House of Commons
Monday 6 September 2021
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Universities: Physical Teaching
We have worked closely with the sector to ensure that international students will be supported and welcomed. Universities UK International has published bespoke self-isolation guidance for universities. The Government’s approach to the lifting of restrictions has been guided by data analysis and advice from public health and the scientific community.
The University of Stirling has offered international students who arrive from red-list countries free on-campus isolation accommodation that includes meals, polymerase chain reaction tests and airport transfers, saving the students more than £2,000. Given the huge economic benefits that international students bring to this country, will the Government consider financially supporting universities to replicate the good practice at Stirling?
We work with the university sector throughout the United Kingdom to attract the highest-quality talent from around the globe to study at our universities. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out the important economic benefits that international students bring to the whole United Kingdom. We will continue to work closely with the sector to attract students, and with the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that their access to the UK is easy and properly supported.
I draw the House’s attention to my role as a governor of the Valley Leadership Academy. That school, among others in Rossendale and Darwen, sends lots of pupils to university to take vocational courses and to study for vocational qualifications. With that in mind, I thank the Secretary of State for the funding to rebuild two schools in Rossendale—Whitworth Community High School and All Saints’ Roman Catholic High School; will he also fund a new building at the Valley Leadership Academy for all the pupils who want to go on to vocational courses?
I thought that if I gave my right hon. Friend two schools, it might shut him up, but he continues to ask for a third. I would love to make such a large promise for him at the Dispatch Box. I would be more than happy to sit down with him to discuss it and see what can be done. He is absolutely right about the value of technical education and how it delivers so much not only for youngsters themselves but for the economy.
Here we are in September and there is a certain sense of groundhog day, with campus chaos caused by the actions, or inaction, of the Government set to return. In November last year, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies published a report that showed that covid outbreaks on campus could be reduced through the provision of air-ventilation filters. The Welsh Labour Government have committed funding for such machines but the UK Government have not. According to a poll by Manor Interiors, the greatest concern among students returning to their accommodation is air ventilation, so why have the UK Government not provided funding to make campuses safe?
The hon. Gentleman seems to have missed quite a significant difference between this year and last year: we have rolled out one of the most successful vaccine programmes anywhere in Europe. We were one of the first countries to offer people not just one vaccine but two and to make sure that the adult population had that available. That is the big difference between this year and last year.
I hope that all our standards of dress meet your expectations, Mr Speaker.
It is good to be back, but in the previous academic year many of us were shocked to see the scenes of international students having to queue at a food bank in London because economic opportunities for them had dried up due to lockdown. What provision has the Secretary of State put in place to support international students should there be similar lockdowns during this academic year?
May I say that you are brilliantly attired today, Mr Speaker, as you always are?
The hon. Lady asks an important question about international students. Such students have always had access to hardship funding, which is available to them as it is to domestic students.
University Campuses: Freedom of Speech
We are working to ensure that lawful freedom of speech is supported to the fullest extent, which is why the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was introduced on 12 May. The Bill will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and introduce clear consequences for breaches of the new duties.
Labour and the Lib Dems have described the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill as a distraction. Does my hon. Friend agree that the politicising of education, the tearing down of statues and the censorship of speakers who do not fit left-wing woke narratives are all completely indefensible, and that the protection of academic freedoms and freedom of speech in education settings should be a priority for us all?
This Government believe that freedom of speech and academic freedom are a fundamental pillar of our higher education system and that protecting those principles should be a priority for our universities and never a distraction. That is why this Government have introduced a Bill to strengthen protections for free speech and academic freedom.
Supporting Young People into High-quality Jobs
We are supporting young people to ensure that they have the skills and the high-quality, secure and fulfilling employment through the plan for jobs package with £500 million of Department for Education funding. This includes the largest ever expansion of traineeships and an increased incentive payment of £3,000 for employers hiring apprentices.
Future skills and technical education are at the forefront of skills investment in East Devon following the Prime Minister’s visit to launch the lifetime skills guarantee. Exeter College has opened a groundbreaking future skills centre and has also launched a new Institute of Technology Digital and Data Centre. Does the Secretary of State agree that Devon must continue to diversify in education to improve skills and career opportunities to help provide a future for more young people in Devon?
Having had the privilege of visiting Exeter College, I can say that, with its Institute of Technology, it is a brilliant example of how a college can expand its range of careers and opportunities for so many young people and ensure that they do not think that there is only one route, which is to go to university. My hon. Friend is right to highlight how important it is to have a broad range of opportunities, especially in the new and emerging technologies, which will be so vital in driving the economy forward in East Devon and the south-west.
I recently spoke to staff and students on a visit to Construction College Midlands based at King’s Norton Business Park, which offers courses on scaffolding, roofing and road maintenance. Does the Minister agree that those skills are vital to our economy and that what he and his Department are doing will help people to gain these new skills and to change jobs mid-career if they want to do so?
My hon. Friend raises a key point about making sure that people can skill up throughout their career and have the opportunity to take different routes. So much of British industry has been crying out for certain types of skills, which they have sometimes had to look abroad for. What is so key is ensuring that we have those skills available not just for young people, but for all people so that we can meet those skills needs in this country.
I am a great believer in the idea that a university education is not always the route to a high-quality job and that T-levels are a fantastic opportunity to provide not only the technical qualifications, but the industry placements, which are so important. Will my right hon. Friend support me in my drive and mission to encourage businesses in my constituency to come on board and provide those industry placements? It is a win-win situation not just for young adults, but for businesses because they can circumnavigate the recruitment process as they will have those candidates on board and can experience what they can deliver.
My hon. Friend has identified the real opportunities that exist for businesses in working with young people and colleges and bringing them into their company. T-levels have been designed hand in glove with employers, making sure that they are not only fit for employers, but work for students as well. I join her in encouraging employers to take on placements for T-levels. We are seeing a big expansion this year and expect an even bigger expansion next year.
Scotland has the highest proportion of school leavers going into positive destinations anywhere in the UK. Free tuition in schools, colleges and universities saves Scottish students up to £27,000. Given that fees will be imposed on English students seeking vocational courses, can the Minister detail what assessment has been carried out on the impact of fees for vocational courses in England?
We are working across the sector to ensure that there is an ever-expanded offer of higher technical qualifications. The lifetime skills guarantee has been introduced and has already had excellent take-up, which means that if people have missed a level 3 qualification, they have the opportunity later in life to take one completely free of charge in order to boost their future employment and earnings potential.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he is doing on skills and for the Government’s excellent holiday activities programme over the summer. The attainment gap between boys and girls is widening, with 62.3% of boys receiving A to C grades at GCSE, but 74% of girls receiving the same results. What is he going to do to ensure that boys are not left behind, including in the jobs market?
My right hon. Friend and I are very much united in the same mission: to ensure that youngsters from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds are given every possible advantage to be able to do the very best in their life. There is a concern about the widening gap between boys and girls, which is why all the interventions regarding standards and small group tutoring are about driving up attainment and achievement. Some of the initiatives that we have introduced—such as the summer schools in which half a million students have taken part over the last few weeks and the tutoring programme—have started to have an impact, but I recognise that there is so much more to do. That is why we are absolutely committed to deliver on this.
GCSE and A-level Examinations
Ensuring fairness is at the core of every decision that we have made regarding exams in 2022. Together with Ofqual, we have consulted on adaptations to GCSE and A-level exams in 2022, so that they take account of the disruption to pupils’ education. The consultation on the details of those adaptations was launched on 12 July and closed on 1 August. We plan to announce decisions shortly.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State and the Minister could aim higher in their grades next year. Last year we saw U-turns, not just on teacher assessments, but on the broken algorithm. Residents and teachers in Ilford South would really like some assurances in the year ahead that instead of dithering and delaying—like almost every other decision over the last 18 months—we will actually get clarity from the Education Secretary and his team, and that they will learn from their mistakes and provide a contingency plan in case exams cannot go ahead as normal in 2022.
It is, of course, our intention that exams will go ahead in 2022. They are the fairest method of assessing young people. As I have said, we have already announced the details of adaptations to those exams to ensure that they are fair. We are also working with Ofqual, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, on contingency plans in case it does not prove possible for exams to go ahead safely or fairly, and those plans will be published shortly.[Official Report, 14 September 2021, Vol. 700, c. 7MC.]
Since the Government took over, the gap between state school and private school attainment has grown to a record degree. It is also growing at record speed. Is this the legacy that the Minister is proud of? If not, what is he going to do about it?
