House of Commons
Wednesday 6 July 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Passport Application Processing
This Conservative Government are presiding over backlog Britain, with never-ending travel chaos causing misery and havoc for hard-working people’s holiday and travel plans. Many of my Slough constituents have been waiting not weeks but months for their new passports to arrive. I know it is a similar story for the good people of Wales. Can the Secretary of State clarify how many of the promised 1,700 new members of staff the Government have actually recruited to deal with the crisis?
I should add, for anybody who has an interest in this particular subject, that if there are individual cases that are clearly being badly held up, they should please pass them on to the Wales Office and we will do whatever we can to expedite the service. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, 850 additional staff have been brought on since April 2021, with a further 350 arriving this summer.
I simply do not believe the statistics the Government keep on giving, and I think the Secretary of State should push back on them. I have 30 cases outstanding and more coming in to my office every single day of the week. The team in Portcullis House used to be five people, but is now only three, so there is less of a service. Members of staff have to queue for two and a half hours to be able to deal with a single passport case. I have people who have been waiting for 14 weeks, some who have been waiting for 18 weeks, children who have been waiting for 14 weeks—this is simply incompetence. When will the Government get a grip of it?
The hon. Gentleman knows that every MP has examples of their own. I can only restate what I said just now: where there are individual cases, we are very keen to help. Some 98.5% of applications are being dealt with within the timescale. I realise that for the people who are not in that particular bracket it is intensely frustrating, and it is frustrating for Members across the House. The situation continues to improve, but if there are ways we can help the hon. Gentleman and his constituents I am very happy to do so.
Like other Members, I have an inbox full of hundreds of constituents struggling to get their passports. Some are waiting 15 or 18 weeks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has said. Those people are already struggling with the cost of living crisis, they are having to fork out for the cost of passports, and now they are losing out on their vital holidays, which they have been desperately waiting for for more than two years. What support is available for those people? What economic redress is available? What conversations is the Secretary of State having with the Prime Minister—or is he too bothered with propping him up instead of dealing with people’s actual issues?
As the hon. Lady knows, we in the Wales Office have conversations with all Government Departments, especially on this particular issue. Staff numbers are being increased and the pace at which applications are processed continues to improve: it is at 98.5%. I realise that for people not in that bracket, this is a tough challenge, and I can only repeat what I have said in answer to the hon. Lady’s colleagues: if there are individual examples we can help with, we are very happy to do so.
We are all quite surprised to see the Secretary of State here this morning, but perhaps he cannot leave the disintegrating Government because his passport application is stuck in the queue. People across Wales are sick and tired of the Government’s incompetence. Can he explain to my constituent Jamie Dunkley and others across Wales why their Welsh language passport applications have been sent to Peterborough for processing, causing huge delays, stress and additional cost?
The hon. Lady raises an interesting question; this is the first I have heard of it, to be honest. As I keep saying, at the risk of being boring, I am very happy to look into that if it is causing undue delays. Those can also be resolved by the same means I suggested earlier.
This Government are committed to levelling up across Wales. That is why we are investing over £340 million in Welsh rail and £120 million through the levelling-up fund in Wales in round one alone, and Wales will benefit from the UK-wide £5 billion Project Gigabit to connect hard-to-reach premises.
It is of the utmost importance that every part of these islands can enjoy investment from this United Kingdom Government. Can the Secretary of State update the House on what he and the rest of the Government are doing to achieve that aim in Wales and across the whole United Kingdom?
I found it quite hard to hear my hon. Friend’s comments, but I can say that we believe there are really positive steps in terms of sustainable job creation in Wales through the various different funding measures, in particular the UK’s shared prosperity fund, which is currently in lift-off. Levelling up is devolution in action. We get a lot of criticism from the Opposition Benches about the Welsh Government’s being bypassed, but we are going to 22 local authorities and stakeholders in a way that has never previously been done.
The Global Centre for Rail Excellence that is being developed in Onllwyn in Neath will become the first and only rail infrastructure testing facility in the UK. It recently secured a memorandum of understanding with an Association of American Railroads subsidiary, US venture MxV Rail, to work together to advance global rail research and technology. The Welsh Labour Government have provided £50 million. When will the UK Government provide the £30 million they promised so that this world-class rail facility can be completed by 2025?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady raises that absolutely perfect example of the Welsh and UK Governments working in tandem, creating new, innovative, sustainable jobs in her constituency and in adjacent areas. It is a £30 million investment and I am delighted that she is welcoming it in the way that we should be.
At the end of the Great Western line in my constituency is Milford Haven, the UK’s most important energy port and the largest town in my constituency. Its railway station is a disgrace. Does the Secretary of State agree that a project to upgrade Milford Haven train station would be an ideal round 2 levelling-up fund bid, and will he look favourably on any such bid from Pembrokeshire County Council?
My right hon. Friend and neighbour has raised the question of Milford Haven station a few times, and I am no stranger to it either. Although I am not allowed to express a preference for individual levelling-up bids, that is precisely the type of infrastructure improvement bid that the levelling-up fund was created for, so if he and the local authority can put together some compelling evidence, I am sure that those who are in a position to judge it will look on it favourably.
Perhaps the Secretary of State ought to tell the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) that he cannot put in his levelling-up bid because the Government portal has broken down. Despite Ministers’ promises on supporting infrastructure investment in Wales, we all know that the reality is very different. He will not challenge his Government’s sleight of hand in denying the consequential of £4.6 billion to Wales from HS2, nor the annual £150 million hit that that will have on the Welsh economy. Because of his Government’s spending review, the Welsh Government’s capital budget will be 11% lower by 2024-25 compared with last year—less money, less infrastructure. Instead of focusing on media appearances defending his indefensible boss, when will he focus on doing his job for the people of Wales?
It is telling that the hon. Lady did not mention the increasing levels—the record levels—of investment that the UK Government have made in Wales, which, from £16.7 billion in 2021, will reach £19.08 billion by 2024-25. Whichever areas of investment we look at, despite her claims to the contrary, they are considerably greater than they have been at any time since the devolution settlement, resulting in extra jobs, extra investment and extra reasons to celebrate what Wales has to offer. It is profoundly depressing for people who are looking to the Opposition for inspiration on investment in Wales that all we get is a litany of negativity.
Birmingham, Crewe, Derby, Doncaster, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and York: that is the shortlist of cities for the headquarters of Great British Railways. The Secretary of State failed to get a single Welsh location as a candidate. Is he not embarrassed at his dismal track record in Cabinet despite being a loyal Government spokesman?
I love it when the right hon. Lady, who is so determined to separate her country from the rest of the UK economy, lists a whole lot of stations and locations in England. There are either separatists or Unionists and I never know with her which side she is batting for. This is about our delivery in Wales, because in a sense she is asking me to choose between the Welsh Government and the UK Government. I am very proud to be part of a Government who have produced £121 million-worth of levelling-up funds, £46 million-worth of community ownership funds, £585 million-worth of shared prosperity funds, the floating offshore wind potential of the Celtic sea, the potential for nuclear at Wylfa, project Gigabit, Airbus investment at Broughton—the list goes on and on. All we get, as I said to the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), is negativity.
The Secretary of State defends an infrastructure that is extractive for Wales and brings nothing back. Time and again, the Secretary of State has been rolled out to defend the indefensible on behalf of the Prime Minister. The outgoing Children’s Minister said that he
“accepted and repeated assurances on Monday to the media which have now been found to be inaccurate.”
Two Cabinet Ministers have gone and the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretary has gone—it is not business as usual, is it? When will he be going?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that tempting question. It is business as usual in the Wales Office, and that is why I am proud to repeat what I said just now: we are getting on with the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund and the shared prosperity fund. We have investment across every part of Wales, and despite all her protestations, there is so much evidence that being part of the Union is part of the success of Wales in creating sustainable, long-term jobs. I dearly wish she would come and join us in the endeavour to improve the life of people in Wales, rather than using cheap political opportunities to do the opposite.
The UK Government will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure that everyone across the UK gets the healthcare they need. There is a memorandum of understanding with the Welsh NHS, which has been essential in resolving a number of long-standing issues over patients’ rights across the border.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is to the left of me. We have been working hard to try to get the Welsh Government and the Department of Health and Social Care together to talk about ambulance times. My constituents are suffering, because if they get into a Welsh ambulance or an English ambulance, they still go to the same district general hospital in Shrewsbury. Will the Minister pull together the two Governments to talk about ambulance waiting times in Shrewsbury?
I would certainly be happy to write to the Department of Health and Social Care. I am afraid that I am not responsible for the Welsh Government, but I would be pleased to see them working harder to ensure that patients in his constituency get access to the healthcare they need. For 21 years, the NHS in Wales has been run by the Labour party, and one in four people are now waiting more than 12 months for treatment, and that is an absolute disgrace that Opposition Members are responsible for.
It is a bit farcical to be asking questions of Ministers when we have no idea whether they will still be at the Dispatch Box by the end of the day, but I will give it a go. Those in Wrexham need to get easily to Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in my constituency for specialist cancer care, and at the moment it is too hard because of the quality of public service. Will the Minister, before he leaves—maybe he is going to stay—give my constituents and people in north Wales an update on progress on the Wrexham-Bidston railway line?
The Wrexham-Bidston line is one of a number of lines that are being looked at, including the south Wales relief line and the north Wales coast line. The reality is that constituents in Wales are fed up with having to wait more than 12 months for treatment, and the reason for that is 21 years of Labour Government running the NHS in Wales. Their record is an absolute disgrace.
Cost of Living
My ministerial colleagues and I fully accept that there is a cost of living challenge, but this country has faced some exceptional challenges over the past few years, including a global pandemic and a European land war. We have responded vigorously by providing £37 billion to help households across the UK through these challenges.
I agree completely with my right hon. Friend. Households across the whole United Kingdom will be receiving a cost of living support payment worth £650 this month. By contrast the Welsh Labour Government want to spend £100 million to increase the number of Welsh Senedd Members. Some people believe in levelling up, but I am afraid that Opposition Members believe in leaving people behind and spending more money on further politicians.
Across the UK, 8 million low-income households will get £1,200 in financial support to help with rising electricity and gas bills. Would not the £100 million being spent by the Welsh Government on extra politicians in Cardiff be better directed at helping those families?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Not only will households receive an extra £1,200, but next week, 8 million households on means-tested benefits will get an extra £326 in their bank accounts; in September, 6 million people on disability benefits will receive a £150 payment; and in October, £400 will come off households’ energy bills. There is much more to follow, because the Government believe in levelling up, not in spending £100 million on extra Senedd Members.
