House of Commons
Thursday 13 May 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Business of the House
The business of the House will include:
Monday 17 May—Continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech on safe streets for all.
Tuesday 18 May—Continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech on affordable and safe housing for all.
Wednesday 19 May—Conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech on a rescue plan for the NHS and social care.
Thursday 20 May—General debate on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster.
Friday 21 May—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 24 May will include:
Monday 24 May—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill.
Tuesday 25 May—Remaining stages of the Telecommunications (Security) Bill.
Wednesday 26 May—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Environment Bill (day 2).
Thursday 27 May—General debate on dementia action week, followed by general debate on implementing the 2020 obesity strategy.
Both debates were previously recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Hon. and right hon. Members will also wish to be reminded that the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 27 May and return on Monday 7 June.
I thank the Leader of the House for that, and, in this role, I look forward to working with him and with you, Mr Speaker, especially on making this world heritage site the most accessible it can be, and in particular autism-accessible in tribute to our late colleague, Cheryl Gillan.
The news and images from the middle east this morning are truly horrifying. We join the Government in urging calm. We ask them to do all they can to halt the terrifying attacks and loss of life and to work with allies to help restore a peace process.
My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), has a remarkable work ethic, championing colleagues and staff in this place and showing calmness in a crisis, and I thank her. She is a hard act to follow.
I was also pleased to see in recent elections the high regard that the people of North East Somerset—the Leader of the House’s constituents—have for their previous MP, his predecessor. They voted in large numbers for Labour’s Dan Norris as our metro mayor. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Dan on his successful election as the Mayor of the West of England? Will he support Dan’s call for a better deal for his own constituents from this Government?
I know that the Leader of the House prizes democracy, one of this country’s greatest exports, so will he agree that it does not deserve the treatment it was given in the Queen’s Speech? The Government propose to restrict the right to vote by requiring photo identification, yet a mere 0.000002%—I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for that figure—of the votes cast in 2019 were found to be fraudulent. The reason given for this attack on democracy is one conviction, out of more than 47 million votes. Ministers have said that as we have to ID to pick up a package, we should need it for voting, but 3.5 million people do not have photo ID. In any case, these Ministers are clearly not picking up their own parcels, as they would know that many forms of ID without photos are accepted. Will the Leader of the House please explain to his own constituents why they cannot vote by giving their name to a clerk and being counted by a teller, when that is how their own MP votes in this place—in normal times, at least? Will he join me in saluting the respect the British public have for democracy and reconsider the Government’s reckless, expensive and anti-democratic decision?
The Queen’s Speech was astonishing for the lack of understanding of the problems that we had before the pandemic—problems made worse by it—and for the lack of ambition to tackle them. We need urgency and boldness to create those decent, secure jobs, to halt climate change, to build truly affordable homes and to boost productivity.
We also need to know what has happened to the Prime Minister’s much-hyped plan to fix social care. After a truly terrible year in which the need for this plan could not have been any clearer, there is barely a whisper of it in the Queen’s Speech—a paltry nine words. Meanwhile, there have been £8 billion of cuts from social care budgets by successive Tory Governments since 2010, and we have a welfare state for the 2020s built on the life expectancy of the 1940s. It is 659 days since the Prime Minister promised us a plan, but, nearly 10 years after the Dilnot commission published its recommendations, which could be that plan, older people who made this country what it is have had to spend their own hard-earned money on a care system that is urgently in need of such a plan. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to come to this House and explain this dereliction of duty?
The Government fail to appreciate the strength of feeling across Parliament and the country about the cladding and fire safety crisis, exposed so tragically and cruelly by the Grenfell Tower fire. Members of all parties know the struggles of their own constituents. They have repeatedly tried to get the Government to stick to their promise—oft made—that residents would not be made to pay for dangers they did not cause, so will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to lift the burdens from residents in buildings both above and below 18 metres and place those burdens firmly on the industry that caused them? Will the Leader of the House urge him also not to wait until the Building Safety Bill, but to act now and vote with Her Majesty’s Opposition next week on our building safety motion?
Finally, the Leader of the Opposition has, of course, welcomed on our behalf the Government’s announcement of a public inquiry into covid and the Government response, but the Prime Minister needs to heed the cry of bereaved families, who have been calling for this inquiry for over a year and want lessons to be learned urgently, not next year—they want them in time to inform any further waves, which are still, sadly, a risk because of the variants. Will the Leader of the House ask the Government to publish the lessons learned review urgently and to heed the words of survivors and bereaved people?
The covid memorial wall, with its thousands of red hearts facing us across the Thames, bears witness to the loss and pain of the last year. We owe it to those people who died, to their relatives and to the country to make sure that the Government are openly and speedily transparent. They deserve no less, and we in the Opposition will, on their behalf, hold the Government to that.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. We have been neighbours or near neighbours in Somerset and Bristol for some years. I think we started debating together on “Points West”, and now we face each other across the Dispatch Box, and I am sure it will continue to be as friendly but as forceful a debate as we had all those years ago. The hon. Lady is known across the House for her good nature and kindliness but also her clarity of thinking and forcefulness, so I look forward to these sessions as a source of a bit of heat but also some light too.
I want to pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who was an absolute pleasure to work with. Mr Speaker, I am sure that you found the same on the Commission, where she was committed to making things work for the whole House in a bipartisan spirit. She raised every week at the Dispatch Box important issues, particularly relating to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other people held improperly by a regime that does not respect the rights of individuals. Her campaigning was forceful, her questions were usually quite tricky and she was a delight to be a counterparty to.
I feel that the poor old right hon. Lady has become the Admiral Byng of the socialist party. As you may remember, Mr Speaker, Admiral Byng was ultimately disposed of because he was sent out with ships that were not good enough. HQ failed and blundered, but it had to look around and find some scapegoat, and the most senior scapegoat of Hartlepool seems to be the right hon. Lady, which seems a little bit harsh. She is the Admiral Byng memorial former shadow Leader of the House of Commons.
I turn to the important questions that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) asked. Absolutely, trying to restore a peace process is important, and the Government have called on both sides to show restraint; that is of fundamental sense. We hope that peace will be re-established, and we are working with our allies.
Of course I congratulate Dan Norris on being elected as the Mayor of WECA—the West of England Combined Authority—much though I do not think WECA should exist, because I think it is a means of taking money out of North East Somerset and giving it to Bristol, which is not something I have ever been much in favour of, but I wish him well in his new role.
It is important that elections are fair and proper. The hon. Lady mentioned that we do not have to prove who we are when voting in the Division Lobby in normal circumstances, but she is forgetting that we are not allowed to wear overcoats in the Division Lobby, just in case we send somebody through to vote in our place.
Or, indeed, as Mr Speaker helpfully says, hats. Therefore, there are requirements in this place to prevent personation, and surely what is good enough for the House of Commons to prevent personation is right. [Interruption.] Although that was a wonderful heckle, at the moment we are using our identity cards to vote, so the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is not right on this occasion; that is a most unusual lapse in his normal attention to the detail of the procedures of the House.
Having photographic identification ensures that a problem does not arise. This country has an electoral system of which people can be proud and in which people have confidence. We must not allow that confidence to slip. We do not want hanging chads and then to deal with it afterwards. We want to stop hanging chads happening before that becomes an issue and personation becomes at risk. It is only reasonable to ask people to turn up with their photographic identification or get it from their local council, so that they can vote. I fear that it is absolutely classic of the socialists—they do not have any confidence in their own voters. We have confidence in our voters, because we think our voters will not find it unduly onerous or taxing to turn up with an identity document of some kind.
As regards the ambition of the Queen’s Speech, it actually delivers on all the things that the hon. Lady seemed to be asking for—there is major planning reform, there are freeports to help boost the economy and COP26 is coming this year. I thought her comments were rather more in favour of the Queen’s Speech than hostile to it. I am grateful for that; I will take what I can in these circumstances.
Social care has been a long-standing issue. The last Labour Government—happily, a long time ago now—had two Green Papers and one royal commission, and still could not come up with any solution, but this Government are committed to coming forward with our solution by the end of this year. That is absolutely clear, and it was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech—the Gracious Speech. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has been the most assiduous attender in this House, updating this House on every aspect of his responsibility. He is very good at doing that, and he does it more often than almost any other Secretary of State.
As regards cladding, and of course we come to the anniversary of Grenfell in June, that is a serious issue, and the building safety Bill will deal with it. It is proper to deal with these things in the appropriate legislation. That is what Her Majesty’s Government said as the Fire Safety Bill was going through, and it will be dealt with in the building safety Bill, which will be coming forward shortly. The hon. Lady should wait for the exciting announcements that come from this Dispatch Box.
Finally, as regards the inquiry, it is surely better to do it when the pandemic has come to an end. It is still being dealt with. The vaccine roll-out is an enormous achievement, but it is still being rolled out. An enormous administrative effort is still required to make sure that it is taking place effectively. I think that to distract from the good work that is being done with an inquiry now would be a mistake, but the time will come and it will come relatively soon.
Would my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on special educational needs support to not only ensure that we level up equality of opportunity for everyone, but consider the establishment of SEND—special educational needs and disabilities—hubs throughout the country, including in Bury, to provide health, emotional, educational and employment assistance to some of the most vulnerable in our communities?
The Department for Education has launched a major review of the special educational needs system, which is planned to be published before the summer of 2021. Based on discussions with children, young people, families and partners across education and healthcare, it will consult on proposals to deliver a system that is clearly focused on preparing for fulfilled adulthood through every stage, and to identify and address issues earlier within mainstream education. The Government believe these measures will not only improve children’s and young people’s outcomes and put them and their families at the heart of the SEND system, but deliver a SEND system fit for the future, with high-quality support delivered affordably and sustainably for the long term. I am glad to say that my hon. Friend is going to be speaking in the Queen’s Speech debate later, so I hope he will raise this issue further then.
Can I also welcome the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) to her place? I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)—remember the Perthshire One—will also be very much looking forward to working with her. I would add my own tributes to the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). She was certainly a great support to me as I stood in in this role—and I continue to stand in in this role—over the past weeks. Obviously, my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire is very keen to make a return to this role, but we shall have to hold our anticipation for a little longer until we can see that happening.
I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will want to join me in congratulating the new Scottish Government on a record-breaking election success in last week’s Scottish Parliament elections—more votes than any other party in the history of devolution—and it is certainly great to see them returned in such great numbers. From a personal point of view, I note that the Members for Midlothian North and Musselburgh, Colin Beattie, and for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, Christine Grahame, both returned with an increased vote share and increased majorities.
I share the concerns of other Members about the ongoing situation in Israel and Palestine. I think that is of great concern to us all. Would the Leader of the House perhaps make time available for the Secretary of State for International Trade to give a statement to the House on the impact of arms export licences and how this has such an impact on conflicts around the globe?
Over recent weeks, I have often raised the issues of openness and transparency. We still see these issues ongoing and allegations still do not go away. Investigations are now ongoing, but concern still remains that the Prime Minister can let himself off the hook on any conclusions the adviser on ministerial interests might come to, just as happened with the Home Secretary previously. Surely this is evidence that the enforcement of the ministerial code is not nearly strong enough. In the words of Transparency International, the
“guiding principles alone are not sufficient when it comes to guaranteeing integrity in public office.”
So can we have a statement from the Minister for the Cabinet Office on strengthening the code, perhaps even by making it by law?
Yes, of course we miss the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), but the hon. Gentleman is an excellent stand-in and, as I understand it, he is standing in in almost every role within the Scottish National party at the moment; I wonder whether he might have to take over as First Minister in due course and be seconded. Of course I congratulate the First Minister and the SNP on their election success, and Her Majesty’s Government look forward to working very closely with all the devolved Administrations in a spirit of good will and cohesiveness. I am delighted that the First Minister has decided to join the United Kingdom Government in the inquiry into covid, showing the strength of the United Kingdom. I am beginning to hope—although this may be excessive hope—that there is the prospect of one sinner repenting, which would give great joy to the others who do not need to, as the First Minister becomes more Unionist in her outlook.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the question of arms export licences. They are extremely carefully controlled and Her Majesty’s Government work closely with our allies to ensure that we sell arms only to those countries with which we have the closest relationship, as of course we do with the state of Israel.
On openness and transparency, the great openness is a majority of 80. The Prime Minister has the mandate from the British people. The ministerial code is the Prime Minister’s code. It would be a ridiculous state of affairs to think that the will of the British people could in some bureaucratic way be superseded. It cannot be; the Prime Minister has the support of the British people, shown again last week in an enormously successful vote. So while I am congratulating the SNP and the Mayor of WECA, let me also congratulate our own Prime Minister on being able to connect with the British people in a way that few other politicians have ever achieved.
The residents of the Carsic estate in Ashfield are fed up with a handful of local idiots who are the source of the vast majority of antisocial behaviour and this is happening all over the country. The majority of these nuisances are social housing tenants who show no respect to the vast majority of decent, hard-working tenants who are being let down by a system that makes it very difficult to evict nuisance tenants. Would my right hon. Friend welcome a debate in this House to discuss how we can give our police, our councils and our courts greater powers to allow decent people, like the decent people of Carsic, the right to a peaceful life?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question because I think all of us as constituency MPs deal with this issue. Some social landlords, such as Curo, are very good and responsive. Others, and I have found in my experience the Guinness trust, are very much less responsive in helping. Social landlords are required by the Regulator of Social Housing to work in partnership with other agencies to prevent and tackle antisocial behaviour in the neighbourhoods where they own homes. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 provides the police, local authorities and other local agencies with a range of tools and powers that they can use to respond quickly and effectively to antisocial behaviour, and these include civil injunctions that can impose restrictions or positive requirements on individuals whose behaviour is causing or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this in the Chamber of the House, because sometimes the best way to get action is by putting pressure on, as the Member of Parliament, to get the various agencies to work together.
The planning Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech will ring loud alarm bells for many residents in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, not least those in Sydenham, Whitnash and Bishop’s Tachbrook, given that it would allow applications to automatically gain approval in certain areas, stripping residents of their right to have a say. For those in Sydenham, the news this week that the council planning committee has recommended approval of the application for 500 homes in east Whitnash will come as a shock, given that it was turned down previously and that the planning inspector recommended that it should not be built due to the limited capacity of the Sydenham road network. The site is, after all, a cul-de-sac at the end of a cul-de-sac on a cul-de-sac on a cul-de-sac; the roads cannot cope. Will the Leader of the House grant me a debate on the proposed development, which is totally unnecessary, as concluded by independent Office for National Statistics data?
The hon. Gentleman’s constituency issue is ideally suited for an Adjournment debate, but the planning Bill is essential. Her Majesty’s Government believe in helping people to own their own home. This is about home ownership and having a planning system that actually makes it easier for people to own their own homes and to build the houses that people need—something that we have been failing to do over many years, based on a system established in the late 1940s that thought that central Government always knew best. Central Government do not always know best. There is a significant demand out there. The supply needs to meet that demand, and we need to strengthen and reinvigorate our home-owning democracy.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the numbers allowed at life events such as weddings and funerals in the road map out of lockdown? While I welcome the Government’s research programme, which saw an audience of 4,000 people at the O2 earlier this week for the Brit awards—I used to be invited when I was younger—many constituents are frustrated that they are having to wait until 21 June to have more than 30 friends and family at their wedding. Following the success of our vaccination programme, I do hope that that guidance can be reviewed.
I am sure they are. My hon. Friend’s words are heard across the nation. They reverberate around the land. They go out from this great hall to be heard in every corner of the United Kingdom.
I am glad to say that this week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed a further easing of restrictions from 17 May, as the latest data confirm the four tests have been met. That includes weddings, receptions and other life events taking place with up to 30 people and, I think importantly—I think this was the right priority—increasing the cap on the numbers attending funerals in line with how many people can be safely accommodated in venues. It is crucial that we push on with our vaccination programme, and that people follow the rules and take advantage of lateral flow tests, so that we can make this road map to freedom a one-way road.
Last month in my constituency, a 17-year-old boy, Levi Ernest-Morrison, was stabbed to death metres from his front door. Despite the Government saying they are committed to a public health approach to youth violence, over the last 10 years, we have seen youth centres and Sure Start centres closed, and education and children’s mental health budgets slashed. Can we please have a debate, in Government time, about tackling youth violence once and for all?
There has clearly been a problem with rising levels of crime in London. The Government are committed to doing everything they can to tackle that, partly through the employment of more police, with over 6,000 more police officers already recruited and a target for 20,000 more, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently before this House. It is really important that, across all parties, we support the efforts that are being made to back up the police and to have more police. I feel so sorry for the families affected. The hon. Lady, I am sure, is giving support to her constituent at this very sad time.
I was delighted to see former Labour leader Tony Blair show that he is concerned, as I am, with the woke left wanting to cancel anyone who disagrees with them. I am delighted that the Government are coming forward with legislation to protect freedom of speech at universities, but Dudley does not have a university, so does my right hon. Friend agree that that legislation should also be applicable to colleges, online, and to other areas of our lives?
My hon. Friend is right to raise his concerns about the charge of the woke brigade, though I seem to remember that the charge of the Light Brigade was ultimately not an enormously successful venture. I think the charge of the woke brigade will be similarly thwarted in the end.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which was announced in the Queen’s Speech, will protect the fundamental principle of freedom of speech by strengthening existing freedoms of speech and addressing gaps in the current framework. There must be consequences for breaches of freedom of speech duties, and these legislative changes will ensure the significance and compliance that freedom of speech deserves.
This issue is of fundamental importance. If our places of education are not bastions of freedom of speech, what purpose do they serve? The whole point of a university is the clash of ideas, as we have a clash of ideas back and forth in this House. Freedom of speech in this House is protected by the Bill of Rights. We should protect, encourage and enhance freedom of speech across the land.
The Scottish Parliament has extended the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and most recently to all new Scots with leave to remain and refugee status. Last Thursday saw a record turnout, which was a victory for democracy as well as for the Scottish National party. The Leader of the House says that his voters might be able to afford ID, but many across the country will not, so can we have an urgent statement on exactly why the UK Government are seeking to suppress and restrict electoral participation with their offensive, unevidenced and exclusionary voter ID rules?
The hon. Lady may want to consult Hansard because I pointed out that councils will make ID available for free to people who do not have suitable identification documents, and I believe 98% of people already do. The franchise will be extended in the Bill that we bring forward to ensure that people living overseas do not lose their votes after 15 years, so I hope that she will support that further extension of democracy.