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will tell him our record. Under this Government, the gap between the independent sector and the state sector in terms of top grades for A-levels narrowed from 2009-10 to 2018, from 27 percentage points to 21 percentage points. If we go back further and look at the proportion of three grade As and A*s attained at A-level in independent schools versus the proportion achieving those grades in state schools, the gap widened under the last Labour Government, rising by 13 percentage points between 1994 and 2009. The gap was at its maximum in 2009, at 22.1 percentage points, before steadily declining by 15.8 percentage points by 2018-19.
Given the disparity between the predicted A-level grades awarded by state and private sector schools this year, does the Minister agree that in order to create a level playing field for all students, A-level exams should be marked and grades awarded before they apply to university? Do the Government remain committed to that policy?
The Institute for Government has estimated that it will take about three years for the dust around grade inflation to settle. Will my right hon. Friend tell us when the chair of Ofqual will outline a plan to tackle that; and will he please squash the ridiculous rumours about an A** or grade 10 being brought in?
Employers are facing skills shortages that we must act to address. It is vital in a fast-moving and high-tech economy that technical education closes the gap between what people study and the needs of employers. Our plans for reform of level 3 qualifications were published on 14 July. We will continue to fund high-quality qualifications that can be taken alongside—or as alternatives to—T-levels and A-levels where there is a clear need for skills and knowledge that T-levels and A-levels cannot provide. Those may include some Pearson BTECs, provided that they meet new quality criteria for funding approval.
The DFE’s own impact assessment says that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will lose most from scrapping BTEC funding, and that does not fit with what the Government talk about in their levelling-up agenda. Wyke Sixth Form College in Hull North, under the excellent leadership of Paul Britton, currently offers vocational BTECs in areas such as engineering, IT, computing, and health and social care—all highly relevant to our economic needs now. Given the growing problem of skills and labour shortages that the Minister has referred to, is not scrapping BTEC funding, with no tried and tested replacement, both damaging and short-sighted?
We are not scrapping BTEC funding; we are upgrading our level 3 qualification offer to make sure that it keeps in line with the needs of today’s economy. T-levels were in design for many years. They were designed with 250 leading employers who said that the qualifications needed to be upgraded to keep up. Poor-quality qualifications benefit nobody, least of all those who are disadvantaged. All our qualifications will be high-quality and we will make sure that they offer clear progression routes into the workforce or into higher education.
Where learners over the age of 19 are returning to study, the removal of BTEC funding will mean that only those following an academic pathway will have the option to return to study or to skilled employment. How is removing learners’ options to progress to level 3 qualifications and to higher education or employment compatible with the lifetime skills guarantee offer? Can that be right?
To be clear, the level 3 offer will also include T-levels; we are also considering access to those to a broader group. The lifetime skills guarantee is a level 3 offer specifically focused on adults that was introduced in April this year in more than 400 courses, all of which address a skills shortage. We are trying to make sure that when people put their time, and sometimes their own money, into study, it offers value to them and to the workplace. That is what is behind our level 3 qualifications review.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the outstanding work done by Lackham College in Chippenham—the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities—with regard to land-based training, agriculture, horses and animal handling, must be recognised in every possible way, and that many of these people deserve a BTEC? Will she also give some further thought to the question of how they fund resits, which at the moment are entirely unfunded?
My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and I went to visit Lackham very recently and were delighted to see its investment in agritech facilities, which are groundbreaking and world class. It will mean that young people in that area will have the opportunity to study the very latest technology and techniques that will be required for our agriculture industry. In addition, there will also be a land management and agriculture T-level, which has been designed with the industry sector to make sure that many people across the country get the opportunity to study at that level with that investment.
Some 230,000 students have just studied BTEC level 3 qualifications. For the Minister to stand there, as she just has, and dismiss those qualifications as poor quality will disgust those students and many of the people who have supported them. The Minister suggests she has widespread support, but 86% of respondents to the Department for Education’s own consultation disagreed with the Government’s plan to scrap funding for qualifications that overlapped with T-levels. Even the former Conservative Education Secretary, Lord Baker described it as
“an act of educational vandalism.”
Why are the Government intent on removing the ladder of opportunity from so many students, particularly those from the most deprived communities, when there is such widespread opposition to this move?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I would definitely not dismiss the BTEC qualification or its quality, and the reason I would not is that I am one of the very few people in this place who has taken a BTEC as part of their apprenticeship. I very much appreciated my BTEC as part of my apprenticeship, as I did my other qualifications.
T-levels are unashamedly rigorous. They are high-quality qualifications, and there is no point giving access to qualifications that are out of date and have not kept up with the requirements of the workforce. The skills gap between what our employers need and what young people study should not be there. This is an employer-led system. I will tell the House what is a tragedy—a tragedy is having young people not able to get on in the workplace because they have spent two or three years studying something that does not offer the value that employers need in this high-tech economy.
Primary and Secondary School Places: North East Bedfordshire
As of 1 May, the borough of Bedford had nearly 18,000 state-funded primary school places and more than 14,000 state-funded secondary school places. Central Bedfordshire had more than 23,000 state-funded primary school places and nearly 25,000 state-funded secondary school places.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the continuous funding support for Bedford borough and Central Bedfordshire, but he will be aware, given the emergency funding provided by the Government for Raynsford Academy so that it could convert to a primary starting in September, the issues around Langford village and parents not being able to get into the local school and the desperate need for a two-form entry in Sharnbook, that population growth in North East Bedfordshire, which is five times the average of that of all Members’ constituencies, puts continual pressure on school places. Will he and his Department work closely with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that we fully implement our commitment to infrastructure first?
Yes, of course. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these issues in more detail. He will know that since 2010, we have seen an additional 8,300 primary school places in the borough of Bedford and an increase of 5,800 in primary school places in Central Bedfordshire. We have allocated £12.7 million just this coming year to provide new school places needed for 2023. That takes total funding to Central Bedfordshire for new school places between 2011 and 2023 to £105.3 million, but I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss future plans further.
We have announced plans to work alongside music industry experts to develop a refreshed national plan for music education. This is aimed at shaping the future of music education and follows the publication of the non-statutory “Model Music Curriculum: Key Stages 1, 2 and 3” earlier this year. The curriculum is designed to ensure that children are introduced to a wide repertoire of music, as well as learning to read and write musical notation and being given knowledge about the important moments in the evolution of music in a range of genres and traditions.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to refreshing the national music plan because, as I hope he recognises, music education is central to any civilised society and should not be regarded as an add-on or a nice-to-have. He will share my concern that in the 10-year currency of the previous plan, the number of pupils sitting GCSE music declined by 19%. Organisations such as the Bromley Youth Music Trust in my constituency do a great deal of excellent work outside school time, but will he assure me that the plan’s key objective will be to ensure that music education remains firmly mainstreamed within the curriculum and is not simply an add-on at unreasonable cost to parents?
I share my hon. Friend’s passion for music. It is important that music is part of a broad and balanced education in our schools. That is why it is compulsory at key stages 1, 2 and 3. We introduced the model music curriculum so that children have a good grounding that encourages them to go on to take music at GCSE. Over the past decade or longer, about 5% to 7 % of the cohort have taken a music GCSE. I would like to see that figure rise, and that is why we introduced the model music curriculum and are refreshing the national plan for music education.
Does the Minister understand that music should be not just taught as music but used to teach a whole range of other subjects? Let me take him back to the previous Labour Government, when I attended Egerton Park Arts College in my constituency as a governor and saw the Manchester Camerata perform a maths lesson using its orchestra instruments. It was absolutely mind-blowing. Do we not need more of that? Why did he scrap arts college specialist status?
I agree that music is an important part of a broad and balanced curriculum. We know there is a link between children who can play a musical instrument and, for instance, mathematics. We see that in schools such as Northampton School for Boys, which is very successful academically and also has more than 20 choirs, ensembles and orchestras, because it puts music at the very top of its priorities as well as sports. I accept everything that the hon. Member says about the importance of music in the school curriculum.
Gender Disparity in Educational Attainment
The greatest disparity in educational attainment is due to levels of advantage and special educational needs. The Government have therefore focused on raising standards for all pupils but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our education policies target extra funding through the £2.5 billion we will put into the pupil premium this year alongside the funding we put into high needs, rather than targeting by gender or ethnicity.