In spite of parliamentary questions, we still have no answers about how people who have their permanent residence in park homes or similar in Wales, who receive their energy bills via a third party, can receive the £400 discount. Will the Minister speak to his ministerial colleagues to sort that out so that those people can receive the money in a timely fashion?
Unsurprisingly, the UK Government have repeatedly broken their promises to fund Wales to the tune of nearly £800 million, and they are blatantly trying to undermine devolution at every opportunity. Can the Minister tell me how that serves the Welsh people when they are struggling with the cost of living crisis? While he is at it, can he tell us why he is still propping up a broken Government who promote an abuser and then lie about it?
That statement is completely incorrect. Prior to Brexit, Wales received around £343 million a year in structural funds and £337 million a year was spent on agriculture. Post Brexit, the sums will be exactly the same. My question is why Opposition Members are still supporting a Government in Wales who have left us with lower education standards; lower standards in healthcare; and more taxes on business, such as a tourism tax and a tax on wine producers. Why do they now want to spend £100 million of taxpayers’ money on extra politicians? Those are the questions to which the people of Wales would like to know the answers.
The Conservatives’ cost of living crisis is hitting Wales hard. The soaring costs of energy, fuel and food have been compounded by crippling increases in tax and national insurance. The meagre 5p cut to fuel duty has proved wholly inadequate and energy costs are due to rise even further this autumn. It is clear that the Government have run out of not only ideas but Ministers. Will the Minister commit to speaking to whoever holds the post of Chancellor this afternoon about taking immediate further action to tackle the cost of living crisis?
We have already acknowledged that there is a cost of living crisis, which was partly caused by having to spend £400 billion on getting us through the covid pandemic and by a European land war. Of course, we are doing everything we can to support people through these difficult times, which is why we are spending £37 billion on support for hard-hit households and why we have introduced a new 25% energy profits levy on oil and gas companies, which will raise about £5 billion of revenue that will also go to relieving the burden on families.
UK Shared Prosperity Fund
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on how Wales’s £585 million share of the UKSPF will level up communities across Wales. With local authorities, business, the third sector and civil society fully engaged, the UKSPF will mean quicker delivery, better targeting and closer alignment with local priorities than previous EU funding.
The priority of the UK shared prosperity fund is to empower local communities, business and people, with the funding for delivery going directly to local authorities in Wales. Can my right hon. Friend outline the steps he is taking to work directly with local communities in Wales to ensure the delivery of local priorities, and the benefits that that will bring to people, communities and businesses in Wales?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about devolution. Of course, it frustrates Opposition Members that we are taking devolution to its literal limit as far as the funds are concerned; we are going to 22 local authority stakeholders across Wales. I find it absolutely perplexing that for some reason, the Welsh Government think that devolution stops in Cardiff and simply do not trust 22 democratically elected local authorities spread across the whole of Wales to make sensible decisions on behalf of their constituents.
Given the timescale involved, there is a lot of concern among local authorities in Wales that moneys allocated under the shared prosperity fund will not in fact be spent by them, and the money therefore will be clawed back by central Government. Will the Secretary of State say that that will not happen?
I got the gist of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Of course, the shared prosperity fund is an absolute cast-iron commitment. It has thousands of jobs at its disposal. We think it has great potential across the whole of Wales and we are very happy of course, if he has individual examples that concern him, to address them.
The Welsh Government wasted close to £5 billion of the former European aid in west Wales and the valleys. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give me that the UK shared prosperity fund will reflect UK priorities, working with local authorities in Wales—in all of Wales—to ensure that places such as the Vale of Glamorgan benefit, having been excluded by the former European scheme?
My right hon. Friend puts his finger on exactly why the levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund are so vital. What they do is go straight to local communities. This allows them to make bids and decisions on behalf of their constituents, residents and ratepayers in a way no other scheme has previously enabled them to do. That is why this is innovative and will lead to sustainable jobs.
What type of shared prosperity is it when the UK Treasury plunders capital investment programmes in Wales by refusing to let contractors use red diesel instead of white diesel, further driving up construction inflation to the benefit of the UK Treasury and the detriment of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?
I do not think that question has any sensible context to it, because the proposals that have been set out—by the Treasury or, indeed, through the levelling-up and shared prosperity funds—make it absolutely clear how those funds will benefit all communities in a way that they have not before. Picking specific examples and saying that this is an anomaly overlooks, I think deliberately, all the criteria that underpin the funding methods I have talked about.
Welsh Product Procurement
Yes, it says here. Welsh products and services are some of the best in the world, from Welsh steel used to build Crossrail to Airbus’s cyber-security expertise and Raytheon in Broughton upgrading the intelligent surveillance capabilities of our aircraft.
Wales is being denied billions in consequential funding from HS2. Does the Secretary of State agree that, for Wales to see any benefits from the scheme, which of course needs about 3 million tonnes of steel and new high-speed trains, the Department for Transport should look to procure Welsh steel and, indeed, buy trains from CAF in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) to ensure that Wales finally benefits from the project—or is it simply that the Tories will continue to fail the people of Wales?
I actually agree with a lot in the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. If he looks at some of the projects we are talking about, particularly around defence spending—£850 million of defence spending—the potential around floating offshore wind once the Crown Estate’s leases are in play and the huge potential around nuclear development at Wylfa, he will see that domestic UK procurement of steel is right back on the agenda, and that will result in every steel maker in Wales benefiting.
Tourism is crucial to Clwyd South, which attracts visitors from all across the world for events such as the Llangollen international musical eisteddfod, which is taking place this week. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the Welsh Labour Government’s plans to introduce a tourism tax, which will do great damage to the tourism industry across the whole of Wales?
I think I can do even better than my hon. Friend requests me to by simply quoting the words of the chief executive of UKHospitality, Kate Nicholls, who said: “The tourism tax is ill thought through and proposed without any impact assessment. Welsh Government does not know why it is needed, what its effect will be on visitors and what damage it will do to businesses and jobs in a sector making up a quarter of the Welsh economy. It is unnecessary, unhelpful and ill considered.” If the House does not believe it from me, it should believe it from the experts in this particular field.
On tourism in Wales, when a previous Tory leader resigned, he not only visited Wales but bought a home in Wales. Can I suggest that one way the Secretary of State for Wales could help tourism in Wales is by encouraging the current Tory leader to follow suit, resign and buy a home, although perhaps not in Wales—perhaps somewhere else?
Perhaps I can encourage the hon. Gentleman to persuade his colleague in Cardiff, the First Minister, to drop his ridiculous plans for a tourism tax and for various other means of punishing successful businesses in Wales. If he did that, perhaps we could create some lasting jobs in Wales rather than simply listening to his political protestations.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Today is a big day—[Interruption]—as we implement the biggest tax cut for a decade, increasing national insurance thresholds to make tax lower and the tax burden easier. These changes will benefit 30 million people across the UK and I am pleased to say that two of those people—Mandy Banfield and Alan Calzari—are seated in the Public Gallery. A typical worker will now save £330 per year, with 70% of employees better off as a result. That is real money for real people.
I am sure the House will also join me in wishing the best of luck to England and Northern Ireland, who are competing in the UEFA women’s Euro 2022 tournament, which starts today. I am sure that they will both make the nation proud.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others—[Interruption.] In addition to my duties in this House, I expect I shall have further such meetings later today.
Last week, we launched a new approach to combating knife crime in Milton Keynes, which means increased use of stop and search, tougher charging and custody, tougher sentencing, faster youth diversion and more work with parents and communities. Does the Prime Minister agree that if someone carries a knife in Milton Keynes, they should expect to end up behind bars?
I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to campaign for tougher sentences and against knife crime in Milton Keynes. As a result of what the Conservatives have done, adults who are convicted of certain offences involving a knife, including threatening with a knife or a second offence of possession, face a minimum sentence of six months’ imprisonment—and guess who voted against tougher sentences for knife crime?
Today is the start of the women’s Euros, and I know that the whole House will wish the Lionesses the very best of luck in bringing football home.
It has been 40 years since the death of Terrence Higgins. Terrence worked at Hansard by day and Heaven by night before he sadly died of AIDS. The Labour party and the Terrence Higgins Trust are committed to ending new cases of HIV by 2030. Together, we can.
Last week, a Government Minister was accused of sexually assaulting a young man. I want to quote the victim’s account. He says: “He grabbed my arse and then he slowly moved his hand down in front of my groin. I froze.” I accept that that is not easy listening, but it is a reminder to all those propping up this Prime Minister just how serious the situation is. The Prime Minister knew that the accused Minister had previously committed predatory behaviour, but he promoted him to a position of power anyway. Why?
That individual, the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), no longer has the Conservative Whip. He no longer has a job. As soon as I was made aware of the allegation that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just read out—the complaint that was made—he lost his status as a Conservative MP. He is now the subject of an independent investigation by the complaints and grievances panel and that is entirely right. I want to say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I abhor bullying and abuse of power anywhere in Parliament, in this party or in any other party.
None of that explains why he promoted him in the first place. And we have heard it all before. We know who he really is. Before he was found out, he is reported to have said, “He’s handsy, that’s the problem. Pincher by name, pincher by nature.” Has the Prime Minister ever said words to that effect? I am not asking for bluster and half-truths—we’ve all had enough of that. Yes or no?
I am not going to trivialise what happened. [Interruption.] Yes, Mr Speaker, because very serious complaints have been raised against the right hon. Member for Tamworth and they are now being investigated. It is true that a complaint was raised when he was in the Foreign Office and the matter was resolved. It is absolutely true that it was raised with me. I greatly regret that he continued in office and I have said that before, but it is now the subject of an independent investigation and that is the right thing. Frankly, I think the people of this country would like also to hear about other jobs that are held by people in this country, not least the 500,000 people we got off welfare into work in the last six months alone. Those are things that are making differences to the lives of people up and down the country and I am proud of it.
No denial. He says the matter was resolved when he means it was upheld. And they are all sitting there on the Front Bench as if this is normal behaviour. When that young man reported his attack to a Government Whip, she asked him if he was gay. When he said that he was, she replied, “That doesn’t make it straightforward.” That comment will sicken anyone who has experienced sexual assault and then been made to feel like they somehow asked for it, or who worry that prejudice means their complaint will not be taken seriously. Will the Prime Minister apologise for those disgraceful comments on behalf of his Government?
