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Commons Chamber

Volume 705: debated on Monday 6 December 2021

House of Commons

Monday 6 December 2021

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

New Member

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:

Louie French, for Old Bexley and Sidcup.

Just to let everybody know, he is going to be joining the all-party parliamentary rugby league group. [Laughter.] Well done, Louie.

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

EBacc: Social Mobility and Justice

1. If he will make an assessment of the contribution of the introduction of the EBacc to social (a) mobility and (b) justice. (904561)

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) to his place, and of course I welcome the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) to hers—a great promotion for her. The work of her predecessor, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), has been invaluable in what we can do together, especially with covid.

I commend the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) throughout his tenure as Minister for School Standards, during which time the proportion of disadvantaged pupils entered for the EBacc increased from 9% in 2011 to 27% in 2021.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those words. As he will know, the EBacc combines core academic GCSEs in subjects that advantaged families take it for granted that their children will study—maths, English, at least two sciences, a humanity and a foreign language. Given the importance of those subjects, what measures is he taking to ensure that schools meet the target of 75% of year 11 pupils taking those GCSE exams by 2024, and 90% by 2027?

I think my right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we have already achieved GCSE entry levels of over 95% in English, maths and science, and over 80% in humanities. On language GCSEs, however, the situation is slightly more challenging. That remains the biggest barrier to achieving the ambition, which is why we remain committed to reforming the subject content of French, German and Spanish GCSEs.

I support a relentless focus on standards in the core academic subjects, but resources also count. Given that Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis shows that the most deprived secondary schools saw a 14% real-terms fall in spending per pupil between 2009-10 and 2019-20, can the Secretary of State say whether that disparity in investment has improved or harmed social mobility and social justice?

I am grateful for the hon. Member’s question. I hope that he backs the record investment in education—£86 billion—that the Chancellor provided in the Budget. The Sutton Trust—I hope the hon. Member appreciates its research—suggests that, in 2016, the 300 schools that had increased EBacc take-up were more likely to achieve good GCSEs in mathematics and English, with pupil premium pupils benefiting the most. That is real levelling up from this Government.

Student Loan Repayment Threshold

We are considering reforms to continue to drive up the quality of higher education, promote genuine social mobility and ensure better value for money for both the taxpayer and the student. I will not comment on speculation, but we remain committed to a fairer funding model for students in higher education and will conclude the post-18 review in due course.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I know that she is as aware as I am of the effect of lockdown on the education of the current generation of students, so may I urge her, whatever decision she and the Department come to regarding the threshold for student loan repayments, to ensure that we do not do anything that would be perceived as punishing this generation—a generation that feels so hard done by as a result of the necessary decisions taken over the past two years?

My hon. Friend is an assiduous campaigner on behalf of students. I reassure him and the House that we are committed to a funding model for higher education that is fair for students and the taxpayer—a system that enables those with the ability and the ambition to go to university, complete their course and get a graduate job.

The Prime Minister is notorious for sitting on reports—he must have piles—but Augur predates even him. With regard to higher education funding, there are reports that the repayment threshold on student loans may drop to £22,000 before graduates start paying back their student loans, which would be both regressive and burdensome. It would be regressive because, according to the IFS, a cut in the repayment threshold would impact worst female graduates and those from more deprived backgrounds, and burdensome because a graduate earning £30,000 a year would have to pay about £400 more on top of £500 more in national insurance contributions, which would represent a real-terms tax rate of 50%. Will the Minister confirm that changes to the threshold will be guided by the principles of fair and progressive taxation? When can we expect the Government’s response to Augar?

As I have already outlined, we will report back on Augar shortly. The principles underlying our policies are: a more sustainable student finance system, driving up quality, seeing real social mobility and maintaining our world-class reputation in higher education. That is what we stand for and will continue to work towards.

I welcome the new shadow Education team to their positions. Young people in England already graduate with an average of £50,000 of debt as a result of the huge tuition fees, so for the Government even to contemplate lowering the threshold for student loan repayments will only compound the financial struggles of those young people. It is not good enough to say that we will hear about Augur shortly. Augur recommended that tuition fees be lowered by this academic year. So can the Minister explain why, contrary to recommendations by experts commissioned by her own Government, tuition fees have still not been lowered?

As the hon. Member will know, the Augur report was comprehensive, so it is right that we look at everything outlined in it and take our time to get this right. As I have said, at the heart of our decision making will be: students; ensuring that our higher education institutions retain their international reputation; and ensuring genuine social mobility. I wish that Opposition parties would focus on that, too.

Young People: High-quality Jobs

We are supporting young people to ensure that they have the skills for high-quality, secure and fulfilling employment through the plan for jobs package, which is £500 million of Department for Education funding. That includes, of course, a £3,000 cash boost for employers hiring new apprentices, which we are extending to the end of January.

Holy Cross College in my constituency provides a broad range of BTEC qualifications to its students, which has played a crucial part in widening access to higher education. While I welcome the introduction of T-levels, will my right hon. Friend confirm, following the recent announcement delaying proposed changes by a year, that BTECs will remain an option for young people seeking the necessary qualifications to secure a high-quality job and a bright future?

Mr Speaker, I hope to make T-levels as famous as A-levels and to give you a T-level pin like mine to wear on your lapel as well. I am happy to confirm that we will continue to fund some BTECs and other applied general qualifications in future where there is a clear need for skills and knowledge that A-levels and T-levels cannot provide and where they meet new quality standards.

The electric vehicle revolution will dominate the urban west midlands—or, some may say, the west midlands will dominate the electric vehicle revolution. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must continue to align the post-16 education system with employer demand to ensure that we have the skills for that revolution and to develop our own home-grown talent?

I totally agree. That is why our reforms are focused on giving people the skills they need to get great jobs in sectors of the economy that need them and on putting employers at the heart of our skills system, and I hope of course that one day I will visit a gigafactory in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Loughborough College already does an amazing job in providing high-quality skills to people of all ages in Loughborough. However, it is going one better by using Government funding to build a new T-levels centre. Will my right hon. Friend agree to visit the site to promote the great work being done to make ready for this new chapter for education in Loughborough?

I am delighted that Loughborough College has benefited from our T-levels capital fund to create fantastic new facilities. I would be happy to visit its new T-levels building and to see where it is now offering these world-class qualifications in digital, construction, health, education and childcare.

Lots of factors contribute to making a job high-quality and students should be given the tools to identify them for the future. On that basis, what steps are the Government taking to improve knowledge of the gender and ethnicity pay gaps in schools?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. We always strive to make sure that children have the highest level of information when they make these decisions, including careers advice, contact with businesses, and, soon, through the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, the ability to go much further in terms of experiencing what providers can offer.

The Secretary of State referred to apprenticeships in his original answer. We believe that they are a key way to help young people into high-quality jobs, but the introduction of the apprenticeship levy saw a 36% fall in the number of people doing apprenticeships, even before covid. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has described the apprenticeship levy as having “failed on every measure”, stating that it will continue to

“undermine investment in skills…without significant reform”.

Why does not the Government’s current skills Bill contain any measures to reform the levy or to boost apprenticeships?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister. Obviously, he was not listening to the Budget, because apprenticeship investment is going up to £2.7 billion a year by 2024. I remind him that, since we came into office, there have been 4.9 million apprenticeship starts. The focus is very much on quality, and I hope he would applaud the fact that 50% of all apprenticeships are among the under-25s and that level 2 and 3 apprenticeships are 50% of that, too.

Key subjects such as design and technology and information and communication technology have seen the proportion of students taking them up decline by 70% and 40% respectively, so surely the EBacc should be improved to ensure that education better prepares pupils for the world of work. Will my right hon. Friend emulate the work of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who made design and technology compulsory, and be aware of the 84,000 young people who have been unemployed for more than 12 months? We are behind many other OECD countries.

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Education Committee, who has been a champion for skills for most of his career. Computer science is very much part of the EBacc. Our overhaul of ICT, in which we have invested more than £80 million, has made a real difference. We continue to make sure that schools deliver not just the EBacc, but a much broader set of GCSEs. Design and technology is incredibly important to that, as I know this is to people such as Sir James Dyson.

International Students and Researchers: Immigration Rules

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on immigration rules for (a) international students and (b) researchers participating in education in the UK. (904564)

The student and graduate routes offer a streamlined process and are a competitive post-study work offer for international students. We are working with the Home Office to drive reforms forward to improve high-skilled migration routes for innovators and top talent, as well as making the UK the most exciting place to locate as a researcher.

Since Brexit, the number of EU students studying in UK universities has fallen by 56% in Scotland, 54% in Wales, 42% in Northern Ireland and 36% in England. There has also been a massive drop in EU school trips to the UK due to the scrapping of group passports and increased paperwork for visas. How does the Minister plan to repair the damage that Brexit has caused UK educational and cultural institutions?

We value all international students, including EU students, not just for the financial benefit, but for the cultural benefit and the benefit to our society. That is exactly why we updated our international education strategy. We are on track to see 600,000 international students a year and to increase our education exports to £35 billion, and we have appointed an international education adviser.

Of the 16 Afghan scholars sponsored by the Council for At-Risk Academics, 10 remain trapped in Afghanistan; four, with the welcome help of the Home Office, have managed to come to the UK; and two remain waiting for visas—one of them in hiding. Will it be possible for the Ministers to co-ordinate efforts with the Home Office to ensure that those who have paid-for studentships in the UK get their visas as soon as possible?

We already work very closely with the Home Office. I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the case in more detail.

Disabled School Leavers: Professional Development

5. What steps he is taking to support the professional development of disabled school leavers. (904565)

All children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities should be prepared for adulthood at every age and stage of their education. We committed in the national disability strategy to supporting pathways to employment for disabled learners, including strengthening the supported internship programme and ensuring that traineeships and apprenticeships are accessible.