Research produced by the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys highlights how boys are reading far less than girls, especially in disadvantaged areas, and consequently have lower literacy skills. Does my hon. Friend agree that that disparity needs to be addressed? Will her Department consider running a campaign to encourage more parents to read with young boys to address the disparity?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the benefits of early reading for a child’s later learning. I know how much he has enjoyed reading with his son. In England, we achieved the highest ever score in reading at primary level in the most recent progress in international reading literacy study, with that improvement largely attributable to the increases in the average performance of boys as well as lower performing pupils. He might like to look at the Hungry Little Minds website, which gives advice to parents on supporting early literacy. I am delighted that two thirds of mainstream primary schools have signed up to deliver the Nuffield early language intervention that is supporting our youngest children in reception with their speech, literacy and language development.
The education of girls is vital for a fuller society. Media reports, however, detail how educated Afghan women are burning their degrees, wiping their social media accounts and concealing their identities in the hope that the Taliban will not find them and seek retribution for their gaining an education. What discussions has the Department had with the Foreign Secretary to fund schemes in Afghanistan that will enable girls to continue their education?
The situation in Afghanistan, especially for girls and women, is extremely worrying; the Prime Minister is due to make a statement immediately after these proceedings. We are working really hard to resettle Afghan families for the children who have arrived in the UK. About half of those who arrived through the evacuation recently are children, and half of those children are pre-school and primary school-aged children. We are putting an extra £12 million into extra education funding to try to make sure that those children can get into schools, colleges and early years settings as soon as possible.
Lifelong Learning and Skills
As set out in the skills for jobs White Paper, we are implementing an ambitious reform programme. We are already offering free level 3 qualifications, skills boot camps and, from 2025, a lifelong loan entitlement that will ensure everyone can upskill to get great jobs in sectors that the economy needs.
South Cheshire College in my constituency has put forward ambitious employer-led plans to become an institute of technology, which will help address the employer skills gaps we have locally. That will deliver levelling up for not just Crewe and Nantwich, but the whole region. Can I encourage the Secretary of State to give his full support to its ambitious plans to become an institute of technology?
South Cheshire College, along with many colleges up and down the country, has demonstrated the real value and worth that further education can deliver, working in conjunction with the higher education sector. I am afraid I cannot be drawn into an early awarding announcement, but we recognise the real importance of such colleges and the obvious success that the early, first-wave institutes of technology are already having in the communities they serve.
T-levels are a fantastic new qualification, designed with leading employers to provide students with the best possible introduction to the world of work. We have provided a comprehensive package of support and investment to help trailblazing providers get ready to deliver. For example, we have made a total of £268 million in capital funding available for T-levels starting in 2020, 2021 and 2022, with £50 million-worth of projects having already been approved for providers delivering from this September and another £50 million-worth of projects for providers delivering from 2022. Additional revenue of £500 million per year will fund the extra T-level hours available, once fully rolled out, and we have also invested £23 million in T-level professional development to help teachers and leaders prepare for the delivery of T-levels.
I thank the Minister for her answer. I am proud that Truro and Penwith College in my constituency has been one of the first colleges to embrace the roll-out of the T-level courses. However, despite the successes of the first year, there is a need for greater flexibility—for example, with the 45 days of work placements in a part of the county where there is currently insufficient industry. Will the Minister agree to meet me and Martin Tucker, the principal of Truro and Penwith, to discuss how we can address that for the future?
We are very grateful to Truro and Penwith College and all the trailblazing colleges that have pioneered T-levels. They launched T-levels in the middle of a global pandemic, and they have done an amazing job in getting the new qualifications launched. We have been implementing flexible models and approaches to make sure that we can deliver the work placements and that they are deliverable across all industries. Through the capacity and delivery fund, we have allocated nearly £165 million to providers to help them establish the infrastructure and resources they need to deliver industry placements. This will be a culture change: our businesses need to work with our education sector as well as the education sector working with businesses. We have also put in place a £1,000 per place incentive. Of course, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend.
We are focused on levelling up opportunity for young people. A-level provision will benefit from recent increases in 16 to 19 funding of almost 10% per student in the 2020-21 allocation. Furthermore, our Opportunity North East and opportunity areas programmes are investing in improving outcomes for young people in many parts of the north.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. A number of schools in my constituency are concerned about the increased number of parents electing to home-school their children. Can I ask my right hon. Friend how he intends to encourage those children back into the classroom, and what resources will be available to close the gap at A-level attainment between the north and south?
Many parents who educate their children at home do so extremely well, but in some cases children are not provided with a suitable education and we have provided support to help local authorities’ engagement with parents who have recently decided to home-educate. We also remain committed to a registration system for children not in school.
GCSE and A-Level Top Grades
We saw success this year for young people from all types of school who were aiming for top grades. Every year there are variations between types of school; as I said earlier, before the pandemic we were closing attainment gaps and we will redouble our efforts through our catch-up plans and broader work to level up.
On this Government’s watch the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students has rocketed. Since 2019 alone, GCSE students on free school meals have fallen behind their peers by almost a third. This adversely affects pupils in my constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, who are significantly more likely to receive free school meals. When will the Minister ditch this empty rhetoric and step up to the plate to resolve the fundamental underlying issues?
We totally understand the challenges many young people have faced during the pandemic. Up until the pandemic we had closed the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers by 13% in primary school and 9% in secondary school, and the hon. Lady ought to look back at the Labour record we inherited in 2010. We accept, however, the challenges faced by young people during the pandemic, which is why we are committing £3 billion to catch-up funding and introducing a tuition revolution with 100 million hours of small group tuition for young people, because this Government will do everything we can to ensure that children can catch up from any lost education they have suffered during the pandemic.
Ventilation in Universities: Government Funding
Higher education providers should complete suitable and sufficient assessments of the risk of covid-19 and identify measures to manage those risks, including ensuring adequate ventilation based on our comprehensive guidance. As autonomous institutions, it is for providers to put in place their plans based on individual circumstances, including allocating their own budgets.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s comments, there are still huge gaps in what needs to be done to provide a safe learning environment for students up and down the country. Students, including many from my Edinburgh West constituency, have already had two academic years disrupted and proper ventilation will be vital to preventing a third, so will the Minister make a commitment here and now that if the schools test pilot currently under way proves successful, it will also be rolled out in our universities?
The hon. Member talks of Edinburgh university but I am sure she will understand that education is in fact devolved. She also refers to the CO2 monitoring devices that are being allocated this term to schools; however, technical limitations mean that CO2 monitors are likely to be unsuitable for many spaces in universities, particularly those with high ceilings.
Skills that Businesses Need: Equipping Students
As previously mentioned, T-levels are the new gold standard that have been designed in collaboration with leading employers—250 of them—and our further education reform White Paper and Bill that will be coming before this place are focused on trying to put employers at the centre of our system, to make sure the skills people get give them real currency in the labour market and are backed up by significant funding. I have been lucky enough to visit many providers and speak to many students, and these qualifications are game-changing; the offer is unbelievable and I urge all Members to go out and meet their T-level students and encourage colleges in their area to offer them to students.
I thank the Minister for that answer. The Careers & Enterprise Company has excellent potential to connect employers with schools but few businesses, large and small, I speak to in Thirsk and Malton have engaged with it and some have not even heard of it. What more can we do to raise awareness of it to make sure young people leave school with the skills that businesses need?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Awareness is often one of the challenges of Government and it is why careers are a key pillar of our Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. We are investing over £100 million in financial year 2021-22 to help young people and adults get high-quality careers provision. This includes funding for the Careers & Enterprise Company to roll out its enterprise adviser network, on which there has been excellent feedback with more than 94% reporting that they are happy with it. Schools, colleges and businesses will be working ever more together; over 3,000 business professionals are already working as enterprise advisers, but I urge any businesses that have not yet signed up to get involved. If they want to build their talent pipeline, that is the place to start. I also urge all Members to encourage businesses to get involved.
Literacy and numeracy, digital and life skills are essential for young people to succeed at work, but progress on closing the attainment gap has stalled—indeed, it has gone into reverse—so will the Minister say exactly what steps the Government are taking to ensure that all children reach their full potential?
Obviously it is vital. There has been much disruption during the pandemic. The first thing is to ensure that all children are back in school and able to stay in school and enjoy all their lessons. All of us will have been to schools and seen the joy in children as they go back to where they belong.