I speak as the chairman of the all-party group on 22q11 syndrome, which is a genetic disorder best described as the most common syndrome not heard of unless you have it, with many children having, among other things, learning difficulties. With that in mind, I believe that for many children who require specialist education support, such as those with 22q, the educational catch-up from covid-19 may not be as straightforward as for those without. Our recovery from covid-19 must be as equal as possible for all, so may we have a debate in Government time to raise awareness of the lesser known but equally prevalent genetic disorders, such as 22q, and the impact that covid-19 has had on learning and educational recovery post-pandemic?
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking over the all-party group that looks at these issues? The point she raises is one of great importance. We must value everybody in our society equally—that must be a fundamental principle of how the society of the United Kingdom works—and, therefore, support those with special educational needs and disabilities and help them to make up for time lost during the pandemic. Sir Kevan Collins has been appointed as the education recovery commissioner and is considering how schools and the system can more effectively target resources and support the pupils in the greatest need. Special schools and alternative provision will be available to access funding to provide summer schools and the national tutoring programme. We have also prioritised children who attend specialist settings by providing additional uplift both in the 2020 catch-up premium and in the 2021 recovery premium. It so happens that today’s Queen’s Speech debate on a brighter future for the next generation is an opportunity to raise this matter further.
I send my congratulations to Pam Duncan-Glancy, the first permanent wheelchair user elected to the Scottish Parliament, but not all wheelchair users in public office have a good story to tell. Harriet Clough, the second wheelchair-using councillor ever elected to Bristol City Council could not stand this time because of the closure of the EnAble fund—a temporary fund designed to cover the cost for reasonable adjustments for candidates with a disability. Does the Leader of the House agree that having a disability should never stand in the way of running for public office, and will he outline when the Government will bring forward a permanent fund as a first step towards removing barriers for candidates with a disability?
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is absolutely right that people with disabilities should face no barrier to engaging in public life. They should be helped, supported and encouraged, but in the selection of candidates, the primary responsibility is with political parties.
A recent report, which included input from the Department for Transport, looked at the rail services in and around Manchester and suggested that one option should be a change in the pattern of services on the Hope Valley line, which includes services between Cleethorpes and Manchester airport, which is regarded as absolutely essential as it provides connections to the rest of the network. Concerns have also been expressed by Sheffield Members. Could the Leader of the House arrange for the Rail Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris)— to come to the House and make a statement to reassure Members and passengers?
My hon. Friend, as always, is a great champion for his constituency. I can assure him that the Government take the matter seriously. We are set to spend £137 million of taxpayers’ money to deliver more capacity and improve connectivity between Sheffield and Manchester. The Hope valley capacity scheme is designed to remove bottlenecks on the line by creating places for fast passenger services to overtake slower-moving freight trains, allowing more trains to run and increasing the reliability of services. When it is finished, I think that the Hope valley line should be renamed the Martin Vickers line, as a proper tribute to my hon. Friend for all he does for his constituents.
Many of my constituents tell me that they are finding it difficult to get face-to-face appointments with GPs. While I appreciate that telephone and video consultations will remain a factor, will my right hon. Friend give a statement to the House to say that face-to-face appointments should be available within a reasonable timeframe if they are needed?
The question is obviously important, and my hon. Friend is right to raise it. General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic, and people should be able to receive services in the way that is most suitable for them. The way in which people can get general practice services during covid-19 has changed; practices are offering more triage and remote consultations —video and online—to see as many patients as possible, while protecting staff and patients from the avoidable risk of infection. NHS England and NHS Improvement have issued guidance on the importance of continuing to offer face-to-face appointments, utilising remote triage and making use of online and telephone consultations where suitable.
General practice appointment levels are, I am glad to say, now close to pre-pandemic numbers. In February 2021, an estimated 23.5 million appointments—an average of 1.19 million per working day—were booked in general practice in England, of which 13 million were face-to-face, which is 55.3%. People who need face-to-face appointments ought to be able to get them.
If we are congratulating people, could we congratulate Buffy Williams on winning her seat in the Senedd for the Rhondda last week? At the same time, could we also pay tribute to Leanne Wood? She was a Plaid Cymru Assembly and then Senedd Member for 18 years, which shows phenomenal dedication. We should pay tribute to those who are our opponents, not our enemies.
May I ask the Leader of the House whether he attended the Brit awards the other night, or watched them perhaps—or whether he knows what the Brit awards are? In particular, did he listen to Dua Lipa’s very important contribution about our health workers in this country? She said:
“It’s very good to clap for them, but we need to pay them.”
I say that because it is not just the people who have been doing the vaccinating and those who have kept us safe over the past 15 months, but the people who will have to get the NHS back into shape to deal with all the other conditions that could not be dealt with for the past year. We need to give them a boost in the arm—and that is money, isn’t it? Can we have a debate on it?
May I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Buffy Williams on her victory in the Rhondda? He is most gracious in paying tribute to Leanne Wood; he is right to do so, because 18 years of public service is a long time and losing elections is never fun, even for our political opponents. It is worth recognising that.
Unfortunately, I did not pay much attention to the British awards.
I am not as trendy, fashionable or à la mode as the hon. Gentleman—if only we could all be such models of modernity as he is. To come to his fundamental point, nurses will receive a 1% pay rise and have received some additional funding as well, but we must recognise that the public finances are under great strain after the hundreds of billions—over £400 billion—that have been spent to protect the economy and deal with covid. There are constraints on what can be spent, but there is an independent review. The Government’s proposal has been made, and we will see what the review says.
The Spode works in Stoke-on-Trent Central is a complex and exciting regeneration project where new creative businesses are breathing life back into a much-loved historic site, bringing new cultural recovery to a historically underfunded area. Will my right hon. Friend make parliamentary time to discuss the impact that small businesses in the cultural sector will have on reviving towns and cities post pandemic?
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern. It is a top priority that small businesses are the engine of our recovery. They are as much a part of our cultural heritage, especially in industrial cities such as Stoke, as any museum or concert hall. We have to date spent over £1.2 billion in financial support to more than 5,000 individual organisations and sites both large and small across the United Kingdom, including, I am glad to say, the Spode Museum Trust. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer also announced in the 2021 Budget an additional £300 million of taxpayers’ money to support theatres, museums and other cultural organisations in England through the cultural recovery fund, together with other cultural support, such as funding for our national museums. This means that the total tax- payer package for culture during the pandemic is now approaching £2 billion, which is really an unprecedented sum.
Over recent weeks, many constituents have contacted me with huge concern about the removal of hedgerows at the start of a housing development, in what most of us think of as the close season for cutting or removing hedgerows. I have looked into the individual incident, but my constituents and I would like to see further protection of our hedgerows and wildlife in the context of development, so can we have a debate in Government time on how we can strengthen that protection for our hedgerows, birds and wildlife?
I think that the hon. Lady is really calling for the agricultural reforms that are being put forward to ensure support for farmers who support the environment. Certainly, talking to farmers in North East Somerset, I know that they are well aware of their obligations to protect hedgerows, but this is not an obligation that they resent. They feel it is a natural part of their farming duty.
I am afraid that Parliament is not working. It is not properly holding the Government to account. It strikes me that Parliament should lead, so could we have a statement from the Leader of the House telling us when Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, is going to be restored to its normal process? When will we end virtual proceedings, so that we can have proper voting and not have hundreds of votes in the Deputy Chief Whip’s pocket, and when will we end social distancing in the Chamber? We really need to lead and get Parliament back doing its job properly.
A voice cryeth in the wilderness! I am tempted to say, “Physician, heal thyself.” Where is my hon. Friend? Why is he not in this Chamber holding me to account and leading by the example he wants? I entirely agree with him. I am waiting with joy for that day when we are back to normal, which I hope will be 21 June, when everybody will be back here and it will be safe, and we will not have to wear masks and the Dispatch Box will not be covered in perspex, and we will be back to a full and flourishing Chamber. I agree with my hon. Friend that scrutiny is good for the nation, good for the Government and good for our constituents, but I would encourage him to come to London, come to Westminster, and take his seat.
On this holy day of Eid, a day of salvation for Muslims across the world, many including in my own constituency are watching with horror as an abhorrent humanitarian crisis escalates against the Palestinian people in that region. It may well be an uncomfortable truth for the UK Government that they have fuelled, and continue to fuel, deadly conflicts such as the one we are seeing in Gaza through the reckless sale of arms to right-wing coalition Governments, but it is a truth none the less. Given the continued intransigence of this UK Government and their willingness to turn a blind eye, will the Leader of the House allow a full and frank debate on such matters, and allow us, the Members of this House, the opportunity to work to stop such atrocities being committed at the hands of our perceived allies?
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned Eid, and this is an opportunity to wish people a joyous Eid. It is also, of course, the feast of the Ascension, so it is an important religious day for many communities. I mentioned earlier the issue of the sale of arms, which is covered very carefully by regulations that ensure that arms are sold only to regimes that we have close relationships with, that are our key allies, and that behave in a humane and proper way. The Government have called for restraint on both sides and pointed out that the killing of unarmed civilians is always wrong in the conflict that is currently going on, but Israel is a very important ally to the United Kingdom.
In the past two weeks, in my constituency, there have been four attempted abductions of children. This is causing huge alarm among families, and of course I am shocked by it. The police have increased their patrols in the areas where this has happened, but may I ask my right hon. Friend whether it would be possible for us to have a debate about how we can alert the public and highlight the fact that each one of us should help the police by being their eyes and ears, in order to try to prevent further abductions of children? Thankfully, these people did not succeed, but there is a real worry here and we should highlight this to the general public.
My right hon. Friend is doing so very effectively. It is deeply troubling that what he reports is going on. I reiterate that the Government are recruiting more police, with 6,620 so far. It was Sir Robert Peel who said, “We are the police and the police are us.” In his call for us to support the police, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right; we are a society that is policed with civilians, not by a military, and therefore everything we can do to support the police in their difficult task is worth doing. I am glad to hear that there are more patrols in response to the worrying circumstances that he reports to the House.
The Leader of the House said earlier that he does not think the West of England Combined Authority should exist because it unduly benefits Bristol, but Bristol is not getting the support it needs for Temple Quarter regeneration, for example, or for improving transport infrastructure, such as the A4, which many of his constituents use to drive through my constituency and into Bristol city centre. May we have a statement on what the Government’s levelling up agenda means for the West of England? To me and to many of the people who voted for Dan Norris last week it looks very much as though we have been written off.
There is a socialist Mayor of Bristol and a socialist Mayor of WECA, and they have responsibility for a lot of these development areas. Levelling up is something for the whole country, as I know very well in my own constituency. I am very much looking forward to things such as the introduction of the lifelong learning loan, which will help people who may have been left behind in education previously and who will be able to get a second chance. Levelling up is for everybody, but I fear it is true that money leaks out of North East Somerset into Bristol under WECA, and that is not something I am broadly in favour of.
I believe I represent the largest population from St Vincent and the Grenadines outside the islands. In the aftermath of the eruption of the volcano La Soufrière, I of course share my constituents’ acute concerns for their family, friends and property. May we please have an oral statement on the situation on the islands and the British Government’s response?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for his constituents and is right to bring this important issue to the attention of the House. I assure him that Her Majesty’s Government are monitoring the situation in St Vincent and the Grenadines closely, and our thoughts are very much with those affected by the eruption. The Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Ahmad, spoke to the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines and his high commissioner to the UK on 14 April. They discussed initial and continuing UK support for the recovery following the volcanic eruption. Our resident British commissioner in St Vincent and the Grenadines has also been in contact with the Prime Minister and other officials there. I encourage my hon. Friend, in the first instance, to apply for an Adjournment debate, so that this matter may be aired more fully.
I support the Government’s work to do all they can to stop any variants of the virus coming into the UK, but may I raise an issue with the Leader of the House relating to the support that disabled constituents receive when they have to quarantine? My constituent Mr Davies raised with the hotel staff the fact that he would need additional support, but he received none during his 10-day quarantine. His wife was not able to support him. This situation led to several visits from paramedics to offer additional medical support. He did not receive the right type of food and his care during the 10 days was truly shocking.
I understand that the Health Secretary made a statement on 5 May to qualify the exemption process for constituents with disabilities, but the system is not working. It is almost impossible to gain the exemptions from Ministers in time for constituents who may then not have to quarantine or could quarantine at home. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the relevant Minister of State or the Health Secretary to make a statement to set out how the exemption system works, so that Members can do their jobs in supporting disabled constituents and so that, crucially, if a disabled constituent does have to quarantine, the hotel staff are aware of their needs?
The hon. Gentleman raises a constituency case of great importance, and I am very sorry to hear about what happened to Mr Davies. I will take up the issue with the Secretary of State for Health immediately after this session, because, clearly, disabled people who do need additional support ought to receive it.
One of the recurring themes that emerged when I was back out on the doorsteps in Warrington during the local election campaign was the level of antisocial behaviour being inflicted on some of my constituents. Police often refer to it as “low-level” antisocial behaviour, but people who suffer it experience really high levels of annoyance. Can we have a debate in Government time on the value of community policing and the importance of freeing up police officers from unnecessary paperwork, so that they can get out on the streets and deal with antisocial behaviour?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point, although I was concerned by the fact that he said that antisocial behaviour rose once he got back on the streets—I am sure that the two were not directly connected. None the less, it is remarkable how unpleasant and fretful low-level antisocial behaviour is for constituents, particularly for elderly constituents. I am sure that adding 20,000 police officers will help, but community policing is of fundamental importance. I have often found in my own constituency that a quiet word from a police community support officer can nip this type of antisocial behaviour in the bud. We all have to work with our police forces across the country to encourage them in the right direction and to get back to “Dixon of Dock Green” policing, which I think does stop low-level criminality.
Retail workers have been covid heroes, but this pandemic has exacerbated the already growing levels of violence and abuse that they face at work. This is, of course, unacceptable, and Parliament has an obligation to act in this Session to protect them. Will the Leader of the House facilitate that by giving over Government time for a debate on this crucial matter?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important matter again. Concern about crime affecting retail workers is shared across the House. He pays tribute to the retail workers who stayed at work throughout the pandemic—the service that they gave to the nation was second to none. Like NHS workers, they made huge sacrifices and took risks—initially, they were unaware of the level of risk that they were taking—to ensure that the rest of us could have access to essential supplies. When it comes to time for debate, it is rather easy for me this week. The Queen’s Speech debate is going on, and that is an opportunity of several days’ length for people to raise any and all issues that they think are important. This is definitely an important issue.
As the MP for North Devon, I am proud to represent some of the best beaches in the country, and I have pledged 10 hours of my time to join volunteers in cleaning them up during Keep Britain Tidy’s great British spring clean. Microplastics and nurdles are too small to be picked up by our wonderful volunteers, but they still cause great harm to nature and are finding their way into our food chain. Will my right hon. Friend consider allocating Government time to discussing how we can fix that problem at source, perhaps with new legislation in the Government’s Environment Bill?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. It is obviously important to protect the marine environment from litter and it is one of the Government’s priorities, which is why we introduced our robust ban on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products in 2018, preventing billions of tiny pieces of harmful plastic from entering the ocean.
My hon. Friend is fantastic in her war against litter. I say to her that we will fight litter on the beaches; we will fight litter on the landing grounds; we will fight litter in the fields and in the hills; we will never surrender to litter.
The loss of a baby at any stage of pregnancy can be an extremely traumatic experience for parents. However, if a baby is stillborn before the end of the 24th week, it is treated as a miscarriage, and, under current rules, bereaved parents receive no formal support or paid leave from their employment. Does the Leader of the House agree that we must do more to support families suffering baby loss, and will he agree to have a debate in Government time on providing paid leave to those who experience miscarriage?
I have the greatest sympathy for the issue that the hon. Lady raises. The loss of a baby is such a terrible and traumatic blow for families who are looking forward to bringing a new life into the world, and they deserve all possible support. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but there is cross-party support for ensuring that people who suffer in this way receive help and assistance. Her point is very well made. Perhaps an Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate would find a lot of support from other Members.
Harrow Council spent £250,000 putting in dangerous cycle lanes and a series of deeply unpopular low-traffic neighbourhoods. It is now spending £85,000 to remove them, after the public outcry. In addition, it proposed to sell off the very popular Belmont community centre to be redeveloped for flats. Then, of course, after the public outcry, it made a screeching U-turn and claimed to have saved the Belmont community centre for the public. Could we have a debate in Government time on the waste of money that takes place in certain places in local government?
The council would seem to be rather remarkable in its skills if it was able to do a screeching U-turn in the midst of all those cycle lanes. The waste of taxpayers’ money is scandalous. We have to hold socialist councils to account when they waste public funds doing things that do not work and waging war on the motorist. We all know that it is only the Conservatives who back the motorist. The socialists and the Liberal Democrats—if there are any left—do not like the motorist and do everything they can to make the motorist’s life more difficult, whereas we aim to make it easier with a huge road-building plan that will make motoring the pleasure that it has always historically been.
The Dunston staiths are a large timber structure on the south bank of the River Tyne in Gateshead that were used to load coal on to ships for transport to London and the south of England. The staiths were extensively renovated for their use in Gateshead’s garden festival in 1990, and they are an important symbol of our industrial heritage and a monument to the coal industry. At over 600 metres long, they are also a feat of engineering and construction in themselves.
Sadly, in recent years the staiths have been subject to several very damaging arson attacks, and the Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust simply does not have the resources to repair them properly. Could we have a debate about sustaining our industrial heritage, and would the Leader of the House please assist me in securing a meeting with a Minister from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to explore a solution to our ongoing repair and maintenance problems on one of the country’s most important industrial heritage landmarks?
What the hon. Gentleman asks for is something of importance, because our industrial heritage is important to the nation as a whole. May I commend him on his diffidence? I have brought forward in my name, on behalf of the recommendations made by the Backbench Business Committee, two debates on 27 May, and the hon. Gentleman did not lobby, prod or push to have a debate on his pet subject. I think that shows considerable restraint and honourability—as, of course, all hon. Members show at all times.
The Leader of the House knows that the road map is going along slowly but steadily, and that restrictions are being removed. In fact the nightclubs will be open in the foreseeable future, and I look forward to attending with him.