Bath and North East Somerset Council, together with Bath College and Virgin Care, run a partnership called Project SEARCH to help young people with physical and learning disabilities to develop the skills that they need when they want to access the employment market. I pay tribute to that project, but far too many disabled people nationally face huge difficulties in accessing employment after leaving school and the support that they get at school. Will the Minister support a successor programme to Kickstart that is particularly tailored to disabled young people? Will he make recommendations and work together with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions?

Our ambition is for every child and young person, no matter what challenges they face, to have access to a world-class education that sets them up for life. We know that with the right preparation and support, the overwhelming majority of young people with SEND are capable of sustained paid employment. So what are we doing? We have a £1.2 million grant to the Education and Training Foundation, a supported internship programme, our work with our DWP counterparts and the adjustments passport pilots. It is all about preparation for adulthood and work.

SEND Children

6. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure children with special educational needs and disabilities receive a quality education. (904566)

We established the SEND review because we are determined to help children with SEND to realise their potential and to prepare them for later life. We are increasing funding for SEND, including £2.6 billion over the next three years to deliver new places and improve existing provision for pupils with SEND.

I was pleased to celebrate with Carshalton and Wallington families the Second Reading of the Down Syndrome Bill—a legislative milestone that will require schools and councils, among others, to take account of new guidance. Unfortunately, in councils such as Lib Dem-run Sutton Council, which has been slammed by Ofsted for its diabolical management of SEND services, there is concern about the implementation of the new guidance. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that failing local authorities do not scupper the potential for this important Bill to unlock new opportunities for children with Down’s syndrome?

Sutton was revisited by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission in 2020 and was found to have made progress in all previously identified areas of weakness. The Bill aims to improve services and life outcomes for people with Down’s syndrome, and we will support local authorities in the implementation of any future reforms. I know that my hon. Friend has concerns; I think that I am meeting him tomorrow to discuss the issue further. I look forward to it.

Prior to the pandemic, there was a crisis in SEND provision, and it has only got worse—from bureaucratic hurdles to children having to face long delays before being assessed. It is having a devastating impact: 27% of families waiting for an education, health and care plan assessment are waiting for more than six months, despite the legal deadline of 20 weeks. I am sure that the Minister agrees that this is wholly unacceptable, so what action is he taking to ensure that children are assessed within the legal deadline and provided with the appropriate support that they need in school?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I will tell her exactly what we are doing. We have increased the high needs funding budget by £750 million a year for each of the previous three years. The spending review of 2021 provides a further £1.6 billion to that budget, an extra £2.6 billion in capital funding, an extra £42 million—but the hon. Lady is right: it is not just about money. That is why we have the comprehensive SEND review, which will report in the first quarter of next year.

The past two years have been incredibly difficult for children with special educational needs and disability. While the Government continue to delay the publication of the long-awaited SEND review, families are suffering now. Some 15,000 children with an education, health and care plan are still waiting to receive the provision specified in their plan, and more than 40% of plans are not issued within the statutory 20-week period.

Can I press the Minister again? Families up and down the country with children with SEND are losing confidence in the Government’s ability to deliver. What is the Minister doing now to support children with SEND and their families who are suffering while this Government continue to let them down?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. I agree with her that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on young people with SEND and their families, and we are committed to helping pupils, including those with SEND, to make up for lost learning. We have provided additional uplifts for those who attend specialist settings; we have invested that extra £42 million. I accept that the SEND review is taking longer than we wanted it to, but it is a priority for me and for the Government, and there will be a report in the first quarter of next year.

Disadvantaged Pupils: Support in 2022-23

18. What steps his Department is taking to support disadvantaged pupils during the 2022-23 academic year. (904579)

The Government have announced an additional £1 billion recovery premium over the academic years 2022-23 and 2023-24, building on this year’s recovery premium. It will help schools to deliver evidence-based approaches to support the most disadvantaged pupils. This funding is in addition to the dedicated schools grant pupil premium, which was £2.5 billion this year, and the national tutoring programme.

There are significant budgetary pressures within the dedicated schools grant, which affect a number of Government Departments. What discussions is my hon. Friend having to ensure that those challenges are properly addressed?

I often discuss with colleagues across Government areas of mutual interest, including how best we can support young people with special educational needs and disabilities. The autumn spending review committed an additional £4.7 billion to the core schools budget, including funding for SEND to help the sector respond to the pressures that it is facing. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the trebling of the budget for high needs capital, and the continuation of our safety valve programme.

For many years Wolverhampton’s education outcomes have been below those of our neighbours in the Black Country, and we are currently experiencing a youth unemployment crisis in our city. How will these measures help to reverse that trend in places such as Wolverhampton, where there are a significant number of disadvantaged pupils?

Employers tell us that good numeracy and literacy are key to securing employment, and our three-year £1.5 billion investment in the national tutoring programme—complemented by £2.5 billion for the pupil premium and the new two-year recovery premium, worth £1 billion—focuses on raising disadvantaged pupils’ achievements in those key areas for employment.

We know that additional face-to-face learning will be an important factor in helping students to catch up after lost time at school during the pandemic, especially, perhaps, disadvantaged young people. Can my hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the national tutoring programme, and what efforts is he making to ensure that young people in Mansfield who really need it are able to access it?

As I have said, the programme is on track in terms of recruitment, and like schools throughout the country, those in Mansfield can benefit from Government-funded tutoring to help children to catch up after months of lost learning during the pandemic. Mansfield’s schools can also take advantage of the chance to appoint an academic mentor, or to provide tutoring support in-house.

Lydiate Primary School

8. What recent representations he has received on the need for a new building at Lydiate Primary School in Sefton. (904568)

I understand that Lydiate Primary has been facing challenges with buildings in poor condition, and the former Minister for the School System met the hon. Member to discuss that school in particular. The Department spoke to Sefton Council last year, and I would encourage the school to continue to work with the council on its plans for investment. We will also set out details for future rounds of the school rebuilding programme next year.

Staff at Lydiate Primary School do an excellent job, but the building is damp, the heating system needs constant repairs, the roof leaks, the basement floods, and parts of the building are unsafe. The Department has just carried out a survey, and the surveyor has told the school that he is extremely concerned about the state of the building. Does the Minister agree that no child should have to go to school in such a poor environment? Can he tell me when the survey will be published, and will the Government commit themselves to giving the children and staff at Lydiate Primary School what they need if, as seems likely, that is what their own survey recommends?

As the hon. Member will recognise, the Government allocate billions of pounds every year in capital funding through local authorities, and work alongside them in this respect. We will continue to work with Sefton Council to ensure that the right funding and the right response to the report are produced. However, I am sure the hon. Member will welcome the fact that schools in his constituency are being supported by both the outgoing priority school building programme and the new rebuilding programme, and that is something that we want to continue.

Technical Qualifications

9. What measures his Department is taking to strengthen the value of technical qualifications. (904569)

Our review of technical education at levels 2 and 3 is providing new routes to work, ensuring that all students have qualifications, designed with employers, that meet the needs of the economy.

From next September, Crawley College in my constituency will be offering an expanded number of T-levels, including in healthcare, science, education and construction. Would my hon. Friend like to pay a visit to that institution to see those opportunities for local 16 to 19-year-olds?

Any invitation to Crawley is too good to miss, and I would be absolutely delighted to come and see the roll-out of T-levels in my hon. Friend’s constituency. In my time as a Minister, I have had the pleasure of seeing many such colleges, and students and tutors are united in their enthusiasm for the project on which they have embarked.

If the Government are keen on improving skills, levelling up and improving technical qualifications, including for green jobs, is this not the time to seriously consider having a 14 to 18 curriculum so that students can study these subjects in depth?

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for the position that she has just outlined. The Government are committed to providing young people with technical skills and the knowledge to progress. Indeed, strong university technical colleges such as the outstanding UTC in Portsmouth are succeeding in equipping their students with these vital skills. I understand that she met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to discuss this the other day.

Studying Abroad

The Turing scheme is the UK’s global programme for studying and working abroad. Widening access is central to it, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds are offered additional financial support including an increased grant towards living costs and funding for travel-related costs. I understand that almost half of those who go on the Turing scheme will be from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The arrival of the Turing scheme is good news for young people in my constituency, including those at Coleg Llandrillo Rhyl who are planning a trip to France in the new year. Can the Minister give me an update on how the scheme is benefiting those in Wales more widely?

Absolutely. One of the things we wanted to do when we designed Turing was to ensure that it was a UK-wide programme and that young people from all parts of the United Kingdom could take advantage of it. That has included Wales, and indeed north Wales. Recently, I was lucky enough to speak to participants from across the UK, and we are seeing young people doing remarkable new things and having opportunities that they would otherwise not have been able to take advantage of.

Scotland received £8.3 million under the UK Government’s Turing scheme, compared with £22.6 million under the Erasmus+ scheme. Given that this £14 million reduction will clearly impact opportunities for young learners to study abroad, when will the UK Government seeks to close this gap and properly fund study abroad?

The UK Government are putting £110 million into Turing, and I am delighted to say that in the first round 29 Scottish providers have been able to take advantage of this Treasury-funded scheme. More than £8 million in funding has already gone to Scotland. The other day, I was lucky enough to be at Glasgow University, where I met the chancellor and students, who were absolutely delighted with the opportunities that it was providing.

Covid-19 Education Recovery: Access to Tablets and Laptops

11. What steps his Department is taking to provide students with access to tablets and laptops to support covid-19 education recovery. (904572)

We have announced that we will provide an additional 500,000 devices for disadvantaged children and young people this year, on top of the 1.35 million delivered already. This brings our total investment to support remote education and online social care to more than £520 million.

But that is no substitute for face-to-face learning. What can the Ministers say to those parents who are exasperated by their children even now being sent home to begin remote learning?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that the evidence is that children benefit from face-to-face learning, and that is why our priority is for schools to deliver face-to-face education to all pupils. Regular attendance at school is vital for children’s education, wellbeing and longer-term development. Where a pupil cannot attend school because they are following public health advice relating to covid, schools must provide immediate access to remote education. I am pleased to confirm that the figures as of 25 November showed that 99% of schools were open to provide face-to-face education.