In addition, as the Minister for School Standards has made clear, up until the pandemic the attainment gap was closing; it had narrowed by 13% at the age of 11, and by 9% at the age of 16. Of course, the pandemic has had implications. That is why we have put forward a considerable long-term plan to help recovery in our schools, and every school will be working on that in the next year or two, but we are always focused on the most disadvantaged children and on making sure that we narrow that attainment gap after the terrible record of the last Labour Government.
But today’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report shows that two in five children did not even get minimum learning time during covid school closures, half a million left school this summer having received no catch-up support whatsoever, and the Government are funding just 10% of what Sir Kevan Collins says is needed for recovery. Will the Government finally adopt Labour’s children’s recovery plan? When we say we will invest in the skills young people and employers need, we really mean it.
We set minimum requirements for all schools for what was required in terms of lessons, and of course we provided extra support, with BBC Bitesize, the Oak National Academy, additional devices—all the support we could. Clearly, it took a bit of time, because we were responding to a pandemic. However, it is clear that under the education recovery fund, which will remain under review, we have millions and millions of student tuition hours still to be taken. Many students are signing up for it; many of them will be receiving that additional support right now in classrooms. However, this is not a short-term solution; there will be longer-term answers.
I would like to update the House on what my Department is doing to support the successful return to education. We remain committed to reducing disruption to children and young people’s education, allowing schools and colleges to deliver face-to-face learning. Schools are maintaining proportionate protective measures such as testing, ventilation and extra hygiene to keep pupils and staff safe. On-site testing will be offered as students return, followed by regular at-home testing. Students aged 16 and 17, as well as younger children aged 12 to 15 in eligible groups, are encouraged to take up the offer of the vaccine.
Russell Scott Primary School in Denton had an extensive £2.7 million refurbishment a few years back. Unfortunately, the work was done by Carillion just before it went bump. Some £670,000 has been spent patching the structural problems caused by its works, but another £5 million is needed, and even then, Tameside Council is not convinced that the building will be fixed. This is serious, so may I ask the Secretary of State for an urgent meeting to look at how we can help Russell Scott give the children there the very best education in the very best buildings?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of Russell Scott Primary School. I know that my noble Friend Baroness Berridge would be very happy to meet him and other representatives to discuss in detail some of the challenges that the school is facing.
I would be absolutely delighted to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on sixth-form education. He will no doubt be aware that we have already been putting extra resources into 16-to-19 education. An additional £400 million was awarded in 2019. We recognise that it is important to invest in the quality of estate, which is why we are putting £1.5 billion into upgrading that estate.
Earlier this year, in June, I stood at this Dispatch Box and confronted the Minister about the number of nurseries and childcare providers that were closing because of the Government’s inability to fund the early years sector properly. The Minister accused me of scaremongering. Since June, there has been a further loss of 500 childcare providers in the sector, which brings the net loss for this year alone to nearly 3,000. Will the Minister make up for dismissing the concerns of parents, children and carers by providing targeted funding for the early years sector from this Government?
The Ofsted data from March shows a 4% dip in the number of childcare providers since 31 August, which is a fall largely driven by childminders and carers, not nursery settings. Sufficiency is the key measure and we have not had any reports of sufficiency issues in early years settings since they reopened in June 2020. We put £3.5 billion into our early years entitlements because we care about childcare.
The Turing scheme has exceeded expectations, with 40,000 placements across 150 locations. Ministers met Scottish journalists and education providers when applications opened. A total of 28 Scottish institutions have successfully applied for over £7.8 million in funding.
The Council for At-Risk Academics has called on the UK Government to set up a fellowship scheme for scholars at risk in Afghanistan similar to the PAUSE scheme in France. Will the Secretary of State consider implementing such a scheme?
I think we all recognise the amazing work that academics and teachers did in Afghanistan, doing so much to support education there. We would certainly look very closely at all options to support people who are most vulnerable as a result of the Taliban regime.
My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that we will be reviewing the need for children to be doing home testing at the end of September. If there is not a requirement to do that, we will be looking at removing it. It is important that we continue to keep these matters under review. That is why we will be doing so at the end of this month.
We have increased the high needs budget by a record £2.3 billion, which is over a third over the past three years. We are also making good progress with the special educational needs and disability review, which has inevitably been a bit frustrated by the pandemic and changed the issues we are looking at, but we absolutely want all pupils to have access to the education they deserve. That is why our recovery funding has also been extra tilted towards those in specialist settings.
We have seen a real revolution in maths over the last 10 years, with maths being the most popular subject to take at A-level. This has been supported not just by changes in the curriculum, in terms of how people are learning maths, but by the introduction of new specialist maths schools that are making sure that young people have the opportunity to excel in mathematics, which is so vital.
I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member. I work very closely with my colleagues in the Home Office to assist them and make this as smooth as possible, as international students are vital to this country, not just economically, but culturally and for our society.
It was incredibly moving to speak to Mark King and listen to his tragic experience of losing his son, Oliver—he was joined by Jamie Carragher as well. It really does focus us on the need to do as much as possible to encourage schools to have defibrillators. That is why we will look at changing the regulations, which are underpinned by secondary legislation, to ensure that all schools have defibrillators in the future and hopefully prevent such a tragedy visiting more families.
I absolutely agree that we need to have more for our young people to do, which is why it has been so brilliant over the summer to see our amazing holiday activities and food programme, which has given young people access to opportunities that they never had before and helped to give them confidence, build their wellbeing and close the attainment gap, as well as providing food. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member to find out more about what is happening in her constituency.
It was great to visit the excellent Ilfracombe Church of England Junior School’s holiday activities and food programme, but this was one of only a handful of these programmes in my rural constituency. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that more students can access them in the future?
I thank all those hon. Members who visited their HAF programmes this summer. They had so much fun and I am delighted that participation was so high. It is the first time that we have ever had this type of project for our children. Local authorities are already setting out their plans for this Christmas. Let us make sure that we get to even more kids.
We are committed to arts education. The proportion of those who are taking at least one GCSE in an arts subject has remained broadly stable over the past 10 years. We are also committed to very significant funding for arts and music projects, with £620 million over the past three years, including £79 million for the 119 music education hubs and £148 million for the music and dance scheme. We are very committed to the arts and to drama in our schools.[Official Report, 7 September 2021, Vol. 700, c. 2MC.]
Will the Secretary of State kindly speak to the Secretary of State for the Home Department about getting visas for the 12 at-risk Afghan scholars—some still in hiding, some in Pakistan—who have been awarded sponsored places by high-quality British universities and who need the visas to take them up?
I will most certainly undertake to do that. We have seen the education community in the United Kingdom coming together to support those who want to resettle from Afghanistan to this country; we also want to look at the opportunities for those brilliant, amazing people from Afghanistan and the part that they can play in our education system in the UK.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the situation in Afghanistan and our enduring effort to provide sanctuary for those to whom we owe so much.
Since the House last met, our armed forces, diplomats and civil servants have completed the biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, overcoming every possible challenge in the most harrowing conditions, bringing 15,000 people to safety in the UK and helping 36 other countries to airlift their own nationals. They faced the pressure of a remorseless deadline and witnessed a contemptible terrorist attack at the very gates of the airport, with two British nationals and 13 of our American allies among the dead. But they kept going, and in the space of a fortnight they evacuated our own nationals alongside Afghan friends of this country who guided, translated and served with our soldiers and officials, proving their courage and loyalty beyond doubt, sometimes in the heat of battle.
The whole House will join me in commending the courage and ingenuity of everyone involved in the Kabul airlift, one of the most spectacular operations in our country’s post-war military history. This feat exemplified the spirit of all 150,000 British servicemen and women who deployed in Afghanistan over the last two decades, of whom 457 laid down their lives and many others suffered trauma and injury. Thanks to their efforts, no terrorist attack against this country or any of our western allies has been launched from Afghanistan for 20 years. They fulfilled the first duty of the British armed forces: to keep our people safe. They and their families should take pride in everything they did.
Just as they kept us safe, so we shall do right by our veterans. In addition to the extra £3 million that we have invested in mental health support through NHS Op Courage, we are providing another £5 million to assist the military charities that do such magnificent work, with the aim of ensuring that no veteran’s request for help will go unanswered. The evacuation, Op Pitting, will now give way to Operation Warm Welcome, with an equal effort to help our Afghan friends to begin their new lives here in the United Kingdom, and recognising the strength of feeling across the House about the plight of individual Afghans.