I have already said that I regret very much that the right hon. Member for Tamworth continued to hold office after the complaint was made against him in the Foreign Office. It was resolved in the Foreign Office and his apology was accepted, but clearly that was not enough and in hindsight I should have realised that he would not change. However, when it came to Friday last week, and when I was given the information that the right hon. and learned Gentleman read out about the complaint that was made against the right hon. Member for Tamworth, I acted immediately and I took the Whip away from him. We will not tolerate that kind of behaviour in this or in any other party. What we also want to do is to help people up and down the country with the things that also matter to them like cutting their taxes by £330 this year, which is what we are doing.
Doesn’t that just sum up the Prime Minister? Awful behaviour, unacceptable in any walk of life: it is there for all to see, but he ignores it. It was the same when his ally was on the take from lobbyists. It was the same when his Home Secretary was bullying staff. It was the same when taxpayers’ money was being abused, and it was the same when he and his mates partied their way through lockdown. Anyone quitting now after defending all that has not got a shred of integrity. Is this not the first recorded case of the sinking ship fleeing the rat?
Look, the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about—[Interruption.] He should hear what his lot say about him. He talks about integrity; he wanted to install the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) into No. 10. That is what he wanted to do—imagine what our country and what the world would be like now. He talks about integrity; he voted 48 times to overturn the will of the British people and take us back into the European Union. By the way, listening to his muddled speech the other day, that is exactly what he would do again. He talks about integrity, but he has voted time and time again against sanctions on criminals that would put them behind bars. This is the Government who are tough on—[Interruption.] I am sorry—he talks about integrity; he is himself facing a criminal investigation, for which he asked me to resign.
What a pathetic spectacle: the dying act of the Prime Minister’s political career is to parrot that nonsense. As for those who are left, they are only in office because no one else is prepared to debase themselves any longer—the charge of the lightweight brigade. Have some self-respect! For a week, he has had them defending his decision to promote a sexual predator. Every day, the lines he has forced them to take have been untrue: first, that he was unaware of any allegation—untrue; then, that he was unaware of any “specific” allegation—untrue; then, that he was unaware of any “serious, specific” allegation; and now he wants them to go out and say that he simply forgot that his Whip was a sexual predator. Anyone with anything about them would be long gone from his Front Bench. In the middle of a crisis, does the country not deserve better than a Z-list cast of nodding dogs?
When times are tough and when the country faces pressures on the economy and pressures on budgets, and when we have the biggest war in Europe for 80 years, that is exactly the moment when we expect a Government to continue with our work, not to walk away, to get on with our job and to focus on the things that matter to the people of this country. So we are not only cutting taxes today, but putting £1,200 into every one of the 8 million most vulnerable households in the country, thanks to the strength of our economy and thanks to the decisions that we took, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposed at the time.
The only thing that the Prime Minister is delivering is chaos. I started this session with a quote from the young victim in all this—how he “froze” when he was attacked. When I was prosecuting rapists, I heard that from victims all the time. Victims said they froze because “It’s not about sex; it’s about power”. The power that the disgraced Government Minister had was handed to him by that Prime Minister, and he is only in power because he has been propped up for months by a corrupted party defending the indefensible. So it is no longer a case of swapping the person at the top; is it not clear that the only way the country can get the fresh start it deserves is by getting rid of the lot of them?
The difference between this Government and that Opposition is that we have a plan and they do not, and we are getting on with it. They want to focus on this type of issue; we are going to get on with our jobs. We are going to control prices by not giving in to the union barons; they are paid by the union barons and they are proud of it. We were the first European country to arm the Ukrainians; I am proud of that. Those guys, in the Labour party opposite, not only wanted to put the right hon. Member for Islington North into No. 10, but eight of them—the shadow Foreign Secretary, the shadow deputy leader and six others—voted to get rid of our independent nuclear deterrent. Today, we are cutting taxes, we are helping half a million people into work and, thanks to the strength of our economy, we are helping people up and down the country. And we are going to continue to deliver on the mandate I was given.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for all the work that he has done and continues to do for veterans. The Bill will give veterans the certainty that they deserve. We are fulfilling the manifesto pledge to end the cycle of investigations, but at the same time we are making sure that families can get the answers that they need about what happened to their loved ones.
May I give every best wish to the England and Northern Ireland ladies’ football teams as they approach the Euro championship? There is nothing better than seeing your team in the final.
We commemorate the passing of Terrence Higgins 40 years ago, and of all those who have died from AIDS since then. I am sure that the whole House will also want to join me in passing condolences to the family and friends of the Scottish football goalkeeping legend, Andy Goram, who sadly passed last weekend, far too early. He will long live in memory as the best goalkeeper that many of us have seen.
It is easy to forget that only 10 days ago the Prime Minister was dreaming of a third term. It is often said that a week is a long time in politics, but it turns out that 10 days is truly a lifetime. Let us face it: it is a minor miracle that the Prime Minister has even made it through to Prime Minister’s questions. He really ought to see the faces behind him. Prime Minister, it really is over.
The Prime Minister is desperately clinging on to his own fantasy, but the public cannot afford to put up with this farce of a Government a minute longer. Today we should be talking about the Tory cost of living crisis, soaring inflation and the growing costs of Brexit, but instead it is always about him. How many more Ministers need to quit before he finally picks up his pen and writes his own resignation letter? Perhaps that is what he is doing now.
Actually, I was just jotting down some notes about the right hon. Gentleman’s question, which I thought was excellent when he was talking about the economy, because that is the issue that the country faces. That is where this Government are introducing, I think, the most important decisions—helping families up and down the country, with £1,200 going into their bank accounts right now; cutting taxes for 30 million people, with a £330 tax cut; and helping half a million people into work, through the Way to Work scheme. That is a fantastic thing to be getting on and doing. That is the priority of this Government, and that is what I am going to focus on. I am glad he likes it.
My goodness! Nothing to see, we should all move on—if we live in the world of the Prime Minister.
A few weeks ago, I compared the Prime Minister to Monty Python’s black knight. It turns out that I was wrong: he is actually the dead parrot. Whether he knows it or not, he is now an ex-Prime Minister, but he will leave behind two deeply damaging legacies. I hope that the dishonesty of his leadership will follow him out of the Downing Street door, but the other legacy is Brexit—and that will stay, because I am sad to say that the Labour party now fully supports it.
Scotland wants a different future, not just a different Prime Minister, so if the Prime Minister will not resign, will he call a general election and allow Scotland the choice of an independent future, free from the control of Westminster?
I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman’s remark that the Labour party had given up on returning to the European Union was not greeted with rapture by the Opposition. That was because it is not true: they want to go back in, just as he does. I think that that is a terrible mistake. It would be undemocratic. As for the referendum that the right hon. Gentleman wants, we had one of them—as I have told him before—in 2014.
Clearly, if there were circumstances in which I felt it was impossible for the Government to go on and discharge the mandate that we have been given, or if I felt, for instance, that we were being frustrated in our desire to support the Ukrainian people, or over some major point, then I would. But frankly, Mr Speaker, the job of a Prime Minister in difficult circumstances, when he has been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going, and that is what I am going to do.
Well, there you have it, Mr Speaker. Once again, the Prime Minister puts political survival before public duty. However, people can see that even if he goes—it is not an if; it is a when, isn’t it?—the same Westminster arrogance will continue to dictate our futures in Wales. Does the Prime Minister want a medal for being the best recruiting sergeant for independence we could wish for?
Actually, whenever I look around the United Kingdom—I had a great talk with Mark Drakeford the other day, as well as talking to Nicola Sturgeon—I see the bonds of our Union being strengthened all the time, and I am confident that that will continue.
What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is this. Rather than talking about fantasy infrastructure, I can tell him about real infrastructure. We are helping to unite and level up the people of this country with £650 billion of investment. We are helping people—helping to lift the aspirations and opportunities of people up and down the country. Thanks to the strength of our economy, we are helping exactly the people whom the hon. Gentleman describes, with £1,200 going into their bank accounts to help them with the cost of living pressures.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the passion with which he advocates for investment in BritishVolt. I share his enthusiasm, and I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) as well. He is a heroic campaigner on this issue. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the letter was sent last night with an in-principle offer of support for that project. How about that! Hang on in there. That is what I am going to do.
My right hon. Friend is completely right. There are 25 million tonnes of wheat that are basically being held hostage by Putin. That is the equivalent to the annual consumption of many of the least developed countries, and we are helping to lift that blockade not just by negotiation but by supplying de-mining equipment, insurance for the commercial ships that might be involved and also £10 million to help improve the railway infrastructure that will be necessary to get the grain out by rail.
I want to be clear. What I want to say, and I say it again, is that I regret the way the appointment happened. I was clear with the House about what I knew at the time, but I want to stress that I take this matter extremely seriously. I am very sorry for the impact it has had on the victims, but the individual in question, the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), is now subject to an independent complaints and grievance procedure. As soon as that began—as soon as a complaint was made, I should say—the Whip was taken away.
I notice that crime has spiked since the previous Mayor of London, and it is the Labour party that voted against stop and search and against increased funding for the police. As for the London Mayor, he would do better to get out of California and take control of crime in his city.
Actually, if the hon. Gentleman looks at what we have promised and what we have delivered, we said we would get 20,000 police out on the streets, and we already have 13,500 more; and we said we would get 50,000 more nurses, and we are already on track. He is quite wrong about the pledge on hospitals, as we are going to deliver them by 2030, as was always clear. The only reason we can do that is because we are putting the funding into our NHS that he and his party opposed.
Yesterday, in an attempt to boost morale in the Tea Room, the Prime Minister said to one table, “There were seven MPs in the Carlton Club last week, and one of them should have tried to intervene to stop Chris drinking so much.” As if that was not insulting enough to the people who did try to intervene that night, it is insulting to the victims to say that drink was the problem. Is this not another example of the Prime Minister constantly trying to deflect from the issue? He always tries to blame other people for mistakes. There is nothing left for him to do other than to take responsibility and resign. [Applause.]
Order. Can I just say that Members ought to be embarrassed by clapping? [Interruption.] Order. Mr Esterson, this is not a debating society. This is Prime Minister’s questions. I want to get through the questions because other people want to catch my eye, and the way to do it is not by clapping.
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I have just given. When things are tough, of course people turn their fire on the leader of the country. It is my job to get on and deliver our manifesto, which we are; deliver on the mandate on which I was elected; and get this country through tough times, just as we got it through covid. That is what I am going to do.
Around 1,000 delegates from 100 countries are at the freedom of religion or belief international ministerial conference over at the QEII centre today, and there is still time for hon. Members to visit. Does the Prime Minister agree that this significant conference will count for nothing unless it results in concerted global action to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief around the world?