In the House of Commons we are supposed to be leaders. But we are not leaders—if we look at the House today, we can see how few people are sitting in the Chamber, because they cannot. I am at home today because I had to come home for a personal reason. I have been in the Chamber all week, and I will be there next week. Also, six people can be entertained outside, in the fresh air, in most places in the country, but not in the House of Commons—only two people. Next week, six people will be able to enjoy hospitality inside, but not in the House of Commons—only four people, I understand, in the Dining Room; I do not know how many in the Tea Room or in any other rooms. Why are we so far behind the rest of the country, when it is legal to meet people in groups of six outside this week and inside next week, but we do not do it? When will we be up with the rest of the people of England—when will we be the same?
May I say, to help the Leader of the House, that there is a meeting on Monday? We will be looking at the road map; everything is being reviewed. Now, to say that these things are not going to happen— I would not want to disappoint the hon. Lady, and I think she ought to wait till Monday and let us see what we come up with. We are exactly in line with Public Health England advice and the way the rest of the country is looking.
These are really matters for the Commission and its spokesman to answer. The issues that affect the Leader of the House are the bringing forward of motions, and I can assure my hon. Friend that the motions fall away on 21 June, at which point we will be back to normal. But I would say to her what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—that there are seats here, and that if people want to lead by example, the example is on the seats here.
Ballymurphy Inquest Findings
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the findings of the Ballymurphy inquest. I want to put on the record the Government’s acknowledgment of the terrible hurt that has been caused to the families of Francis Quinn, Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Daniel Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr.
I also want to pay tribute to the great patience with which the families have conducted themselves during their determined campaign, which has lasted almost 50 years. The Prime Minister is writing personally to the families, having yesterday expressed his deep regret to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and apologised unreservedly on behalf of the state.
The findings of the coroner are clear: those who died were entirely innocent of wrongdoing. The events at Ballymurphy should never have happened. The families of those who were killed should never have had to experience the grief and trauma of that loss. They should not have had to wait nearly five decades for the judgment this week, nor should they have been compelled to relive that terrible time in August 1971 again and again in their long and distressing quest for truth.
Over the course of the troubles, more than 3,500 people were killed, and tens of thousands injured, with families torn apart forever. The majority of those killed were innocent civilians, such as those on the streets of Ballymurphy.
The vast majority of those who served in Northern Ireland did so with great dignity and professionalism, but it is clear that in some cases the security forces and the Army made terrible errors too. The duty of the state is to hold itself to the highest standards at all times. When we fail to meet these high standards, we must recognise the hurt and agony caused.
There is no doubt that what happened in Ballymurphy in those awful few days also fuelled further violence and escalation, particularly in the early years of the troubles. The Government profoundly regret and are truly sorry for these events, for how investigations after these terrible events were handled, and for the additional pain that the families have had to endure in their fight to clear the names of their loved ones since they began their campaign almost five decades ago.
In order to make lasting change, actions are required as well. The Belfast Good Friday agreement was the defining action that allowed Northern Ireland to begin to move away from violence, but the events of the past continue to cast a long shadow, as we have seen. Those who were killed or injured during the troubles came from all communities, and they included many members of the security forces and armed forces. Immense and difficult compromises have since been made on all sides, including the early release of prisoners, which was so difficult for many people to accept.
To a very large extent, Northern Ireland has moved away from violence, so we stand by those compromises and the progress made towards a more peaceful society. Yet the desire of the families of victims to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones is strong, legitimate and right. The campaign for justice in Ballymurphy has reminded us all of that—if we needed to be reminded at all.
Twenty-three years after the signing of the Belfast Good Friday agreement, thousands of murders remain unresolved and many families still yearn for answers. With each passing year, the integrity of evidence and the prospects of prosecution diminish, and the Government are not shrinking away from those challenges. We are determined to address them in a way that reflects the time that has passed, the complexity of Northern Ireland’s troubled history and the reality of the compromises that have already been made. But above all, we are determined to address them in a way that enables victims and survivors to get to the truth that they deserve. We must never ignore or dismiss the past; learning what we can, we must find a way to move beyond it. The coroner’s findings this week are part of that often very painful process.
The Government want to deliver a way forward in addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland; one that will allow all individuals or families who want information to seek and receive answers about what happened during the troubles, with far less delay and distress. We want a path forward that will also pave the way for wider societal reconciliation for all communities, allowing all the people of Northern Ireland to focus on building a shared, stable, peaceful and prosperous future. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
As the Secretary of State has outlined, in five separate shootings across three days in August 1971 in the Ballymurphy estate in west Belfast, 10 innocent civilians were short dead, nine by the armed forces, with evidence unable conclusively to determine in the tenth case. Among them were a priest, a mother of eight and a former soldier who had fought and was injured in world war two. Fifty-seven children were left without a parent—their lives for ever changed. Yet the trauma of the murders was undoubtedly compounded by what followed: families prevented from finding comfort by lies told about their loved ones that have haunted them down the decades, and a fight for the truth hampered by entirely inadequate investigations and wholly unjustifiable obstacles. Who cannot be struck by the dignity and tenacity of those families who, in the face of those obstacles, have fought for the truth and finally, this week, have been vindicated?
The conclusions of Justice Keegan are clear and irrefutable: those who lost their lives were posing no threat; their deaths were without justification. They were Francis Quinn, Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Daniel Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Eddie Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr. An eleventh man, Paddy McCarthy, a youth worker, died from a heart attack. That families have had to wait for so long to clear their name is a profound failure of justice and one we must learn from, because, as the Secretary of State said, many more families are still fighting for answers. They include Cathy McCann, who in 1990 was the sole survivor of a Provisional IRA bomb in Armagh in which a nun and three policemen were killed. Twenty-one years earlier, her father had been killed by the auxiliary police force, the B Specials.
This ongoing failure to find the truth is an open wound that ties Northern Ireland perpetually to the past. Burying the truth and refusing to prosecute or investigate crimes has not worked in the 23 years since the signing of the Belfast Good Friday agreement, so how can anyone in this House look victims like Cathy in the eye and tell her she must move on? The Government gave victims such as Cathy McCann their word. Through the Stormont House agreement, they promised to establish a comprehensive system to look at all outstanding legacy cases through effective investigations and a process that would, where possible, deliver the truth and the prospect of justice. Yet last Wednesday night, victims found out on Twitter that the Government intend to tear up that plan and provide an effective amnesty to those who took lives. The statement today brings us no closer to understanding the Government’s policy to deal with the legacy of the past.
The lessons of the past are clear: addressing the legacy through the unilateral imposition of an amnesty from Westminster, without the faintest hint of consultation with victims or the support of communities or any political party in Northern Ireland or the Irish Government, would be impossible to deliver. It would make reconciliation harder, and it would not achieve what the Government claim they want. Any process that remains open to legal challenge will invite test cases and bring more veterans back through the courts.
I will finish with a comment on the Prime Minister’s actions—or lack of them—over the past two days. In the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, David Cameron came to this House and apologised in a statement. He did not brief apologies from disputed calls with politicians. He took full responsibility. Where is the Prime Minister today, and why has he not publicly apologised to the Ballymurphy families and to this House? Will he take responsibility as Prime Minister and show the victims the respect they so obviously deserve? Victims like those who lost loved ones at Ballymurphy have been let down for far too long. Ministers should bear in mind the words of one victim I spoke with yesterday, as they worked through the next steps of legacy:
“I just want to know what happened. I want to know my dad’s life meant something. I just want the truth.”
The hon. Lady and I are overwhelmingly united in our thoughts for the Ballymurphy families and for all families who have suffered so much, and so unnecessarily, during and since the troubles. I believe we are also united in our determination to do what we can to put a stop to this suffering and to ensure that people get the information and get to the truth.
My apology and the Prime Minister’s apology yesterday to the Ballymurphy families cannot change what they have endured, but I can promise that it will be followed by action to prevent others from all communities who have lost loved ones or been injured, whether civilians, paramilitaries or soldiers, from continuing to go through the same lengthy and traumatic experiences that have taken too long to get to the truth. Our approach will have at its heart a clear focus on doing what is right: what is right for all those who have been directly affected by Ballymurphy and the many other terrible events and incidents of the troubles; and also what is right for wider Northern Ireland society, including the new generation—a younger generation—who did not live through the troubles. We need to ensure that we are not leaving this for them to deal with. This generation must be looking to the future while always understanding and being aware of the past, with its tragedies as well as its opportunities.
The Government will not baulk from those challenges. The challenges involved in confronting the past are complex and sensitive, and we appreciate that. We recognise that we will not baulk from confronting the past, including our own state actions. That is necessary to ensure that we do get answers for individuals, but also as a critical step towards the reconciliation we all want to see continue and deliver in Northern Ireland for its shared and prosperous future.
This is clearly a tremendously emotional moment. I thank the Secretary of State for prior notice of his statement and for its tone and its contents. For many, the events of which we are speaking happened a lifetime ago, but for the victims’ families and their communities they happened yesterday and every day since they occurred. It was clearly an abuse of security power. The Government are right to apologise and to make that loud and well known, because these events are as painful today as they were on the day they happened.
As my right hon. Friend tries to resolve the legacy of the troubles, focusing, as I know he will, on truth and reconciliation, will he assure me that he will do so with the emotional sensitivity he has demonstrated today, with compassion and understanding, and with a view to build a cross-community coalition as we help Northern Ireland to turn the page to a better present and future as we resolve the issues of the past?
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee makes a really important point. He is absolutely right. In looking at how we move forward, we have to work, and I am determined that we will work, to do everything we can with our partners not just in Irish Government but across the parties, victims’ groups and civic society in Northern Ireland to ensure reconciliation and for an opportunity to recognise the accountability of the fact that Northern Ireland has suffered for far too long from the traumas of the past. Working together, I am sure that we can find a way to help Northern Ireland move forward and ensure that Northern Ireland can deliver on the phenomenal opportunities, expertise and excitement that is there to deliver for people and have that shared prosperous and stable society.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. The pain that the loved ones of the victims of the Ballymurphy killings have gone through over the past half century is unimaginable. I pay tribute to their courage, their fortitude, their dignity and their unswerving determination to seek the truth—however difficult that was—about how their loved ones died. The First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, put it extremely well when she said:
“Lots of lessons to be learned. Grief is grief. Justice must be blind. Too many empty chairs across NI and unanswered questions.”
The path to truth, justice and reconciliation, as we know, is an imperfect one. While the past cannot be changed, its truth can be acknowledged and reconciliations made easier. In that vein, the Prime Minister should come to the House to offer that apology in person on behalf of the citizens in whose names these actions were taken, and apologise not only for the length of time it has taken to bring truth to the families but for the unjustified and unjustifiable deaths of their entirely innocent loved ones. Does the Secretary of State agree more generally that justice delayed is justice denied and that the best interests of truth, reconciliation and the wider public interest are not best served by seeking to put a time bar on the pursuit of justice?
As I have already said, both I and the Prime Minister have apologised, actually, and the Prime Minister, as I said in my statement, is writing directly to the families as well. As I said, no apology can make up for the loss and the pain that the families have been through. I share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments and appreciate the tone that he has used. We are in full agreement. My view is that we need to get to the truth and we need to allow the families of the victims who want that information—the knowledge of what happened —to able to get to it much, much quicker. That is certainly something I am focused on. He is also quite right that this is not about having time bars on anything but having a process that means that the families do not have to wait decades to get to the bottom of what happened—to understand the truth of what happened.
I welcome the Government’s apology today. This tragic case lays bare again the horrors of the troubles for victims and families from all parts of Northern Ireland. I am concerned that when I and the Government signed the New Decade, New Approach agreement over a year ago we committed to intensive discussions with victims’ groups, but for a variety of reasons that has not happened. Will the Secretary of State commit today to undertaking comprehensive discussions with victims’ groups and victims directly, and give us a timeline for that? Will he also confirm that he will not bring legislation back to this House until that engagement has happened and victims and families have been able to shape and be part of what the Government are proposing to resolve the issues of legacy?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Obviously we understand that the legacy issues are complex, as he knows well; that is why they remain unresolved for so many decades. As I have been clear before, the principles of Stormont House are strong, powerful principles that we all want to see delivered on. We want to work together to find a way to be able to put them into practice and deliver them in a way that means that families are not waiting decades, as sadly the Ballymurphy families have had to do, to get to the bottom of the truth and understand of what has happened. We have been engaging across civic society with victims’ groups and representatives, as well as the Irish Government. We will be looking to engage very directly and very deeply over the period ahead to see if we can find a way for everybody to come together to find a way forward that can deliver on that promise and deliver on ensuring that we get to the bottom of information in an efficient way that works for the victims and for the families, and that can help Northern Ireland to move forward with reconciliation in a positive way.
I am sure that the entire House would like to join me in offering our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families of Ballymurphy. But we also want to congratulate them and their community on the fortitude and resilience they have shown over decades in their pursuit of truth, and to congratulate their legal teams, who have not always been treated with the respect and decency they deserve. I am glad to hear that the Prime Minister is writing to the families personally, because the families do deserve a personal apology. The Secretary of State will be aware that these events are widely known in Ireland and internationally as the Ballymurphy massacre. That seems an accurate description to many of us, as we are talking about the murder of unarmed civilians over the course of three days, and, as the House knows, the coroner has found that they were all innocent, they were all unarmed, and their killings were without justification. We are still awaiting official admission of many other deaths in former colonies, including Kenya. It is good to hear the truth about these events after all these decades, but sadly some of the relatives will have passed away. May I ask the Secretary of State: is anyone ever to be prosecuted for these crimes?
I think the outline of the right hon. Lady’s question goes to the core point that a number of Members and I have already made: that Ballymurphy is a clear, tragic example of how it has taken far too long to get information for those families. We need to find a process that ensures that families can get information much more quickly, while people are still with us as well, as she outlined. As regards prosecutions, that is a matter for the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, and we have seen the outcome of some prosecutions it had just the other week. It is not a matter for the Government but for the independent prosecution service.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the tone he struck in his statement. These families have endured an exceptionally long campaign in their search for answers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows that the current system to deal with the legacy of the troubles on all sides in Northern Ireland has failed and that the drawn-out, expensive court proceedings for veterans, victims and families are flawed and need to be reviewed?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As we have seen, tragically, in the recent past as well as this week, the current system has simply not been working for anybody. It is failing to bring satisfactory, speedy or timely outcomes for families, leaving Northern Ireland with unanswered questions for families within it. That leaves society hamstrung, effectively, by its past. That is why, as a Government, we are committed to finding a way forward that will allow individuals and families who want information to seek and receive those answers about what happened during the troubles with far less delay and distress. We have a duty to the victims and the families in Northern Ireland as a whole to deliver on that.
The Ballymurphy families have waited for 50 years to get even this limited form of closure. To compound matters, one of the victims also had a young teenage son brutally murdered by the IRA just two years afterwards. Will the Secretary of State ensure that, whether it is the families of innocent victims in Ballymurphy or shortly afterwards—for example, the Claudy bomb carried out by the IRA in 1972 in my constituency, about which they have received no closure, no justice and no apology—they do not suffer the ignominy of hearing about an amnesty in the next few months?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the complexity and sensitivity of the issues and reinforces the point that it has been far too long for people to have to wait to get to the bottom of the truth. Part of reconciliation is the ability to understand what happened—that is hugely important—but it is also about accountability. That is why it is important that the state takes accountability, as we are doing, for what happened in the Ballymurphy case. Others should do the same, where there is relevance for them and actions were taken by them. It is important that we get to the heart of what happened, so that people can have that understanding, accountability and truth.
I declare an interest, as one of a number of Members of Parliament who served in Northern Ireland prior to the Good Friday agreement. I very much welcome the statement and the apology today. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces, whom we place in harm’s way, where they face incredibly difficult circumstances, often at great personal risk. The majority of service personnel follow the law of armed conflict, but if standards ever fall, they must be swiftly and fairly investigated.
I welcome the Government’s fresh approach to securing lasting change by fairly drawing a line under the pre-Good Friday troubles. There is a real danger of fuelling current tensions and potentially creating new victims because we have not reconciled past events. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Good Friday agreement proved that the troubles require a political, not military, solution, but it hesitated in mopping up a series of difficult, unresolved incidents, for which those on all sides still seek closure? Will he consider introducing a wider statute of limitations, along with a truth recovery mechanism that applies not just to veterans but on all sides, so that Northern Ireland can finally draw a line and look forwards, not backwards?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point about the complexity of the issues and the dreadful range of situations in the troubles, with a number of unresolved injuries, murders and deaths. We need to get to the bottom of that. He is also right that we need to find a way forward that can be delivered on and that works for families. The current situation is simply not working for anybody. It is not working for Northern Ireland, and it is not delivering in a timely fashion and getting to the heart of the truth for families.
It is right that we respect our commitments to our veterans as well. As I said in my statement, obviously the vast majority acted with honour and probity throughout the troubles, but we must have a system that gets to the heart of things. We are open to looking at a wide range of options. I have made commitments to the House about bringing forward legislation, which I still have the ambition to deliver on, but we want to do that by working with our partners across Northern Ireland and with the Irish Government to find a solution that will work, cause stability and have sustainability.
The Secretary of State says that the British Army made terrible errors in Northern Ireland. Joan Connolly was a mother of eight. She was shot four times by the British Army and was left lying on the ground for hours to die. That is not an error; that is sheer bloody murder. Will the Secretary of State ask the Prime Minister to come out of hiding, come with me to meet the Ballymurphy families and tell them to their faces why he wants to protect their killers?
As I have outlined already today, the Prime Minister is contacting the families directly. There is his public apology on behalf of the state and he has had conversations with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, in which I joined him yesterday. Obviously, Members and colleagues will be aware that the report was published on Tuesday, which was the first full sight we had of it. We received it on Tuesday, and we put out a statement on the same day. Having had an opportunity for us to reflect on that report, I am now making a statement to the House of Commons. But, obviously, we will be considering it in more detail in the period ahead in order to ensure that we are able to reflect properly on it. As I said in my statement, it is right that we take accountability for the actions that were unacceptable, as the coroner’s court highlighted, but also that we are taking the time and opportunity to make sure we learn from the experiences of the past and also, coming back to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) a few moments ago, take account of what we have learned since 2014 about how we can move forward in a more efficient and effective manner that delivers for families and victims so that we get to the truth.
I served in Northern Ireland from the early 1970s onwards. I did not serve in Ballymurphy but all I can say is that those of us who were serving in Northern Ireland when incidents such as Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday were happening—and the vast majority of the Army—were in deep shock about what happened. It did not reflect what we felt; we were in deep shock. In order to try to help the families, if they so wish it, may I ask my right hon. Friend that a full and frank report about what happened to their loved ones be sent to them in each individual case—if, of course, they wish to receive it?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. Again, it goes to the heart of making sure that people have the information. My understanding, but I will confirm it, is that the coroner’s report does give details of the individual deaths, and that obviously will be fed back to the families, who have been waiting, as I say, for far too long. However, I will write to my right hon. Friend to confirm that point.