Years before this episode, we began to fulfil our obligation to those Afghans who had helped us, bringing 1,400 to the UK. Then, in April this year, we expanded our efforts by opening the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. Even before the onset of Operation Pitting, we had brought around 2,000 to the UK between June and August—and our obligation lives on. Let me say to anyone to whom we have made commitments and who is currently in Afghanistan: we are working urgently with our friends in the region to secure safe passage and, as soon as routes are available, we will do everything possible to help you to reach safety.
Over and above this effort, the UK is formally launching a separate resettlement programme, providing a safe and legal route for up to 20,000 Afghans in the region over the coming years, with 5,000 in the first year. We are upholding Britain’s finest tradition of welcoming those in need. I emphasise that under this scheme we will of course work with the United Nations and aid agencies to identify those whom we should help, as we have done in respect of those who fled the war in Syria, but we will also include Afghans who have contributed to civil society or who face a particular risk from the Taliban, for example because of their role in standing up for democracy and human rights or because of their gender, sexuality or religion. All who come to our country through this safe and legal route will receive not a five-year visa, but indefinite leave to remain.
Our support will include free English courses for adults, and 300 university scholarships. We will shortly be writing to local authorities and the devolved Administrations with details of funding for extra school places and long-term accommodation across the UK. I am grateful for everything that they are doing, and, of course, for the work of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is the Minister for Afghan resettlement. I am delighted—but not surprised—that across our country, people have been fundraising for our Afghan friends, and we have received numerous offers of help from charities and ordinary families alike. Anyone who wishes to join that effort can do so through gov.uk.
Our first duty is the security of the United Kingdom, and if the new regime in Kabul wants international recognition and access to the billions of dollars currently frozen in overseas accounts, we and our friends will hold them to their agreement to prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming an incubator for terrorism. We will insist on safe passage for anyone who wishes to leave, and respect for the rights of women and girls. Our aim is to rally the strongest international consensus behind those principles, so that as far as possible the world speaks to the Taliban with one voice. To that end, I called an emergency meeting of the G7 leaders which made these aims the basis of our common approach, and the UK helped to secure a UN Resolution, passed by the Security Council last week, making the same demands. Later this month, at the UN General Assembly in New York, I will work with UN Secretary-General Guterres and other leaders to widen that consensus still further. We will judge the Taliban by their actions, not their words, and will use every economic, political and diplomatic lever to protect our own countries from harm and to help the Afghan people. We have already doubled the UK’s humanitarian and development assistance to £286 million this year, including funds to help people in the region.
On Saturday, we shall mark the 20th anniversary of the reason why we went into Afghanistan in the first place: the terrorist attacks on the United States which claimed 2,977 lives, including those of 67 Britons. If anyone is still tempted to say that we have achieved nothing in that country in 20 years, tell them that our armed forces and those of our allies enabled 3.6 million girls to go to school; tell them that this country and the western world were protected from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan throughout that period; and tell them that we have just mounted the biggest humanitarian airlift in recent history. Eight times, the Royal Air Force rescued more than 400 people on board a single plane—the most who have ever travelled on an RAF aircraft in its 103-year history—helping thousands of people in fear for their lives, helping thousands to whom this country owes so much, and thereby revealing the fundamental values of the United Kingdom.
There are very few countries that have the military capability to do what we have just done, and fewer still who would have felt the moral imperative to act in the same way. We can be proud of our armed forces for everything they have achieved, and for the legacy they leave behind. What they did was in the best traditions of this country. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of his statement.
The heroes on the ground in Operation Pitting are the best of us: the ambassador stayed to process every case that he could, paratroopers lifted people from the crush, Afghan soldiers continued to serve alongside us to the end, and thousands of others risked their lives to help others to escape. They faced deadly violence and deliberately-engineered chaos with courage, calm and determination. Thanks to their remarkable efforts, thousands were evacuated, British nationals have returned safely to their families and Afghan friends are starting a new life here in Britain. Speaking directly to those who served in Operation Pitting, I say thank you: your service deserves recognition and honour and I hope that the Prime Minister will accept Labour’s proposal to scrap the 30-day continuous service rule so that medals can be awarded for your bravery.
The entire Army, our armed forces and veterans deserve proper support for mental health. The new funding announced today is welcome, but it is unlikely to be enough. Previous funding was described as “scandalous” by the Select Committee, and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is still being cut. All those involved deserved political leadership equal to their service, but they were let down. They were let down on strategy. The Prime Minister underestimated the strength of the Taliban. Despite intelligence warnings that “rapid Taliban advances” could lead to the collapse of the Afghan security forces, a return to power of the Taliban and our embassy shutting down amid reduced security, the Government continued to act on the assumption that there was no path to military victory for the Taliban. Complacent and wrong.
Those involved were also let down by a lack of planning. Eighteen months passed between the Doha agreement and the fall of Kabul, yet as the Prime Minister now concedes, only 2,000 of the 8,000 people eligible for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy—ARAP—scheme have been brought to Britain. A strategic review was published to much fanfare, but it did not mention the Taliban, NATO withdrawal or the Doha agreement. And the Prime Minister convened a G7 meeting on Afghanistan only after Kabul was lost.
Because of this lack of leadership, the Government have left behind many to whom we owe so much. In the last few weeks, MPs have had thousands of desperate calls from people trying to get to safety. Many remain in danger, including the Afghan guards who protected the British embassy. In my constituency—I am not alone; Members across the House will have had this—cases involve Afghans who applied for the ARAP scheme weeks and sometimes months ago and who were clearly eligible but were not processed quickly enough by this Government and did not make it to the planes. The stress levels for them and their families, and for all our teams and caseworkers, has been palpable in the last few weeks and months. A familiar and desperate story to many on both sides of the House.
The Government do not even know how many UK nationals and Afghans eligible under the ARAP scheme have been left behind to the cruelty of the Taliban. A national disgrace. Even if they could identify who they had left behind, the Government do not have a plan to get everybody out. Kabul airport remains closed to international flights, safe passage has not been created to Afghanistan’s neighbours and, whatever the Prime Minister says today, there is no international agreement on the resettlement of Afghan refugees. We have a Prime Minister incapable of international leadership, just when we need it most. [Interruption.] I know that that is uncomfortable. The terrible attacks from ISIS-K highlight the new security threat, and the Government must act quickly to co-ordinate international partners to ensure that the Afghan Government’s collapse does not lead to a vacuum for terrorists to fill. There is also a desperate need for humanitarian support. A return to 2019 levels of aid spending is necessary, and where is the plan to ensure that it does not fall into the wrong hands?
To those who have managed to escape Afghanistan and have arrived here in the UK, we say welcome: I know that you will give much to this country as you make it your new home. All you need is help and support. I am pleased that indefinite leave to remain will now be granted to all those who arrive by safe and legal routes. Local authorities across the country are trying to play their part, but they have been in the dark as to how many people they will be asked to support and what resources they will have to do so. We will look at the letter to which the Prime Minister referred and examine the details.
History will tell the tale of Operation Pitting as one of immense bravery. We are proud of all those who contributed. Their story is made even more remarkable by the fact that, while they were saving lives, our political leadership was missing in action.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not put many questions to me. He made the general assertion that the Government had not been focusing on Afghanistan but, as far as I can remember, he did not even bother to turn up to the first of my three statements on Afghanistan in the House this year—I do not know where he was—such was his instinct and such was his understanding of the importance of the issue.
Actually, the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s figures are quite wrong. Before April we helped 1,400 people to safety from Afghanistan and, under the ARAP scheme, between then and 14 August we helped a further 2,000. As he knows very well, between 14 and 28 August this country performed an absolutely astonishing feat, and of course we will do everything we can to help those who wish to have safe passage out of Afghanistan. That is why we will continue, with our international friends and partners, to apply whatever pressure we can on the Taliban, economic and diplomatic, to ensure they comply, as they have said they will.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman should, in all candour, acknowledge the immensity of the achievement of this country’s armed forces in, for months, planning and preparing for Operation Pitting and then, contrary to what he just said, extracting almost double the number they originally prepared to extract. It was a quite astonishing military and logistical feat.
One thing I welcome is the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s congratulations to the armed forces for what they did.
Veterans and families, and indeed the wider public, are asking what it was all for. Afghanistan is back in the hands of a dictatorship, terrorism is once again allowed to thrive, the people of Afghanistan now face humanitarian disaster and, more worryingly, the limits of UK and western influence have been exposed. With America now adopting a more isolationist foreign policy, we have passed the high water mark of western liberalism that began after the second world war. This is a dangerous geopolitical turning point.