In a recent survey of providers, 90% said that the Government’s contractor for their flagship national tutoring programme was not prepared for its launch. With children into their third year of disruption, what action will the Minister take to ensure additional tutoring support reaches every child who needs it?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, and I look forward to working opposite him. The national tutoring programme is on track overall, and we are seeing strong take-up of the school-based element, with increasing take-up of the academic mentor element. We want to see more take-up of direct tutoring, and we are working closely with Randstad and its sub-providers to ensure it steps up and increases as we hit a higher trajectory later in the year.

Covid-19: Safely Opening Schools After Christmas Holidays

13. What steps his Department plans to take to support schools to open safely after the Christmas 2021 holidays during the covid-19 outbreak. (904574)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. Reducing transmission in schools is of the utmost importance to me, and I will do everything in my power to keep schools open. We have provided guidance to settings regarding testing arrangements on their return in January.

As the Secretary of State knows, carbon dioxide monitors can help to identify quickly where ventilation needs to be increased in classrooms. Will he give an update on the roll-out of these monitors in schools?

Over 99% of eligible settings have now received a CO2 monitor, with more than 320,000 now delivered. Final deliveries will be made before the end of term. Feedback from schools suggests the monitors are a helpful tool in managing ventilation, sitting alongside the other protective measures in place to manage transmission.

School Building Condition: Effect on Learning

14. What steps he is taking to help ensure the school building programme takes account of the effect of building condition on learning. (904575)

I recognise the impact on education of buildings in poor condition, which is why we have allocated £11.3 billion since 2015 to improve the condition of schools. In addition, the school rebuilding programme will transform the learning environment of 500 schools over the next decade. We are considering responses to our consultation on prioritising the remaining places in the programme, and we plan to set out our response early next year.

I have unusual schools in my constituency, given the size of the rural population. I would like the Minister to meet me to discuss Witton-le-Wear Primary School, a small primary school in which the building is in quite good condition but the conditions for learning are not great, and Delta North School, an alternative provision provider that is looking to increase its provision for local people. I would look forward to it if he could meet me to discuss these two important constituency schools.

It was a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency not so long ago. I understand that the layout at Witton-le-Wear poses challenges, although it has sufficient capacity. The previous Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), met him in July to discuss the school, since when officials have visited the school and set out the funding available to the Durham local authority to prioritise local need. Of course I would be happy to meet him.

I understand that Delta North is an independent school and, as a private business, we expect it to secure its own investment for development. We know that independent AP can play a useful role in the system, but we rightly prioritise the needs of state-funded schools when allocating public funds.

Further Education Colleges: Upgrade

We are working to upgrade further education colleges through the FE capital transformation programme. We are investing £1.5 billion between 2020 and 2026 to tackle poor conditions in the FE estate and to ensure our colleges are excellent places for people to learn.

King George V College in my constituency has a reputation for producing outstanding A-level results, with students going on to do great things. It is a model for how things can evolve in the education sector. Will the Minister commit to joining me on a visit to the college to see how it could be a blueprint for development in other areas across the country?

Going to Southport would be as great an honour as going to Crawley. I would be delighted to see how Southport is taking advantage of the £480,000 it recently received from the FE capital transformation fund.

Lifelong Learning and Skills

We are supporting adults to get the skills they need through the adult education budget, and we are delivering on the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee, which includes the offer of free level 3 courses for jobs, skills bootcamps and, from 2025, the introduction of a lifelong loan entitlement, enabling more flexible and modular study across higher and further education.

Giving people greater choice over how and where they study is one of the keys to improving the skills of our workforce and opening up new opportunities, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s new lifelong learning entitlement has the potential to transform options for learners across the whole of their lives?

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. The LLE is at the heart of our skills revolution and will open up higher and further education by allowing people to study in a more modularised fashion. With that extra flexibility, it will be much easier for people to reskill and upskill, which will in turn support our businesses, our productivity and job creation.

New School Locations: Consultation of Communities

21. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on helping to ensure that communities are consulted on the location of new schools. (904583)

The free schools programme has created hundreds of new schools, including Eden Boys School and The Olive School in Bolton, both judged as outstanding by Ofsted. Before signing a funding agreement to open any new school, the Secretary of State will always have regard to local consultation on the proposals.

Getting planning right is one of the biggest concerns my constituents have. The proposals to build a new school on the Captains Clough playing field drew a huge number of people to a public meeting I recently held. Will my hon. Friend the Minister commit to meeting me and working with my constituents to ensure we get the right school in the right place?

I understand that an initial site search put forward Captains Clough as a preferred option, but we are aware of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend and others, and that a local group has submitted a village green planning application. We are exploring options with the local authority to resolve those concerns, but of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

School Outcomes: Regional Inequality

We are committed to improving school outcomes everywhere and are investing a further £4.7 billion by 2024-25 in the core schools budget in England, over and above the 2019 spending review settlement for schools in 2022-23. In 2022-23 the national funding formula is providing a total of £6.7 billion, targeted at schools with higher numbers of pupils with additional needs, which comes on top of the pupil premium funding.

I pay tribute to the school leaders, teachers and support staff teaching the kids in east Hull. The truth is that kids in Yorkshire and the Humber are 12 times more likely to be attending an underperforming school than their counterparts in the south of England. If the Government are serious about levelling up, is it not time they started looking at primary schools in the north of England?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for ensuring that the progress we have seen over past decades in London and the south-east is replicated across the country. That is a consistent drive of this Government; I am glad that some of the changes we have already made, such as the national funding formula and the introduction of the pupil premium, are pointing in that direction, but I will be happy to visit more schools in the north of England, including primary schools, with him and others to ensure that we can continue to drive progress in this area.

Topical Questions

The whole nation is appalled by the story of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. No child should ever be subject to a campaign of such appalling cruelty, and I will make a statement to the House later today on the steps we are taking to learn the lessons of this tragedy and ensure that we can prevent other children from experiencing such horrific abuse.

The Derby High School in my constituency offers an outstanding educational provision, but has ambitions to ensure that all its pupils have the skills, training and knowledge needed to access high-quality jobs at the earliest opportunity. In line with that ambition, the school is seeking funding to develop a technology centre. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and the school’s inspirational head, Ms Hubert, to discuss how that transformative vision can be achieved?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the great work of our schools. I would be happy to meet him and the headteacher of the high school, Ms Hubert, to discuss plans for how we can build on the success of pupils in Bury.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for his warm welcome, and welcome his intention to make a statement later today on the tragic death of Arthur.

The Secretary of State will be aware that in the north-west and the west midlands, just 40% of children aged 12 to 15 have been vaccinated. Will he use the Christmas holidays to vaccinate our children, support schools in planning for next term and get ahead of the virus?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s kind words. We will do everything to make sure that we continue to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds. Of course, those who had their vaccine early on will be due to have their second jab by mid-December—the middle of this month—now that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended that they have second jabs. We will continue to deliver those jabs using not only school settings but vaccination centres to make sure that we really drive the uptake of vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds.

It is now more than six months since the education recovery chief Sir Kevan Collins resigned in protest at the Government’s abject failure. Their total failure to support our children risks letting down a generation. Why will the Secretary of State not bring forward proper proposals, like Labour’s clear, costed and achievable plans, which match the scale of the challenge that our children face?

Instead of focusing on an arms race of increasing inputs of billions of pounds, we are focusing on outcomes. Those students with least time left in education—the 16 to 19-year-olds—are getting an extra hour of education a week. There was £800 million for that in the Budget and an additional £1 billion for secondary and primary school pupils, especially those who are most disadvantaged. Of course, we have heard today about the national tutoring programme, which is going at pace and will deliver real differences in levelling up to those who most need it. I hope that in future the hon. Lady will continue to look at evidence rather than worry about inputs.

T2. I was grateful to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) for meeting me last week to discuss the lack of post-16 educational opportunities in the Bolsover constituency. Does she agree that in order for the next generation of young people in Bolsover truly to reach their potential, it is vital that they can access the full suite of educational choices locally? (904587)

I absolutely agree that it is important for people of all ages to have access to higher education and training wherever they live. Learners in Bolsover are served by three general further education providers in the surrounding area, but I shall work with my hon. Friend on this issue and urge him and the Derbyshire local authority to use the published process to bring it to the attention of the Education and Skills Funding Agency for consideration. In addition, secondary schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted can put forward proposals for the addition of sixth-form provision.

I associate myself and the rest of us on the SNP Benches with the Secretary of State’s remarks about little Arthur.

Reports that the student loan repayment threshold will be lowered are most concerning for those who are already experiencing graduate debt. Will the Minister detail the discussions she has had with Treasury colleagues? Will she confirm whether any proposed threshold change would be applied retrospectively?

As the hon. Member knows well, we will not comment on speculation. We will shortly respond in full to the Augar review, and the best interests of students, taxpayers and universities will be at the heart of that report.

T3. Even before the pandemic hit we knew that getting more young people into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects was vital. Now that we seek to build back better, what are my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench doing to get more young people, and especially more young women, throughout the United Kingdom into STEM subjects? (904588)

Ensuring that everyone, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to pursue STEM subjects is a key priority of this Government. We fund multiple programmes to boost STEM uptake, particularly among girls—that includes providing £84 million to improve computing teaching and participation at GCSE and A-level and £76 million for maths teaching for mastery—and we have more than 20,000 STEM ambassadors, of whom 40% are women.

T5. The post-Brexit Nobel laureate scheme was touted as a way to get the best and brightest scientists into the UK but has failed to attract a single application. Will the Secretary of State explain the reason for this complete failure? Could it be the Home Secretary’s hostile environment? (904590)

The prize route is just one option under our global-talent route, through which we have received thousands of applications since it was launched in 2020. As the hon. Member knows, the prize route has a high bar: only those who are at the pinnacle of their career and who have already received and accepted prestigious prizes in their field qualify. The list of awards was drawn up in consultation with the relevant global talent-endorsing bodies and we continue to keep it under review.