I want to focus on the courage and dignity of the Ballymurphy families and their long fight for justice, rather than the wider legacy issue, except to say that the Government’s plans do not have the support of the Ballymurphy families, other victims groups, political parties in Northern Ireland and, indeed, many veterans themselves. Can I ask the Secretary of State to confirm the scope of this apology? Specifically, does it also include how the British Army libelled many of the victims by calling them IRA gunmen, and also how the Ministry of Defence and indeed some individual soldiers frustrated the process of justice over many years?
Yes. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that, as I said in my opening statement actually, the apology is for not just the dreadful incident—the tragedy that we saw at Ballymurphy in 1971—but the period since and what those families and the victims have had to go through. Absolutely.
I welcome the statement and the apology, and I commend the coroner for coming to a definitive decision in the inquest. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to acknowledge the hurt and pain felt by all sides of the community, and that we need a spirit of reconciliation so that we can move on in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I repeat what I said in my statement: we must never forget. As I said, “We must never dismiss or ignore the past”, but we must learn from it—we must find a way to move forward.
Going to the heart of what my hon. Friend said, my experience of dealing with and talking to people across Northern Ireland—across the whole community of Northern Ireland in civic society—shows that there is a determined desire to have proper reconciliation, stability and sustainability. There is a determination to have a Northern Ireland that is a prosperous and an exciting place to live and work, which it is, so that we can all continue to be proud of it and continue to live with the amazing success we have seen there since the delivery of what was, at the time, a very difficult series of decisions that led to the Good Friday agreement.
The Secretary of State is right to recognise that reconciliation depends on the truth, but the problem with the whole horrendous saga around the murders at Ballymurphy is that a cloud of corruption has hung over it now for nearly five decades. What the Secretary of State describes as serious errors was murder by agents of our state covered up by our state, and we must now recognise the damage that has done. So will the Secretary of State commit to making sure that every effort will now be made to reveal what happened not simply at the time but in the years since to cover this up? That must include access to the records of the security services, because, frankly, if he will not give that commitment, he will be letting down the Ballymurphy families.
As I have said, the Ballymurphy families have waited for far too long, through successive Governments and over too many decades, to get an understanding of what actually happened. We need to find a way forward that can make sure that families such as the Ballymurphy families are able to get that information—that understanding, recognition and truth—much more quickly. That will mean ensuring that they have access to all the information that is available both across Northern Ireland and from the British and UK state.
I welcome the Government’s commitment in the Queen’s Speech to bring forward measures that will address the legacy of the troubles—troubles I remember all too well. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that these measures will be focused on getting answers for victims and their loved ones in a way that allows Northern Ireland to heal and come together, rather than further deepening divisions?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the ability to heal and the ability to look forward while always being accountable for and recognising and understanding our past. I can confirm that I am absolutely committed to working to find a way forward that will provide certainty for those who have been directly affected by the events of the troubles and deliver wider reconciliation for Northern Ireland, recognising that Northern Ireland itself suffered during the troubles.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s apology, but, although I mean no disrespect to him, I do feel that something of such gravity really does require the Prime Minister to apologise directly, not by proxy, to the families of those killed, and I hope that he will urge that.
The findings of the inquest into the Ballymurphy killings clearly show that the state was not an observer, but was a participant in the troubles. Does that not surely mean that the Government cannot unilaterally impose a plan to address that conflict legacy, and will he now return to what he previously agreed and ensure that, in dealing with the past, we put victims and their loved ones first?
If the hon. Gentleman looks back to my opening statement, he will see that the Prime Minister is and has been apologising directly to the families as well as more publicly and widely, so I will just correct him on that point. More widely, we have got to find a way to ensure that we have a system that works and delivers for people. The Stormont House agreement has been referred to, but the reality is that that was in 2014. We have learned things since then; there has been consultation since then, and it is right that the Government take that into account and we take forward the Stormont House principles in a way that can be delivered and can work for families and for Northern Ireland.
I welcome my right hon Friend’s statement and the fact that the Ballymurphy families have finally been served their long overdue justice. However, I also wish to urge my right hon. Friend to outline as soon as he can a timeline for when we can bring forward the new measures in this parliamentary Session that will deliver answers for all those affected by the legacy of the troubles and put an end to the cycle of investigations and prosecutions, allowing Northern Ireland to move forward with a brighter future.
As set out in the Queen’s Speech, we will bring forward legislation in this Session to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. I am committed to bringing forward legislation that focuses on reconciliation, and if we get that right, it will deliver for victims, for veterans and for all the people of Northern Ireland. That is the work we will be doing in the period ahead.
The humility of Tory Members today is to be welcomed, but three years ago in a Westminster Hall debate, I was shouted down by some of the same Tory Members when I mentioned the actions of the Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy. Members will of course take their lead from the Prime Minister, and it is disappointing that he is not making the statement here today. Following the publication of the Saville report, Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement and an apology to those families. The Ballymurphy families have been through a similar hell for nearly 50 years, so when will the Prime Minister meet those families, look them in the eye and apologise for the unlawful killing of their loved ones?
I thank the Secretary of State for his heartfelt apology. This is a most heartbreaking affair. It cuts right to the quick of a divided city, a divided country and a divided people. As a Protestant man, as a Unionist and as a loyalist, I stretch out my hand of love, of forbearance, of common grief and of compassion to my neighbour who has suffered, and I say to them that their tears and the sting of their tears are the same as the sting of our tears. There is no difference in the colour or feeling of that grief, and we share that grief with them today in a heartfelt and compassionate way. I hope that they accept the sincerity of those remarks and those feelings, which are across our country.
This verdict does lift, Denning-like, the curtain on the appalling vista of what has happened in Northern Ireland. No doubt more and more will follow. That is not something we look forward to, but know that more will come. The Secretary of State is correct when he says that the pitch has been somewhat queered by the release of terrorists from our jails and by the on-the-runs and letters of comfort to them, because their victims will never see any justice in our country. We therefore cannot have scapegoating of our soldiers or our police officers or a perverse exhibiting and rewriting of what happened in Northern Ireland, in an “Alice in Wonderland” like way, where the peacekeepers become accused of being the peace-breakers. This is a most difficult and tragic situation, and all we can say is that we have to wish the Secretary of State well in what he does now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which I know will be genuine and hopefully well received across Northern Ireland in terms of the need for people to come together. It is right that this week and at this moment in time we are focused on the pain, loss and suffering that the families and the victims of Ballymurphy have experienced for far, far too long. He is right that we must also remember that more than 3,500 people were killed and tens of thousands of people were injured, with families affected across Northern Ireland and beyond, the majority of whom were innocent civilians.
By far the majority of our armed forces acted with honour and focus, and Ballymurphy just highlights what a tragic period in the history of this country the troubles were and why it is so important that we work together, recognising some of the very difficult, painful compromises that have been made over the past few decades to deliver the Good Friday agreement and the peace and prosperity that Northern Ireland has seen since. That should be treasured, and it is something we need to build on and deliver on in the future.
When I speak to people about Northern Ireland, I apply a simple test, which is, “What if this happened in Bristol, and not Belfast?” Much like the people of Belfast, the people of Bristol sometimes wish they had a different Prime Minister, but he is their Prime Minister, for those of all faiths and none and those of all persuasions and none. As their Prime Minister, it is a disgrace that he is not here to make this statement from that Dispatch Box. He should have done that earlier this week. We all know the symbolism of these Benches and that Dispatch Box.
The Prime Minister has said that he wants to learn from the experience of the past, so I say gently to him that the experience of the past 100 years is that when a British Prime Minister ignores what is going on in Northern Ireland, we see a difficult situation that does not improve. Some of the things he has now said are deeply problematic, such as unilaterally pulling away the Stormont House agreement. If that is the case, he very quickly needs to come here with the Irish Government and all the political parties involved and tell us what will be in its place. That is the true apology that would be right for those poor families from Ballymurphy and across this whole tragedy.
I am afraid that what the hon. Lady has just outlined is wrong on a number of points. Apart from the things that I have outlined, the Prime Minister is in contact with the Ballymurphy families directly, and there is the statement he made yesterday and the conversation he had with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister yesterday.
My point has actually been that I think the principles of Stormont House are hugely important. There is a range of things there that we need to deliver on. The reality is that since 2014 that has not happened, for a range of reasons. There have been learnings, and things have changed since then. There has been a consultation that we need to reflect on and deliver on. We need to make sure that we can deliver on those principles and get on with it, rather than being another seven years down the line with people still talking about something at a time when we are losing people and families are not getting the information that they deserve. At the heart of what we want to do is making sure that we are leading to delivering for victims and that we have reconciliation for people across Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]
The chaos and impunity of the Ballymurphy killings contributed to the near-collapse of the rule of law in Northern Ireland and a sickeningly casual attitude to human life. For years after those killings, thousands more people had their lives needlessly and cruelly taken by killers in and out of uniform.
To justify an amnesty, some say that no good can come from delving into dire events in the past. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that good did come this week because lies were confounded, the truth was affirmed and the innocence of victims was vindicated? Does he acknowledge that, precisely because state actors and paramilitaries since the agreement have failed to bring forward information, victims feel that the only way that they can get to truth and justice is through the judicial process? Does he agree that those who run from truth and accountability are those in state agencies and those in the militias who know the most and who inflicted the worst?
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, I agree that there is no doubt, and we do need to acknowledge, that the actions and the particular incidents at Ballymurphy did fuel further reactions and retaliations that drove the troubles, particularly in those early years. We need to take accountability; that is why I referenced that in my statement.
The hon. Lady is also right that it is right that the state takes accountability and apologises, exactly as we are doing today, when there is clear acknowledgment that things were done that were wrong. That is what we are doing today. I fundamentally agree with her that it is important that, whoever the actors were, there is a huge majority of unsolved deaths, injuries and murders across Northern Ireland that people are looking for information about. They have a right to get that information, and we need to do everything we can to get that information, to get that accountability and to get to the truth.
I take the Secretary of State back to 8.30 am on this day, 13 May, in 1994 in Hill Street, Lurgan in my constituency of Upper Bann. Fred Anthony, 38, a Protestant, was a cleaner in the town’s Royal Ulster Constabulary station. As he travelled in his car along Hill Street with his wife and two children, an IRA booby-trap bomb exploded. Fred Anthony died; his three-year-old daughter spent a week in a coma, both her legs were broken and shrapnel lodged close to her brain—a life lost and a family destroyed.
No one has ever been charged in relation to this cold-blooded, ruthless murder. The Anthony family, who I spoke with this morning—like so many families of victims of the Provisional IRA—desire truth and justice. They look at the Ballymurphy findings and wish that they, too, had been given the same resource to find truth as the Ballymurphy families, who have fought hard and learned so much. What is the Secretary of State’s message to the Anthony family today, and what support can he give them to find truth and justice?
The hon. Lady has again highlighted the very sad reality of too many families not yet having an understanding of the information that they need to be able to know what happened and the truth, which gives an ability to move forward. We are very clear that our objective of addressing the legacy of the troubles and delivering on our commitments means that we want to deal with the past in a way that helps people in Northern Ireland, such as the families that the hon. Lady just outlined, to look forward. That means that this is something we need to deliver on. We need to find a system that can get that information and get to the truth. It is clear that this week’s case—let alone other cases that we have seen recently—shows fundamentally that the current system has not been, and is not, delivering for victims and the people of Northern Ireland. When it takes 50 years to get the truth, something is wrong and we need to find a different way forward.
Taking 50 years for the truth to be established about the killing of the 10 innocent Ballymurphy civilians is truly shameful, and the truth uncovered is due to the tireless efforts of the families of the victims. Why has it taken so very long to get to the truth and why has the Prime Minister refused to meet the families of those killed? Can the Secretary of State tell us, in reference to the previous question, what specific action his Government will take to reassure the people of Northern Ireland that they are unequivocally committed to discovering the truth about all unsolved killings and to deal appropriately with legacy issues, as set out in the Stormont agreement?
The hon. Lady is not correct to say that the Prime Minister has refused anything. As I say, he is contacting the families directly. There has been a lengthy delay in delivering even the findings of the Ballymurphy inquest. That is obviously not directly a matter for the Government in the latter part, but I know that covid has had a significant impact on the legacy inquest timetable. However, the hon. Lady highlights the point that I have been making consistently: this has taken far too long. It should not take 50 years to get to the truth. We must make sure that it does not take 50 years for people in the future. That is why we are working—I have been talking to the Irish Government; we want to work with the Irish Government—but we do need to find a way forward. Stormont House was 2014. The principles of it are absolutely right. They are core to delivering for the families in Northern Ireland. We need to do that in a way that reflects what has happened and what we have learned since 2014—in a way we can deliver on to make sure that these families get to the truth. We have committed to doing that through legislation. We want to work across our partners and the people of Northern Ireland to find a way to do that that works for everybody in Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister’s predecessor came to this House to report on the findings of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. His presence helped build reconciliation. Families in Ballymurphy have served a half-century sentence waiting for justice. It should therefore have been the Prime Minister addressing Parliament today. Peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland can never be taken for granted. It has to be won, and that starts by showing a commitment to finding truth and justice, so does the Secretary of State agree that, from this point, it must be the families of this injustice in Ballymurphy who are put first, and that the Government must listen to them as to how reparation processes have to change to expedite justice?
As I said, there were big, bold, difficult and complex steps taken that led to the Good Friday agreement—decisions that were difficult for people at the time, but they have delivered peace and prosperity over the last few decades. Northern Ireland has predominantly moved away from violence. We need to make sure that we continue to respect the principles that led to the Good Friday agreement and continue to look at how we develop that to ensure that Northern Ireland can continue to prosper.
Within that, it is absolutely right that we want to make sure that families are able to get to the truth and the information without not just the delay, but the pain and difficulty that families are having at the moment. Obviously, the Ballymurphy families have been through a completely unacceptable experience over the last 50 years, but there are also other families out there, other unsolved murders, and other injuries that have been caused, where nobody has yet got to the bottom of what happened. It is important that we find a way forward that ensures that those families and victims who want that information can get it in a timely fashion. There is a real risk, if we do not do this in a way that works, that we will have people passing away without ever knowing the truth. That is not acceptable and we have a duty to deliver for them and for the future of Northern Ireland.
Given the gravity of this report, I think that the Prime Minister should be at the Dispatch Box making this statement. In five separate incidents, over the weekend of Operation Demetrius, 10 people, who posed no threat and bore no arms, were shot dead. That must raise questions about the preparation for Operation Demetrius—what was said to those soldiers about the yellow card that each of them should have been carrying. What can the Government do, and particularly the MOD, to shed light on what was said and done in preparation for Operation Demetrius?
As the hon. Gentleman said, and as others have rightly said and I have said, the families should never have had to wait 50 long years to hear Justice Keegan’s findings this week. Obviously, I convey my thanks to her for the work that she and the team have done. I can promise, as I said earlier, that that will be followed by action to prevent others who have lost loved ones—from all communities, including the armed forces—from going through the same continual, lengthy and traumatic experience to get to the heart of the truth of what happened.
It is an awkward truth for us all that the prospect of prosecutions resulting from criminal investigations is vanishingly small, but we have seen that a sense of justice can be provided through truth, acknowledgment and information. We want to deal with the past in a way that not only helps society in Northern Ireland to be able to look forward rather than back, but also gets to the truth, and therefore accountability and an understanding of what has happened in a whole range of cases—Ballymurphy and others—that are still unsolved.
The Secretary of State said in his statement that Ballymurphy should not have happened, and of course we all agree, but it did happen; and it happened again six months later, in the city of Derry. The Prime Minister now needs to come to that Dispatch Box and apologise properly, on behalf of us all, to the people of Ballymurphy.
“Entirely innocent”, Mr Speaker: “entirely innocent”. Does the Secretary of State accept then, given the time it can take, and has taken, for the families of the innocents to get the truth of events, that it must mean that justice does have no limitation? If so, will his Government pause now and reconsider their recent moves to create such a limit for justice?
Look, as I said earlier, the Prime Minister has given an unreserved public apology for what happened in Ballymurphy. I am here, the Government are here today, not just apologising but taking accountability for what happened and what should not have happened, not just at the time of Ballymurphy—obviously that was unacceptable—but for what was also unacceptable: what has happened since, in that 50 years that we have had to wait. But in answer to the hon. Gentleman I will be very clear to the House, as I have been, I hope, through the course of this morning: we are determined that families need to get to the truth. They need to be able to know what happened. There are too many cases out there unresolved, where families do not have the information of what happened, and therefore it is impossible for them to be able to have an opportunity not only to know about their past but to really look forward to their future. We are determined to do that. There should not be a time limit on getting to the truth. We need to find a way—based on the fact that the current system is failing everybody—to have a system that can work, that gets to the truth and gets information, for the benefit of reconciliation in Northern Ireland and for those families.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, I would appreciate your guidance. As you may be aware, yesterday the Minister for Universities, speaking on Radio 4, said that it is the Government’s policy to protect and promote the free speech of controversial and offensive advocates at universities. She explicitly confirmed that this would include holocaust deniers, who would be supported in law against people protesting against them. There are few more serious crimes in history than the Nazi holocaust—the murder of 6 million Jews, as well as hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti, disabled and LGBT people, political opponents and other minority groups—and to hear a Minister say that the Government plan to change the law to take the side of those who would deny that genocide is truly appalling.
As a proudly Jewish parliamentarian, my blood ran cold listening to the interview. There is no merit to any assertion that either academic rigour or the university experience is improved by exposure to such ideology. Holocaust denial cannot and should not be protected speech under the law. How can you assist in ensuring that the Universities Minister comes to the Dispatch Box to explain what she has said, apologise, and recant this chilling policy?
May I first thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her point of order? I want to set out on record that I find the idea of holocaust denial completely abhorrent; let me make sure that people are aware of that. The hon. Member will have the opportunity to clarify this matter when the relevant legislation is before the House. I hope that she will take it up with the Minister at the appropriate time when that legislation comes forward. In the meantime, I am sure that it would also be worth asking for a meeting with the Minister for clarification.
I am now going to suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 12 May).
