for a community learning centre in every town was very disappointing. I will focus on this recommendation today, and I hope that in her response, the Minister will give more reasons for hope in relation to bringing this recommendation to life.

Community learning centres are a major recommendation, based on the Education Committee receiving evidence from a variety of educators, looking at the failures in our system up to now and considering solutions that would address many different barriers to education all at once. The centres do not need to be new buildings or new organisations that require many millions in funding; lots of community spaces or education providers could step up and provide this. In my constituency, South Thames College could be one of these providers, working in conjunction with other partnerships. There are lots of places on our high streets that could provide the necessary transformation and high profile for adult learning.

That one innovative change—having a community learning centre in every town—would bring together so many different solutions. The centres could be well-known places that provide information and support. They would help to overcome the current fragmented funding and provision, which the Government acknowledge, but do not address, in their response to the Select Committee’s report.

It is very hard to access information and to get the required mentoring and support for learning. That is acknowledged by the Government, and it has been recognised by others who have spoken today. That is why there is a recommendation in the report for careers guidance, information and support. It can be especially difficult when someone is working two jobs, or caring for children or parents; when there are so many different providers with different and changing courses in different places, most of which are currently without childcare on site; or if someone’s literacy or confidence are not very good, they have special educational needs or they think that learning is not for them.

Having one local centre physically and online would help to overcome the significant barriers to adult education. The centre would be a trusted provider, and it would help to overcome the psychological barriers to education that many people experience. The Government response to the report stated:

“Adults, particularly those with lower skills, face significant physical and psychological barriers to learning.”

Community learning centres would enable people to overcome those barriers.

We have heard time and time again about the importance of trusted providers. The union learning fund has been mentioned. It showed the importance of in-work mentors providing support and guidance, encouraging people to apply for things and supporting them to go on in education, which is necessary to get on to the ladder, let alone up it. Cutting the union learning fund has been a huge step backwards for adult learning, and I hope that decision can still be reversed. The importance of employer-led learning cannot be overestimated.

What else could a community learning centre provide? It could be a place that provided support for an increase in qualifications, up to levels 2 and 3, which are under-utilised at the moment. It could also be a place for part-time learning and the modular learning that is recommended in the report. Very importantly, a centre would provide childcare alongside courses in the same place. If that childcare were free, that would be a revolution in lifelong learning. There would need to be enough courses, and so enough people with children, in one place to make childcare a viable option, and the centre would need to be close enough—a buggy walk or bus ride away—to allow people to get back and pick up their kids from school. Those practical details will make community learning centres work, and they are why such centres are so needed.

A community learning centre would also be an important place for addressing the dire cuts in ESOL provision, enabling communities to be integrated. The Government response to the report just acknowledges the current low ESOL provision numbers, as if that is great, and says nothing about the swingeing cuts to ESOL courses—especially those with childcare—which leave so many people without the English skills that they need to get access to further courses, to be empowered parents in talking to teachers, and to contribute in the fullest way, as they want to, in our communities.

A community learning hub would also be that place that builds and strengthens communities. It has that social capital that has been mentioned, and would inspire more learning. There would be different generations, and ways for someone to get the training needed to get a job or a better job, tackle in-work poverty, or see different courses that they never knew existed, all in one place in their town. What an amazing vision—but instead of meeting that ambition and new vision with enthusiasm, the Government response was like taking a cold shower. It listed existing provision and talked about the adult education budget as the only answer. However, that adult education budget for local government has been cut, from £3 billion in 2010 to £1.5 billion now—so it is hardly the answer.

A vital partnership of councils and education and community organisations is perfectly possible, doable and achievable, and it is fantastic value for money. It could be the revolution that we need to meet the crisis that we face. I hope that that recommendation will not sit on a dusty shelf but will be given life and used, so that part of our building back better after covid will be an adult learning revolution across the country—starting just a short walk or bus ride away.