I thank my hon. Friend very much. Freedom of religion or belief is integral to people’s identity, their sense of themselves and their personal security. I thank her for her work as my envoy on this subject, and for the wonderful conference she has organised. It was great to talk to her about it yesterday.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much, and I share very much his support for the firefighters of our country. They do an incredible job, and overall it is a testament to their work that deaths from fire over a long period have, on average, been decreasing, thanks to the work that they put in. We will look at the public sector pay review body offer and do our best to fund as much as we can, but everybody knows the inflationary pressures that this country is now under. We do not want to have pay increases that are simply swallowed by price increases.
North Moreton, in my constituency, was dubbed “Britain’s kindest village”—[Hon. Members: “Ahh!”] Wait for it. This 160-home village was dubbed “Britain’s kindest village” because it committed to taking 50 Ukrainian refugees, and it has them all there now. In the Gallery today there is a group of those hosts and some of the Ukrainians they are hosting, including two young people who hope to go into Ukrainian politics in the future. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming them to this place and in thanking North Moreton for its efforts?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for what he is doing to host young Ukrainians. I thank everybody in this House who is looking after Ukrainians—a lot of people are doing that. I believe it is the wish of this entire House that those young people should grow up to live in a free, independent, democratic and sovereign Ukraine.
I think that the whole House will have observed the brilliant performance on the radio this morning by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer—that is no disrespect to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. It shows that, in common with many sectors of the UK economy, there is a ready supply of skilled labour in the upper reaches of the Conservative party.
I would like to draw the Prime Minister’s attention to the words he used in response to the earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Six months ago, I called on the Prime Minister to resign because even then it was clear that his approach to leadership and integrity was already creating a pipeline of problems that would paralyse proper government. Today, I ask him to do the honourable thing: to put the interests of the nation before his own interests, before, in his own words, it does become “impossible” for government to do its job.
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for the point he has made again, but I just could not disagree with him more. Look at what the Government are doing today. We are cutting taxes for 30 million people, we have just completed a programme to get half a million people off welfare and into work, and, thanks to the strength of our economy, thanks to the position we are now in—because of decisions that we took and the Opposition opposed; we should never forget that—we are able to give £1,200 to 8 million of the poorest and most vulnerable families in this country. That is the right thing to do, we are getting on with it and we will continue with our active and energetic programme for the benefit of this country, uniting, levelling up and unleashing the prosperity of the entire nation.
The Local Government Association has told us that more than 400 families who have come to this country from Ukraine under the family scheme have subsequently presented them- selves as homeless to local authorities. Because the local authorities have not got enough accommodation, those people are going to end up in temporary accommodation. There is a simple answer: local authorities could be allowed to contact the many thousands of people who volunteered to provide homes under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. The problem is that the Government do not allow families to transfer from the family scheme to the Homes for Ukraine scheme. When will the Prime Minister act to ensure that people who have come thousands of miles to this country are not placed in temporary accommodation and that we take up the generosity of those families who are willing to offer them a home?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for the very valuable point he has raised, and we will make sure that families are able to cross over from one scheme to another, to simplify and speed up the process. But I do not think that that should take away from the generosity of this country in welcoming Ukrainians; 135,000 visas have so far been issued through our uncapped scheme—both the family scheme and the Homes for Ukraine scheme. That is changing the lives of those Ukrainians, and we should all be proud of what we are doing.
I am grateful for your permission to make this personal statement, Mr Speaker. Yesterday we began our day together—you, I, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Members from across this House—when we broke bread together at the parliamentary prayer breakfast, and we all listened to the words of Rev. Les Isaac, who spoke about the responsibility that comes with leadership: the responsibility to serve the interests of others above our own, and to seek common ground in our party, our community and, above all, our country.
Colleagues will be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. Despite how it might seem, I am not one of life’s quitters. I did not quit when I was told that boys like me do not do maths; I did not quit when old-school bankers said I did not have the right school ties; and I did not quit when people in my community said that I should not marry the love of my life.
I care deeply about public service and giving back to this country that has given me so much. That is why, when I got the call from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister just over a year ago, I did not hesitate to serve again. It was a critical time for our country: tough decisions needed to be made about when we were going to come out of lockdown, and about supporting the national health service and care sector under unprecedented strain.
It has been an absolute privilege of my life to have been entrusted with these responsibilities, and I can only hope that my best has been good enough. It has undoubtedly also been one of the toughest roles I have had so far—the gravity of Home Office decisions; the scale of Treasury decisions—but nothing matters more than the health of our people, the British people, especially in the wake of a pandemic.
Caring for people’s health and wellbeing is truly a noble vocation, so I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those across the country working in the health and care sectors, as well as those I worked so closely with in my old Department, the Department of Health and Social Care, and in the NHS. There was so much that I planned for the long-term reform of our health and care systems, and it is a wrench to leave that important work behind.
When I last gave a personal statement from this seat, I spoke about the importance of institutions and conventions. Today, it is about the importance of integrity—and do not worry, there is not going to be a series of these. Institutions and integrity are both central pillars that underpin our great democracy. It does not matter what your political perspective is in this House; I believe that we are all motivated by the national interest and that the public expect all of us to maintain honesty and to maintain integrity in whatever we do. This is not an abstract matter; we have seen what happens in great democracies when divisions are entrenched, and not bridged. We cannot allow that to happen here; we must bring the country together as one nation.
Effective governance inevitably requires loyalty and collective responsibility—of course it does—and I am instinctively a team player and have completely focused on governing effectively over the last year. But treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months, and I will never risk losing my integrity.
I also believe that a team is as good as its team captain, and that a captain is as good as his or her team, so loyalty must go both ways. The events of recent months have made it increasingly difficult to be in that team. It is not fair on ministerial colleagues to have to go out every morning defending lines that do not stand up and do not hold up; it is not fair on my parliamentary colleagues, who bear the brunt of constituents’ dismay in their inboxes and on the doorsteps in recent elections; and it is not fair on Conservative members and voters who rightly expect better standards from the party they supported.
When the first stories of parties in Downing Street emerged late last year, I was personally assured at the most senior level, by my right hon. Friend’s then team, that
“there had been no parties in Downing Street and no rules were broken.”
I gave the benefit of the doubt and I went on those media rounds to say that I had had those assurances from the most senior level of the Prime Minister’s team. Then we had more stories. We had the Sue Gray report and a new Downing Street team. I continued to give the benefit of the doubt. This week, again, we have reason to question the truth and integrity of what we have all been told. At some point, we have to conclude that enough is enough. I believe that that point is now.
I welcomed the Prime Minister’s public acknowledgement last night that matters could have been handled better in who he appointed, what was said about what he knew and when. I appreciated his kind and humble words, and his humble spirit, when I went to see him yesterday, and also the kind letter that he has sent to me. But I do fear that the reset button can work only so many times. There are only so many times that we can turn that machine on and off before we realise that something is fundamentally wrong.
Last month, I gave the benefit of the doubt one last time, but I have concluded that the problem starts at the top, and I believe that that is not going to change. That means it is for those of us in a position of responsibility to make that change. I wish my Cabinet colleagues well. I can see that they have decided to remain in the Cabinet. They will have their own reasons, but it is a choice. I know just how difficult that choice is, but let us be clear: not doing something is an active decision.
I am deeply concerned about how the next generation will see the Conservative party on our current course. Our reputation after 12 years in government depends on regaining the public’s trust. This is not just a personal matter: the philosophy and perception of Conservatives depend on it. It is central to the Conservative ideal that we believe in decency, in personal responsibility and in social justice, enabled by conventions and the rule of law. The Conservative mission to extend freedom and prosperity and opportunity is all at risk if we cannot uphold that ideal.
The Conservative party is not the only great institution in need of urgent repair. Like everyone in this House, I have been dismayed by the drip, drip of stories of harassment and worse by Members of this House. I am also concerned about how the next generation will see this House and the health of our democracy. In recent years, trust in our roles has been undermined by a series of scandals, but the one thing that we can control is our own values and behaviours. It is incumbent on all of us to set high standards for ourselves and to take action when they are not met by others.
I am grateful for the messages of support that I have had from many Members of this House and beyond. I got into politics to do something, not to be somebody, so it is hard in one way, but not in another—being a good father, a husband, a son and a citizen is good enough for me. If I can continue to contribute to public life and to my party from the Back Benches, it will be a privilege to do so.
NATO Accession: Sweden and Finland
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on our support for Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO. I am making this statement on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is attending a meeting of the G20 in Indonesia.
Finland and Sweden submitted their formal applications to join NATO on 18 May this year. Less than 50 days later, accession talks have been completed, and yesterday allies signed the accession protocols for both countries. The UK played a significant role in securing agreement from all NATO allies to this important move, with my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary holding numerous discussions with their counterparts. The accession protocols have now been passed to all NATO countries for ratification, and they are being laid in Parliament today under Command Papers CP730 and CP731.
Finland and Sweden are NATO’s closest partners. They share our principles and values, including liberty, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. They share the alliance’s unwavering commitment to international security. They both have years of experience in training and operating with allies and have made significant contributions to NATO-led operations and missions. We work together in the UK-led joint expeditionary force. We value their role in the region and applaud their support for Ukraine.
Their decision to seek NATO membership follows extensive democratic consultations in those countries. It is a mark of the threat that Russia poses to these two countries, who have tried so diligently to remain neutral for so many decades, that they are now applying to join the alliance. We must ensure that they are integrated into NATO as swiftly as possible.
We should aim to complete the ratification process before the summer recess. As things stand, we do not have the 21 sitting days of parliamentary time needed to use section 20 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 to ratify. Therefore, in accordance with section 22 of the Act, we believe that the accession protocols for Sweden and Finland should be ratified without the 21-day requirement having been met. This will allow us to demonstrate the importance we attach to our relationship with these two close partners and our wholehearted support for their decision to join NATO.
In May we provided Sweden and Finland with bilateral security guarantees. It is vital that we now bring them under NATO’s article 5 umbrella as swiftly as possible. Their decision to join puts both countries at risk of a potentially aggressive Russian response. Russia has already made numerous threats about the possibility of Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO. Using the process I have set out will enable us to ensure that UK ratification is concluded swiftly and to set a positive example for other NATO members to follow. All 30 allies need to ratify the protocols before Finland and Sweden can join the alliance. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been pushing allied colleagues to complete ratification as soon as possible.