Question again proposed,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
A Brighter Future for the Next Generation
This country has faced unprecedented challenges over the past year as we have tackled the global coronavirus pandemic. The impact on education has been considerable. I would like once more to put on record the enormous debt of gratitude the country owes to everyone who has played their part in keeping our children safe and learning, and to the young people themselves, for their resilience at this incredibly difficult time.
We are beginning our national recovery, and as part of that we aim to, and we will, build back better. As Her Majesty the Queen set out in her Gracious Speech on Tuesday, this means a full and far-reaching legislative agenda. Our programme of ambitious reforms to level up this country will continue apace, alongside an overarching mission to make sure the country’s recovery has a solid and sure foundation. We are committed to making sure that everyone in the country has the education and training that is right for them, as well as to lifelong upskilling, so that better-paid jobs are within local reach and not down to a postcode lottery.
This party is committed to delivering right across the country. This party is committed to making sure that we make a real difference to every child’s life by raising standards in education and making sure that all the way through their lives, people have the opportunity to train and better themselves in order to succeed and deliver for their communities and families. Of course we will always take action to support families. That is why we increased universal credit; that is why we have taken the action we have all the way through this pandemic; and that is why we have invested billions of pounds in the furlough scheme, to make sure that in these difficult and challenging times, people can provide for their family.
One of our main priorities is to make sure that children whose education has been held back during the pandemic are given the means to catch up and that their long-term prospects do not suffer. We have put a package of measures in place to make sure that children who are behind get extra support. We are working with the Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, to develop an ambitious long-term plan for recovery and have already provided more than £2 billion to enable schools, colleges and early years settings to support pupils’ academic and wider progress. We know that disadvantaged children and young people have been affected more than others, and we will target support for these pupils.
I have said that we have a packed legislative agenda, and this is an historic moment for radical reform in post-16 education—radical reform that has been too long needed. This is the most significant reform we have seen in this country not just for the past 10 years, but for two generations.
In our mission to upskill, re-skill and retrain people as we work towards a better Britain—building back better—will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the measures announced in Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech will ensure that people, particularly those from left-behind communities such as Stoke-on-Trent and left-behind regions, get the skills and training they need to get well-paid, good-quality jobs?
My hon. Friend has championed this issue in Stoke-on-Trent Central ever since she got elected, recognising the importance of delivering for Stoke-on-Trent. Far too often, the Labour party did not deliver at all for Stoke-on-Trent, but we are seeing things change. It is not just about skills, but about driving up education standards right across the city, and that is what my hon. Friend and her colleagues who represent Stoke-on-Trent are doing, along with Councillor Abi Brown, who leads the city council. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and other colleagues to deliver on this issue.
I thank the Secretary of State for his commitment to invest in further education in my constituency. Does he agree that, as we emerge from the pandemic, it has never been more important to invest in further education, particularly in some of the most disadvantaged communities across our country?
My hon. Friend has been an enormous champion of further education in his constituency, and he has done a fair bit of lobbying—in a very proper manner, it should be added—on behalf of Cornwall College. It is good to see that there will be investment in his constituency to deliver better prospects not just for his constituents, but for constituents right across Cornwall, making a true difference.
I will hold the Secretary of State to that.
When it comes to reshaping education, climate change should be an important part of the curriculum. At the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, we heard from young activists from Teach the Future, who said that the Scottish Government have been willing to engage with them about the merits of including climate change in education. The Secretary of State has refused 18 requests to meet the organisation. Why is he so arrogant and out of touch that he will not even engage with the young?
I perhaps exaggerated my enthusiasm to give way to the hon. Gentleman. We recognise how important it is that young people have a good understanding of climate change. That is why we are looking at bringing forward a natural history GCSE, which will be very important in both learning the subject and teaching it. The Government lead the world in this area: we are hosting COP26 in the amazing city of Glasgow, the Prime Minister is leading on this agenda at the G7 in Cornwall and we are setting the pace. We do not just talk about it, as the SNP does; we deliver on it.
The Prime Minister set out his vision for a skilled and resilient workforce when he announced the lifelong loan entitlement as part of the lifetime skills guarantee. That will transform opportunities for everyone, at any stage in their life, by providing people with a loan entitlement for the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over their lifetime.
To talk about levelling up is truly to talk about education. I thank the Secretary of State for the investment in secondary education that he has made in my constituency with the Radcliffe high school. When it comes to further education and the skills agenda that he has mentioned, the institutes of technology are a fine example of how we can achieve in that area. Will he meet me again to discuss the University of Salford?
It is fair to say that despite the fact that my hon. Friend’s constituency was represented for many years by a Labour Member of Parliament, the free school in Radcliffe that was wanted so much was never delivered. My hon. Friend gets elected, however, and what does he do? He delivers for his constituents with a much-needed new secondary school. Of course, we all know how important institutes of technology are for driving the revolution in skills that we need to be able to meet the demands of the economy. I will be more than delighted to meet him to discuss the institutes of technology and how we roll them out across the country.
Our agenda will mean more choice and better prospects for all. This is levelling up in action, and it will turbocharge our economy by getting people back into jobs and getting Britain working again. It is a truly transformational investment in local communities, not an exit route out of those communities.
Our White Paper on skills for jobs sets out a blueprint for providing our young people with better choices within our further education system. New legislation will put employers at the heart of our skills reforms. They will join forces with further education colleges to deliver a skills accelerator programme. We are going to make sure that there is a better balance between the skills that local employers want from their workforce and those being taught by colleges and other providers, so that young people have a valuable and top-quality alternative to university.
If the Secretary of State wants to speak about opportunities for young people, why will this Government not give the young people of these four nations the opportunity to have their say in the democracy that we are all taking part in? Also, this Government have slammed the door closed on the opportunities for our young people to work and thrive in 27 nations. There is no opportunity coming from the Tory Government, which is why the young people of these nations reject Tory policies.
I think the hon. Gentleman is warming up for what will no doubt be a long speech later in the day. He obviously needs to come and see the brilliant progress that we are making in maths in England, unlike the sad reversals that we have seen in Scotland, with the failed education system that the SNP has presided over and the damage it has done to the education system in Scotland. If he had the benefit of sitting in some of the schools that are delivering such brilliant maths education right across England, he would understand that the Turing scheme opens up opportunities in many more countries than just 27. In fact, it will be a global scheme that looks beyond the European Union, to countries right across the world, making sure that young people have more and greater opportunities, not less. His horizons might reach only as far as the European Union, but we recognise that young people want opportunities on a global scale, in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, China—emerging great economies as well as old friends and allies.
My right hon. Friend is making an important point about the opportunities that we give young people. Will he join me in welcoming the opening of a new special school in Basingstoke under the Government’s academy programme, the Austen Academy, to ensure that children with special needs get the sorts of opportunities that he is talking about?
I know that my right hon. Friend has been a real champion of the Austen Academy, recognising the important role that academies can play in delivering not just mainstream education but more specialist support for some pupils. It is an important step forward, ensuring that we get high-quality education across all our schools. We have seen some amazing work being done in our special schools, and I look forward to seeing that school grow and prosper into the future.
We want to encourage people to stay part of their community. Rather than encouraging them to leave home to find a rewarding career, we intend to empower them to find fulfilling and rewarding work wherever they live, invigorating communities and driving economic growth up and down the country. They do not need to leave their home towns in order to succeed.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware that in Keighley we are progressing nicely with our towns fund application. One of the projects that we are hoping to deliver is a skills hub, bringing together businesses and education providers, such as Keighley College, to deliver the skills we need for manufacturing, engineering and tech. Does he agree that a skills hub in Keighley is exactly what we need for levelling up?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—that is vital for the reinvigoration and regeneration of Keighley, and driving it forward. We know that Keighley has a great and proud tradition of manufacturing, leading the world in the engineering and the work that is done there, but that has to be supported, and it can only be sustained with the right skills in that community, supporting those businesses to be able to grow and prosper into the future.
All that we are doing is a natural progression of the groundbreaking reforms we have already been rolling out, such as our T-level and apprenticeship programmes, which will deliver the skilled individuals to boost the post-pandemic economy and bring down unemployment. Starting this year, the Government are investing £3 billion in the national skills fund. That is a significant investment and has the potential to deliver new opportunities to generations of adults who may have been previously left behind. Any adult who does not have an A-level or equivalent will be able to access around 400 fully funded courses as part of the lifetime skills guarantee. That offer is a long-term commitment, backed by £95 million of funding from the national skills fund in its first year. We have temporarily extended the time for universal credit claimants to undertake training to develop work-related skills and qualifications, and we will review this in six months.
There is a golden thread running through all our reforms: everyone should have access to the same enriching opportunities to broaden their horizons and make the most of their potential wherever they live, whether it is London, Leeds, Leigh or Loftus. I am proud to have announced the Turing scheme, which will enable students to study and do work placements overseas. It will start in September and will focus on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is backed by significant investment of £110 million and will provide funding for around 35,000 students to go abroad.
The hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to speak; I am sure he will contribute later on.
The Turing scheme is genuinely global in reach and will connect our young people with a whole world, rich and varied in its cultural experiences, giving them the opportunity to learn from the very best institutions on a global scale.
This is a Government who deliver on their promises. We are fulfilling our manifesto commitment by introducing a Bill to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities. Free speech is the lifeblood of democracy. Our world-class universities have a long and proud history of being spaces in which differing views or beliefs can be expressed without fear or censure. However, there have been increasing concerns about a chilling effect on campus and that not all students and staff feel able to share their views. That is why we will strengthen existing duties on universities, extending those duties to students’ unions and establishing a director in the Office for Students to protect and promote these rights.
We have always been determined that every child, regardless of background, should have access to high-quality education, and that is just as true for our youngest children as it is for those who are on the cusp of adulthood. The early years are a crucial time in a child’s development, and we know that the pandemic has had a significant impact on many young children. Earlier this year, we announced £18 million to support language development, which includes £10 million for an early language programme to help nursery children who have been affected by the pandemic. We are introducing the early years foundation stage reforms, which will be statutory for all early years providers from September this year.
When it comes to the most vulnerable children, there is no such thing as being too bold. We have launched our children’s social care review of systems and services, so that vulnerable youngsters can experience the benefits of a stable and loving home, many of them for the first time. The review will take place alongside ongoing reforms to raise standards in local authorities, boost adoption, improve support for care leavers and improve quality and placement practice in unregulated accommodation, including banning the placement of under-16s in unregulated homes and introducing national standards for provision.
Will the Secretary of State look again at placing a ceiling of the age of 16 on the requirement not to place young people in unregulated accommodation? I am sure he will agree that there are very many vulnerable 17, 18 and 19-year-olds for whom that would also be an important measure.
The hon. Lady will know about my commitment and passion in this area and how important it is to look at how we can improve things for these children. Certainly, as part of looking at how we continuously improve, we will make sure that we get these regulations in place initially, but we will then be looking at how we can continue to improve on that work.
Our country, like many others, faces a number of social and economic challenges as we recover from the pandemic. I am confident that, thanks to this ambitious legislative programme and our unwavering mission to level up every inch of our country, we will all have a chance to play our part in that recovery. In Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech, a fairer, better Britain is emerging, and future generations, as well as this one, will feel the benefit.
It is a pleasure to open this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, because nothing can be more important than our obligation to create a bright future for the next generation. On the Opposition Benches—indeed, I am sure, across the House—we believe that every child, whatever their background, must be able to make the most of their childhood and reach their full potential. As politicians, we have a solemn responsibility to ensure that the next generation enjoys greater opportunities than we have had, and that Britain is the best country in the world to grow up in.
Regrettably, this Queen’s Speech is a missed opportunity. It is a missed opportunity that comes hard on the heels of a decade of Conservative failures that have betrayed our young people: 1,000 children’s centres closed since 2010 by Conservative Governments; schools funding 9% lower in real terms in 2019-20 than in 2009-10; Labour’s proud track record in lifting a million children out of poverty wholly wiped out by Conservative austerity policies, with more than 5 million children expected to be in poverty by 2024; FE funding cut almost in half, and apprenticeship starts among under-25-year-olds down by 40% since 2016. The problems were there even before the pandemic.
Of course we all want to do our best for the most vulnerable children in our society, but will the hon. Lady acknowledge that, rather than the picture she has just painted of the past 10 years, the improvement in the delivery of children’s social care services, for example, with more good and outstanding local authorities delivering children’s social care and the number of inadequate services dropping considerably, is a testament not only to the people on the frontline working hard for those children, but to the Government policies put in place to ensure that that could happen?
I pay tribute to everyone working in local authorities and in the children’s social care sector for the hard work that has led to improvement in children’s services—vital services for the most vulnerable children in our country—but, frankly, the Government could have made it a great deal more straightforward for local authorities if they had not gone round trashing local authority funding. Our local councils have seen cuts of around 40% in their funding over the last 10 years, and that has put huge pressure on social care professionals, especially children’s social care professionals. It is very much to the credit of social care workers that we have seen improvements around the country, but I hope that the Government will use the children’s social care review that the Secretary of State referenced, which we are eager to engage with, to ensure that we put adequate, sustainable funding in place for these most vulnerable children.
The hon. Lady is talking about opportunities for the future and reshaping things. She will be well aware that in the Scottish elections last week, a majority in favour of an independence referendum was returned. Does she think it is right that the young of Scotland should get their say in a referendum or does she think the Labour party should stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tories and try to block them from having their democratic say?
As a Scot myself, I feel pretty confident in saying that I do not think the priority for Scotland and for people in Scotland right now is a constitutional referendum. I do not think that it is the most pressing concern for young people when there are worries that they are struggling to achieve the same standards in school as we are seeing in the rest of the United Kingdom and when we see young people struggling to get—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) needs to hear what he does not like to hear. The Scottish Government are failing young people. Educational attainment is declining. We see no sign of their having taken on the seriousness of how the SNP Government have let down young people. Let us concentrate on the priorities that really matter for the future of young people in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.
Despite facing soaring unemployment and the toughest jobs market for a generation, young people in desperate need of new opportunities have been overlooked by the Government. The 16-to-19 funding for catch-up has been woefully insufficient, and careers advice and guidance will be crucial after David Cameron’s Government brutally slashed it. The Government’s proposals are too little, too late. Apprentices, and BTEC and vocational students, have been repeatedly treated as an afterthought. Unemployment is forecast to rise over the course of this year, and the consequences of the pandemic will be with us for years to come as huge parts of our economy and labour market experience profound change.
Children’s attainment in literacy is going backwards, as is children’s mental health, and children are needing to go through potty training again. There are fears over people’s prospects and the jobs market. Which of the above does the hon. Lady think is a “good crisis” for people to take advantage of? Will she apologise for the comments that she made previously?
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for enabling me to be able to put on record in this House my regret for those remarks. They were inappropriate and insensitive and will have been offensive to people who have suffered terribly in this pandemic, including those who have been bereaved and lost those that they loved and will be missing terribly. I should not to have used those remarks, and I thank him for giving me the opportunity to put that on record in this Chamber.
If we are to seize this generational moment and deliver the fair, low-carbon recovery that we need to tackle the climate crisis, which is imperative if we are truly to pass on a bright future to the next generation, many people will need to retrain in new industries as old jobs disappear, as the Secretary of State said. But in the Queen’s Speech and in his remarks just a few moments ago, all that the Secretary of State could announce was a months-old commitment to a lifetime skills guarantee that simply is not guaranteed for everyone. It is not guaranteed because people cannot use it if they are already qualified to level 3; they cannot use it unless they are getting a qualification that the Secretary of State has decided he thinks is valuable; and they cannot use it if they need maintenance support while they are learning. If they are already qualified to level 3 in their existing field but need to retrain for a new industry, there is nothing on offer for them. Ministers have chosen to close the door on millions of people who need to retrain, and who need to do so now. I am at a loss to understand the Secretary of State’s position on this. Can he tell the House why a promised guarantee will not in fact be available to some of those who will need it most?
On maintenance funding, we are awaiting Ministers’ response to the Government’s Augar review, which is now over two years old. Augar said that those in further education should receive the same maintenance support as those in higher education. Does the Secretary of State agree with that proposal? If he does, why is it absent from the Queen’s Speech? While everyone will agree that employers have a central role in creating jobs and training opportunities for young people, they do so in the context of local economic and regeneration strategies driven by metro Mayors and local leaders, who seem to have been sidelined in the creation of the local skills plans and with the Government having abandoned a national industrial strategy.
After a decade of Conservative damage to the sector, I desperately want the Government to get skills policy right. Labour believes in a high-skill, high-wage economy that offers fulfilling, rewarding work and jobs in which people will take great pride. That is why, for years, I and my colleagues in the Labour party, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition in his speech opening the debate on the Loyal Address on Tuesday and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) during her time as Shadow Secretary of State for Education, have championed lifelong learning, further education and all those who learn and teach in this sector.
In contrast, in a startling, if only partial, conversion in the Conservative party after a decade spent in power, including times when the Education Secretary and the Prime Minister sat around the Cabinet table and nodded through cuts to further education and a loan-based funding model that, by the Government’s own admission, directly reduced the number of adults in education, we have reforms that offer, at best, a mere reversal of some of the worst excesses of Conservative ideology over the past decade. It is a desperate attempt to polish the windows, having taken a sledgehammer to the foundations.
The hon. Lady will know that I was a school teacher who started in 2011, just after the Conservatives took power. I want to remind her of the situation that I, as a teacher, inherited on the frontline. Between 2000 and 2009, England fell from seventh to 25th in reading, eighth to 28th in maths and fourth to 16th in science in international league tables. In addition, we had 350,000 young people aged 16 to 19 who, according to the independent Wolf review, received little to no benefit from the post-16 education system, which provided students with a diet of low-level vocational qualifications—[Interruption.] It is interesting that the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) is angry that a former teacher is speaking about education; I am interested to hear what he knows better than I. Is the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) proud of the record of the Labour party in that decade?
We should never accept less than the highest standards for young people in this country. I will compromise with nobody on being ambitious to deliver a world-class education and achieve world-class standards for our young people, but let me remind the hon. Gentleman of the progress that we made under Labour between 1997 and 2010. In London, for example, we massively narrowed the gap in attainment. Will he acknowledge that what we are seeing now, under his party’s Government, is the attainment gap once again widening? Our young people deserve better than that.