There is a series of votes in the House, but there is no need to suspend the sitting, because we all have proxy votes, so we shall plough on.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees? I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this important debate, and on all the contributions that have been made. It is an absolute honour to speak on a report that I assisted with, alongside my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), as members of the Education Committee.

Education is particularly important to me. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I spent eight and a half years, before entering this place, as a secondary school teacher. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and the hon. Member for Putney are sick to death of hearing about that. Also, my father benefited as an adult from going through the Open University process, which enabled him to get on the career path that perhaps was not expected for him, avoiding factory work in Trowbridge, and ending up working in accountancy. In fact, he has gone further into teaching.

Adult education is important—particularly for the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. The sad reality is that a recent report by the Office for Students said that my constituency is the seventh worst of 535 English constituencies for people going on to higher education. In 2019 the number of people achieving a level 3 qualification by the age of 19 in Stoke-on-Trent was under 50%, and only three quarters of people achieved a level 2 qualification by that age. That challenge has only got worse, as we are facing a joint mission: getting millions of people back into work, because of the global pandemic, and driving up the skill levels of those who were already being left behind before it arrived. Put simply, there is a more pressing need than ever for people to be able to retrain, reskill and upskill throughout their lives.

One of the big, glaring holes is the fact that employers should be doing much more to train their workers. For a long time the United Kingdom has had a productivity problem, and business has often looked to the Government to come up with initiatives to tackle it. However, it seems to me it could be greatly helped if business would invest properly in its people. As an example, David O’Connor worked his way up from the shop floor and is now the chief executive officer of Churchill China in my constituency, which is a multimillion-pound company. That happened through the company investing in him, and giving him the opportunity to go to Staffordshire University and gain qualifications, so that he is now driving that company from the very top. Ultimately, it is one of the great success stories in my local area; there are so many others that I could rant about today, but I want to make sure that we focus on this.

I do think that the Minister has done some superb work with the FE reform White Paper. It is a real step forward in the right direction, and a real change in attitude towards adult education. I believe that we in this country have fallen into the trap of seeing education as beginning at four and ending at 18. Other countries, such as Germany, have managed to power on ahead. They have got rid of that silly gold standard when it comes to A-levels and said that a vocational, technical qualification is as important as an academic one. This has seen them drive massively forward in many of their vocational qualifications.

The lifetime skills guarantee is something I am very excited by, as many other Members have said. I know that places such as Stoke on Trent College, run by Denise Brown, are extremely excited to take part, and Burslem campus in my constituency is really looking forward to hosting this. However, a conversation with Denise produced a few queries, questions and bits of advice about how we can make this lifetime skills guarantee really work, and I think they would be helpful to the Minister. One concern is that limiting the guarantee to adults who have not yet achieved a full level 3 qualification does not fully address the retraining issue. One way of avoiding the problem would be to offer loan-maxed graduates free retraining courses at levels 3, 4 and 5 in technical subjects.

Also, the qualification list that has been approved for the lifetime skills guarantee is too narrow, in my opinion. Local enterprise partnerships or chambers of commerce could be given the authority to include qualifications that are not on the national list if those qualifications met local or regional labour market demands. At the moment, we have a shortage of lecturers and teachers in higher technical subjects in colleges and other providers. Part of that is because of pay, and because enticing highly skilled technical people to teach in colleges is an uphill battle. As such, Denise Brown wanted me to put to the Minister the idea of a scheme whereby employers loan members of their staff to a college, and the college would pick up maybe 20% of the salary cost. In that way, employers and colleges can work much more closely than ever before and bring the very best of their business into the classroom, ensuring that those young people or adults are ready for the education ahead.

Finally, qualifications at level 3 are often a two-year programme, and this links into issues with the Department for Work and Pensions. If adults are to retrain and get back into the workplace, the level 3 qualification needs to be shorter. Work needs to be done with the awarding organisations to ensure that level 3 qualifications can be achieved as quickly as possible, so accreditation of prior learning needs to be taken into account so that adults follow courses that do not repeat what they already know. Awarding organisations also need to develop shorter qualifications that can be achieved in one academic year. I also put that challenge to the higher education sector. In many cases, a three-year degree can easily be done in two years, and in my personal opinion, that should be the approach that is taken.