T4.   The Government are taking necessary and precautionary steps to deal with the omicron variant, but can my hon. Friend reassure the House that, whatever happens with this virus, he will not shut primary schools and nurseries? It is impossible for children this young to learn properly online and the damage that it does to their education and wellbeing is immense. (904589)

In-person education remains our absolute priority. Our guidance is clear that settings should do everything possible to keep children in face-to-face education safely. We are working across the sector to ensure that face-to-face education and childcare are prioritised and I will do everything in my power to keep schools and nurseries open. I was particularly pleased to see some of the excellent work that is going on with academic mentors at Dunton Green Primary School in my hon. Friend’s constituency recently.

On Friday, I met with a fantastic group of students from Gosforth East Middle School who have been inspired by COP26 to make changes in their own school. They want to cut emissions, so they surveyed their teachers to find out why more of them do not have electric cars. Hearing that the main barrier is cost and that there is no access to a salary sacrifice scheme, the students want to know what the Government are going to do, given that it would boost manufacturing, support them with the cost-of-living crisis and significantly cut emissions in all our towns and cities.

As a former Minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I can tell the hon. Lady that it is about ensuring that we deliver affordable transport that is green: not only cars but other forms of transport.

T6. Some schools have not received an inspection for more than a decade, and material changes during that time, such as a new senior leadership team, could have had a significant impact on the quality of education being provided. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that parents have access to the most up-to-date picture of their children’s education? (904591)

My hon. Friend is right that parents should have up-to-date assessments of the quality of education at their child’s school, which is why, from the start of this term, Ofsted resumed routine inspections of the full range of schools, with the aim of each school having at least one inspection by summer 2025.

Covid-related pupil absences have risen by about 47% over the past fortnight and many schools are struggling with staff absences, too. Given that we know that good ventilation is key in schools, can the Minister give us an update on the Bradford pilot that was started earlier this year? What is going on with regard to air purifiers, when will that trial report and will he implement its findings?

The hon. Lady is right about the importance of this issue. As we heard in the Secretary of State’s update, CO2 monitors are being rolled out successfully across the school estate. The Bradford pilot is owned by the NHS, so, of course, we will work closely with it on interpreting, and implementing action on, its findings.

T7. Last month, I hosted a mental health forum in my constituency, which was attended by local headteachers, including Jon Skurr of Carlton Keighley and Carly Purnell of Ilkley Grammar School. They made it clear to me that, in addition to providing great education, they must also provide counselling and pastoral care. Can my hon. Friend outline the Government’s plans to further support mental health provision in schools? (904592)

I am pleased to join my hon. Friend in thanking those providing these important services in his constituency. The Government are providing additional support through establishing mental health support teams in 35% of schools and colleges in England by 2023 and enabling all schools and colleges to train senior mental health leads by 2025.

The biggest issues that children with special educational needs face in York is not only the coming together of the multi-disciplinary team in a timely way, but inadequacy. When the Minister is looking at his SEN review, will he ensure that there is a multi-agency workforce plan in place to meet the needs of all children with additional needs?

The hon. Lady is right in this regard. The SEN review will, of course, be looking at that and it will report in the first quarter of next year. I would be very happy to meet her to discuss the issue further.

T8. My recent visit to Ysgol y Grango and Ysgol Rhiwabon in Clwyd South brought home to me the huge interest there is among students in Parliament and its workings. Given covid restrictions, will my right hon. Friend and the Ministers work with the House authorities to look at new, virtual and interactive ways to bring Parliament to schools and colleges across Wales and the UK? (904593)

Mr Speaker, I am sure that you will agree that democracy and the role of Parliament are central to citizenship education, which prepares pupils to take an active role in society. Parliament’s excellent free education service offers a range of resources, including the resumption of school visits to Parliament, outreach visits to schools and online workshops.

Three months ago, I raised the appalling conditions at Russell Scott Primary School in Denton, which the Daily Mirror dubbed

“Britain’s worst built school where pupils paddle in sewage and get sick from toxic fumes”,

after a botched £5 million refurbishment by Carillion. What progress have Department for Education officials made with Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council to get the school urgently rebuilt?

I remember well the hon. Gentleman’s Westminster Hall debate on this issue. We continue to work with Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council. In that debate, he put in a bid for the next round of the priority school building programme, and, as I mentioned earlier, we are consulting on our approach to that.

T9. Across the country, many local directors of public health are going far beyond the Department’s covid guidance in their recommendations to schools, and the recent reintroduction of masks in communal spaces has turbo-charged this trend. Headteachers, who are not public health professionals, are being put in an impossible position. We are now seeing the cancellation of important events, the isolation of—and denial of education to— healthy children, forced mask wearing in lessons, punitive measures for forgetting to follow arbitrary rules, and children subjected to dangerously cold classrooms. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is an unethical and frankly inhumane way to treat our children? What can he do to ensure that schools do not go beyond the Government’s guidance? (904594)

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for ensuring that any mitigation is proportionate. The most important thing is that we prioritise face-to-face education. Keeping children in school is my absolute priority, and I have said from the Dispatch Box today that I will do everything in my power to maintain that situation. Of course, directors of public health can advise temporary additional measures, but they should always be proportionate. As long as schools continue to be open, they should be holding nativities, and delivering every other one of their important functions.

Earlier I made the case to the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), for a new school at Lydiate Primary School. His answer was to talk about maintenance, but that is just a make-do-and-mend approach that really is not going to cut it for the children of Lydiate Primary School; it is very short-sighted and would be poor value for money. Since 2010, the school capital programme has been cut from £9.1 billion to £4.3 billion. If the Government are serious about levelling up, will they put the money back in and rebuild schools such as Lydiate Primary School?

The Prime Minister announced the new school rebuilding programme in June 2020. We have confirmed the first 100 schools as part of a commitment to 500 projects over the next decade, including Deyes High School in Sefton. We are investing a total of £5.6 billion of capital funding to support the education sector in 2021-22.

Will the Secretary of State welcome tomorrow’s ten-minute rule Bill, which proposes universal screening for dyslexia in primary schools, and stronger support for teaching and assessment? I know that the Secretary of State, with his extraordinary life story, shares my passion for this agenda, so will he put his full weight behind it?

My right hon. Friend is a passionate champion and advocate for the technology behind screening for dyslexia. I will certainly take a close look at his Bill tomorrow.

After the sad news that he has announced— that he is stepping down at the next election—I call Barry Sheerman.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in the 10 years that I chaired the Select Committee on Education, one point came through really strongly—that every bit of money that we put into early years is the best investment that we can possibly make? When are we going to take that seriously and have good, accessible and cheap pre-school care, and the best Sure Start and children’s centres, like those we created under Tony Blair?

I know that I can call the hon. Gentleman my friend because he is a passionate champion of education and of early years, and has been for a long time. In fact, he showed me around his think-tank, with which he did such tremendous work. He will be pleased to hear that we are delivering family hubs, which are not just about investing in bricks and mortar, but are evidence based when it comes to what can be done in the early years for families that need the most help.

Storm Arwen has killed a load of the electricity supplies not only to homes across my constituency but to schools. Will the Minister ask the Department to feed into the Ofgem review to ensure that if there are power issues in future, schools such as the small schools in Weardale or schools like St Bede’s in Lanchester are not cut off and children are not cut off from education as they have been over the past two years because of covid?

I would certainly be happy to meet my hon. Friend further to discuss this while we also discuss the situation at Witton-le-Wear.

It is a fact that hungry children cannot learn. The Scottish Government have implemented the Scottish child payment of £10 a week, which has already been described by charities as a game changer in supporting families across Scotland. It is getting doubled to £20 per week in April. Is it not time the UK Government did more to support vulnerable families and looked at reinstating the £20 a week universal credit uplift?

I am very proud of the work we do on breakfast clubs and on the holiday activities and food programme, which I helped to set up when I was a Minister in the Department, and where there is now £200 million-plus a year.

Storm Arwen: Power Outages

To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make a statement on the current situation regarding power outages cause by Storm Arwen.

As the House will know, the Secretary of State updated Members last week on how we are continuing to work to ensure that power is restored to people’s homes following Storm Arwen. We have provided a named contact for MPs, on request, for each network operator, which I was delighted to do personally with the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on Friday morning.

Storm Arwen was the worst storm in over 15 years in terms of the disruption and damage caused. Those most badly hit have been in northern England and Scotland, and some have now been without power for over a week. That has made life incredibly difficult and stressful for many residents, and I want to assure them that help is there.

On Wednesday, I visited County Durham and on Friday I visited Aberdeenshire to see first-hand some of the devastation caused by Storm Arwen, and yesterday the Secretary of State was also in the north-east of England. I thank the engineers, the emergency workers and our armed forces who are on the ground for their incredibly hard work and perseverance in challenging conditions. We have removed the compensation limit to allow customers affected to claim up to £140 per day if they are without power.

I am glad to say that 99.8% of those affected by the storm have had their power supply restored so far—but this is not good enough. It is completely unacceptable that about 1,600 of them were still in this position as of this morning, although the situation is improving each hour. The remaining areas affected are in the north-east of England, predominantly the Wear valley surrounding Eastgate, where I was on Wednesday. I have been assured by the network operators that all efforts are focused on having power restored to those households in the next days.

First, I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here today to address us on this very important issue.

There is something seriously wrong with Northern Powergrid—not with the engineers and individuals who are out restoring power but with the management and senior management of that company. The Secretary of State, during his visit, said that he met, as I know the Minister met, local managers, and I thank the Minister for his phone call on Friday morning. But in the past 10 days I have had constituents in Craghead, Stanley, High Handenhold, Edmondsley and parts of Chester-le-Street without power. Some have now had it restored, but Blackhouse, Edmondsley and parts of Craghead are still without.