There are so many measures that I believe the Government could and should have included in the Queen’s Speech. Ministers could have gone beyond the platitudes on early years that we heard a few minutes ago and set out a plan to reverse the damage their decade of cuts has produced and to ensure affordable, accessible, high-quality early years education and childcare for all children. They could have set out how they will transform the national tutoring programme, creating the space for children to socialise and recover the time they need to develop and grow, and ensuring that no child loses out because of the damage that Ministers’ failure to manage the pandemic has created. They could have addressed the horrifying rise in child poverty—not mentioned once in the Queen’s Speech, although it is the driving cause of the widening attainment gap. They could have ensured that education professionals’ and school and college leaders’ expertise and hard work during the pandemic were recognised with a fair pay rise.
Instead, the Secretary of State has decided that it is more important to focus on free speech on university campuses. Free speech and academic freedom are important, but suggesting that we should use up valuable legislative time while the employment Bill has been quietly dropped and while, nearly two years after the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street telling us that he had plans for social care ready to go, nothing has appeared, will make people up and down the country think that this is the wrong priority.
I will not at the moment, if the right hon. Member will forgive me. I wish to make some progress.
We need to get this in perspective. Only six out of 10,000 events on campus—I repeat: 10,000—were cancelled, four of them simply because of lack of paperwork. One was a pyramid scheme. Now, I do understand that Conservatives responsible for a decade of economic mismanagement may struggle to recognise a pyramid scheme when they see one, but I am surprised that the Secretary of State wants to protect the ability to promote such schemes on our university campuses.
Much more concerning, though, is that the Minister for Universities was forced to admit on radio yesterday that this flawed legislation could have dangerous and troubling consequences, including potentially protecting holocaust deniers.
The Universities Minister never said that this would protect holocaust deniers, and it would not protect holocaust deniers because this party does not stand for antisemitism, unlike the Labour party. This party recognises that we need to eradicate antisemitism and racism of all kinds, and this legislation will never, never, never protect holocaust deniers, because that is something that should never, and will never, be tolerated.
Antisemitism is intolerable in my party, and in any organisation and any part of this country, but I am very sorry to tell the Secretary of State that the legislation does appear to offer protection, potentially, to antisemites and holocaust deniers; and the Universities Minister yesterday was not able to gainsay that.
My hon. Friend will be aware, having listened to the interview on Radio 4 yesterday, that the Universities Minister was explicitly asked whether this legislation would cover holocaust denial and she explicitly said that it would. This is appalling. There is no academic merit whatever in debate, distortion or denial of the holocaust. I hope my hon. Friend will agree that the Secretary of State should correct the record, because what he said just then has misled the House.
Let me read a transcript of the broadcast yesterday. The Universities Minister says:
“What this bill is designed to do is to protect and promote free speech which is lawful so any free speech which is lawful”.
The interviewer, Evan Davis, says:
“It is lawful isn’t it? Holocaust denial in this country is lawful isn’t it?”
The Minister says:
“So what I’m saying, yeah, so that’s”
Evan Davis asks:
“So holocaust denial is okay, you’d defend a holocaust denier being invited to campus because that is part of the free speech argument?”
The Minister responds:
“Obviously it would depend on exactly what they were saying”.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it never depends on what a holocaust denier is saying.
Let us be absolutely clear that this legislation will never protect holocaust deniers. It protects free speech within the law. It protects the fact that—we know that antisemitic activity and antisemitism are not to be tolerated. It is clear in the Equality Act 2010. We will never tolerate it, and this legislation will not allow holocaust deniers to be able to spread their hate and misinformation on our campuses.
I am grateful for that assurance on the Floor of the House from the Secretary of State. I hope when we are able to debate the Bill again on the Floor of the House and in Committee that we can work together to make sure that we have absolutely watertight provisions to ensure that there is no place for antisemitism anywhere on campus.
I also say very gently to Government Members, many of whom have a proud record of defending free speech, that handing over the power to determine whether free speech complaints on campus are justified to the Office for Students—a Government regulator, with an unqualified former Conservative MP appointed as its chair—smacks of the kind of thought control that we would rightly condemn in authoritarian Governments around the world. But it is not the way we do things in this country. I hope the Secretary of State will also think better of those proposals.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Queen’s Speech was the absence of anything meaningful for one of our most precious assets—our children—and their learning and wellbeing in school. Although we know that the Secretary of State is determined to send more schools down the path of academisation, he says that there will be a “try before you buy” model for schools contemplating this route. I have no idea how that will work, so perhaps the Secretary of State will be able to enlighten us.
Most parents do not care that much about the structure of their children’s school, and they are quite right. It is not structure that determines a school’s performance, but high-quality teaching and excellent school leadership, and we see that in both the maintained and academy sectors. Prioritising favoured structures at a time when the role of schools in helping children to bounce back from the pandemic could not be more important once again shows that the Secretary of State has the wrong priorities, especially when schools are struggling with a stealth cut to their budgets because of changes to the pupil premium, while it is rumoured that the national tutoring programme is being taken out of the hands of experts and given to Randstad, a multinational outsourcing company. Can the Secretary of State confirm the media reports that Randstad will be running the national tutoring programme next year, and if so, can he tell the House what expertise in education, teaching and learning it will bring? In fact, can he tell us why it was able to win this tender at all? Was it because his Department decided to lower the quality of provision required to cut corners on price?
Those are questions that the Secretary of State should answer, but let me conclude by addressing the perfectly reasonable question: what would Labour do to guarantee a bright future for children and young people? Let me tell the House what would have been in a Labour Queen’s Speech this week. We would have started with a credible, radical plan to enable children and young people to bounce back from the pandemic—a plan that created time for children to play, learn and develop, that gave the teaching profession the recognition and support it needs to guarantee a world-class education for every child and that ensured the national tutoring programme reached all children who need it. We would have detailed proposals for children’s wellbeing, catch-up breakfast clubs guaranteeing every child a healthy breakfast and creating more time in the school day for children to recover lost learning and time lost with their friends and teachers.
We would have delivered a credible plan to support young people into work. We would have implemented policies outlined earlier this year by my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) that would have guaranteed every young person not in education or employment a job or training opportunity to end long-term youth unemployment. We would have ensured the apprenticeship levy was used to create opportunities for our young people, as we suggested with our proposal to use the underspend from the apprenticeship levy last year to create 85,000 youth apprenticeship opportunities. Most importantly, we would be working right across a Labour Cabinet to end the scourge of rising child poverty, which is scarring the lives of millions of children. Tackling child poverty will always be a priority for Labour, and I am proud that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) will be leading our programme of work on this within the shadow Cabinet.
Before I came into Parliament, I spent a decade of my life working for and championing a brighter future for young people, because while children make up 20% of the population of this country, they are 100% of our future. They are ambitious, optimistic, imaginative, creative and excited about the world they will grow up to. They have so much to offer, and our job as adults is to give them every opportunity to make the most of their childhoods and their future, so let us not let them down with empty rhetoric and hollow promises. Today, let us commit to truly deliver a programme of change that transforms children’s lives, fulfils the promise that this will be best place to grow up and, in creating a brighter future for young people, gives the promise of a better future for every one of us.
I am excited by this Queen’s Speech—excited that, for the first time in many years, skills and further education are a core part. My maiden speech in 2010 was about apprenticeships, and I have yearned for the skills agenda to be embedded within Government. If the heart of levelling up is about education and skills, then we are truly in a good place. If levelling up means providing a ladder of opportunity for millions of our countrymen and women to learn, train and reskill, providing job security and prosperity for themselves and their families, then we will both meet the skills need of our nation and equip ourselves for the coming fourth industrial revolution. As the skills and FE Bill passes through Parliament, we will of course examine the finer details, but the vision of a lifetime skills guarantee providing all adults with the opportunity to retrain and skill for a lifelong learning entitlement is a huge step forward. The offer of free level 3 courses for those without A-levels could do much to retrain those who do not have the right qualifications to advance in key professions. My only wish is that this would come much sooner than 2025. I hope that in time the Government can build on this by providing an adult community learning centre in every town and by giving businesses a skills tax credit for every worker they retrain in vital skills.
We need to address the huge fall in part-time learners for higher education with maintenance support and greater financial muscle for institutions such as the Open University that do so much for disadvantaged students. The Open University is one of the great education inventions of the 20th century and an institution that puts levelling up first and foremost. For too long further education was denied the opportunities given to higher education, both in terms of funding and prestige. Over many years, there has been a culture of snobbery about FE. This has been all the more astonishing given that further education colleges meet our skills needs, provide a ladder of opportunity for thousands of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and are places of social capital. I have seen this myself in over 70 visits to Harlow College in my constituency. I have urged the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), or the Secretary of State to visit our wonderful college to see the work that it does as a showcase for the importance of FE to our country. The proposals look to build the prestige of further education and create more employer-led qualifications. As the Secretary of State, who has demonstrated a real passion for FE, has acknowledged, this must be backed up by a real-terms increase in funding. Further education has often been described as the Cinderella of our education system, but we should be reminded that Cinderella became a senior member of the royal family and could banish the two ugly sisters of snobbery and underfunding once and for all.
In the longer term, the Government should, alongside the remarkable kickstart programme of financial support for businesses that hire apprentices and young people, look at reform of the apprenticeship levy to ensure that more disadvantaged would-be apprentices can climb the skills ladder. Degree apprenticeships should be rocket-boosted with the ambition of having at least half of all students completing degree apprenticeships over the next 10 years.
Alongside FE, I would like the Government to do more to support university technical colleges. They have some superb outcomes and our ambition should be to have a UTC in every town across the country. Sixty-one per cent. of UTCs were rated good or outstanding in the past year compared with a national average of 50%, while in 2020 55% of students went on to university in contrast to 50% nationally, and 13% went on to do an apprenticeship whereas the national average is just 6%.
The White Paper mentions careers guidance. We will not transform skills unless we change careers guidance fundamentally. There is too much replication, duplication and overlap with the Department for Work and Pensions. Department for Education careers advice must be about skills, skills, skills. It must ensure that all the way through schooling pupils are taught about apprenticeships and FE and given more opportunities for work experience. Ofsted should focus on this kind of careers guidance, in short implementing the Baker clause—a much stricter criterion of inspection. Our curriculum should be changed to embed work and skills all the way through children’s, pupils’ and students’ learning.
The Government have put out the levelling-up skills ladder of opportunity. I am really optimistic that this Queen’s Speech will bring people to that ladder and help them climb to the top.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but Clare is my big sister.
There are no surprises in this Queen’s Speech but there is much repetition of many of the Prime Minister’s favourite phrases. While Parliament was prorogued, the SNP campaigned in and comprehensively won an election on a manifesto that included, as well as the obvious clear commitment to holding a referendum on independence, a commitment to our young people—to their education, their health and wellbeing, and their routes to work. In Scotland we already have the highest number of school leavers going on to positive destinations anywhere in the UK. To invest in the next generation the SNP Government will invest £1 billion over the course of this Parliament to work on narrowing the school attainment gap and recruit 3,500 additional teachers and classroom assistants.
The Secretary of State earlier boasted of maths success, but maybe he should take the time to read what has been said by Professor John Jerrim of University College London, who wrote England’s official 2015 country report for PISA—the programme for international student assessment. Professor Jerrim said that some low-achieving students in England have been “systematically excluded” from the PISA data for England, which undermines England’s global rankings. It is suggested that if the data were adjusted on the basis of a more representative sample, England could plummet 11 placings in the maths ratings. Perhaps the Secretary of State should be aware of that.
While this Tory Government have to be forced into providing some school lunches for children, the Scottish Government will provide free school breakfasts and lunches to every primary school pupil throughout the year. Why have we not seen a similar commitment for children in England? For all their talk of levelling up, this Government ignore the fact that children cannot learn effectively when hungry.
The Tories threaten to rip away the lifeline of the £20 a week uplift to universal credit. The new SNP Government will double the game-changing Scottish child payment over the lifetime of this Parliament. The most needy families in Scotland are already receiving an additional £10 per week for every eligible child; doubling this to £20 will make a real difference to these families. That is a Scottish Government delivering on the people’s priorities —what a contrast to what we see from the Tory Government, who are content to continue imposing poverty on the most disadvantaged.
The context of the covid crisis makes choices such as these all the more critical, because in seeking to build economic recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic it is vital that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. The Budget in March and this Queen’s Speech are clearly laying the grounds for more austerity and Tory cuts.
It is also important to point out that no party and no Government who forced through a devastating Brexit in the middle of a pandemic can credibly claim to be focused on recovery. With the powers we have, the Scottish Government are doing everything they can to mitigate the damage and protect our businesses. A fair recovery must be investment-led, so at the centre of our recovery plans is an economic transformation with fair work and the climate emergency at its heart. It includes an investment of £500 million to support new jobs and to retrain people for the jobs of the future, as well as funding the young person’s guarantee of a free university, college, apprenticeship or training place for every young person who wants one.
What a contrast that is to what the Prime Minister has announced in the Queen’s Speech. Colleges in England have been severely underfunded for a decade, leading to a £1.1 billion gap in real-terms funding for 16-to-19 education, and this Tory Government have done very little to address that. The announcement on lifetime access to education cannot be truly considered access; all it does is pave the way for increased financial liability. No longer will educational debt, which is on average £50,000 on graduation for students in England, be reserved to the young; now the Tories want people of all ages to be saddled with debt for their education. This Tory Government need a different approach to post-16 education funding, providing long-term security and putting the interests of learners at its heart. Education is a public good and as such must be publicly funded to provide real lifelong access for all.
The Prime Minister continues his talk of the UK as a science superpower and makes impressive promises regarding research and development funding, but the story on the ground is much less rosy. Researchers are finding themselves in an eternal circle of grant applications, trying to get scraps of funding from various different bodies—one here, another there.
If the Prime Minister makes good on his announcement on additional funding for this sector, many will be relieved, but over the past six months, we have seen much that casts doubt on his promises and, as we have come to expect of this Prime Minister, absolutely no detail. There have been questions and delays over the funding of Horizon Europe, and cuts of £120 million from the ODA budget. The UK’s status as a science superpower is underpinned by international research collaboration. A while back, the UK Government announced, with much fanfare, 12 flagship hubs that were to run projects of five to 10 years for the achievement of the UK’s sustainable development goals. As a result of the ODA cuts, projects halfway through clinical trials cannot continue unless funds are found. That is jeopardising both jobs and research. Is that the action of a science superpower: withdrawing funding in the middle of human trials, in violation of medical ethics?
Also as a result of ODA cuts, universities have reported that research contracts have been terminated, in some cases with just hours’ notice. That has fundamentally undermined trust between universities, researchers and UK Research and Innovation. The system of research commissioning is now one where the first risk assessment that must be done is on the UK Government’s ability to honour their own contracts. Do the UK Government’s promises mean so little that they must now be risk assessed?
I am delighted that the Secretary of State was so enthusiastic in his praise for my home city of Glasgow and he is welcome to join me here in Glasgow at any point. I wonder whether he would also be enthusiastic about meeting the researchers who as a result of the ODA cuts are now struggling to continue with their research. Nothing in this Queen’s Speech provides any certainty for international collaboration. Instead, we have seen that young people’s ability to travel freely to 27 other countries has been curtailed. Opportunities have been lost. Despite his praise of the Turing scheme, it is a poor relative of the Erasmus scheme and our young people can see right through this.
Scotland is a confident nation, one that celebrates diversity. Although the electorate in England might buy the Prime Minister’s promises, young people in Scotland can see through them. They want a different path, one with opportunity, and they want to choose their own future as an independent nation. The Scottish Parliament elections have shown that the young people of Scotland are clear: they know that the SNP Government have their interests at heart and they look forward to re-joining the independent nations of the EU.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
“When we’re born, our mothers show us compassion. This is a natural response without which we wouldn’t survive.”
Those are the words of the Dalai Lama in celebrating Mother’s Day, and he is absolutely right. Babies who experience the compassion and love of their care giver, be it mum, dad or another caring adult, have already won first prize in the lottery of life, because it is someone’s earliest experiences in the period from conception to the age of two that can shape their entire lifelong physical and emotional health.
To understand that point better we need look no further than the great Harry Potter. When he was born, his parents loved and cared for him. His mother gave her own life to save his. When evil Lord Voldemort killed Harry’s parents, Harry was only just over a year old. He was taken to live with his abusive aunt and uncle, and forced to grow up in a cupboard under the stairs, yet not only did his secure early beginning enable him to survive and thrive through all those early traumas, but his secure sense of self enabled him to go on to become the greatest wizard the world has ever known. So, to me, the stand-out part of the Queen’s Speech that really will ensure a bright future for the next generation was when the Queen confirmed that
“Measures will be brought forward to ensure that children have the best start in life, prioritising their early years.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 May 2021; Vol. 812, c. 2.]
Ensuring that every baby has a chance at the best start for life has been my passion for 25 years, from experiencing post-natal depression myself with my first born, to chairing a number of charities that provide mental health support for families who are struggling to form a secure bond with their new babies, to now being the Government’s early years healthy development adviser. The work carried out by so many over all those decades has been hugely rewarded by those few words in the Queen’s Speech.
I thank the Prime Minister for his personal commitment to the best start for every baby when he and I launched the Government’s vision for the 1,001 critical days together at the Monkey Puzzle Day Nursery in his constituency. The agreed actions in our vision will address inequalities across England, contribute hugely to the Government’s levelling-up agenda and can, in a generation, transform our society for the better. I fully intend to collaborate closely with colleagues in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Administrations to share learning and best practice, to make this a positive story for our whole United Kingdom.
Why does support in the early years change lives for the better? Humans are unique in the animal kingdom in the extent of our underdevelopment at birth. What other offspring cannot fend for itself at all until it is at least a year old? But the physical underdevelopment is only a tiny part of the human story. At birth, the brain is only partially formed, and the way in which it develops is profoundly affected by an infant’s earliest experiences. Mental ill health, drug and substance misuse and domestic violence in the home can all create trauma in a developing brain that can have a permanent impact on both physical and emotional health, with not only long-term consequences for the total well of human happiness but the financial cost to society of poor early relationships. Depression, homelessness, drug taking, violence, self-harming, knife crime—too many of these costly problems can be laid at the door of poor early relationships.
The vision for the 1,001 critical days includes a joined-up start for life offer for every family in England; the development of multidisciplinary family hub networks that are open-access, universal and include both physical and virtual support; a digital version of the red book; a newly empowered workforce; improved outcomes measurement and evaluation; and strong leadership at both the local and national levels. It is an incredibly ambitious programme of measures, and I am so proud to be leading their implementation on behalf of the Government.
The commitment of the Government should be music to all our ears. I thank the many Members right across the House who have been so supportive of this agenda for so long. A focus on the 1,001 critical days may just be the most important thing we will ever do to ensure a bright future for the next generation.