We have heard fantastic comments and contributions from Members about the community learning centre in every town, and I fully endorse them. The school building sits there empty for so many weeks and months throughout the year, yet it is one of the biggest community assets. What I sometimes get very scared about with Government is that we look for the easy solution, which is the shiny building. To the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, capital investment projects are nice, but people are so sceptical of these shiny buildings, because four or five years after they have been built, they are inevitably mothballing away and nothing is happening with them. It then costs millions of pounds of local tax payers’ money to repurpose them for the future, or millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money from the Government to turn them into housing or knock them down, creating empty brownfield sites. What we need is revenue funding, investing in people to support them.

I bang on about Hilary Cottam’s “Radical Help”, and I admit to being a late converter. It was Danny Flynn from YMCA North Staffordshire—a proud, self-confessed socialist—who told me to read Hilary. She talks about investing in people by having these community learning centres on our high streets, in our libraries, and in our schools or colleges. In them, we would have people from those communities who understand, empathise with, and can support and guide others from the community. An awful lot of adults feel very let down by the education system of the ’60s, the ’70s, and in some cases the ’80s as well. They feel it was an education system that did not serve them properly, so they are sceptical about what people want to do. If we invest in people to build community relationships and to network within those communities, and if we find ways to tackle other problems, which as childcare, which our report rightly cites—ultimately we can go a lot further. I really believe that if we can find ways to allow parents, particularly single parents, to have free additional childcare if they are taking up a qualification, so that they can do that course to the best of their ability while ensuring their child is also receiving a good education, good healthcare and safeguarding, it will be a big step in the right direction.

Ultimately, education is the biggest leveller that we have in society. If levelling up is really to be achieved, it will be through education. No matter how many things we build or how much money we invest, education is ultimately what will improve social mobility. Stoke-on-Trent is in the bottom fifth of the country for social mobility—a scary statistic that reminds me and the team I work with here in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke of the sheer challenge that we face today.

I took the advice of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow about apprenticeships. As the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is, so I am advertising at the moment for my very own apprentice, who will get a level 3 qualification. I have not advertised for an 18 to 20-year-old, or even for an 18 to 25-year-old. I have said that anyone who wants the opportunity should apply regardless of age, because I want to make sure that I am reinvesting in my community and sending a signal out to many small and medium-sized enterprises that if I can do it, they can do it too and give access to earn and learn, which will hopefully drive so many more individuals into higher education. That is the way it will happen. It is about investing in people and showing that we are here to care.

I should discuss SEND provision in this country. An awful lot of adults were not diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia or other learning needs when they were at school. In fact, those assessments were not even prevalent in the school that I went to, and I was privileged to go to Princethorpe College, a private school just outside Leamington Spa. I had school friends who were dyslexic and who were put in the bottom set; they were just assumed to be stupid, but actually that was far from the truth. They were people who needed support and help. We have to invest in making sure that such people have the opportunity to learn and have a support network around them.

The national tutoring programme, which I appreciate is slightly off-topic, is not delivering as it should be. That money could be going into colleges and schools to invest in the type of additional support that is needed, be it online or person-to-person, or more teachers being paid to stay on later in the day, so that they can work with individuals. Ultimately, there are solutions to all these problems.

I am proud to be part of the report. I am proud to see that the Government are taking the first big step, but there is still a long way to go and many challenges ahead. We cannot put up our feet and pat ourselves on the back at this very moment. We have to go full steam ahead and realise that if we are really going to change the mindset of a nation, it has to come from employers, the Government and the general public understanding that education does not end at 18—in fact, it never ends at all.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Rees. I thank the Committee for an excellent report, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) not just on the report and on securing the debate, but on his wider commitment to this subject. He is a powerful voice speaking up for the sector, and his speech once again reflected that.