We believe that there is broad cross-party support for Sweden and Finland joining NATO. The Government are committed to both the principle and practice of parliamentary scrutiny of the UK treaties. However, due to the unprecedented circumstances in which Finland and Sweden have made their decision to apply for NATO membership, it is important that we do all we can to expedite their accession.
A strong NATO is at the heart of our ability to deter and defend against adversaries. We showed the strength of the alliance once again at the NATO summit in Madrid last week. NATO is not involved directly in the Ukraine conflict, but we know that Ukraine’s ultimate victory is vital for our security. Russia’s illegal and barbaric war cannot succeed. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last week that the UK is providing a further £1 billion of military support for Ukraine, and other allies are stepping up their support as well.
At the summit, leaders also agreed a new NATO strategic concept, which responds to the new security environment. It rightly identifies Russia as the most significant and direct threat to our security, and it signals a decisive change in our approach to defending the eastern flank, through scaling up capabilities and force readiness to achieve deterrence by denial. For the first time the strategic concept also addresses China and the systemic challenges to our collective security that it poses. It is right that NATO takes an increasingly global perspective of the threats and challenges we face. The alliance should act as a bulwark to the authoritarianism and aggression that we see rising across the world.
Given this more dangerous and competitive landscape, we are calling on all allies to meet, and to be prepared to exceed, the target we set ourselves a decade ago of spending 2% of GDP on defence. That goal was set for a very different era, and we need to be ready to go further. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that the UK is likely to be spending 2.5% of GDP on defence by the end of the decade.
We are determined to strengthen NATO as the No. 1 guarantor of Euro-Atlantic security and, through the alliance, to stand up for freedom, sovereignty and self-determination around the world. The accession of Finland and Sweden will further strengthen NATO and bolster our security. By ratifying the accession protocols without delay we will send a message of unity against Russian aggression and a message of support to Finland and Sweden. We look forward to welcoming these two long-standing friends to NATO. We will continue to stand side by side with all allies in defence of our shared values and our collective security. Therefore, I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO is an historic decision that is wholeheartedly welcomed by the Labour party. Finland and Sweden will be valuable members of this alliance of democracies that share the values of freedom and the rule of law and that seek peace through collective security.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a turning point for Europe. As we strengthen UK and European security, it is more important than ever to do so alongside our allies. The great post-war Labour Government was instrumental in the creation of NATO and the signing of the North Atlantic treaty in 1949. Seven decades later, the alliance remains the cornerstone of our defence, and Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakeable.
I have visited both Finland and Sweden in recent months to discuss the consequences of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. I have seen the careful, considered and democratic approach that the Governments of both countries have taken to this new security context. They saw the need to think anew and to reassess the assumptions of the past. I pay tribute to the Swedish and Finnish Foreign Ministers, Ann Linde and Pekka Haavisto, for their roles in stewarding this process. It is a remarkable illustration of the dangers that Putin poses that Sweden and Finland have reversed their long-held policies of non-alignment. But is it also a demonstration of the way that Russia’s attack on Ukraine has had the opposite effect from what was intended—strengthening rather than weakening NATO, unifying rather than dividing the alliance. As the recent Madrid summit demonstrated, NATO is responding resolutely to the threat Russia poses and adapting to the challenges of the future.
I do note, though, that although Finland and Sweden and many other NATO allies, including Germany, have reassessed their defence planning in this new context, the UK has not. Labour, in government, did exactly that after the 9/11 attacks, introducing the longest sustained real-terms increase in spending for two decades. We believe that the Government should reboot defence plans and halt cuts to the Army, as we have been arguing for months. We also believe that it is important to deepen our security co-operation with our European allies and the EU, as a complement to NATO’s role as the bedrock of Euro-Atlantic security.
Turning to the mechanism of ratification, in normal circumstances we would rightly expect the House to have appropriate time to consider and consent to the ratification of an international treaty of this importance. But these are not normal circumstances, and there are clear risks to both countries from a drawn-out accession process, so we recognise the need for the Government to act with haste in these exceptional circumstances.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for keeping me up to date on that particular matter, and for the Government’s decision to come to update the House today. It provides an opportunity for the whole House to send a united message of support to our new allies and I hope it will encourage other NATO partners to move swiftly in the ratification process too. Putin has sought division, but has only strengthened Europeans’ unity and NATO’s resolve. We stand together in defence of democracy and the rule of law.
I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his words. We stand together united across this House in providing support to Ukraine and in standing against Russia’s illegal aggression. We are also united today in providing support to our allies in Finland and Sweden and using this exceptional process—I believe it is the first time it has ever been used—to fast-track this House’s approval of their accession. By doing so, we send a strong message that this House will always stand for freedom and democracy and against aggression. I remind him that we are on track to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence by the end of this decade.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for announcing this to the House. It has been an important negotiation and conversation over recent weeks and months. My own meetings with the Prime Minister of Finland and the Foreign Minister of Sweden have been important in assuring me that their commitment is real and that this agreement is fundamental not just to their security, but to ours.
Let us not forget what this is about. NATO is not an overseas adventure; it is fundamentally about the defence of the homes we are lucky to live in and the neighbours and friends we are lucky to live beside. It is about defending the whole of the United Kingdom, all of our coast and, especially in the case of Finland and Sweden, the high north and the Scottish coasts and islands that are so important to the integrity of the United Kingdom. It is fundamentally about defence of the realm.
I pay enormous tribute to my hon. Friend and the whole Foreign Office team who have got this negotiation over the line. Will she now, however, engage in conversations with our Swedish and Finnish partners to ensure that our interoperability goes much deeper, not just into equipment purchase, so that we can end the war in Ukraine quickly and before the winter starts putting extra costs on families across our country?
Madam Deputy Speaker, could I ask you a favour? One of the Finnish Ministers is actually in this place and is trying to get access to one of the Galleries, but because we have been rather full they have not been able to get through the House authorities. I am sure all my colleagues would like to welcome the Minister to come and listen. Could you possibly ask for that?
Oh, she is there. I therefore welcome Minister Johanna Sumuvuori, who is here for the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. I say to her: we welcome you very much to hear this historic moment as well. Thank you for being with us, and we stand with Finland and Sweden.
In response to the specific questions the Chair of the Select Committee asked, Sweden and Finland have been working with NATO for many years, as I outlined. That is one reason why they have been able to accede to NATO within such a short period of time. They have already met the criteria for NATO membership, and I am sure we will look to work with them as closely as possible during the period between now and the vote, and even more closely once they become full members.
I too thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. It is a pleasure to see her in her place, although I should point out there are still nine and a half resigning hours until “Newsnight”. More seriously, it is important to stress where we agree, and the SNP agrees with the UK Government’s position in welcoming the applications, from a position of self-determination and democratic sovereignty, of Finland and Sweden to join NATO. I also welcome our Finnish colleague to the Gallery and pledge the SNP’s support for a speedy accession process into NATO. Finland and Sweden will be very welcome; they will augment the alliance, and we support that.
We also support the expedited approval process within this House that the Minister proposes under section 22 of the 2010 Act. I stress that that is not a precedent or a blank cheque, but, as the Minister says, the circumstances match that case and very much merit the suspension of normal procedures. We also support NATO’s strategic concept from an SNP perspective and believe NATO is the cornerstone of European defence. We look forward, under our worldview, to seeing an independent Scotland joining the 29 out of 32 non-nuclear NATO member states—that is, of course, a different discussion.
We on the SNP Benches are NATO supporters. While we support the strategic concept, since the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee made wider points it is also worth mentioning the EU’s strategic compass, which is moving at light speed. The EU is developing a much stronger unified defence capability. The UK risks missing out on those negotiations and the UK defence industry and defence operations risk missing those co-ordinations. I reiterate our call for a deep and comprehensive UK-EU strategic defence treaty, as well as augmenting the NATO alliance. We support what the Minister presents today, and I thank her for the statement.
While I support the hon. Gentleman’s sharing our joint approach to accession by Sweden and Finland and his approval of the fast-track process we are laying in exceptional circumstances, I do not treat our national security as a joking matter, and it is not the time to be cracking jokes when we are talking about our national security. I am very pleased that the Scottish nationalists have just said that they support NATO, although how they can say that they support our national security when they do not support our nuclear deterrent is deeply questionable.
Of course this is a hugely welcome announcement and one of the more significant moments in the history of the NATO alliance, not least because Sweden and Finland bring a huge military contribution to the alliance, so this cannot in any way be seen as a one-way street. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as important as it is to talk about hardware—Finland and Sweden are able to supply several icebreakers, with climate change and the high north’s opening up—cyber-defence is one of the biggest issues? It is very difficult to identify where cyber-attacks come from. It would probably be quite easy to make one appear to come from this place, and who would we retaliate against? Does she agree that the offer that Finland and Sweden can make to the NATO alliance is vital, but also that the position and power we have in this country to help to stop cyber-attacks and defend those nations is equally important in this long-lasting, world-beating defence alliance?
I know my right hon. Friend makes an important contribution in the discussions he often has with NATO colleagues. He rightly points to one of the many reasons why it is so important that Finland and Sweden should be enabled to accede to NATO as quickly as possible. That is why the UK is going to push a faster approval process than is normal, and why we encourage our NATO allies to also ratify as quickly as possible.
Of course I completely support Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO. Indeed, I remember having conversations with Alexander Stubb back in 2009, trying to persuade him to put this matter more firmly on the agenda for Finland. However, one of my anxieties around NATO is that my Ukrainian friends have been telling me that the lethal equipment that is being provided by different countries around Europe comes in 34 different shapes and sizes, with 34 different manuals. Would it not be much more sensible, if we are really to make sure that Putin does not win, to have an industrial strategy to ensure that the equipment provided to Ukraine is usable by the Ukrainians and does not require 34 different training sessions?
I remind the House that the UK has played an absolutely central role in providing military assistance to Ukraine. Indeed, only last week the Prime Minister announced a further £1 billion-worth of military support to Ukraine, and we will be adding additional cutting-edge multiple launch rocket systems. On training, which is important, over the past decade we have trained over 22,000 Ukrainian troops. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about making sure that, where possible, there is a joint approach in the support for Ukraine, but I also point him to what was agreed at the Madrid summit last week, which was a historic agreement by all NATO partners to step up support for Ukraine and to provide it with advice, training and equipment.
I draw attention to my entry in the register.
I very much welcome this statement. Does the Minister recognise that notwithstanding Sweden and Finland’s non-aligned status, since 1997 they, along with Austria, have been active participants in NATO’s Partnership for Peace? Will she pay tribute to that programme and say which other members of Partnership for Peace she anticipates making similar overtures in the near future?