I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). It has been a true pleasure to work with her for over a decade on early years policy and, most recently, on the Government’s early years review, which she kindly invited me to sit on. I am pleased that she has once again raised this very important issue today and at the commitment she has secured in the Queen’s Speech, which I hope, as she does, delivers all the recommendations in her review. It has also been a pleasure to co-chair with the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson), who I shadowed when he was the Children and Families Minister, the Early Years Commission, which is set to publish its findings soon.
As we know, the first 1,001 critical days are so crucial to a child’s development, and I will continue as long as I have breath in my body to campaign for the early years to be prioritised and properly funded, as I am sure the right hon. Lady will. However, I want to focus the bulk of my remarks on another very important issue. While the pandemic has been more than a challenge for all policy areas, nowhere has it impacted harder than in our health services. I want to raise this today because the legacy of any legislation now will have a lasting impact on our recovery towards the brighter future we all want to see. We have the opportunity now to rebuild our NHS after this devastating blow, so that generations to come have world-class healthcare there for them when they need it. Yet sadly, there was no mention of cancer services in particular in the Queen’s Speech, which is a terrible omission.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ovarian cancer, I work closely with other cancer APPG chairs to raise the devastating issues facing our cancer services. Never has that work been of greater importance than across this last year, yet, sadly, BBC statistics shared today suggest there are 45,000 missing cancer patients, meaning fewer people are going to their GP to be checked out or seek referrals. They are also missing vital screening services. Of that number, almost 10,000 are missing breast cancer patients. People need to know that it is safe to go to get checked. Not only is it safe; it is encouraged.
Despite fewer people presenting to their GPs in the first place as a result of the pandemic, worrying trends have appeared along the treatment chain. Macmillan’s research demonstrates that, as of February this year, the number of people being seen by a specialist after an urgent referral had dropped by 8% from February 2020. The disruption to services across the last 14 months has created a backlog of people receiving their first treatment for cancer, which currently stands at 38,500 people. That is despite the strongest efforts of our tremendously hard-working NHS staff.
Despite the urgent nature of the 62-day period from diagnosis to treatment, thousands of patients have had to wait longer. The lowest number of people missing that waiting time period was 16,111, and that was in November last year, but that was still 44% higher than pre-pandemic numbers. We all know that NHS staff have worked their hardest and could not have done more, but even if cancer services could now operate at 110% of pre-pandemic capacity, we are looking at more than 15 months to clear that backlog, and that is without the 45,000 missing cancer patients all turning up all of a sudden. So this just is not possible or sustainable with the extensive challenges that lie ahead. The Government must do everything they can to put patients first, clear that backlog, find those missing patients and bring down the growing waiting lists. But how?
Concerns have been raised by the Royal College of Radiologists that delays to scans have been worsened by a 33% shortfall in that workforce. It is unfortunately growing clearer that our cancer workforce are suffering and need immediate attention from the Government. Alongside other cancer APPG chairs, I was happy to sign a funding statement in March which called on the Government to recognise that NHS services need resources to super-boost capacity above pre-pandemic levels. The Government really must act now to make sure that this does not spiral into a greater health crisis and to protect lives. The way to achieve that is with a plan that ensures the long-term resuscitation of the cancer workforce—a plan that will recruit and train, bring jobs and maintain the standards of care that people deserve nationwide.
Cancer was left out of the Chancellor’s Budget in March. The backlog was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. I ask the Government to make sure that the other c-word is not forgotten once more.
I welcome the breadth of measures in the Queen’s Speech, which are necessary and welcome. We are talking today about the plans for further education, which right an anomaly that has been there for too long. Someone can go to university and receive subsidised loan support from the Government, but someone pursuing a vocational course in the FE sector is all too often largely left to fend for themselves. That reform is really important.
I also single out the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill, which I hope will put an end to the anomaly of house builders selling properties that should be freehold with a long-term lease that they then use to exploit their buyers to get more money. I have many constituents who have experienced that, and the behaviour of companies such as Persimmon has brought discredit on the sector.
I want to focus my remarks not on a new Bill but on an old one, but one that is vital to the future of the generations we are talking about today. The Environment Bill has already passed through most of its stages in this House, but carrying it over into this Session provides an opportunity to make further improvements to what is already a good and important Bill. I really welcome the steps taken to address deforestation and the use of deforested land to grow products that might end up on sale here. The loss of forested areas around the world in recent decades has been disastrous for our planet, impacting on habitats, biodiversity and climate change.
The Environment Bill will make it much more difficult to use illegally deforested areas to produce products for sale in the UK, but that leaves a big challenge where the deforestation is not illegal. We have seen in Brazil, only in the past few weeks, moves to introduce new laws that would permit greater exploitation of the Amazon rainforest, which our planet simply cannot afford. This country cannot and should not stand idly by while that happens. The Amazon rainforest is a global asset of vital importance to all our futures. I pay tribute to the retailers who last week sent a clear message to the Brazilian Government that they will not source products from a country that behaves in that way. I ask the Secretary of State to talk to the Foreign Secretary to make sure that his Department also makes clear our Government’s disapproval of what is proposed in Brazil, to ensure that these damaging laws are withdrawn by Ministers there.
Many environmental groups have rightly raised concerns about the fact that the Environment Bill takes action on illegal deforestation but not on legal deforestation—given what is proposed in Brazil, they have a real point. Of course, it is difficult to criminalise products in the UK that have been produced legally in other countries, and it is often very difficult to prove that this has happened, even in a court of law. We must take every possible step to prevent damaging legal and illegal deforestation where it does serious damage to ecosystems. Where countries need deforestation for economic reasons, we should help them where necessary and provide aid to help them find alternative ways.
There are two steps that I want to see taken in the Environment Bill or by Ministers in the coming months, to a clear timetable and with a clear commitment. First, I hope that the Government will accept amendments, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), that would prevent UK-based financiers from supporting investments in businesses that exploit forest risk products. I think that is absolutely essential. Secondly, I want to see the introduction of a clear system of sustainable food labelling in this country. I have tabled an amendment that would mandate the Government to do that. If it is difficult to make agricultural products coming from areas of legal deforestation illegal, let us at least give consumers the power to reject those products themselves. If we do so, retailers will inevitably also reject those products.
Another change that I would like to see in the Environment Bill relates to something rather closer to home. I am the parliamentary species champion for one of our favourite, but sadly now dwindling, species: the hedgehog. Some of the measures in the Agriculture Act 2020, and now in the Environment Bill, can make a real difference. I want to see greater protection for the hedgehog against the wanton destruction of habitats. We still have to conduct newt surveys, and small creatures such as the lagoon sand worm are protected, but a developer can simply rip up a hedge without even checking whether there are hedgehogs or other endangered species in it, and that needs to change. When the time comes for that debate, I will be pushing Ministers either to provide that protection immediately or, perhaps more realistically, to move rapidly to create a new framework that provides proper protections—updated, modern protections —for hedgehogs and other species with dwindling numbers.
This Government are already providing more wildlife and animal protection than almost any of their predecessors, and this Queen’s Speech contains a range of very welcome measures to improve the legal protection we offer, and I commend Ministers for that. The Environment Bill takes us further than virtually any other country in taking responsibility for our planet and our ecology. There is more to come from this Government as they look at some of the issues, such as live animal transport, that must be addressed for animal welfare in this country. These are very welcome, overdue and necessary. I hope that Members on both sides will agree that, based on these measures alone, the Queen’s Speech should have—I fear that it probably will not—the unanimous support of the House.
The last year has been one of tragedy for the tens of thousands of relatives of those who died from covid, such as Jane Roche of Castle Vale in my constituency. Her dad, Vince, died, and five days later her sister Jocelyn died. She has campaigned fiercely for an independent inquiry into why tens of thousands died who should never have died. Yesterday she once again wept tears when the inquiry was announced. She said three things. First, she and the relatives from Birmingham will meet the Secretary of State shortly, and they want their voice to be heard in the drawing up of the terms of reference. Secondly, they want to be able to give evidence on behalf of the families from Birmingham—Britain’s second city—which saw such a terrible price paid. Thirdly, 2022 is simply too late for the inquiry to start if painful lessons are to be learned.
I want to focus my remarks on manufacturing, which matters to the success of the United Kingdom. The genius of manufacturing, science and the national health service was responsible for the development and roll-out of the vaccine, and 30 million people have already been vaccinated. That success teaches us two lessons, which I fear the Government have not sufficiently learned. First, it was the coming together of the state, businesses and workers that delivered one of the greatest feats that this country has achieved in recent times. Secondly, British manufacturing, having shown its worth to the country in its hour of need, deserves and requires a Government who think strategically about how to support the sector to reap the rewards of our world-class manufacturing. However, the Queen’s Speech and the events of recent months demonstrate that the Government are failing to learn these lessons. The scrapping of the Industrial Strategy Council, the ending of the industrial strategy policy and the Treasury land grab of industrial strategy have been received with dismay by many in the world of manufacturing—employer and trade union alike.
Time after time, we have seen the Government shirk their responsibility to support British industry. All the while, our international competitors are making strides forward. Last year, the French invested £15 billion in the aerospace industry and £8 billion in the automotive industry to put them at the forefront of the next generation of green planes and cars. The German Government have invested £4 billion in German automotive production to ease the transition to electric vehicles. In America, President Biden has secured a $1.9 trillion stimulus package to kickstart the economy. The failure in our country to do likewise on the necessary scale means that we run the risk of Britain falling behind, and that must change.
The Government need to act now on three fronts. First, they need to recognise that it is absolutely key to our economic recovery that we invest in manufacturing, which is central to our economy, creating good, well-paid and stable jobs when too many people are now in insecure and low-paid employment.
Secondly, on the challenges of net zero, this is the year of Glasgow, with the immense potential that that brings. However, if we are to rise to that challenge, demanding —rightly so—that we end the scandal of global warming, and then take advantage of that, it means investment in our world-class manufacturing and research and development. One example of where the Government simply fall behind continental Europe is investment in gigafactories, and another is investment in infrastructure.
Thirdly, if the Government mean what they say about the levelling-up agenda, it is crucial that much of manufacturing is located in seats of high deprivation, such as Erdington. I always describe Erdington as being rich in talent, but it is one of the poorest constituencies in the country. At its heart we have the jewels in the crown of manufacturing, such as Jaguar Land Rover and the GKN factory—we are battling right now to save that from closure. Manufacturing is key if the Government are to come anywhere near achieving their objective of levelling up.
In conclusion, let me return to the success of the vaccine roll-out. It has demonstrated the enormous and endless potential of the state, businesses and workers coming together to deliver, in our hour of need, one of this country’s greatest achievements. It also demonstrates just how important manufacturing is to Britain. The Government need to learn those lessons, but I fear that they will not. They are proceeding with nowhere near the ambition that is necessary. Is it true that some welcome initiatives have been taken? Yes, it is, but not at the scale demanded. If France, Germany and America can do it, Britain demands and deserves better.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
After 12 months of challenge, this Queen’s Speech needed to do two things: tackle the aftermath of the pandemic and lay firm foundations for a brighter future. It does exactly that. Bills tackling investment in our health service and social care sit alongside town deals, the higher education Bill and the Environment Bill. This clear vision for optimism is based on the Government’s levelling up agenda for the whole country. It is really about unleashing the full potential of the whole country. That was the message that ignited the electorate in the elections last week. From Hartlepool to the west midlands and to Basingstoke, voters profoundly rejected negative campaigning and embraced the positive message that we, as a Conservative party, had to give—nowhere more so than in my own constituency of Basingstoke, where we took back control of the council with a resounding majority.
This Queen’s Speech is all about levelling up and unleashing that potential, and it is an optimistic message for the country. It is about investing in our towns and in the infrastructure in the midlands, the north-east, the north-west and, indeed, around the whole of the United Kingdom. It means that reaching one’s full potential does not mean moving away from one’s home town. That has a personal resonance for me, because in the late 1960s, when my family left the Black Country where I had been born and bred, they did so to seek a better job and to be able to move from council accommodation to a private house. I would like to see a change in the need to do that, and I welcome the focus of this Queen’s Speech in allowing that to happen. That message is also important for places such as my own constituency of Basingstoke, because growth has been concentrated in the south-east for too long at the expense of other parts of the United Kingdom, causing extraordinary pressure on housing, transport and the local environment. Making sure that we level up across the country is important for every single citizen in the United Kingdom.
The Queen’s Speech is also about levelling up for those groups everywhere who are still not achieving their full potential, particularly through education and work opportunities. The education and skills Bill will be an essential ingredient in this, as lifelong training is the reality for all of us wherever we work.
When it comes to work, the past 12 months have been an enormous challenge for employers. They have been tested more than ever before, and the overwhelming majority have worked with their employees to find new ways to work and support their families, and to support staff suffering from the mental health challenges of the pandemic. If we are to enable everyone in this country to reach their full potential, we need to be actively levelling up in the workplace, too. Within the Government’s legislative programme, we need to tackle some of the issues that we encountered with working practices during the pandemic. We must be optimistic about ensuring that everybody—every woman, in particular, and every parent—in this country can reach their potential.
Since 2010, this Government have made it an important priority to help women to level up in the workplace. There has been progress in recording and cutting the gender pay gap for women under 35, in increasing childcare and in extending the right to request flexible working, but a truly bright future for the next generation will take these steps further. Ensuring that everyone in this country can reach their full potential in work is important not only because it is fair, but because it is essential for the prosperity of our entire nation. Making all jobs flexible by default has become the reality for the past 12 months, so let us not slip back into the old ways of working. Let us use the challenges of the past 12 months as a platform for a more positive, flexible way to work from now on. And let us level up for pregnant women at work, too, because too many of them have suffered from their employers’ lack of understanding of the law during the pandemic, being put on sick leave when they should not have been.
The Government already know that 50,000 women a year leave their jobs when they are pregnant because of discrimination, often covered up by the use of non-disclosure agreements, many forced out of work at a time when they cannot get another job. Too many women still see a lack of a level playing field at work, so let us level up for them too, and let us have within the Government legislative programme plans to stop pregnant women being made redundant and stop the use of non-disclosure agreements covering up unlawful activity, particularly sexual harassment and discrimination at work. Let us have proper shared care for dads, too, because it is better for everyone. All jobs as flexible by default unless there is a good reason not to—that is what levelling up has to look like for everyone in the future.
Finally, I welcome the online harms Bill included in the Gracious Speech, published yesterday for scrutiny before being formally debated in this place. A ground- breaking piece of legislation—the UK truly leading the world in tackling online harms. An important part of a bright future for the next generation needs to be an internet that benefits, not detracts from, our lives. As well as regulating that industry to ensure that it does not create harm, we need laws to give victims protections, too. So either within or alongside the Online Safety Bill, the Government need to tackle the deficits in the law, especially on sharing intimate sexual images without consent. The Law Commission review is now finished and will be complete before the Bill comes to the House, and I hope the Government will undertake to insert into the Online Safety Bill important changes in criminal law to protect victims of that heinous crime of intimate image abuse.
The Bills in the Queen’s Speech start to rebuild our country after the challenges of the pandemic. Its optimism and vision to level up are exactly what our country needs.
In the local elections last week, Oxfordshire Liberal Democrats campaigned with a positive focus on the environment, improving the lives of our young people and supporting health and social care. It was a vision that resonated with people in Oxfordshire, and resulted in record gains against the Conservatives and our largest ever group on the county council. For the first time in 16 years, we are hoping for a leading role on an administration that will make that agenda a reality.
We believe that investing in our country is not just about physical infrastructure, but is also about investing in our people, especially our children. By contrast, in Oxfordshire under the Tories, youth services and children’s centres had been cut to the bone. In fact, most of our children’s centres closed in 2017 and they disbanded the Oxfordshire youth service in its entirety. Liberal Democrats want to bring youth services back, because we believe that there is no better way to create a bright future for the next generation than to help them engage with all the amazing opportunities available to them in our area, and we want to see real investment in children’s centres and early years support.
Two years ago, Lib Dem Abingdon councillor Neil Fawcett managed to persuade the council to reopen South Abingdon’s children’s centre. Despite Oxfordshire’s relative affluence, Caldecott is in the 10% most deprived wards in education, skills and training in the country and the 20% most deprived in income. Children’s centres change lives, but especially so in such places as South Abingdon. He should not have needed to campaign so hard for that, but I am pleased to report that with the support of the local community, that centre is now thriving.
It is that focus on fairness and long-term investment that completely exemplifies the approach that Liberal Democrats will take, should we help to form the new county council administration. To do that even better, however, we do need more central Government funding. Budgets for all councils were stretched before the pandemic, but it is even worse now. Add in the £1.6 million lost because of the former administration’s incompetence over a botched car park contract and £8 million lost from the social care budget because of short-sighted decisions, and it is fair to say that times are tough.
It is the non-statutory services that have suffered, but that is surely a false economy. Our children’s social care budget is in crisis. For every child who ends up in the system, we must remember the anguish and the enduring damage that getting to that point can cause, but it is also bad value for money. Investing in our children and their families early is not just the right thing to do morally, but the right thing to do for our taxpayers, too. We have only to look at the example of charities such as the Abingdon Bridge or Wolvercote Young People’s Club to see what an incredible difference these youth services make to the lives of our young people, but we need to be able to help everyone, and there are far too many gaps. When the Vibe youth club in Didcot was closed, the young people who relied on it just did not know where to go.
I welcome the aims set out in the education recovery plan, but I hope that in developing these plans, the Government will not overlook the role that local government and youth services can play. The Liberal Democrats have proposed devolving money away from the National Citizen Service and the youth investment fund to local authorities so that they can expand youth service provision and provide educational recovery programmes. That would make such a difference to my constituents; I ask the Minister what thought has been given to doing it.
For many young people, apprenticeships provide that practical bridge between education and work, and towards fulfilling independent futures where they are masters of their own destiny. In Oxfordshire, we want to do even better. We have incredible local providers such as Abingdon & Witney College and Activate Learning, but the Government do not make it easy.
In her answer last month to a question that I tabled in March, the apprenticeships Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan)—revealed that more than £1 billion in apprenticeship levy funding paid by employers had expired unused between May 2020 and February 2021. That was a 22% increase on the year before, which just shows that there is far too much bureaucracy and too little flexibility in the system. It has disadvantaged young people, who are missing out. Nationally, the Liberal Democrats have campaigned for the apprenticeship levy to be expanded into a wider skills and training levy to help to prepare the UK’s workforce for the economic challenges ahead.