The report produced by the Committee is excellent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said, it is a bold report that goes further than the Government’s suggestions, and the Committee has made a number of recommendations that really should be investigated more fully. We have heard a lot about how vital skills are. We have heard not only about the ways we have stepped backwards as a country in adult education and lifelong learning over the course of recent years, but about the scale of the challenge, which has been brought into particularly sharp focus by the coronavirus crisis.

I think the sector has welcomed the rhetoric from the Government and the sense that there is a greater focus on further education and skills, but the sector and, indeed, learners will judge the Government by their actions and funding, not by their words. The sector’s experience over the last 11 years is an important piece of context. It has had a decade of funding cuts. Adult education in particular has been savagely cut. As Members referred to, we have recently seen the clawback of adult education funding and the further education sector excluded from the Government’s main post-covid jobs programme—the failing kickstart programme. We have seen an obsession with programmes aimed at major employers, often excluding towns and rural communities, whose economies are based much more on small and medium-sized enterprises and sole traders. The programmes the Government have introduced have lacked scale, ambition and urgency.

The Minister probably did not help with expectation management regarding the White Paper. She regularly promised in the run-up to its publication that we were going to see transformational reforms that would offer the biggest change to the sector in 60 years. While I recognise, as the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) did, that lasting transformation is very difficult when you only have one-year budgets, the White Paper represents a considerable missed opportunity. My initial response was that it was predominantly lacking in ambition and scale and so would not take the sector far enough down the path required at a moment of such seismic challenge. Furthermore, there are genuine worries that, far from not going far enough in the right direction, there are elements of the White Paper that are actually boldly marching in the wrong direction. I shall expand upon my views to that in a moment.

We have heard really powerful testimony from many hon. Members. I particularly enjoyed what my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said, that the Government just does not really get further education yet. Whatever their narrative says, successive policy and funding decisions suggest that the Government see further education very much as something that narrowly loads skills that an employer needs into a recipient who goes from unemployed to an employee. Of course, skilling people for specific jobs and careers is a vital function of the further education sector, but further education is about so much more than that. My hon. Friend spoke powerfully about what further education and adult education is all about. It is about second chances; it is about alternative learning environments, often for those who did not thrive at school; it is about providing a vehicle that helps local communities, employers, learners and learning institutions to work together.

I sense that this is a White Paper that lacks soul. Further education is not just a service; it is a way of life, a pathway and a staircase. It is transformative, empowering, beautiful, and it changes people’s lives, not just their jobs. That sense of joy and boundless opportunity is entirely missing from the Government’s very narrow approach. Close to where I live, there used to be a college called North Derbyshire Tertiary College. It has long gone now, but it was funded by a penny levy on miners that they paid at the end of their shift on a Friday. Men arriving back at the surface after an exhausting day at the coalface would drop a penny in a tin to help them learn to read and write and to educate their children, so that for the next generation there would be choices other than following their fathers down the pit. It was never about improving their use to their employers; it was about investing in their communities and themselves to widen those opportunities.

It is the Government’s failure to understand that principle that leads them to say stupid things like Unionlearn was of no value, because it mainly worked with people who were already in work. Of course! No one suggested that Unionlearn was the only skills approach the Government needed, but a programme with a great success rate of helping workers to learn skills that will help them get promoted or get a pay rise has real value. People do not need to be out of work to be able to gain value from improving their skills.

The Committee’s report makes some really sensible suggestions. I find very unconvincing the Government’s assurances that many of the issues raised by the Committee are already in hand. For example, we already know that there has been a 50% real-terms reduction in adult education funding under this Government, so the dismissal of the Committee’s suggestion that the spending increase required for adult education should be properly costed is most unconvincing.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about the value of adult learning, but also about how large the real-terms reduction has been. We cannot get away from the importance of that funding, and we know that adult education has seen catastrophic reductions in funding during the past 11 years. The right hon. Member for Harlow referred to well intentioned reforms, and I am sure that in many areas there were well intentioned reforms, but it is impossible to argue that the specific cuts made to adult education were well intentioned. That was a positive decision that the Government made. The Government can address that or choose not to, but they should not pretend that those funding losses are not real or that they have been in any way addressed since the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) became Prime Minister.