Does the Prime Minister agree there is now a void of leadership in the west and NATO? If Britain wants to fill that void, as we should, it will require a complete overhaul of Whitehall to upgrade our strategic thinking, our foreign policy output and our ability to lead.
My right hon. Friend deserves to be listened to with great respect on Afghanistan. From his service, he understands these issues deeply, but I must tell him that people listening to this debate across the country could be forgiven for not recognising that this country ceased military operations in Afghanistan in 2014. What we are doing now is making sure that we work with our friends and partners around the world to prevent Afghanistan from relapsing into a breeding ground for terror, to make sure that we use all the levers that we can to ensure that the rights of women and girls are respected, and to make sure that everybody who wants safe passage out of Afghanistan is allowed it. That is what we are going to do, and we will continue to show leadership in the G7, the P5, NATO and all the other forums in which this country leads the west.
May I thank all those who assisted in the evacuation from Afghanistan over the past few weeks? May I also thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of his statement? Normally we have a Cabinet Minister sent to the House to cover for the Prime Minister, but today we have before us the Prime Minister desperately trying to cover for a Foreign Secretary who should have been sacked weeks ago. In Committee last week, the Foreign Secretary failed to answer even basic questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald). I genuinely hope that the Prime Minister is better prepared today.
There is barely an MP in this House who has not submitted urgent and sensitive information to the Foreign Office on UK and Afghan nationals desperate to find safe passage away from the Taliban. It is a disgrace that most of these urgent queries have been left unresolved and unanswered. It is a disgrace not for us, but for all those who have been left behind—UK and Afghan nationals who are now fearful and, in many cases, in hiding. Thousands of desperate people—people we have a debt of responsibility to—have been left with no clarity, no answers and no help. So let me ask the Prime Minister: what assessment has been made of the number of UK nationals left in Afghanistan, and what plans are there to assist them? How many Afghans who qualify under the ARAP scheme as interpreters or in other groups have been left behind? Will the Prime Minister apologise to those who have been left behind, left high and dry—those the UK has a responsibility to?
Last night, in correspondence from Lord Ahmad, the Government gave the excuse that delays in evacuating all those with rights were because the Foreign Office had received more correspondence than during covid. But there is a fundamental difference: no one knew that covid was coming. The Government had 18 months to prepare an exit strategy in Afghanistan. So can the Prime Minister give a firm deadline for when the massive backlog of applications will be processed and provide a new target date for when safe passage will be offered to those UK and Afghan citizens?
When Parliament was recalled, the Prime Minister publicly agreed to hold a four-nations summit on the UK’s responsibility to welcome refugees here. May I ask him to give us the date when that summit will take place? Finally, with all the talk of a Cabinet reshuffle, can the Prime Minister guarantee that the Foreign Secretary will finally be sacked in any reshuffle—or does he intend to reward incompetence?
I am always happy to meet representatives of the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations, of course.
The right hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions about the handling of requests from those still in Afghanistan and those who have been interceding on their behalf. I can tell him that by close of play today every single one of the emails from colleagues around this House will be answered—thousands and thousands have already been done. As for the question of how many ARAP candidates are remaining, I can tell him that the total number is 311, of whom 192 responded to the calls that were put out. I repeat that we will do absolutely everything we can to ensure that those people get the safe passage that they deserve, using the levers that I have described. But the contrast should be readily apparent to everybody in this country with the huge number—15,000 people—we were able to help just in the course of those few days in August. I think people will understand that it was a very considerable effort by our armed forces.
I join my right hon. Friend in commending all those involved with the Afghanistan airlift and all those of our armed forces who served in Afghanistan, 457 of whom, sadly, as we know, paid the ultimate sacrifice. We should all be proud of their achievements. Does he agree that as a result of NATO forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, the terrorist threat has increased? Will he confirm that all those involved in counter-terrorism work here in the UK will be given the necessary support to ensure that they can keep us safe?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. I know how much work she has done in her career to protect this country and to counter terrorism. As yet, we have no direct information on any increase in the threat, but I assure my right hon. Friend and the House that every effort will be made to make sure that our counter-terrorist agents have the resources they need to keep us safe.
I have received hundreds of emails about Afghanistan from constituents, and I have British national constituents—a husband and his pregnant wife—in Afghanistan. What discussions have the Government had with Afghanistan’s neighbours about keeping borders open for those at risk under the Taliban and supporting refugees?
I am sure that many colleagues in the House will ask similar questions. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been talking to the Government in Pakistan and other regional countries about what we can do to assist them, as I have described. As the hon. Lady knows, in addition to the ARAP programme we have the Afghan settlement programme, which will run up to 20,000 over the next few years.
First, I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for his increased funding for mental health care for veterans. I am sure he will keep that sum under review, in case it should need to rise.
Will the Prime Minister draw on the lesson that he has already learned from the appointment of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), as a single point of contact in the UK, and seek to have a single point of contact for those in Afghanistan who may need to access either the route to exit or support from Her Majesty’s Government?
My hon. Friend knows whereof he speaks. I have met people who have come from Afghanistan only recently who have helped us greatly in the past 20 years. As the House will understand, the key issues for them are where they are going to send their children to school and whether they can access the housing they need. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for what he is doing. My hon. Friend is quite right that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle, is the single point of contact on which people should focus.
We all saw the horrific carnage outside Kabul airport, where more than 180 people were killed. I join the Prime Minister in remembering all those victims, not least the two British nationals and the child of a British national. That airport atrocity was the work of the terrorist organisation ISIS-K. Everyone agrees that we must now work to prevent ISIS-K from becoming a threat to the British people, yet under this Prime Minister’s watch he has not only failed to agree a co-ordinated international strategy to take on ISIS-K but failed even to proscribe ISIS-K as a terrorist organisation, unlike other Five Eyes countries. Will the Prime Minister explain these failures on national security?
I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman is in error. ISIS-K—ISIS Khorasan Province—is a subset of Daesh. It is part of Daesh. As he knows very well, one of the bitter ironies of the situation is that the Taliban themselves are no friends to ISIS-K, and whatever Government there is in Kabul will need help to fight them.
We are proving our immense generosity by supporting those in dire need in Afghanistan with safe passage to the UK, but our ability to do so is strained by the continuing uncontrolled illegal migration across the English channel. What more can the Government do to prevent it?
My hon. Friend is completely right. The issue is that, very sadly, our friends across the channel in France are faced with a very difficult problem: large numbers of people who want to come to this country. We are doing everything we can to encourage the French to do the necessary and impede their passage. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is working round the clock to ensure that we not only encourage the French to stiffen their sinews and stop people making the journey but use every possible tactic available to us.
May I raise a constituency matter with the Prime Minister? More than 800 local Afghani families have contacted me about their concerns over their relatives in Afghanistan. The thousands who are coming to this country are largely coming in through Heathrow and being quarantined in about seven hotels in my constituency. There is real anxiety, given the performance in the past on asylum seekers in hotels in my constituency, that those people could be trapped in those hotels for quite a long time to come. I would like the Prime Minister to arrange a meeting with myself and the relevant Minister or officials to discuss the plan to support those families—like everybody else, I welcome them, as do those in my community—but also the long-term relocation plan to make sure that they have all that they need to settle here for the future.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the issue. Some councils have responded magnificently, notably in the east midlands and elsewhere. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is putting substantial funding in place, but if the right hon. Gentleman wants a further meeting, I have no doubt that the relevant Minister will be only too happy to oblige.
I am working with incredible Stroud constituents who are dedicating their time to helping Afghan families under threat. These people are in hiding. The Taliban have been going door to door looking for them. Border options are dangerous and constantly changing. They are absolutely terrified. Will the Prime Minister help me to show those families that they should not lose hope and help us as MPs to provide timely and credible information about safe passage options?
Yes, of course. My hon. Friend is entirely right in what she says. That is why we are going to continue to put all the pressure that we can on the Taliban to ensure safe passage for the groups that I have described. We are joined in that by friends and partners around the world.
May I join the tributes to our armed forces who have worked so hard?