I ask the Minister to go back to the power company, as it cannot give the assurance that he has just given to those communities: it says on its own website that there is no date yet for restoring power in parts of my constituency. Constituents have had to experience sub-zero temperatures in terrible conditions. That has been made worse by Northern Powergrid.

On the night of Friday 26 November, I understand that internally the company issued an emergency for County Durham. That was not transmitted to the local resilience forum until Wednesday 1 December, which only became apparent to the county council and other resilience forums when an enterprising council officer started plotting on a map how many homes were affected. What has made the situation worse is Northern Powergrid’s communications, which raised people’s expectations that power was coming on, so people have stayed in homes when they should not have done. Likewise, information now is still not good. I was even told last week by an employee of Northern Powergrid, “Just ignore what is on the website—it’s complete nonsense.” If they are saying that, what confidence can my constituents have in that information? The communication has been appalling and made things worse.

The other thing that has made things worse—particularly in my constituency, parts of which are not rural, but are in towns—is the age of the components, so I will ask three quick questions. First, will the Minister do an urgent, independent assessment of the resilience of the grid, especially since we have the storm coming in tomorrow night? Secondly, what has been done since 2013? Thirdly, what can be done to force the company to pass information on to the bodies that need to know, including the resilience forums? What compensation or money will be put forward to Durham County Council and others for the money they have expended so far?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those further questions, and for his concern. It was good to have a chance to give him an in-person update on Friday morning on the situation in County Durham and particularly in relation to North Durham, and to pass on contact details for Northern Powergrid.

The Secretary of State gave a statement last Wednesday from this very Dispatch Box. He was in the north-east yesterday and is currently on an urgent call with Phil Jones, who heads up Northern Powergrid.

On the responses, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the communications have not been effective. I said to Phil Jones in person last Wednesday that the communications were not good enough, particularly in the first few days. I was joined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who gave directly to him the frustrations she had had, including that there had been no social media response. I think those messages landed well with Northern Powergrid.

On Wednesday, I also visited the call centre at Penshaw, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the incredible work being done in those call centres. I remember meeting Nicola Chipp, Dave Rose and many others who have been putting in long shifts in that call centre. For the first 48 hours, it was quite difficult to get into the call centre in the storm’s aftermath, but some incredible efforts are being put in there.

A lot of engineers have come from right across the country. When I was there on Wednesday, 200 engineers were there—there are even more today—ensuring that those last properties get reconnected. In terms of reconnection by tomorrow, that is the assurance given by Northern Powergrid. Hundreds of generators have been deployed in the area. Finally, on the independent assessment, what the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Ofgem do after these events is conduct an independent assessment and a lessons learned process, which is exactly what we did following Storm Desmond seven years ago.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing this urgent question, and I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for visiting my constituency over the past week. There are some real issues here about the relationship between energy companies and the local resilience forums. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and its associated regulations in 2005 set out the guidance for how energy providers should engage with local resilience forums, but we need to know from Ministers what assessment they have made of the communications from Northern Powergrid. Does the law need strengthening if it is not passing information over quickly enough?

To make another quick point, we welcome the Ofgem review, which should be a helpful step in the right direction, the fact that the £700 cap has been removed and the doubling of the daily allowance for my constituents. However, many of them in the run-up to Christmas will have spent a huge amount of their own cash on going into hotels or other accommodation and on extra food. Will the Minister put the Government’s shoulder to the wheel to ensure that Northern Powergrid gets that compensation to my constituents as quickly as possible? The run-up to Christmas is an especially expensive time of year for people, and they need to have that money.

I commend my hon. Friend, with whom I spoke on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was a pleasure to visit his constituency. At Ireshopeburn, I saw the generator being connected to the community centre by engineers from across the UK, including from UK Power Networks in south-east England. I saw the relief centre at St John’s Chapel and I was in Eastgate, so I saw things first hand in his constituency.

To answer my hon. Friend’s question about our assessment of the comms, I have already mentioned that the comms from Northern Powergrid were not good enough in those first days. I am sure that that will be part of the review process that the Government will do with Ofgem as part of the response to all these storm events. On Northern Powergrid, we put the experience of many Members of the House and their constituents in those first few days firmly to Mr Jones, and I think that that message landed.

I thank the engineers, the Army, the emergency services and, most of all, local people in affected areas for their heroic response to the crisis. It is totally contemptuous for the Business Secretary to be available for a photo opportunity yesterday but not to be available today to come to the House to account for the Government’s performance. That simply adds insult to injury for communities in the north of England that have been badly let down by the power networks and by central Government in their crisis response and oversight of the system.

I will ask the Minister some questions. Some 10 days into the crisis, why has the Government’s emergency committee Cobra still not met to co-ordinate the response? Over the weekend, a local Conservative councillor in Durham said:

“if this happened in London…or in the south-east, everything would have got thrown at it.”

Are people in the north not entitled to think that he is right and that they have been treated as second-class citizens? Why did it take a week for the Army to be called in when Members on both sides of the House were calling for that at the start of last week? Why are thousands still without power when the Secretary of State told us last Wednesday in the House that people would be reconnected by Friday? Will the Minister now apologise to communities in the north for the Government’s performance?

The Minister said today, as the Secretary of State said yesterday, that he wants to learn lessons, but we have been here before. After the 2013 storms, multiple reports were produced—I have them here for him—that identified problems of communication, the vulnerability of the network and the complacency of the companies. After that event, during which 16,000 people were cut off for 48 hours, customers were told that they could expect to see “significant improvement”. This time, however, the performance has been far worse. Is not the only conclusion that the Government have been asleep at the wheel not just in the last 10 days but for the best part of a decade?

The climate crisis means that we will face many more such events. The Government must get a grip. Instead of a cosy Government-led process, overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Ofgem, will the Minister now establish what the situation demands—a proper independent inquiry into the performance and failures of power companies, regulators and the Government to ensure that our country and communities are never left that vulnerable again?

Let me deal with each point in turn. It would not be fair to say that yesterday was a photo opportunity. The Secretary of State visited the armed forces, engineers, local residents, the relief centres and so on. It was most definitely not a photo opportunity, but an opportunity, as I discovered in County Durham on Wednesday and in Aberdeenshire on Friday, to thank those who had responded. Engineers had come from Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man to assist and we felt that it was right to go and thank them for their efforts. The Secretary of State is on a call at the moment with the Prime Minister and the head of Northern Powergrid.

On the response, the point here is that the mutual aid system is in place between the distribution network operators. The right hon. Member will know from his time as Secretary of State the importance of the mutual aid system—the NEWSAC, or North East South West Area Consortium, system—whereby different companies across the United Kingdom provide help to each other when a storm comes in. That is why engineers can be deployed right the way across the country. That is the most effective thing, because restoring power involves quite dangerous, health and safety-intensive work to restore overhead power cables, and those are the people one needs to be able to do the job.

The right hon. Member says it took a week to bring in the Army, but it is for the local resilience forum to say what the needs are locally. As soon as the local resilience forum in Aberdeenshire and that in Durham gave us the call, the Army was deployed very quickly indeed. He talks about investment, and I mentioned earlier that £60 billion has been invested in the network over the last eight years.

I learned at first hand on Wednesday in County Durham and on Friday in Aberdeenshire about the particular nature of this storm. There was the unusual wind speed and the fact that, rather than the prevailing south-westerly winds, the wind came in from the north-east, which makes a big difference for the power network. There was also the nature of the icing and the accumulation of icing on cables, which was a particular part of the storm. One of the engineers I spoke to in Durham on Wednesday described how he had experienced this particular set of circumstances only once before in his 35-year career in the industry.

Finally, on climate crisis, the right hon. Member is right: of course, there will be similar events like this and more of these events in the future. That is why we need to do everything we can—for example, with our net zero strategy in October—to make sure this country becomes more resilient to these kinds of events. We are currently doing the joint consultation with Ofgem on the future system operator, and that is exactly the kind of response that we need: a net zero strategy for how we equip the country overall, plus in particular how we make sure that the grid becomes more resilient to these kinds of events in the future.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his visit to Aberdeenshire on Friday, particularly to probably one of the hardest places to get to—I am not saying that Banff and Buchan is a hard place to get to—when we went to visit the engineers on the ground in a wooded area just outside the village of Methlick in my constituency. I think they really appreciated the visit from my right hon. Friend, and we certainly appreciated the work that they have put in.

I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s remarks in his opening statement thanking those engineers as well as the resilience partnerships and emergency services. Will he join me in also thanking the local communities, individuals and community groups that have come out in force and shown community spirit, as they have done throughout the covid pandemic as well?

On the communications issue that a number of hon. and right hon. Members have raised, can I urge my right hon. Friend to make sure that the review that has been announced by Ofgem will look not only at the lessons learned and what went wrong with communications during this storm, but at what we can do in future to reach out to those who have become overly dependent on social media and handheld devices, and how we can go back to how we managed to communicate, say, 20 years ago?

I thank my hon. Friend for that, and it was invaluable to have his assistance on Friday when visiting his community in Banff and Buchan. I met the SSE engineers at Methlick, and this is also a good occasion to thank in particular Mike Coull from the Little Kitchen, who has been working flat out to provide free fish and chips to the community affected in Methlick. I thank my hon. Friend for everything that he has done to keep his constituents posted and to make sure he fulfils his role here in the House, scrutinising the UK Government.

It was also a pleasure in particular to meet in Aberdeenshire those who had come from across the UK to assist. I was talking to one of the engineers who had come up from Liverpool, and there was a genuine professional satisfaction in coming from right the way across the country to help people in their time of need. I saw that from right across the UK, and I think people were very thankful for that. I also join with my hon. Friend in thanking the local communities.

On the review, of course people have become more dependent on electricity. Generally, that can be a good thing for us, particularly with electric vehicles and electricity as a source of power, but we also need to recognise that greater dependence means a greater responsibility, which I am sure will be part of the joint BEIS-Ofgem review coming up.