I welcome the Committee’s call for funding streams to be consolidated and streamlined. The Government outlined their ambitions to do that, but their approach so far has added barriers and complexities, not reduced them, so there is—I will be generous—widespread scepticism about whether the Government will deliver on their ambitions in that regard. I welcome the lifelong learning entitlement proposal, but given that the lifetime skills guarantee has turned out to be far more limited in scope than expected, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said, the line

“We will consult on the detail”

is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the Government response to that recommendation.

The Government have huge confidence that their desire to put employers in the driving seat will address Britain’s skills challenges, but the right hon. Member for Harlow was right to say that 39% of employers admit to providing no training whatever, so the idea that employers being in the driving seat will resolve all these challenges is, I think, deeply concerning. Of course employers are crucial stakeholders in this approach and absolutely have to be in the room, but there is considerable doubt as to the extent to which they want or are able to drive the vehicle.

It is a stunning indictment of the Government’s approach to working with businesses that local enterprise partnerships seem to be entirely missing from the White Paper. The report, in recommendation 11, refers to attempts to bring local enterprise partnerships back in, but the Government response does not even mention that recommendation on local enterprise partnerships. Clearly, they are entirely shut out. Chambers of commerce have some brilliant branches and great people and they are capable of excellent practice, but there is a large gap between where those organisations’ current capacity is and their ability to play the kind of role that the Government appear to envisage.

It is telling that 50% of the Government’s adult education budget is devolved to the seven mayoral combined authority areas and London. It is depressing that the Government seem to be doing an about-turn on devolution. The Government’s dismissal of the Committee’s suggestion about devolving the National Careers Service is an example of that. They have no plan for devolution to those areas not in the shadow of a major city, and therefore a very limited plan for addressing the skills approach needed to target town and rural areas. That is particularly damaging because those are the areas most likely to be without the major employers that seem to drive so much of this Government’s approach to skills. Many of us live in towns dominated not by three or four employers of thousands of people, but by thousands of employers of three or four people. They have been widely shut out of the Government’s reforms thus far, and there is nothing in the skills White Paper that goes close to addressing those challenges.

Turning for a moment to the specific challenges that face the Government now, I remain mystified that the Government have failed to take up the apprenticeship wage subsidy idea put forward by Labour, utilising the money that remains unspent in the apprenticeship levy pot to support funding for the first year of new apprenticeships. I would also like the Minister to offer some justification for the ridiculous and damaging decision referred to by the hon. Member for Waveney to claw back adult education funds where providers have provided less than 90% of the contracted amount. For those colleges that do most back-to-work courses or focus particularly on ESOL work, that target is totally unrealistic. It will inevitably fall to colleges to at best cancel pay awards and, in many cases, make redundancies.

I really welcome this report and the contribution that the right hon. Member for Harlow and his Committee continue to make to this incredibly important area, but I think that the Government response to the report shows that there is still a long, long way to go before these challenges are properly tackled.

It is truly a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this important debate. I know he cares very deeply about adult skills, both in his role as Chair of the Education Committee and as a former Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills. I follow in his footsteps to a great degree.

The Government welcome the Education Committee’s report on adult skills and lifelong learning and have responded to all the Committee’s recommendations. I thank all members of the Committee for all the work they do in this area. We may not agree on every detail, but we are all passionate about changing the lives of the people who need skills to get on in life. In our response, we set out what we are going to do to address the challenges presented by covid-19, as well as our longer-term strategy for ensuring that we have the skills that the future economy needs. I want to touch upon these two things today because they are vitally important, as many Members have said.