As I said in my opening remarks, Finland and Sweden have been working very closely with NATO for a considerable period. On other partners, every country has its own path towards NATO membership, and no third party has a say in that process. Ukraine, among other countries, is currently an enhanced opportunity partner, and NATO remains firmly committed to the open-door policy. I cannot be more specific at this point.
My constituents know all about NATO, for two reasons: first, because the regular Exercise Joint Warrior is partly carried out in the north-west of Sutherland; and secondly, because Russian naval units are not terribly far over the horizon from my northernmost-on-the-British-mainland constituency. Therefore, on behalf of my party, I absolutely welcome the accession of Sweden and Finland. My party is internationalist in outlook, so does the Minister agree that co-operation with not only NATO but other organisations—the World Trade Organisation, the EU or whatever—can only enhance this country’s hand and position in the world?
I know the hon. Gentleman’s constituency well. I have had the opportunity of standing in some of the beautiful parts of it and seeing overhead some of the actions of our own forces, and I understand how close his constituents sometimes feel to our allies just the other side of the North sea, as well as their concerns. I welcome the fact that he and his party stand with us on supporting the succession process. We have been working very closely with many international partners on support for Ukraine and standing up against Russian aggression. Indeed, only yesterday I was in the European Parliament meeting some of my former colleagues from many countries, many of whom praised our Prime Minister for the leadership he has taken globally on the issue of Russia and Ukraine. We must prioritise NATO as an important contributor to our defence and our strategic defence, and that is the topic that we are discussing today—but yes, we talk to other organisations as well.
Will the Minister recognise with me the work of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe for the lobbying that we have undertaken of the Turkish delegation to get Turkey to change its mind over the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO?
I thank my hon. Friend for his work leading Parliament’s delegation to the Council of Europe, which I heard being praised yesterday when I was in Strasbourg. We welcome the fact that agreement was reached by all members of NATO. The alliance’s strength is that it requires consensus. The end result—Finland and Sweden joining the alliance—is something to celebrate, and we encourage all members to ratify as quickly as possible.
The statement is almost low-key given this extraordinary moment in NATO history, especially for Finland and Sweden, whose accession I of course support. We should not underestimate this massive change in policy. The world, not just Europe, faces an extraordinary threat from what Russia is doing, not just in Ukraine but elsewhere. Aligned with that, the Government must take a decision to increase defence spending, capability and personnel numbers in the armed forces—I suggest that the Minister looks at the Defence Secretary’s comments in reply to my questions in yesterday’s Select Committee meeting—quickly in response to the threat that we now face
The hon. Member is absolutely right that, after many decades of Finland and Sweden standing as neutral countries, this is an extraordinary moment. They have joined NATO because it is their future and they have chosen to. Indeed, they have gone through a very significant democratic process in order to make that decision. Fundamentally, they are coming together because the world is united in condemnation of Russia’s brutal attack, so we must absolutely stand with them. I refer the hon. Member to what I said about the Government’s commitment to increasing spend to 2.5% by the end of the decade. As a member of the Defence Committee, he will have many an occasion to discuss this more specifically with colleagues from the Ministry of Defence.
I also welcome Sweden’s and Finland’s membership of NATO, which will boost European security. Does the Minister agree that it sends a clear message to aggressors such as Putin that any invasion of other countries will only strengthen international opposition to them?
My hon. Friend is spot on. NATO membership is key in promoting the rule of law. It is the most successful defensive alliance in history, and bringing Finland and Sweden into the NATO family will make it even stronger. That is exactly the opposite of what Russia thought it would achieve, but it is what is being achieved. This is a positive force for good for the world.
I thank the Minister for her statement: it is great that Sweden and Finland will be joining NATO. However, will her Government halt their cuts to our Army? We now have the smallest British Army for 300 years. We need to increase the size of our armed forces, not make the cut of 10,000 troops that the Government are still pushing through.
I refer again to what I said about being on track to spend 2.5% of GDP by the end of the decade. The hon. Member will have to discuss the details with the Defence Secretary and his team. It is important to remember, however, that we also need to invest for the long term in vital capabilities such as future combat air and AUKUS, as well as adapting to a more dangerous and competitive world. We need to be able to have these forward-looking alternatives as well.
I declare an interest, not only as the chairman of the British-Swedish all-party parliamentary group, but as someone who has been an active proponent of closer British-Swedish relations for some time. We have rightly praised the hard work that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done to expedite the accession of Sweden and Finland, but I also pay tribute to the Swedish Prime Minister, Magdalena Andersson, who has done incredible work within Sweden to change, in a few short months, its official posture—held for more than 200 years—of non-military alignment, and to gain support within her party, Parliament and the Swedish population. Does my hon. Friend agree that she deserves a lot of credit for what she has been able to do?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I praise not only the Swedish leadership but that of Finland. I know that he pays close attention to the affairs of Sweden, a country for which he has strong personal affection, and I know that as a former serving member of the Royal Navy, he pays close attention to what happens on our seas and therefore across our North sea.
I thank the Minister for her statement. Like many others, I absolutely condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What steps are being taken to engage an interlocutor, through the United Nations or some other world body, to try to bring about a ceasefire so that lives may be saved, both of the people in Ukraine and conscripted Russian soldiers, and at least a cessation of fighting in the war before some ultimate political settlement? All wars end with a political settlement. The killing is appalling and refugee flows are terrible. Surely we must talk the language of peace, as well as the language she has put forward this morning.
Russia started this illegal war. Ever since it started, we have continually—day in, day out—asked Russia to lay down its weapons and stop this illegal, brutal and horrible war. Russia must lay down its weapons, and we will continue to call, with our allies and friends around the world, for that ceasefire that everybody so much wants.
Although not in the circumstances that any of us would have wanted, the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO is, as the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) rightly said, a hugely significant event in the development of our own security and that of our friends and neighbours. As we go through the ratification process, speed will be of the essence for the other 29 countries also going through that process. Can my hon. Friend the Minister say any more about how long the overall process will take? In the meantime, will there be parallel planning to ensure that once Finland and Sweden come into NATO, we are up and running around the interoperability and integration of those nations into the alliance, so that they can benefit as much from it as possible, and we from them?
NATO remains firmly committed to the open door policy, but bringing another country into NATO requires all 30 members—now more—to agree, because it works by consensus. On increasing NATO capabilities, we are significantly increasing the availability of UK forces to NATO, which will include the majority of our maritime forces, extra air squadrons and increasing the number of land brigade-sized units.
I do not often agree with the Minister, and that will not be a surprise, but my goodness, I agree with her today, wholeheartedly. Our support for the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO is unqualified, and why would it not be, given their adherence to and prioritising of liberty, human rights, democracy and the rule of law, as the Minister said? Interestingly, they are also non-nuclear armed, and they will be non-nuclear hosting. They have a proud martial tradition going back many hundreds of years, which is integral to their society, and they have a diverse and extensive military industrial complex employing thousands and generating billions, alongside outstanding capability. That could also 100% describe Scotland, so with independence, what is to stop Scotland joining NATO also?
I agree with the statement that the Minister has made. It is vital that Ukraine wins this war, both militarily and domestically, and that the alliance is strengthened, and I am pleased to see Finland and Sweden joining. I am, however, concerned about reports of the Kurds being used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. We have abandoned the Kurds far too many times in history. Can the Minister offer reassurances that we will continue to support the YPG and the YPJ in north-east Syria, where they have defeated ISIS, that we will not buckle under the demands to treat them as a terrorist organisation—they are its opposite, an anti-terrorist organisation—and that we will continue to push the Turkish Government, as a NATO member, to pursue democratic reforms rather than democratic persecution?
We all cannot overstate the significance or momentousness of this announcement. Many of us will have lived through the many decades of the cold war and will appreciate that for Sweden and Finland to be making this decision now underlines the seriousness of the situation. I welcome the announcement from NATO to increase its high-readiness force from 40,000 to 300,000, but I have concerns, as mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Halton (Derek Twigg) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), that by reducing our Army’s personnel by 10,000, we are reducing it to a smaller capacity than the US Marine Corps. Will she agree with Labour that we must halt those cuts immediately?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for what has been agreed at the Madrid summit. It was a truly historic summit. It not only made huge progress in bringing Finland and Sweden into joining NATO, but agreed a new strategic concept and a paradigm shift in the security environment, and allies significantly strengthened NATO’s deterrence and defence. As I have already pointed out, the UK is making significant contributions to enhance our contribution to NATO.
I thank the Minister very much for the statement. Recent news that the 30 member countries of NATO have signed accession protocols for Sweden and Finland to join have been welcomed, and that news makes the world a safer place today. They also have greater access to intelligence in relation to Russia and the aggression that it espouses. Will the Minister ensure that we continue to have a clear commitment to protect Sweden and Finland in the short term, as well as the long term, against the aggressive intrusion of Putin and the Russian Government?
I completely agree with the hon. Member that Finland and Sweden joining NATO makes the world a safer place for the people of the United Kingdom, for all our NATO allies and for all those who are concerned about Russian aggression and what Ukraine means for the potential future of their country. That is why we will continue to stand with like-minded partners across the world to defend democracy and freedom, and that is why the House is united in ensuring that the ratification of the accession passes as swiftly as possible through the fast-track procedure at this truly exceptional time. We stand united with all those parties who agree to it.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for paid leave for people who have experienced miscarriage.
The Bill seeks to give three days’ paid leave for parents who have experienced miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy or molar pregnancy before 24 weeks. For any expectant parent, this is a devastating experience that is often further compounded by the stigma and shame of miscarriage. For some families, it may be an experience that happens more than once, compounding the trauma of their loss.
At present, there is no legal right to paid leave for parents grieving the loss of a pregnancy before 24 weeks. Although an increasing number of organisations, including ASOS, Monzo, the Scottish Government and others, have adopted paid miscarriage leave policies, sadly, not all employers are as generous. Most employers that do not have the means will not do so. The majority will not offer such a policy without being prompted by employment legislation. That means that many people are suffering alone in silent grief following pregnancy loss without the support they need.
With this Bill, I propose that, rather than relying on the generosity of employers, the UK should follow the groundbreaking legislation in New Zealand that gives all workers three days’ paid leave in the event of miscarriage. I know that I have the support of Members on both sides of the House; organisations including the Miscarriage Association and the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust; and the 41,000 people who signed the petition calling for paid miscarriage leave. I ask Members present to give their support too.