I, too, pay tribute to the fortitude of those who have been affected and the fantastic community support that has been provided, as well as to the workers doing the work and challenging the elements. However, the reality is that it is completely unacceptable for people to be without power for 10 days, and it is unacceptable for the Minister to stand here and say it is unacceptable—and that communications are unacceptable—without telling us what he is doing to sort out these unacceptable conditions.

With so many faults—way more than were predicted by modelling—what discussions have the Government had about whether the modelling is robust enough? What assessment are they making of the robustness of the network itself, of the recovery plans, and—we knew the storm was coming—of whether people understood the effects of the storm and other factors, such as trees being felled by the wind?

Customers and Parliament were given dates for when electricity would be restored, but those have proven to be wrong, so what assessment have the Government made of how the electricity companies have undertaken that work? It is quite clear that they did not have a grip of the situation. Was all the technology deployed that could have been deployed, such as drones and other remote working devices? Was sufficient tree-clearing equipment and labour deployed in the aftermath?

The Minister spoke about the mutual aid, but that clearly has not been sufficient to resolve the situation. It is quite clear that the Army should have been deployed more quickly. Why did the Government not offer the use of the Army? What compensation will be provided to customers, particularly hospitality business, and how will lessons learned be conveyed to Parliament? The Minister spoke about lessons learned from Storm Desmond. Why were those lessons not sufficient?

As I mentioned, I spent Friday in Aberdeenshire seeing the situation on the ground. I was joined by Chris Burchell, the managing director of SSE, and I put him on the spot about his communications. I think they were better in the first few days than those of Northern Powergrid, but it has been a difficult time for everyone concerned.

On the calling out of the Army, the hon. Gentleman will know that that is a role for the local resilience forum, the Grampian local resilience partnership. On Friday I also met Jim Savege, the chief executive of Aberdeenshire Council, who I think chairs or leads the local resilience partnership. He was very satisfied, I think, with the response of the Army and others. I met the 3 Scots when I was in Aberdeenshire; I understand that 45 Commando and the 39 Engineer Regiment have also been deployed. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will join me in thanking them for the work they have been putting in to help the community.

In terms of assistance—the NEWSAC scheme and the ability to deploy engineers from right across the United Kingdom—the hon. Gentleman may wish to reflect on the message from the industry about the importance of the UK response in being able to deploy people. A lot of engineers were deployed in Scotland; 630 were deployed from elsewhere in the UK. These are highly qualified, highly capable, very technical people. Two hundred and eighty-five of them came from the rest of the UK to Scotland, and 400 are currently in the north-east of England. I particularly want to minute my thanks for the efforts they have put in right across this United Kingdom.

I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for securing the urgent question, and I thank Ministers for their extensive engagement over this horrendous crisis.

I associate myself with the concerns raised by my County Durham colleagues—not least the shock that I think we all felt at learning in a meeting with Durham County Council on Friday that the communications from Northern Powergrid had meant that the response from the local resilience forum was slowed by about five days. That meant we could not get boots on the ground or house-to-house support for the people who needed it. Five days wasted—that is an absolute disgrace. We really need to ensure that we hold Northern Powergrid’s heels to the flame for that one.

I reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) said about ensuring that compensation will be paid before Christmas. It is a difficult time financially for so many, so if Ministers could add pressure on Northern Powergrid on that point, I know that it would be much appreciated by all those who have been affected.

I have two quick questions. First, what preparations are the Government undertaking, in conjunction with local resilience forums, for Storm Barra, which is going to hit over the next few days? Secondly, on the BEIS and Ofgem review, will the Minister expand a bit on what the consultation will look into, in terms of the infrastructure and its resilience? Will he also say whether the review will look into emergency provision to ensure that enough support—things such as emergency generators—is available to those who are hit in these horrible crises?

I thank my hon. Friend for her engagement with me and the Secretary of State on behalf of her constituents, and in particular for making meetings at relatively short notice. I agree that communications from Northern Powergrid were simply not good enough. I have reflected on that and we put that across strongly to Phil Jones.

On when compensation will be paid out, as I understand it, most is paid automatically, but it does take some time to process. I am told that it may take up to three months. I hope that it can be quicker, and I am sure that we can put that view across to the company.

It is not my job to be a weather forecaster, but we expect Storm Barra to hit the island of Ireland in particular. On preparations, an established process is in place whereby the NEWSAC committee would assess the likely landfall of the storm in the UK and start making preparations, often in conjunction with Ireland. I should also minute that engineers from the Republic of Ireland were in the UK helping out last week.

On reviews and resilience, previous reviews have of course led to important reforms. The 105 telephone number was created as a result of a previous review, as indeed was the NEWSAC network of mutual aid throughout the United Kingdom. Such reviews are strongly empowered, and while I would not want to prejudge what a review would look at, two things that I would expect it to look at carefully are communications and the resilience of the network in particular places.

I have to say that I am absolutely astonished that the Minister just gave an assurance that help is there, but went on to say that compensation will be available within three months. People in constituencies like mine, people in the north and people in Scotland—people who have been devastated by Storm Arwen—cannot wait three months. Let us be honest: it is an insult to the people who have been badly affected. Will the Minister look at ways and means of channelling much more financial support into badly affected constituencies so that the people at the bottom who have been devastated by this can receive compensation, not just for power cuts but for devastation to property, loss of property and so on?

I thank the hon. Member for that contribution. I understand the passion that he feels, but a lot has been done on the ground. I saw for myself the provision of accommodation by hotels, inns, pubs and so on, as well as the provision of food and hot meals—everything from a cup of tea in a community hall. There has been a huge community response right across the affected regions. We have also worked closely with the British Red Cross in providing relief to people on the ground.

It is completely unacceptable that some people are still without power. I think that 99.8% of people have now been reconnected, but it is an unacceptable time for the 1,000 or more people who are still not reconnected. The Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and I have all said that. We obviously need to learn the lessons, and an established process is in place for that. I have already pointed out how previous such storms have led to really strong improvements to the system, and I would also expect that to be the case this time.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that it is quite rich to hear criticism from Scottish National party Members after it took the Scottish First Minister four days to even comment on the fact there was an issue in the north-east of Scotland, given that the power went off. I join him and my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) in thanking the workers from Aberdeenshire Council, the emergency services, the armed forces and, of course, the Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks engineers who did a power of work to restore electricity to north-eastern Scotland.

Although a lot has been said about the resilience of the energy network and a review of that, will the Minister join me in looking into a review of the communications network? Part of the problem last week seemed to be that whether someone was able to report faults or was offline in their area depended on which mobile network they were on, so I ask for his support in calling for a review from Ofcom of the mobile communications network.

I thank my hon. Friend for his invaluable assistance on Friday in Aberdeenshire. I do not think he and I will ever forget meeting the engineers who had been working up to 17-hour shifts just outside of Kemnay. They had been at that all week, including with help from right across the UK. My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the communications network. We have become more dependent on electricity and networks. I am sure that that will be part of the review to see what lessons might be learned and whether there can be other ways to approach the communications problem in future.

I might be able to enlighten the Minister, given his earlier comments about Met Office warnings, because we need to give it some credit: it was right on the ball originally about Storm Arwen regarding the wind strength, the timings and the wind direction. It has issued two warnings today, Minister, that tomorrow—7 December—Storm Barra will bring strong winds and snow to my constituency and further north.

Storm Arwen and the response have exposed the deep north-south divide in this country. Individuals and communities in my constituency—I have not had any ministerial visits—have been left without support for over a week. It took five days for the Secretary of State to make a statement, and he did not do that willingly. It was only after multiple requests through the Speaker from Members on both sides of the House from Monday onwards that the Secretary of State came to make a statement, and it took five days for a major incident to be declared. It is too easy to put all the blame on Northern Powergrid and poor comms. At every level, be it the Minister’s Department, local government, the resilience forum or Northern Powergrid, questions must be asked, and I believe that a public inquiry is the only independent and fair way to assess the whole scandal and hold all those involved accountable. Will he support a public inquiry?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments as a local MP, but I reject absolutely his allegation of some kind of north-south divide. The response was very swift from the engineers, and that was the most important part of the response. As I mentioned, 630 engineers came from across the UK. I put on record my thanks to Western Power Distribution—117 came from western England and Wales—to Northern Ireland Electricity Networks, which sent 26 engineers, to the Isle of Man, and to the Electricity Supply Board in the Republic of Ireland, which sent 27.

The NEWSAC process started on the Friday before the storm came in. Obviously, time is needed to see the impact of the storm and where the engineers should be deployed from and to. Simply a forecast that a big storm is coming does not, in any sense, give a prediction of where the damage that will need to be repaired will be. The NEWSAC process is the right one. I have confidence in that and I want to minute again my thanks to the engineers from right across the United Kingdom who helped out by doing the incredibly difficult job of restoring and sometimes rebuilding—in Weardale, I saw a whole process of rebuilding the power line. We cannot underestimate the difficulty and very intensive nature of that job, particularly at a time of poor weather.

I thank my right hon. Friend and echo colleagues’ comments in thanking the Government, local government, the armed forces, volunteers and engineers for their efforts to help people during this dreadful crisis. I also pay tribute to the resilience of residents in Cumbria, elsewhere in the north of England and across Scotland for facing up to this dreadful crisis. I fear that that resilience will be tested again and again with more and more named storms coming. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that in the lessons learned process, we ensure that support for communities will get to them as soon as possible, in terms of generators and calling in the Army? We know in Cumbria, when we have flooding and such things as foot-and-mouth, that calling the Army in early is an important lesson to be learned, so whoever has the job of calling them in, please can we do that as quickly as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for his engagement throughout the process on behalf of his Cumbria constituents. He makes some very good points. We will be asking all Members to give their input into the lessons learned process, which might relate to anything from communications to extra resources. I can tell my hon. Friend that, at the peak, 755 generators were deployed in the most affected areas in the United Kingdom; that number is now approximately 500.

With respect to calling out the armed forces, it is principally a matter for the local resilience forum in the first case to make a local assessment of needs. I stress that repairing and rebuilding power lines is a job for engineers. With respect to other relief, other workers and other people who can provide support for local communities, it is a job for the local resilience forum to make an assessment.