There are still people being persecuted and hunted by the Taliban because they worked for the UK Government, but through contractors, not as direct employees. They have not had replies to their ARAP applications and the rumour circulating is that they may have to wait for the resettlement scheme, but also that many of the places on the resettlement scheme have already been allocated and that the scheme is almost full. Can the Prime Minister clarify the situation for those people, tell us whether some of the resettlement scheme places have been pre-allocated and if so how many, and say what will be done for those contractors as well as direct employees, to whom we owe an obligation?
The right hon. Lady raises an important question. I can tell her that the ARAP places have not been transferred and that they continue to be valid—people on the ARAP scheme continue to be eligible. Nor is it correct to say that the initial budget of 5,000 for the resettlement scheme has already been filled. That is not correct either.
The Council for At-Risk Academics has been rescuing scholars in danger from oppressive regimes since the Nazi period in 1933. The Home Office has been sent a list of 12 such scholars, some of whom are in hiding in Afghanistan and some in hiding in Pakistan for lack of documentation. Will the Home Office make their case a priority because in them lies any hope for the future of Afghanistan?
Yes, there are many difficult cases, but I thank my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to those particular individuals who are at risk. I will ensure that the relevant Foreign Office Minister is in touch with him about the specific cases that he raises.
We know that the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the region is growing by the hour. A famine is expected and of course it will be difficult to get aid through. So what specific steps has the Prime Minister taken already to ensure that the famine is averted, but also that the region receives the international development aid that it requires to avert a further crisis?
Immediately that the crisis broke, I spoke to UN Secretary-General António Guterres about what the UN should be doing and what the UK was going to do to support. As the hon. Member knows, the UN continues to be in-country in Afghanistan and we have doubled our humanitarian support. We will be working with friends and partners at the UN General Assembly and beyond to ensure that we tackle the humanitarian crisis as well.
Certainly the last months have seen the shattering of many illusions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are tonight to help the people of Afghanistan, millions of whom are out in the open and will not be fed, we need to ensure that the whole international community focuses on doing so through the mechanism of the United Nations and probably through the traditional mechanism of a regional contact group, and that Britain—through its experience on these matters, its membership of the UN Security Council and its G7 chairmanship—is now in a pivotal position to help the people I mentioned?
My right hon. Friend is completely right to raise the contact group in addition to the other forums that I have described, and to pay particular note of the role of the UN; my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just talked to Jean Arnault, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative to Afghanistan. The contact group is a vital part of the way in which we should co-ordinate our efforts.
Some 80% of the world’s heroin and opium supply originates in Afghanistan, providing the Taliban with more than half their income and causing untold misery across the world. What steps is the Prime Minister taking in partnership with UK allies to prevent the Taliban and the organised criminal gangs with which they work from flooding our communities with yet more heroin, given that they are now in control in Afghanistan and have fewer impediments than ever to growing more opium?
Sadly, the rate of production and export of opium from Afghanistan has been increasing in recent years. I think that the global output is actually now even higher than the figure the hon. Lady suggests. What is needed, of course, is to insist that the Taliban stop this and do not allow Afghanistan to continue to be a narco-state, but the way to fight heroin consumption in this country is to have a strong crime-fighting institution such as the National Crime Agency, and I was privileged to see the United Kingdom’s crime fighters doing fantastic work near Glasgow.
The Prime Minister will be aware that, as a result of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is great concern that the terrorist threat to this country has increased. Can he reassure the people of this country that we maintain not only the military capability, but the political will, to take whatever action is necessary against groups such as ISIS-K in order to keep this country safe?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is a question that a lot of people will have formed in their minds and which my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has answered before; of course we keep those options on the table and of course the Taliban are aware of that.
There are many barriers facing people who are already in the immigration system. One is that some, including constituents of mine, have spouses and children whose original documents are with the Home Office and they only have photocopies. Another, of course, is the English language test. Are the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary proposing any movement on those issues in order to support people, particularly those already in the system, to get here as quickly as possible?
The hon. Lady should know that, of course, we try to help people coming from Afghanistan in the most expeditious way possible. This country cannot be faulted for the generosity of our offer on the resettlement programme and it certainly cannot be faulted for the sheer number of people we have already moved to this country.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Aside from the G7 and traditional partners to which the Prime Minister referred, what role does he envisage Pakistan, Uzbekistan and in particular China playing in the geopolitics of the region of central Asia in the months and years ahead?
My hon. Friend asks a very important question. I think the answer is that it is in the interests of every single one of the countries that he has mentioned to ensure that Afghanistan does not relapse into being a breeding ground for terror. That is not in China’s interests, in Uzbekistan’s interests or in Russia’s interests. Russia has abundant experience of the risks of Afghanistan. That is why it is so important that we work with friends and partners around the world—and, indeed, those who are not ordinarily classified as our friends—to achieve a common perspective on the pressure that we have got to apply to the Taliban.
Many of my constituents have family members in Afghanistan who could be eligible for asylum in the UK under more than one route—for example, by ARAP, under the Foreign Office special cases criteria, or under family reunion. Yet there is currently no co-ordination between Departments. My constituents are being passed from pillar to post. ARAP is refusing cases where there may be an alternative route, and the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary are not replying to their emails. When will the Prime Minister sort out this lack of co-ordination across his Government?
I must reject that in the strongest possible terms. The House has paid tribute, quite rightly, to the work of the armed services over the last few weeks and months, but it should also pay tribute to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s rapid reaction team who went to Afghanistan, and to the Border Force officials who went out there, who worked hand in glove to help thousands of people come to this country in safety.
In terms of protecting our country now that the risk from terrorists has undoubtedly increased, what is the Prime Minister’s assessment not just of the Taliban’s willingness to deal with terrorists operating in Afghanistan, but of their capability to deal with that terrorist threat, given what we saw from ISIS-K just a week or so ago?
My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the risks that the Taliban are themselves running, because they now possess the government of Afghanistan and it is their responsibility. They clearly face that threat from IS-K and indeed potentially other groups. Of course they will do everything, I imagine, to protect the public, but in the end we have to face the reality that the Taliban have now got the problem. We will do everything we can, of course, to ensure that we guard against future outbreaks of terrorism from that country, but it is in the interests of the new Government of Afghanistan to crack down on terrorism as much as anybody else.
Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, an Afghan woman who flees with her children and arrives in Britain by an irregular route will not be welcomed; she will be criminalised. Wales has declared our role in the world to be as a nation of sanctuary. Will the Prime Minister withdraw the Bill to enable us to fulfil our ambition and to make that warm welcome he spoke about?
No, I cannot accept what the right hon. Lady has said, because this country has been extremely generous—more generous than most countries around the world—not just in bringing people immediately from Afghanistan but in setting out a safe and legal route for 20,000 more to come. That is a big number and the route for those people is clear.
I am very pleased to hear about Operation Warm Welcome. Wiltshire, my county, is home to many thousands of British soldiers who have served with Afghan colleagues over the past 20 years. I hope the Prime Minister will join me in congratulating Wiltshire Council and the communities of Wiltshire, including the military communities, for the welcome that they are offering to the refugees. Will he assure the House that councils across the country will get the resources they need to support those evacuees?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend. Of course I congratulate Wiltshire Council on what it is doing, as I congratulate all councils that are stepping up to the plate and helping Afghans to settle and to integrate at this time. I can tell him that Wiltshire Council and all other councils involved will get the support and funding they need.
Like other Members, my constituency office and I have been doing everything we can to help constituents trapped in Afghanistan and to help their relatives who need to get out urgently, but it is clear that the Government are failing to do all they can to help these vulnerable people and are disgracefully putting even more people’s lives at risk. More widely, President Biden has called for an end to
“an era of major military operations to remake other countries”.
Given the huge loss of life in the disastrous and tragic wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere, is it not time that we do the same?
Can I ask the Prime Minister what engagement he and the Foreign Secretary have had with non-governmental organisations, which are the only western organisations that are still on the ground in Afghanistan, and what steps he will take to protect them? Can I also ask what parameters need to be met to see the embassy reopened? The British diplomatic network is one of the finest in the world—that is surely the way to be able to help those who have been left behind.
My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the incredible work done by aid agencies and by NGOs. It is precisely to support those fantastic agencies that we have doubled our humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and the region to £286 million this year.
Later today, I will be reunited with an Afghan special forces commander whom I had the privilege of serving alongside. He is mightily relieved to be here, but understandably deeply concerned about the hundreds of his men and their family members who, although approved for relocation to the UK, were left behind. What can I tell him is being done to ensure that those who are in limbo are afforded safe passage, protection and unimpeded access to the UK?