I agree with what many hon. Members have said. The pandemic has had a huge impact on the lives of many individuals and the topic of adult skills and lifelong learning has never been more important. We know from the 2008 economic downturn that for some people, especially young people and those in low-skilled and low-paid jobs, economic scarring can have a lifelong detrimental effect on future prospects. I reassure the Committee that the Government are acutely aware of that and we are doing everything we can to avoid that. We have learnt the lessons of 2008. The Government have taken some quick action to support those affected by covid-19, but we are always looking to see what we can do to rebuild, to build back better, to recover our economy and so on. Adult skills will be a key part of that.

At the beginning of the pandemic, in April 2020, the Department for Education introduced the skills toolkit. It was there as something that was useful for people to do when we first went into lockdown and on furlough. Providers included the Open University, Google, Amazon, FutureLearn and many others. They are delivering online courses, from practical maths to computer science and coding courses, to help people stay in work or to use the time they had to take up new opportunities. That offer was expanded last September to more than 70 courses. As of February this year, less than a year after it started, there had been an estimated 176,800 course registrations—only one of them was mine—and 33,600 course completions, and one of them was mine, too.

The Chancellor’s plan for jobs is also protecting, supporting and creating jobs across the country. We want to help people across the country, whether they are starting out on their career, thinking of updating their skills or considering changing their career. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) mentioned the challenges in the industrial strategy. “Build Back Better: our plan for growth” contains many of the Government’s plans. There is also the levelling up fund, which has some excellent uses to help level up and ensure that we genuinely build back better.

We have increased our investment in the National Careers Service. We are enabling more careers advisers to provide personalised careers advice for more people whose jobs or learning have been impacted by covid. We have doubled the number of work coaches for those who are going into the jobcentre. We are getting prepared to make sure that we are there to help people, however they access services and whatever help they need.

For those aged 16 to 24 and facing barriers to entering work or an apprenticeship, we are increasing the number of traineeships to give more personalised training, including in English and maths—many hon. Members mentioned additional support required in those areas—and work experience to help people progress. We are investing an additional £126 million in traineeships in the 2021-22 academic year.

Traineeships and pre-apprenticeships provide work-based learning focused on improving a young person’s abilities, including how to look and apply for a job, how to prepare and how to be successful in the workplace. They allow a young person to achieve the level 1 or 2 qualifications they may have missed out on. Digital skills are essential, and they are included, if the person did not do well in those subjects at school. There is also a vocational and occupational element of learning and, if required, qualifications aligned to a sectoral occupation.

The programme includes, vitally, work experience and a placement that lasts anywhere between two and eight weeks. At the end, we hope that all those young people will be offered a job or an apprenticeship. Businesses have a vital role to play, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said, alongside business representative organisations, colleges, training providers, other local organisations, councils, LEPs and mayoral combined authorities. This is part of the local working together.

In terms of businesses, a lot is happening already. I mentioned traineeships, and Specsavers is a large employer engaged in a traineeship programme as a way of recruiting apprentices. It now has a 100% success rate of progressing young people who have completed a traineeship into an apprenticeship, and we want more of these models. Smaller businesses as well have engaged—Nexus Accountants has supported traineeships—enabling young people to access higher level apprenticeships and nurturing them along the way.

We have sector-based work academies also helping to make sure that we have a sector-based offer for employability training, work experience and so on that lasts up to six weeks. Many Members mentioned essential digital skills. We have updated them and they were available from August last year. On community learning, we have 259 providers in multiple centres across the country, and we have been working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that more unemployed people can take advantage of the lifetime skills guarantee. We are piloting an extension to the length of time that they can receive universal credit while doing work-focused study from later this month. We are delighted about that, because it means that universal credit claimants will now be able to train full time for up to 12 weeks, or 16 weeks if they are on a full-time skills bootcamp in England, while receiving universal credit to support their living costs. This will give them many more options and they will get the opportunity to improve the productivity of the country by using the time to ensure that they get more skills, become more valuable and secure their work future.