Tragically, one in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage. This is not a minority issue and it is not a niche concern. The Bill could benefit 1 million people a year. Under current UK legislation, workers are entitled to two weeks of paid bereavement leave following a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), reminds me of that each time I speak on this issue, but no parent who loses a baby at 23 weeks and 6 days will be comforted by his reliance on that arbitrary line in the sand. It offers nothing to grieving parents who have lost a baby before that 24-week mark and it fails to recognise their grief and loss. Instead, they must rely on sick leave or unpaid leave if they feel unable to return to work following their pregnancy loss.
It is simply not good enough that those suffering miscarriage and the associated grief of their loss are not recognised. Although I welcome the Government’s policy of providing paid bereavement leave for the loss of a child after 24 weeks of pregnancy, this Bill would close the gap in support for those who experience pregnancy loss. I have worked on the issue for well over a year and it never gets easier to speak about, so Members must forgive me if I take a minute.
Suffering miscarriage is not an illness; it is a loss that can be traumatic for expectant parents. Sick leave alone fails to recognise that their grief is no less worthy of time to grieve. People experiencing a miscarriage feel the physical pain of contractions, combined with the heart-wrenching agony of losing a child—they may have glimpsed the child’s face on a scan; they may have known whether it was a boy or a girl; they may have chosen a name; they may have already decorated a nursery. Their hopes and dreams are crushed in that moment.
Many parents feel unable to discuss their loss with friends and family, never mind their employer. It is an injustice to expect grieving parents to appeal to their employer’s good will. Introducing paid leave would open the door to parents getting the support that they deserve, without the need for an often impossible conversation with their employer.
Last week, I met Keeley Lengthorn, a brave campaigning lawyer determined to see policy change in the legal profession and to protect those who experience miscarriage. She wrote in The Law Society Gazette this week about her personal experiences of miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy, and the impact that they have had on her working life. In March this year, her son George was born sleeping at 22 and a half weeks. While nothing can make this loss easier for Keeley, the very last thing on her mind at that point was work. Fortunately, thanks to her tireless campaigning, her workplace had introduced a miscarriage leave policy that, tragically, she was first to use.
An increasing number of private and public sector organisations now follow the New Zealand model, which allows three days’ paid bereavement leave to mothers and their partners in the event of miscarriage. Such a policy means that people know that they have the backing of their employer, that they can approach their employer to have that difficult conversation with a degree of certainty about the support that they will receive, and that they will have the time to deal with the trauma of losing a baby.
Keeley’s article makes it clear how important miscarriage leave is in dealing with such a devastating circumstance of physical and emotional loss. It is an example of good practice where her employer recognised the need for miscarriage leave, but it does not follow that all employers will offer the same support in those circumstances. The decision whether to provide that leave is currently in the hands of employers. Sadly, when we cross our fingers and hope that companies will do the right thing, without a statutory requirement, we are often disappointed. Bringing miscarriage leave into legislation would mean that all workers who experience miscarriage have a legal right to paid leave. They would be given much-needed support and compassion when they need it most, and the permission to take that time to grieve.
The Government did not bring forward legislation to update employment law in this year’s Queen’s Speech. We risk falling behind international best practice if we continue to ignore the needs of workers who experience pregnancy loss. The Taylor review, which should have led the Government to introduce an employment Bill, makes it clear that physical and mental health are interlinked with work performance. Miscarriage undoubtedly affects employees’ health. Modernising employment law must include provision for miscarriage leave. This policy will aid workplace productivity by requiring employers to follow international best practice. More than that, it will help individuals and families to cope with one of the most difficult experiences that they will go through in their life.
I hope that Members across the House will join me in calling for paid miscarriage leave to be made a reality in the UK. This issue is not tied to independence or reserved for one side of the House. This Bill has cross-party support and the colour of a rosette should not affect its chance of success. I am asking for a fairly small provision—less than I would like and less than most parents should expect—but it is a start. Any Member of this House is likely to have around 400 constituents who will experience a miscarriage this year alone. They may be crossing their fingers and hoping that this House finally does the right thing, so let us not disappoint them.
Question put and agreed to.
That Angela Crawley, Alyn Smith, Dave Doogan, Anum Qaisar, Kirsty Blackman, Carol Monaghan and Anne McLaughlin present the Bill.
Angela Crawley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 September, and to be printed (Bill 136).
[2nd Allotted Day]
Department for Education
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2023, for expenditure by the Department for Education:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £18,800,792,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 396 of Session 2022-23,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £21,623,660,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £54,021,048,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Michelle Donelan.)
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate in response to the Department for Education’s publication of its main estimates for 2022-23. Before I go on with my speech, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), the now Secretary of State for Education? She was on my Select Committee and was a very hard-working member. She has been a superb Minister for Universities, and I know she will carry on in that tradition in her new role as Secretary of State.
Today, I want to highlight three areas where the system can and must prioritise spending to achieve the Department’s goal of levelling-up education—severe and persistent absence, tackling disadvantage, and skills. Severe and persistent absence is not a new problem. Members across this House will know that I have been going on about that since last summer. At the Education Committee, we have been hearing concerns regarding the “ghost children”—a term that I coined last year—throughout the pandemic.
Let me set the scene. In July last year, the Centre for Social Justice reported that over 90,000 pupils were severely absent. Just a few weeks ago, the Children’s Commissioner published a report that went further, stating that an estimated 124,000 children were now severely absent, with 1.7 million persistently absent. The Department for Education’s own figures from autumn last year showed that 1.6 million children were persistently absent, which is 23.5% of all pupils. More recently, the Department for Education’s publications have highlighted that currently over 1,000 schools have an entire class-worth of children missing.
The Children’s Commissioner has laid out a mandate that headteachers across the country should be obsessing over attendance and she is right. How can we expect children to catch up if they are not even showing up? But in tackling attendance, we need carrots as well as sticks. The Government have introduced a consultation on their proposed reforms when it comes to attendance, including financial penalties, prosecutions and better data access.
Dame Rachel de Souza has said that
“we do not have an accurate real time figure of how many children there are in England…let alone the number of children not receiving education.”
That is from the Children’s Commissioner. That cannot be right. That is why, almost a year ago now, my Committee called for a statutory register of children not in school. The Government have committed to implement that, but this is a matter of urgency and ideally should be implemented by September.
The recently published book, “The Children’s Inquiry”, from the parents campaigning group UsforThem, highlights that, although the Children’s Commissioner mandate has been beefed up, the powers granted to the office do not include enforcement powers such as those granted to the Information Commissioner or the Financial Conduct Authority. The stick approach must include extending these powers to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner to help to ensure that every child, regardless of their background or circumstances, is returned safely to school at the start of term in September, otherwise we will risk a generation of “Oliver Twist” children being lost to the education system forever.
I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his exceptional commitment to education as Chair of the Committee, and I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role in this House and wish her well.
One of the things the right hon. Gentleman and I share, and I think others in this Chamber share as well, is a concern about underachievement. In Northern Ireland, the statistics have very clearly shown the underachievement of young Protestant males, but on the mainland it is of white males. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that, within the estimates for education today in this Chamber, there are the moneys needed to turn that issue around—in other words, to make them achievers rather than underachievers—and that it can actually happen?
It is my accent—apologies. In Northern Ireland, it is young Protestant males who underachieve in education. Here on the mainland—the right hon. Gentleman and I have both spoken about it in this Chamber before—it is about the underachievement of white males. I know he shares my concern, but I would just like to know whether it is possible, within the estimates, that moneys will be set aside to ensure that those who underachieve actually will achieve their goals in this life?
I very much hope so. The hon. Gentleman will look at this forensically and he will know, because we have done an extensive report on the underachievement of white working-class boys and girls, that they underperform at every stage of the education system and worse than almost every other ethnic group. Those white working-class boys and girls on free school meals do worse than every other ethnic group, bar Roma and Gypsy children, on going to university. This is where funds need to be directed. The money should be concentrated on such cohorts. It is not just white working-class boys and girls; just 7% of children in care get a decent grade in maths and English GCSE and 5% of excluded children get a decent grade in maths and English GCSE. This is where the resources, in my view, should be concentrated. We need to address these social injustices in education.
Secondly, I turn to the social injustice of disadvantage. In May, the Government announced a new Schools Bill, following the publication of the schools White Paper. Media attention and discussion has centred around the appropriate levels of departmental intervention, and I know that the Department has gutted a significant part of that Bill, but I question whether this is simply dancing on the head of a pin. Of course, academies should have autonomy—I do not dispute that—but my question, and this refers to my answer to the hon. Gentleman a moment ago, is whether the Bill misses vital opportunities to address baked-in disadvantage among the most disadvantaged pupils in our communities.
Disadvantaged groups are 18 months behind their better-off peers by the time they take their GCSEs. White working-class boys and girls on free school meals underperform at every stage of the education system compared with almost every other group. Moreover, only 17% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieve a grade 5 in their maths and English GCSE. This figure expands to just 18% of children with special educational needs, just 7% of children in care and 5% of excluded children.
Exam results are of course important, and every August they understandably hit the headlines, but I am just as worried about the impact of covid-19 on younger children. We cannot afford for our most disadvantaged children to miss that first rung on the ladder of opportunity. The building blocks for achievement must be in place well before critical exam years and, indeed, before school. I am pleased to see that resource expenditure for early years has increased by 10.6% in these estimates, although capital funding has slightly decreased.
I am grateful for the focus on disadvantage by the Chair of the Education Committee in this part of his speech. Another aspect of disadvantage is experienced by Grange Primary School in my constituency, which sees huge mobility in the young people it educates as the cost of living crisis and, crucially, the cost of renting property in my constituency—and, I suspect, across London more generally—has rocketed, leading, unfortunately, to many families moving regularly. That creates huge pressures on school staff and school budgets. Will he encourage the Department for Education to look at whether there needs to be more focus on mobility as part of the funding formula, to help what I think is a good school with great staff trying to do a particularly tough job because of that mobility issue?
The hon. Member makes a powerful point. We want to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to go to “good” and “outstanding” schools. The cost of living pressures that he mentions are powerful, and I am sure that the new Secretary of State is listening.
Further to my hon. Friend’s intervention, the other side of the coin for local authorities is finding temporary accommodation anywhere for families with children. I am sure that many families from London end up being placed in temporary accommodation in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. In my constituency, we are seeing more families farmed out to Kent or Essex, so staying on at a primary school is extraordinarily difficult, with over 124,000 children in temporary accommodation. Does he think that those issues should be taken in the round because of their impact on education?