I pay tribute to the service of the hon. Gentleman and, in addition, to the service of the Afghan special forces. He is absolutely right to draw attention to what they did. I believe that the 333—the Triples—were incredibly important. We will do whatever we can, as I have said, to ensure that those who have not yet come out do get the safe passage they need.
The Prime Minister just said from the Dispatch Box that no veterans’ call for help will go unanswered, and I totally support that ambition. In fact, that was a central aim with the establishment of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs when he started it, but he and I know that he has consistently failed to take the measures required to make that a reality for veterans in communities like mine. What is he going to do differently to make veterans feel this has changed, rather than just reading about it in the newspapers or hearing about it from Westminster?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work he did as Minister for veterans’ affairs and for his service in Afghanistan. I believe that he gravely underestimates what this country has done. Just today, on veterans’ mental health, the House will have heard the further support we are offering. This is a Government who are absolutely determined to support our veterans, and that is why we passed the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 and will continue to take steps to protect the veterans of this country.
I have cases involving more than 300 people who are still stranded in Afghanistan, and despite raising every case with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office, I have yet to receive a substantial response—not one. My constituents are desperate for information on how to travel to third countries and when the full resettlement scheme will be launched. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss these urgent cases, and promise that every email will receive a proper response from the relevant Department?
I thank the hon. Lady. I expect that she speaks for many colleagues around the House who, like me, will have received messages from those who wish to leave Afghanistan. I repeat what I said earlier: every single email from colleagues is being responded to by close of play today.
Like many Members, I have had emails from Afghans in this country worried about their people back in Afghanistan. The Home Office and the Foreign Office have managed to get some of those people relocated, but I had the extraordinary situation where I had a very detailed email about Afghans who were being persecuted and who had worked for the British. It was very detailed and they produced all the documentation. The following day, my constituent wrote to me and said, “I am really sorry. It is a complete lie. These people are Taliban, and I cannot go through with this masquerade.” I just wonder whether we should be on guard against getting such people into this country.
I am sure that my hon. Friend, like many in the House, will be relieved to know that from the very beginning of Operation Pitting, the ARAP scheme and all the subsequent schemes we have put in place, the very highest possible security checks have been instituted to make sure that people are who they say they are and that we receive to this country the people who genuinely deserve to come here.
Will the Prime Minister clarify the situation that applies to Afghans who were in our asylum system in this country prior to the fall of Kabul? Will they too be given indefinite leave to remain? Surely there are no circumstances in which they will be forced to return of Afghanistan.
The whole House agreed with the Prime Minister when he celebrated the heroism of our troops, but that simply served to crystallise that this was not so much a defeat as a capitulation: an abandonment by the west of both people and principle. Does the Prime Minister believe that Tony Blair was right this morning when he said that western leadership was “naive” to believe that countries could be remade, or was it that our remaking of Afghanistan needed to last longer?
The Prime Minister will know that after the calamitous collapse of the Government in Kabul and the disorderly retreat by western powers, there was rejoicing in parts of Mozambique, across the Sahel and, of course, in Somalia. Those are countries in which we have an interest because, if nothing else, they can be a source of terrorism here. What messages is he prepared to give about the UK working with partners to guarantee a proper, measured response that ensures we are not at risk of terrorism?
The hon. Gentleman is focusing on exactly the right question and the right response from the western world and, indeed, the global community. We need to work together to ensure that, as far as we possibly can, we condition the new Government and new authorities in Kabul to understand that Afghanistan cannot slide back into being a cesspit of terror. That is our effort today.
Many lessons will have been learned and relearned from Afghanistan—not least the need for boots on the ground. With the US becoming more isolated, will my right hon. Friend look again at the disastrous plan to reduce the Army by 10,000?
The Government are proud of what we have done since we came in to increase the size of our defence commitments by the biggest amount since the end of the cold war. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about Afghanistan, the reality is that even when there were 130,000 western troops in the country, it was not possible to subjugate the Taliban, and I am afraid that we are living with the lessons of that today.
Last Friday, a young Afghan constituent told me through tears how his father—a British citizen—was turned away from the Baron hotel in Kabul on 28 August. He was trying to evacuate his other children, but he was refused permission to take two of them out of the country because they were aged 18 and 19. Can the Prime Minister imagine the pain of that family separation? All of them have stayed in Kabul, at huge risk to themselves. Will he look again at the family reunification rules and finally make it possible for families to stay together and not to have to face such a terrible choice?
The whole House will be full of sympathy to the family the hon. Member describes and the heartbreak they must have felt. I am sure there are many such cases in Kabul right now, but I think the record of this country in receiving people and being prepared to receive people in the future is very good. I ask her please to write to me or to the Home Secretary directly on the case of that particular family she is talking about.
Many constituents have understandably been in touch, desperately worried about family members in Afghanistan. They want to find out whether the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme will be an application or an allocation process, when it will open and what that process will look like.
Christians in Afghanistan are one of the many minorities facing persecution, and many have been forced to flee their homes. A church community in my constituency is working around the clock to support several Christian families to flee to Pakistan and to seek asylum at the embassy of a safe third country. They are not looking for asylum in the UK, but to get to Pakistan. What particular support will the right hon. Gentleman’s Government offer vulnerable Christians such as those whom the community in my constituency are working with, and to which Department should I direct my entreaties in the hope of actually getting an answer?
I thank the church community the hon. and learned Member describes for the work they are doing. On moving people to Pakistan, the Government are helping by increasing the funding available, much of which obviously already goes to Pakistan, and that is the purpose of the increase in the aid budget this year.
Even if we believe that the whole Afghanistan withdrawal was a US-made policy that was ill judged and poorly executed, can I ask my right hon. Friend to reject those voices calling for the United Kingdom to pull back from the United States and seek alternative alliances elsewhere? Surely the right response is to stick closely to our US friends, and to remind them that in an era of globalisation our economic and security interests will be threatened beyond our borders, that the United States is a force for good in the world, and that greater isolationism can only put us all in greater danger.
We helped 36 countries to repatriate their nationals or those they had helped, but we could not have done it had it not been for the bravery of the US military and the commitment of the US military, and I passionately agree with what my right hon. Friend has just said about the fundamental importance of our alliance with the United States of America.
The Government leaving vulnerable Afghans and British nationals behind is unforgivable, but what is completely and utterly reprehensible is that the families of two of my constituents, including a seven-month-old child, were forcibly removed from flights and thrown out of Kabul airport on to the streets, the scene of the horrific suicide bombing hours before. I am absolutely furious, and I want to ask the Prime Minister how on earth this potentially fatal decision was allowed to happen, even after I had raised these matters with the Ministers sitting to his left and his right. How many others were ejected from the airport into harm’s way, and just what does he have to say to the families that the Government have now put in grave danger?
I thank the hon. Member very much for raising the case. I have to tell him that I am told we have no evidence of anybody being pulled off flights, but obviously I would ask him to raise the particular cases directly with my right hon. Friends beside me. But I can tell him that I think, when he looks at the overall record of the UK moving people out of Kabul and across the whole of Afghanistan, it was an astonishing feat.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Has he noticed that the Chinese Government, since our departure from Afghanistan, have used Afghanistan to up their threats on Taiwan, with hundreds of overflights threatening the Taiwanese and telling them that, when the war comes, the US will not be there to support them? Could my right hon. Friend take this opportunity, from the Dispatch Box, to say to the Taiwanese and others that we fully support their right to democracy and self-determination and we will be there to support them no matter what the Chinese say, and could we persuade the Americans to do the same?
I thank my right hon. Friend and am of course aware of the continuing issues between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. Indeed, I discussed that recently with the President of the United States, and it is one of the reasons why it is vital that this country continues to insist on the primacy of our relationship with the United States. The situation in Taiwan will continue to be difficult, and the only way forward is to continue to support American global leadership, and that is what we will do.
As the Prime Minister knows, non-governmental organisations such as the excellent Kent Refugee Action Network provide vital support to those fleeing conflict—and, as he mentioned, that is via fundraising—but does he also acknowledge that the state has a duty of care regarding the mental health of traumatised refugees, including children? If he does, how can he assure the House that this will be possible given that the current average waiting time for young people to access a basic mental health assessment is two to three years?
The Government are absolutely determined to look after people coming from Afghanistan, and in particular to look after their mental health and address the trauma they might have suffered, and that is why we are investing massively in the services provided not just by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government but local government across the board.