Through the national skills fund, we have the potential to deliver opportunities to generations of adults who previously have been left behind. We will do more than nurse things back to health. We will make sure that we invest £2.5 billion—£3 billion including Barnett funding for the devolved Administrations. It is a significant investment and we want to make sure it changes lives.

Available since 1 April, we are fully funding any adult aged 24 and over who wants to achieve their first A-level equivalent qualification. They will be able to access more than 400 valuable courses as part of the lifetime skills guarantee. The free courses for jobs offer is backed by £95 million from the national skills fund in year one, which removes the barrier to training for millions of adults and gives them the chance to get really valuable training. The list is not static. The courses can change. In fact, we have added more courses already, so it is not set in stone. We will adapt as required.

The qualifications on offer are already fantastic. Adults can take them up, boost their career prospects and wages, and help fill the skills gap. For example, from a diploma in engineering technology, they can progress on to roles in maintenance and manufacturing engineering. There is electrical installation, adult care, and all of the areas where we have skills shortages. This is an important part of our offer.

The second part of the lifetime skills guarantee is bootcamps. The first ones started in the west midlands, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and Liverpool City Region. They are absolutely brilliant. Members should go and see them. I would be happy to go with members of the Committee when we can. There is the School of Code bootcamp. We have heard brilliant stories about changing lives. A print production manager for 15 years was made redundant from his job. He was looking for a change, something different to do, and he said, “The School of Code has truly changed my life. I have the skills and confidence to change careers and do something I truly love.” He has now launched as a junior software engineer at Wyze. There are so many examples: photonics, electronics, electrical engineering. Many companies are involved and we are looking to spread them all across the country.

Many Members have mentioned apprentices and apprenticeships. There are obviously incentives. They are so important and we have 130 level 6 and 7 standards now. I am a huge fan. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said, I am the only degree apprentice in the House. The White Paper is a huge opportunity. Many mentioned flexible modular provision. We will make sure that that is included, and we will simplify funding.

In conclusion, timing is everything, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) mentioned. We will now make sure that this does not collect dust on the shelf. The White Paper delivers on that technical revolution—the biggest in 60 years—and we are committed to ensuring that we have a skills system that will offer individuals all they need to be successful in life, and will enable our economy to build back better as a nation.

I thank the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister for speaking on through the bells, which is not easy; I appreciate it. Robert Halfon, would you like a couple of minutes to wind up?

Thank you, Ms Rees, and I thank the hon. Members and Friends who have spoken this afternoon. I think the Minister will see that there is significant cross-party unity on this, particularly on issues such as community learning, raised so eloquently by the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), talked about further education being a way of life, and I absolutely agree with that; I think that is a phrase I will remember and use for a long time to come. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) talked about apprenticeships at Rolls-Royce versus Oxford. My dream is that one day, if somebody says they go to Oxford, people will say, “That’s nice”, but if somebody says they are doing an apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce, everyone will go, “How amazing. How incredible.” I want that to be seen as something very special to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) talked about equality for FE and HE funding, and he was absolutely right to do so. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said that we should take down the barriers to learning, which is why I am so supportive of community learning. That point was reiterated, as I have mentioned, by the hon. Member for Putney, who serves on my Committee. She made the point, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, that community centres should be in existing buildings: we do not need brand new, shiny buildings in order to do this. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North also spoke about the Open University, which I think is one of the great reforms of the 20th century. No doubt he is here today because of the opportunities that the Open University offered his father, which he spoke about so movingly.

To conclude, the hon. Member for Putney spoke about not putting this report on the shelf. We are a campaigning Committee, so we are not going to put this report on the shelf; we will campaign on these things again and again. I will die with the word “campaigner” emblazed on my grave. I think that the Minister has got the message: we need a giant leap for adult learning, on top of the giant step forward in the White Paper. Community learning is skills, tax credits, and lifelong learning for adults. I think we have a good chance of really transforming the landscape in our country.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Third Report of the Education Committee, “A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution”, HC 278.

Sitting adjourned.