Finally, there is great appetite to engage with the kickstart scheme, but I was deeply concerned to hear, in a business roundtable organised by our local enterprise partnership, that data on the kickstart scheme is gathered only at a regional level by the Department for Work and Pensions. If the Government want it to succeed, I plead with Ministers: give us the data at a county level—let us help you.
Our children and young people deserve a brighter future. As we emerge from this pandemic, it is the impact on the next generation that really concerns me the most. We need serious investment in them—in early years, children’s centres and youth services, as well as schools, colleges and universities. Only if we do that will the dream of a brighter future become a reality.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on the passion with which she speaks on behalf of early learning.
I feel a bit bereft by this Government, because normally I like to make constructive criticism of my own side, but I have to say that there is very little in this Queen’s Speech that I disagree with—perhaps I had better sit down straight away, but you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I say a few words.
To compare that with previous Governments, I found it very difficult to agree with a single thing that the Government of David Cameron were doing. He took the view—some in the Labour party may take it now—that his party was unelectable and he had to veer towards a kind of liberal agenda. He did do one thing right, which was calling a referendum on Europe, although of course he never thought for a moment that it would ever happen. He thought that he would still be in coalition with the Liberals and that if it did happen, there would be just a few right wingers, as he would have termed them, arguing for Brexit and he would win easily—but Brexit has changed everything. That is now the problem for the Labour party in reconnecting with its voters in northern and midlands seats such as Gainsborough, which I represent.
The Government are in a strong position, but I counsel against hubris. If we are to hold on to our gains in areas such as I represent, we must not just talk the talk but walk the walk and take the action. That applies particularly to immigration and housing. Brexit was won not because people like me were wittering on about parliamentary sovereignty for many years, but on the issue of immigration, and people in the midlands and the north of England feeling that their Government were out of touch on immigration.
I welcome the new Bill that is being promoted. The fact is, though, that there are perhaps a million people in this country whom we do not know about who are here illegally. That is a real issue and of real concern. What really angers people is seeing these daily pictures of illegal crossings on the channel. I believe that the only way to stop that is to make it a criminal offence to try to enter this country illegally—one that, if proven, would entail a custodial sentence and deportation. If we do not take action, this trade will continue; it will get worse and worse, and sooner or later there will be a horrible tragedy in the channel and people will drown and they will die. The Bill is welcome, but we have to be robust on this. We cannot protect ourselves simply by creating a wall around the country.
Why do people come here? These are not bad people; they are good people. They just want a better future. They come here because their own countries are in chaos. Therefore, we have to commit ourselves to international aid and overseas development. I will not labour the point, but I have been critical of the way the budget has been cut. We have promised to restore it, but we have to concentrate aid in a practical way, on the poverty that is motivating this mass migration. Immigration is a vital issue.
The next issue is housing. Some of my colleagues who represent prosperous seats in the south-east are rightly worried about the planning Bill. Personally, I see no point in encouraging developers to build on green-belt land. They always want to build executive housing on green land; we want to build housing in the cities, the towns, the north of England and the midlands. I think we should reconnect with people by committing ourselves to a Macmillan Government-type programme of building 300,000 houses a year. His mistake, perhaps, was to build council houses. I want to build housing for young people that they can afford so that they can convert rent into purchase. That will really connect with young people, who, in places such as the south-east, simply cannot get on the property ladder. That is how this Government will be a success—by giving people a stake in their own society, so that they are not just renters. That is a true levelling-up agenda.
I am also grateful to the Government for taking on the issue of free speech in universities. It is none of my business, really, but if the Labour party is to reconnect with so many of its natural supporters in the north, it has to turn its back on this woke, politically correct agenda of denigrating our past. The past is the past. I understand that, on my mother’s side, my grandfather was born in Barbados—he was the son of a missionary—but it is quite probable that his grandfather and great-grandfather were involved in the slave trade and may even have owned slaves. Am I to denounce my own family? The fact is that the slave trade was so endemic in the 18th century that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are descended from slave owners. Slavery is wrong. It was wrong; it is wrong. We led the world in abolishing it, but the history is as it is.
Similarly, when I go up to the Committee corridor, I see a picture of Queen Elizabeth I—a glorious picture of Gloriana. She ensured that my ancestor Richard Leigh was hung, drawn and quartered for no other reason than that he was a Catholic priest. But do I condemn Elizabeth I? No; it is part of our history. We have to be proud of Britain. We have to stop tearing down statues, stop denigrating our past, and accept that the past is the past, with all its benefits and regrettable occurrences.
I agree with the right hon. Member on some level about the need to protect our nation’s history. If he is so concerned about ensuring that the nation’s history is protected, will he condemn the comments made by the Minister for Universities on Radio 4 yesterday about holocaust deniers and people who wish to debate the facts of the holocaust being protected under the new free speech in universities legislation that his Government are bringing forward?
I did not hear the interview. All I can say is that antisemitism, like Islamophobia and all the isms, is completely wrong, regrettable and horrible. I would have hoped that it would not have not been necessary to bring in such a Bill because there will be all sorts of unintended consequences. I heard a university vice-chancellor say yesterday, “How are we going to police it?” I understand all this. Therefore, it is down to the leadership of the universities and the schools to ensure free speech, within reason.
Free speech should be governed by good manners. It should not be governed by laws. We should therefore protect free speech, and it is down to headteachers and vice-chancellors to ensure that this ridiculous no-platforming stops. I do not want to get into the whole transgender issue, but a well-known feminist writer should not be barred from speaking in a university just because she has made a few comments on transgender issues.
Finally, I want to talk about the Union, which is the single most important issue we have to deal with—even more important than immigration and housing. We have to fight for the Union. I counsel the Government in saying that it is just an economic issue. Of course, we have to take on the SNP on the economic issues, but we must not make the mistake of the remainers in the EU referendum by saying it is all about money. We must not play Project Fear. We must say, “We love being together with Scotland. We love the Scottish people. We love the Union. We have achieved so much together. Let’s keep it going.”
Right on cue. I thank the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for that love bombing, but I assure him that that in itself will not be enough to save his Union. When it comes to young people, their choices, their rights and their futures, once again we have a tale of two Governments, with one here who refuse to give 16 to 18-year-olds the vote and are trying to suppress voting with the electoral register Bill. We should note that when the SNP first extended the voting franchise for the 2014 referendum, both Labour and the Tories were opposed to young people getting their chance to vote. Why was that? They feared that the young would vote for independence. However, it was a long-standing SNP policy and a principle of ours, and we extended it to parliamentary elections. We believe in democracy and maximum participation. That is why EU citizens also have the vote and why we have now extended it to refugees.
We live in a parliamentary democracy. Pro-referendum and pro-indy parties have 72 seats to the Unionists’ 57 seats, and the SNP achieved the highest constituency vote share of any party ever at a Holyrood election on a record turnout. The Tories made it clear at the election that the referendum was a key voting issue, yet they secured only 23% in the list vote, with pro-indy parties achieving over 50%. Why does Westminster therefore think they should have a veto on our democratic choices? What message does that send to young voters? Young people have had to face the brunt of Brexit. Surely they deserve a chance to choose their own path, with a different future: a chance to consider the merits of an independent Scotland within the EU and a Government that people voted for, with the full economic levers of independence and able to make their own decisions. That is a normal country. It could, for example, choose to implement a new green deal. It is therefore no wonder that 70% of 16 to 24-year-olds favour Scottish independence.
When it comes to climate change, we know that young people are more engaged and recognise it as the biggest threat to their future. They know that the Scottish Government have declared a climate emergency, but so far the UK Government have not followed suit. The young want to see a green recovery, which is only possible with Scottish independence. Why should Scotland remain in a Union where energy policy is reserved to Westminster? It means that in effect we do everything with one hand tied behind our back. While we were forging ahead with ambitious renewable energy targets, down here David Cameron was trying to “cut the green crap”. That led to the blocking of onshore wind development in Scotland, which is also stuck with a grid charging system in which operators in Scotland pay the highest connection fees in Europe. Despite that, in 2020 Scotland still managed to produce over 97% of its electricity demand from renewable energy—truly leading the way.
Why should we be stuck with an energy policy that is wedded to new nuclear power stations and is piling costs on to our electricity bills? The £20 billion Hinkley Point C project is 45 times more expensive than the current offshore wind prices. We do not need nuclear for base-load—the National Grid chief executive officer debunked that myth in 2015. It is utter madness to commit further billions to new nuclear power stations or small water reactors and nuclear fusion. It is just creating another nuclear waste legacy, when the existing one is already costing us over £130 billion.
It is obvious that renewable energy is the future. We need to grasp the opportunities to create green jobs and the potential to provide rewarding careers that offer people opportunities to travel around the world. But there was nothing—absolutely nothing—in the Queen’s Speech on renewable energy policy. For base-load, in our energy policy we need to go ahead and price the mechanism for pumped hydro storage. For just around £1.5 billion, we could get the Cruachan dam extension and the new Coire Glas scheme constructed, which would create much-needed high-quality job opportunities in rural Scotland. Even better, analysis by Imperial College suggests that investment in pumped hydro storage could save us £700 million a year in system costs by 2050, so let us get that done.
When will the UK Government do something to get the Peterhead carbon capture and storage project over the finishing line? Equinor and SSE Thermal say it could be operational by 2026, so it could be part of the just transition and provide vital job opportunities for our young people. The same is true for hydrogen. Agree a contract for difference mechanism and get the St Fergus project up and running.
Why, oh why, are the UK Government not doing more to get wave and tidal projects to a stage where they can be scaled up? This really is the way that Scotland can lead the world. Instead, we are constrained by UK Government policy and procurement processes. We have already missed out on green jobs in manufacturing and fabrication hubs because of flaws in the CfD process for offshore wind procurement. This is further proof that Westminster does not work for Scotland.
Where is Westminster’s policy for scaling up heat pump production and installation to the 600,000 installations a year that the 10-point plan tells us are going to happen? There are only 20,000 installations a year at the moment. When will Westminster get a grip of energy efficiency policy? They need to treat it like a national infrastructure project, the way the Scottish Government do. The Scottish Government spend four times what Westminster does per capita, creating jobs and the required long-term investments.
In tree planting, Scotland by far leads the way: 85% of the trees planted in the UK in the past decade are in Scotland. In the Queen’s Speech Bill document, the UK Government brag about planting 13,500 hectares of trees last year. What they do not say is that over 85% of the trees were planted in Scotland under the Scottish Government. It was nothing to do with Westminster. That is greenwashing of the highest order.
Westminster cannot con us with greenwashing. They cannot con an electorate who knew full well what they were voting for in the Scottish elections last week. They knew that voting in the SNP and the Greens was a clear indication that they want an independent Scotland, leading the way to net zero and creating a bright and optimistic future. Westminster should not stand in their way, and I suggest that Labour should not back the Tories on that, either.
It is fair to say that the pandemic has made many of us re-evaluate our real priorities in our own lives at home, in our communities and across the country. What do we truly value? How can we nurture all that is needed for future generations to thrive and not falter? It could well be a crowded field, but I am in no doubt that providing every child with the best possible start in life should sit at the very top of that priority list.
That is why I was delighted to be involved in the seminal early years healthy development review carried out by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), to whom I pay tribute, and I understand that it is her birthday today. The review was published in March this year and, pleasingly, forms a key part of the Government’s legislative and policy programme set out in Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech.
I very much support many of the key action areas that came out of the review through a lot of work, deliberation and evidence gathering, in particular the start for life offer, which mirrors in some ways the local offer that we introduced in relation to special educational needs and disability when I was children’s Minister; the formulation and growth of family hubs—again, I welcome the Government’s commitment and investment to date, but there is plenty more that we can do to realise the huge potential of the family hubs model; the development of a more modern and skilled workforce to meet the changing needs of children and families, ensuring that it is relentlessly child-focused, so that we can build the proper support around children and their families that we know works; and, crucially, improving accountability and data and understanding the impact of the interventions and the interactions that we have with families, particularly in those very early years, when we know we can make the biggest difference.
If we do not get it right in the critical early weeks, months and years, we are simply storing up deep-rooted difficulties for decades to come. That is why I have also, alongside the always sunny hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), been co-chairing the Early Years Commission, which is looking at the nought to five age group. We will soon publish a cross-party manifesto, in recognition of the fact that we need to come together to seek to address the long-term challenges associated with the early years and to set out a long-term plan that has the capacity to endure beyond the changing faces of Government.
Many of those findings and conclusions—with some relief, on my part—chime with and complement the early years healthy development review, while at the same time stretching some of the core offer to children up to the age of five. The review is unequivocal in its recommendations that, when it comes to the levelling-up agenda, which we have heard so much about, particularly for those children living in households with high levels of deprivation, the education, health and development of young people must be society’s top priority, as must community and professional support for parents to help them make their homes a nurturing, safe environment where babies and toddlers can take their first steps towards a healthy, happy and productive life. By putting children at the centre of their community and public services and by prudently and effectively investing in early years education, we can together start to transform the life chances of many more children in our country, wherever they happen to live.
I very much support the education recovery plan being led by the commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, who I know is working hard to find the right formula to help bridge the gaps and build a system that gives better and fairer opportunities for children as we come out of the pandemic. That is against an important backdrop of £1.7 billion of support through the education recovery plan, the catch-up package, the tutoring programme and the recovery premium, as well as the £400 million to improve access to remote learning, given the digital divide that we saw play out in the last year, including in Eddisbury. The increase in support for schools needs to be replicated in the early years.
I want to touch quickly on two other aspects of school life on which we need to continue to do more and have better focus. The first is school exclusions. I led an independent review of school exclusion two years ago, and there has been some progress—for instance, the £10 million on behaviour hubs—but there is still much to do, including a practice improvement fund, ensuring that schools are responsible for children they exclude and moving alternative provision into the mainstream as a centre of excellence. I hope to meet Ministers soon to discuss the progress of all my recommendations, so that we can make further, important progress.
Since finding myself on the Back Benches, I have also found time to chair a taskforce on the future of physical education, with support from the Association for Physical Education and others, including Jason Robinson, the England rugby union star and world cup winner who saw PE as the thing that changed his life from a road of failure to one of success.
One consequence of the pandemic has been a deeply concerning drop-off in physical exercise and activity among children of all ages. Now that schools are back and sports and activities are reopening there are signs of improvement, but I am afraid that evidence is also emerging that some schools are reducing physical education time in order to focus on catching up in other subject areas. So we need to look specifically at physical education, and one key life skill in that is swimming—we saw 150,000 children leaving primary school without being able to swim 25 metres. That situation clearly needs to be addressed urgently, both as part of the welcome catch-up programme and more systematically through physical education by ensuring that all of its irrefutable and lifelong impact on physical, social, emotional and cognitive development is at the very heart of school life. In doing that we can take another step forward in our shared ambition of giving every child the best possible start in life.
I am very pleased to be able to respond to Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech and to highlight the issues facing my constituency of Wansbeck, and of course, the north-east as a whole.
Nothing is more important than this nation’s young people—our children—but, sadly, millions of them are being left behind as we speak. I want to focus on the real world of child poverty, not some rose-tinted parallel universe that many people appear to be living in. This issue needs to be addressed as a major Government imperative; for any Government, child poverty should be of extreme importance, if not top of the agenda.
The Queen’s Speech proclaims
“Measures will be brought forward to ensure that children have the best start in life, prioritising their early years.”
It also says that the Government
“will address lost learning during the pandemic and ensure every child has a high quality education and is able to fulfil their potential.”
Those are noble aims, but the Government could do a lot worse than look to reverse their own dismal record over the past 11 years.
The Government cannot dare talk of levelling up unless they tackle the gross inequalities in opportunity affecting our young people right across the length and breadth of this country. A decade of brutal austerity and cuts has taken its toll. When children in my constituency look around at communities that are spoken about with such pride and nostalgia by their parents and grandparents they can be forgiven for scratching their heads and wondering why. The schools are overcrowded, underfunded and in many cases absolutely falling apart. The high streets are ghost towns, and the traditional industries that once fostered such a strong sense of community are ghosts of the past, leaving these young people with no clear idea of what to do with their futures. We also lack reliable systems of support and these young people often look around and find they simply have nothing to do.
These are serious issues. In part of Wansbeck, in my constituency, almost half the children grow up in poverty. That is not acceptable—it really isn’t. In 2019 we decided with the National Education Union to produce a child poverty report including the testimonies of teachers and others on the frontline. It found that teachers were routinely providing food and basic supplies to children, and their testimonies were heartbreaking. There were tales of children without winter coats, without proper shoes, with holes in their shoes, with different sized shoes, with different shoes and of course issues with school uniform. What does that actually mean? What does it mean for child poverty? It means that kids are going to school without any food in their bellies, and that really is not fair, and politicians of all colours and of all political persuasions need to push this to the top of the agenda. I am sure in my mind that, despite the fact that some people decided to vote against free school meals, there is not one Member of Parliament who wishes to see any kid going to school hungry—starving, in fact. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the teaching profession and everyone in the education system who has worked tirelessly to help the kids.
We live in the fifth richest economy in the world, and our children should not be forced to live like this. Rickets is on the increase. In the north-east area, over one in four—35,000—children are living below the UK poverty line and are not eligible for free school meals under the current criteria. More than one in 10—about 13,000—north-east children who are currently eligible for free school meals do not take up the offer, and another 4,000 schoolchildren in the north-east are not covered by universal infant free school meals. There are families with no recourse to public funds, many of whom will be living well below the poverty line, but they are not usually eligible for means-tested free school meals.
To make things worse, this Government have changed the way funding is allocated to schools, which is leaving them thousands of pounds worse off in missing pupil premium funding, while those same schools are unable to take advantage of the Government’s catch-up funding. In the north-east alone, this amounts to a cut of between £5.16 million and £7.26 million—all this after a decade of cuts to our schools that has really hammered our schools and the school infrastructure. School funding in the north-east is down 2.6% in real terms since 2013-14, and class sizes have greatly increased.
To turn the tide, we need bold Government intervention and initiatives to breathe life into our schools, communities and industry to give our children a fighting chance and a fair chance to move on to honest work so that they can build a life for their families and break the cycle in the next generation. Our asks are modest: a fair chance for our children to find good, decent, dignified work that they can build a life and a family around. We should accept nothing less in a country as rich as ours in the 21st century. Levelling up will mean nothing if our kids continue to go to school hungry. Everyone has a right to food: it is a human right.