While power is slowly being restored to many of the villages in Durham, we face further disruption from Storm Barra. Constituents in villages such as Croxdale are now experiencing problems with internet access, badly affecting their ability to work from home and support disabled family members. Can the Minister promise my constituents that increased Government support will arrive immediately if Storm Barra causes further disruption? Will he do everything in his power to work with Openreach and providers to get internet access restored to my constituents as soon as possible?

Of course we will be working, particularly with local resilience fora. The Secretary of State had a series of meetings on calls with local resilience fora through last week, learning and assessing at first hand what their needs are. If Storm Barra is of a similar magnitude or even anywhere close, I would expect that process to continue. With climate change, we can expect the frequency of such events to increase, and we need to make sure that local resilience fora are ready to meet those challenges.

May I say very firmly to the Minister that it is simply unacceptable for customers to have to wait for up to three months for compensation payments? This is an accounting function—a billing function. It is easy to press the right button and get the compensation of £140 a day to these poor people before Christmas.

I stress that I am not apologising on behalf of the companies, but it is “up to three months”; I hope that it will be a lot quicker. Of course the Secretary of State and I will engage with the distribution network operators to make sure that it is done as quickly as possible. Ofgem is engaging with them as well.

On the Minister’s visit to Aberdeenshire, he managed to visit Banff and Buchan, where he met the local MP, and west Aberdeenshire, where he met the local MP. As the Member for Gordon, I can only assume that my invitation must have been lost in the post somewhere.

When it comes to getting in military support, yes, it is for the local resilience partnerships to make the request, but as the Minister knows full well, a strict set of criteria has to be fulfilled before the request has a chance of being approved. As part of the review of this incident, will the Minister commit to looking at the criteria for military aid for the civilian authorities so that in any future event like this we stand a better chance of being able to deploy the military at an earlier stage, when they can arguably have the greatest impact?

I am told that the hon. Gentleman’s office was informed that I was coming to Ellon in his constituency, but may I use this opportunity to thank the school in Ellon and particularly the local responders, the local resilience partnership and others who were there providing assistance? The local armed forces, 3 Scots, were there as well, providing really excellent help to the community.

Once the local resilience forum had called out, or said that it needed assistance, the response was incredibly fast: I think it took less than half a day to make that deployment. I talked to the military liaison officer in Aberdeen on Friday; she was absolutely clear that she is a keen member of the local resilience forum and as soon as the call went out, the response was extremely quick.

Given the fallout from Storm Arwen and the disruption to the power grid, will the Government use this opportunity to look into the feasibility of placing more power cables underground?

My hon. Friend has asked a good question. The difference in cost between underground and overground is considerable, and such action would also be very disruptive. I think that a more organic approach should be taken, involving working with the companies and the engineering resources that we have. In general, however, my hon. Friend is right: an underground grid will be more resilient than an overground grid, and I am sure that that too will feature in the review.

Is this not about Northern Powergrid investing nothing in the network while stuffing its investors’ pockets with profits, and the Government allowing it to put profits before people?

No, it is not. In the last eight years, the distribution network operators have invested about £60 billion in the network, and I am confident that the structure is right. I think that the way in which the companies collaborate in the NEWSAC mechanism works extremely well, and we should be thankful for the engineers and others who have been out there, including those operating the call centres. As I have said, I think that the communications, particularly in the first days, could have been much better, but I have no doubts about the structure of the market and the electricity network operators.

We all know that this was an exceptional storm with exceptional wind speeds coming from an unusual direction, and we all know that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the engineers and back-room staff who supported the recovery. However, my constituent Craig Fraser, from the north-west of Montrose, was without power for six days—it was restored on Thursday—and for the first four of those days, he could not obtain confirmation from SSEN that there was a problem in his area. What can the UK Government do to mandate minimum standards in surveys of damage caused to network lines after a storm and data logging of customers’ reports of outages?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that constructive question. I would say to his constituent Craig Fraser that I think it is unacceptable that it took him more than four days to get an answer from SSEN. After this session, I will give the hon. Gentleman the details of the dedicated contact at SSEN, if he does not already have it, and I will also try to raise the matter with the chief executive, Chris Burchell. A key aim of the review will be to look at why the communications were not as good as they should have been, particularly in those crucial first few days.

The Secretary of State can make it to the north-east for a photo-opportunity, but he will not come here to answer our questions. If thousands of homes in the south-east were without power, he would be here.

Last month the Government showed their contempt for the north-east by failing to invest in our transport infrastructure, and now we see the consequences of their failure to invest in and support our energy infrastructure. Why were there not enough generators? Why were no proper plans in place? Does the Minister accept that the energy markets as they stand are not working for the north-east, and will he do something about it?

I am sorry, but I do not accept that. First, it is not right to criticise the Secretary of State for going up to the north-east on a Sunday to see members of the armed forces, and to thank the engineers and the community responders. As you will remember better than anyone, Mr Speaker, he came here last Wednesday to make a statement on the situation. There has not been a delayed response from the Secretary of State.

The hon. Lady also asked about generators. In fact, 755 were provided at the peak of the relief effort, and 500 are still being provided. I thought that she might join me in thanking some of those who are working so hard on the ground—not just the engineers, but those in the call centres. They are making tremendous efforts to ensure that those who have been disconnected are reconnected and that people have the help that they need in the short term, as well as ensuring that we learn the lessons of this unique storm.

Given that we are likely to see more severe storms, and even with the lessons learned from previous storms and the mutual aid system that the Minister has referred to, is not the review going to have to look at increasing capacity—I am talking about materials, machinery, generators, spares and people—in order to be able to deal with these events more effectively so that people do not have to wait so long to have their lights and heating put back on? Who does the Minister think has the principal responsibility for ensuring that that capacity is there when storms strike?

The right hon. Gentleman raises some good points, but I do not want us to prejudge the review. He has mentioned quite a few things that he thinks we were short of. I think he is saying that we were short of generators, for example. I have already said that 750 generators were deployed. Of course we need to look at whether we have the right number of generators in terms of the capacity, but I would not want to prejudge that important review and the process behind it. Let us wait and let the review run its course. We have learned some really important lessons from previous reviews, for example on setting up a dedicated phone line, the mutual support and the network of engineers from across the country. Let us not prejudge that review.

Thousands of us in communities across Cumbria have had a devastating 10 days that have been exhausting and even harrowing. I am pretty sure that all of us would agree with the calls for a public inquiry to learn the lessons. I think everyone agrees that lessons need to be learned. However, with Storm Barra approaching, those lessons need to be learned literally overnight, and those lessons are about timeliness as much as anything. Why did it take five days for the Government to come to this House and address the issue? Why did it take until the middle of last week to scramble and deploy additional generators, when that could have happened on the Saturday, eight or nine days ago, so that families were not without heat and light for so long? The relevance of the Army is that it is significant in boosting the capacity of the engineers and also in going from door to door to reach vulnerable people who had no telecoms whatsoever. They include elderly people with care needs who were tucked up in bed to try to stay safe. I want to say a massive thank you to the people in those communities who stepped up to this challenge, and to the engineers who are out there making things better overnight, but what can the Minister say to my communities about how the Government will act to make things better next time?

I do not think that a public inquiry is the right course. It would inevitably take a long time. It would be better to use the established and effective review mechanism that we already have in place, and I invite the hon. Member and all right hon. and hon. Members to participate in it and give their views. I would say that NEWSAC, the mutual aid scheme, was deployed as soon it practicably could be, actually in advance of the storm coming in. I think that that has worked well. On the role of the Army, it is principally a matter for the local resilience forums to make assessments of the resources they need and then to put in that call. From my experience in Aberdeenshire on Friday, I can tell the House that, when the local resilience forum put in that call, the response was close to immediate.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you give me some guidance on the absence of the Secretary of State from this urgent question? Yesterday, he claimed to be getting a grip on this crisis, but today he has run away from answering questions in this House. The truth is that there are very serious issues here, and the Minister has had to come up with a hastily arranged “dog ate my homework” excuse in which he claims that the Secretary of State is on the phone to Northern Powergrid at the moment. He could have been on the phone before this urgent question or after it. This is an insult to the people in the north of England and an insult to this House.

It is not for me to choose who comes to the Dispatch Box. It is up to the Government to decide who they provide, and the Minister was very thorough in his long answers to questions. You have also been in government, and you were the ones who chose who stood at the Dispatch Box. I do not think the points you raise will have gone amiss. You did say that the Secretary of State was meant to be on a phone call, and it was with the Prime Minister as well. I am sure people will check to see if that is the case, as I am sure it is. If the Minister says it is the case, it must be the case.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) that it is disappointing the Secretary of State is not here to answer questions.

The Minister said he and the Secretary of State have visited affected areas. It is very strange that they visited only those with Conservative Members of Parliament. He got off the train in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), and no doubt to get to Weardale you have to travel through my constituency, but they made no effort to go anywhere but where they have a Conservative MP. I am sorry, but politicising the crisis is not right.

I will deal with it head on, because not only did I take a call from the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on the Friday morning but I visited and talked to individuals in the call centre, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), who was informed of my visit. So we actually visited there. On Friday, I visited Ellon, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). So yes, we visited Conservative-held constituencies, but we also visited Labour and SNP-held constituencies. I urge the right hon. Member for North Durham to withdraw that allegation.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. There is an important distinction to be drawn between visiting a constituency and inviting the MP to join you. I wonder how I might be able to correct the record, as the Minister said something that does not seem to be exactly in accord with how arrangements were made.

This is becoming a political decision, which I do not want it to be. What I would say to Ministers is that, when they visit an affected constituency held by whichever political party, it is good order to see the MP, and it should not look like they are visiting the constituencies of just one political party. I am sure that would never happen and I am sure it will be resolved in future.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement following the sentencing of the stepmother and father of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes on Friday.

The whole nation is distraught at Arthur’s tragic and horrific death. Across the House and across the country, we find it impossible to imagine how any adult could commit such evil acts against a child, particularly a parent or carer to whom the child looks for love and protection. I know colleagues and people outside this place are seriously troubled that Arthur was subjected to a campaign of appalling cruelty, and was murdered after concerns had been raised with local services.

I assure colleagues on both sides of the House and the public that I am as determined as they are to get to the truth, to expose what went wrong and to take any action necessary to protect children. To do so, serious questions need to be asked.

I make it clear that police officers, teachers, social workers, health workers and others go to work each day to try to make things better and to do their best at what are very difficult jobs. Those already serving our country’s most vulnerable children deserve our thanks, and I want to be extremely clear that no safeguarding professional should be the victim of abuse. The targeting of individuals is wrong and helps nobody, but that does not mean we should not seek to understand what went wrong and how we can stop it happening again.

The public deserve to know why, in this rare case, things went horrifyingly wrong and what more could be done to prevent abuse such as this from happening again. Since the horrendous deaths of Peter Connelly, Daniel Pelka and, sadly, others, the Government have established stronger multi-agency working, putting a shared and equal duty on police, councils and health in local areas to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, alongside a role for schools. I am sure hon. Members across the House will recognise that improvements have been made from previous reviews, but the question now is whether that is enough.

In order to look at issues nationally as well as locally, we established the national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel in 2017 for cases such as Arthur’s. Given the enormity of this case, the range of agencies involved and the potential for its implications to be felt nationally, over the weekend I asked Annie Hudson, chair of the national panel, to work with leaders in Solihull to deliver a single, national, independent review of Arthur’s death to identify what must be learned from this terrible case.

The review will encompass local government as well as those working in the police, health and education sectors. Officials in my Department are already in close contact with the Solihull safeguarding partnership, which is grateful for the support offered and agrees that this approach is the best way to deliver comprehensive national learning and identify any gaps that need to be addressed.

Annie and her colleagues on the national panel, who come from the police, health and children’s services, have dedicated their lives and decades-long careers to bettering the lives of the most vulnerable children in our society. I have every faith that their review will be robust, vigorous and thorough. I have already assured Annie, as I assure you now, Mr Speaker, that she will be given all the support she needs to do the job properly.

The review will focus specifically on Arthur’s case and identify where improvements need to be made, but I also want to make certain we have looked at how all the relevant local agencies are working now, including how they are working together. For that reason, I have also asked Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation to lead a joint targeted area inspection. I have asked that each of these inspectorates be involved because of the range of local services that had been involved in Arthur’s and his family’s life during the preceding months.

These joint inspections are well established, but a new and ambitious approach will be used, with a sharp focus on the entry point to the child protection system across all agencies. That will mean we can truly look at where improvements are needed by all the agencies tasked with protecting children in the Solihull area, so that we can be assured that we are doing everything in our power to protect other children and prevent such evil crimes.

As part of this inspection, all the agencies tasked with protecting children at risk of abuse and neglect in Solihull will have their effectiveness considered, and be instructed on where improvements must be made in Solihull and where learnings can be applied in other areas around the country. The inspectorates met today to plan the work and the work will begin next week. I, as well as officials in my Department and across Government, could not be taking this matter more seriously. I have been working this weekend to bring everyone together to make sure the work can start immediately. Over the coming days, we will publish terms of reference and timelines for the national review and local inspection.

More widely, we are already investing heavily to help the legions of dedicated professionals on the frontline to deliver the care that we all know every child deserves. Since the spending review in 2019, there have been year-on-year real-terms increases for local government, as well as the unprecedented additional £6 billion funding provided directly to councils to support them with the immediate and longer-term impacts of covid spending pressures, including children’s social care. Yet we have also known that the care system needed bold and wide-ranging reforms, which is why we have the independent review of children’s social care happening now. I know that Josh MacAlister, who leads that review, will make recommendations on what a decisive child protection response needs to look like, given that that sits at the core of the system he is reviewing. Importantly, the review will look at how social workers, especially those with the most experience, can spend time with families and on protecting children. We all know that social workers do their best work with families, not behind a desk.

I look forward to receiving the review’s recommendations in due course. In any complex system, it is imperative to investigate thoroughly to learn and improve that system. My mantra continues to be that sunlight is the best possible disinfectant, because if we are to improve services where they need improving, we must share data and evidence.

I thank the prosecuting barrister Jonas Hankin QC, his team and the jury for their service in this troubling case. As the court heard, Arthur’s tragic death was the result of the cruelty of his father and his father’s partner. No Government anywhere in the world can legislate for evil, but we will take action wherever we can to stop this happening again, because we must do more. To do more, I end my statement with a plea to everyone in our country: anyone who sees or suspects child abuse can report their concerns to local children’s services or by contacting the Government-supported National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children helpline for adults or practitioners who are concerned about a child or young person. So if you see or suspect child abuse, report it. If you are worried about a child you know, report it. If something appears off, or you see something that troubles you, report it.

As we uncover what went wrong and what led to Arthur’s tragic death, we must also strengthen our resolve to make sure that we prevent these crimes as much as they possibly can be prevented. We must make sure that those who would do wicked acts to children face justice. We must do absolutely everything in our power to protect vulnerable young children from harrowing and evil abuse. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

This has been a truly horrendous case. My heart goes out to everyone who knew and loved Arthur and to all those involved in investigating and bringing to justice the depraved and wicked individuals responsible for his death. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the frontline workers right across children’s social care who work so hard to support families day in, day out.

I welcome the announcement by the Attorney General’s Office that the sentences handed down on Friday will be reviewed under the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s clear determination to get to the bottom of what has happened and his action in ordering a national review and a joint targeted area inspection. It is right to put in place as soon as possible inquiries into not merely how individual agencies acted but how they acted together.

It is vital that whatever lessons can be learned from what happened and did not happen in Solihull are acted on as soon as possible. Searching questions must be asked about the way in which services operated locally, but questions must also be asked nationally—questions about how the services that should be keeping children safe are overseen and about why, tragically, cases such as this keep happening.

I know that the Secretary of State takes these issues just as seriously as I do. I very much hope he will urgently review the way in which services are inspected, challenged and improved. I ask the Secretary of State, who has not been in his post for too long, also to ensure that his own Department gets its house in order.

In 2016, the Department committed to a target, which was that by 2020

“all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, receive the same high quality of care and support, and the best outcome for every child is at the heart of every decision made.”

The then permanent secretary told the Public Accounts Committee that this target was delayed until 2022 because the Department did not have a detailed plan in place to deliver it. The Committee found that the Department had made only limited progress in improving the quality of children’s social care services. In 2019, the permanent secretary accepted that having nearly 60% of local authorities rated lower than “good” by Ofsted for children’s social care was “terrible”. Indeed, he told the Public Accounts Committee:

“I am not able to sit in front of you and say that there will be no councils failing their Ofsted inspections in 2022. Clearly, there will be. Some schools fail, some hospitals fail and some councils fail.”

Failure should never be an acceptable outcome for any public service, and that is especially true when it comes to protecting children. For too long, this Government have tolerated failing children’s services and a failure to protect children. Vulnerable children are being failed, and that cannot go on.

The Secretary of State must now set out how he plans to tackle that culture—that failing services are acceptable in our country, acceptable for our children—in his own Department just as much as in Solihull. That is the challenge that he faces, and that is the standard by which he will be judged.

I have one final point. We have heard a lot in recent days about the unimaginable suffering that this little boy endured at the hands of two evil individuals who brought an end to his short life. I hope that we can remember also how, in better days, Arthur lived his short life. I hope that, while we do not hesitate to learn from these tragic events, we also, as far as we can, remember Arthur for who he was, not for what others did to him or for how he was let down. I hope that when we hear his name, we think first of a gentle, caring, happy child, the little boy who was remembered so movingly by so many across our country this weekend, the little boy with the beaming smile who should still be here with us today.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her words, and especially for her final few sentences about the way that we should remember Arthur, and the fact that there are family members grieving for him today.

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point about making sure that we continue on the path to improvement. Having spent a good amount of time as Children and Families Minister in the Department, I think that the team has really focused on those improvements in children’s social care. The hon. Lady said that we have a long way to go. I recognise that there are challenges, but it is also worth praising the teams both in the Department and in local government up and down the country. Not that long ago, only about 37% of local authorities had a good Ofsted inspection. The one thing I would correct her on is that it is not so binary as pass and fail, because, actually, it is very much about areas of improvement in children’s social care. That 37% has now risen to 57% of local authorities that have a good inspection.[Official Report, 16 December 2021, Vol. 705, c. 5MC.] Of course, we will have to continue on that path and keep going further. None the less, I am very pleased to see her supporting the course of action that we are taking today.

I strongly endorse what the Secretary of State has set out about the review, and I also welcome the comments, particularly the moving comments at the end, of the shadow Secretary of State.

As I understand it, Arthur was not in school—he had been kept at home by his father—when this tragedy happened. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that, putting aside the 200,000 children sent home because of covid, who are known about by the school system, there are another 100,000 ghost children, as I call them, who are lost in the system. They not returned to school for the most part, and are potentially subject to safeguarding hazards—county lines gangs, online harms and, of course, awful domestic abuse.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we are not discussing these issues again in this House following a further tragedy similar to the one that we have just heard about? Will he proactively make a real effort to work with the local authorities, the schools and the regional commissioners to make sure that those 100,000 children, who are mostly not in school, are returned to school and are watched by the appropriate authorities? We must get those children back into school, otherwise we may face—I hope not—further tragedies along the way.

My right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Education Committee, is absolutely right to raise this concerning issue, which is a focus for my Department; I am working closely with other Departments and agencies to work through it. He will know that we launched the See, Hear, Respond programme, which is aimed at supporting vulnerable children and young people whose usual support networks were impacted by the pandemic and national restrictions. The tragedy for Arthur is that he was never off the school register. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend’s point is a powerful one.