As I said, I am sure that the Secretary of State is listening. Everywhere we look, there are all kinds of pressures on our education system. It is not just the things that the hon. Members mentioned; schools are paying huge amounts in energy bills, for example, and are not able to afford that. Instead of spending money on frontline teaching, they are having to pay energy bills. Those are big issues that the Government will have to deal with. I very much hope that, given that the previous Secretary of State had such a passion for education and that he is now the Chancellor, the education budget will see a significant increase in the autumn. That could resolve some of the things the hon. Lady talked about.
The Education Committee’s inquiry on the Government’s catch-up programme heard that, by summer 2021, primary pupils had lost about 0.9 months in reading and 2.2 months in mathematics. David Laws from the Education Policy Institute told our Committee of his concerns that vulnerable groups could be up to eight months behind in their learning.
The Government have invested almost £5 billion in catch-up and, following the recommendations in the Committee’s catch-up report, they have ended the contract with national tutoring programme provider Randstad and given schools more autonomy to organise catch-up programmes, at least from later in the year. They should reform the clunky pupil premium so that it much better targets those most in need of support. Data is available about education related to ethnicity, geography and socioeconomic background, but it is rarely cross-referenced to provide a richer analysis. By creating multivariant datasets, the DFE could facilitate a sophisticated view of which areas, schools and pupils need the most help. It could then reform the pupil premium using those datasets to introduce weighting or ringfencing to ensure that funding is spent on the most disadvantaged cohorts.
A further key measure that I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider is provision of school breakfasts. The Government have rightly spent more than £200 million on the holiday activities programme, which is also funded and supported by Essex council in my constituency—I have seen that programme work, benefiting many children, and I support it—but more must be done on breakfasts. According to the Magic Breakfast charity, 73% of teachers think that breakfast provision has had a positive impact. Attendance increased in schools offering breakfast provision, with 26 fewer half-days of absence per year. I saw that for myself with Magic Breakfast on a visit to Cooks Spinney school in my constituency last Friday, where attendance has rocketed because the school ensures that the most disadvantaged children have a good breakfast when they start their school day.
The study also found that children in schools supported by breakfast provision made two months’ additional progress over the course of an academic year. An evaluation of the national school breakfast programme by EEF found a 28% reduction in late marks in a term and a 24% reduction in behavioural incidents. School breakfast provision should be a key intervention that the Secretary of State should look at more closely. Currently, the breakfast provision service reaches just 30% of schools in areas with high levels of disadvantage and invests just £12 million a year. By comparison, last year, taxpayers spent £380 million on free school meal vouchers.
Magic Breakfast proposes to invest £75 million more per year in school breakfasts, raised from the soft drinks industry levy—it is not even asking for more money—which would both provide value for money and increase educational attainment. It could reach an estimated 900,000 pupils with a nutritious breakfast throughout the year. That could complement other ideas, such as the deeper strategy for supporting family hubs, and go a long way to providing those children with the first step on the first rung of the ladder of opportunity.
Finally, I turn to skills, which I know the new Secretary of State is passionate about. As my Committee has heard in both our current inquiry into post-16 qualifications and our previous work on adult skills, the UK faces a worrying skills deficit. About 9 million working-age adults in England have low literacy or numeracy skills—or both—and 6 million are not qualified to level 2, which is the equivalent of a GCSE grade 4 or above. Although participation in adult learning seems to have grown since it was at a record low in 2019—44% of adults have taken part in some learning over the past three years—stark inequalities remain. Those in lower socioeconomic groups are twice as likely not to have participated in learning since leaving full-time education than those in higher socioeconomic groups. Our current inquiry into adult skills has heard that employer-led training has declined by a half since the end of the 1990s.
The Government have taken some welcome steps including the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, the £2.5 billion national skills fund, the £2 billion kickstart scheme, £3 billion of additional investment in skills and the lifetime skills guarantee. It is reassuring to see increased resource and capital funding for further education in the estimates, together with growth in the adult skills budget—although, in terms of further education, much of that is catch-up. We need to go further. Levelling the skills playing field is about how we teach as well as the financial resources that we put in.
During my Committee’s inquiry into the future of post-16 qualifications, we have heard about the need for a curriculum that not just imparts facts but embeds cross-cutting skills that will better prepare all young people for our fast-moving industrial future. On a recent visit to King Ethelbert School in Kent, I heard great things about the career-related programme of the international baccalaureate, but there are concerns about future approval for its funding. That seems to be at odds with the Government’s skills agenda. The Times education commission, in which I took part as a voluntary member, recently recommended a British baccalaureate-style qualification.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows my views on the baccalaureate-style system. Used by 150 other countries around the world, it combines academic and vocational learning, creating true parity of esteem between the two disciplines and adequately preparing young people for the future world of work. The Department has recently undertaken a consultation and review of the qualifications horizon, particularly to reform the BTEC system. The FFT Education Datalab found that young people who took BTECs were more likely to be in employment at the age 22 of and were earning about £800 more per year than their peers taking A-levels. I understand the need to review the system and prevent overlaps, but, just to be clear, I urge my colleagues on the Front Bench not to remove BTEC funding until T-levels have been fully rolled out and are successful.
I strongly welcome the grip that the previous Education Secretary had on the Department, and I welcome the fact that he had some success in the spending review in securing an additional £14 billion over the next years. However, we are still playing catch-up when it comes to education recovery and further education. The brutal fact is that the total budget for health spending will have increased from 2010 to 2025 by 40%, whereas education spending will have increased by only 3% in real terms for the same period. Ultimately, as for health and defence, what we need for education is a long-term plan and a secure funding settlement.
Every lever and every engine of Government should be geared towards returning absent pupils to school. I ask the Secretary of State to set out in her response the practical steps the Department is taking to address the issues faced by disadvantaged pupils who are not able to climb the ladder of opportunity. We are denying those children the right to an education. In my view, it must be the most important priority for the Department to get them back into school. It is unforgivable that there are 1.7 million persistently absent children and that 100,000 ghost children have been lost to school rolls. That number is growing. Previously, roughly 800 schools in disadvantaged areas had the equivalent of a whole classroom missing, but figures from the Department for Education show that now 1,000 schools do. That situation is wrong. It must be taken seriously, and efforts should be made to tackle it. As the Children’s Commissioner said to the Education Committee yesterday, by September every one of those children should be back in school.
The previous Education Secretary said he could not “hug the world” but I know his priorities truly were “skills, schools and families”. I am sure they are the priorities of the new Secretary of State. Our children, the workers of the future, will need technical skills but also the ability to think creatively, work across subject silos and, most of all, adapt. As our country and economy move towards the fourth industrial revolution, we must ensure our education system can adapt to meet those challenges.
It is a privilege to follow the contribution from the Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). His words were brave, but one suspects a degree of worry in some of the things he said about the direction of policy, especially on the funding of the Department. I welcome the new regime under the new Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan). We shall see which direction she takes the Department in.
We are discussing why we spend billions of pounds on education, and it is worth beginning my contribution on that thought. Our society puts so much money into education to try to achieve several different objectives, but I just want to focus on one. Education ought to help each person to achieve their full potential in life, and that raises the question of what our society offers to people. The British promise is that each generation can expect the next generation to do slightly better than them, and the one after that to do slightly better; and that if people work hard and play by the rules, they can expect to do well in our society.
We sometimes call that social mobility. I note that we are about to move responsibility for social mobility back to the Cabinet Office. I do not object to that, but the truth is that education, as I describe it, plays a central role in delivering social mobility, or it ought to do so. Yet the Tory Government’s own Social Mobility Commission concluded that inequality now extends from birth through to work, and that our class structures are ossified. The ossified stratification of our society is an ancient British problem.
That suggests that not every human being is achieving their full potential. To that extent, their education has to be judged as not working properly, unless we take the view—I do not think many in this House do—that the children of the wealthiest are somehow more genetically endowed than the children of the poorest. If we took that view, we could say that the stratification reflected the genetic inheritance of each child, but that is clearly not the case. The truth is that millions of people’s potential is not being realised because our education system is not working properly.
Before I talk about a distributional analysis of how we spend our money, it is worth restating that I do not take the view—very few people would—that each person’s attainment is determined purely by the amount of money we spend. The way we deliver education must of course be continually developed, analysed and fully understood. Without adequate funding, however, the rest of it must fail. The truth is that the amount of funding we are discussing today will determine the number of staff working in education, and their morale. If the number of staff is in decline and their morale low, that will cast a shadow through every classroom in the country. I think there is some evidence that that is the case, although we have brilliant teachers, staff, children and parents. Over the term of this Government, from 2010, the amount of funding per child has fallen, and it is still falling.
What was the impact of those cuts? I do not want to talk about university funding, because that is largely done in a different way, through student borrowing and so on. There are, broadly, three sectors: early years, schools and further education. There is an increase in provision for early years, but the truth is that the cuts have been savage. The first months and years of a person’s life absolutely determine how much progress they will make in educational attainment, but the cuts have cut deep. Childcare costs are soaring, and many families simply cannot afford their childcare needs. Even since 12 months ago, there are 4,000 fewer childcare providers in place.
Let me skip schools for a second and go on to FE. There will probably not be many people in the House with my background. I left school with no qualifications, but eventually I ended up doing a first and then a second degree. What was the stepping stone for me, having left school with no qualifications? It was further education—a college that took an interest in me after I failed, effectively, or was failed by the school system. There are millions of people in the same position who would like to do more, whether they have left school, changed profession or simply want to catch up. However, under this Government’s austerity programme, FE funding has been cut by two thirds. That stepping stone has almost been removed. Many people in my patch and throughout the country simply do not have access to a college as I did when I was a younger man.
Let me turn briefly to schools and the main point that I want to develop. Do not take my word for it; the House of Commons Library briefing for today’s debate quotes the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It is quite shocking, but in its placid, bureaucratic language the IFS states:
“Deprived schools have seen larger cuts over the last decade. The most deprived secondary schools saw a 14% real-terms fall in spending per pupil”
over the 10 years up to 2020, compared to a 9% cut for the least deprived schools. So the most deprived schools have had a 14% cut and the least deprived schools have had a 9% cut. It goes on to state that the national funding formula simply repeats all those problems, providing increases of 8% to 9% for the least deprived schools and 5% for the most deprived, and that the pupil premium has failed to keep pace with inflation. In dry language, the quote in the House of Commons Library briefing states that these patterns of funding “run counter” to the Government’s so-called central objective of levelling up poorer areas. We have a Prime Minister and an Administration who regularly talk about levelling up, but they have to will the means to achieve a levelling-up programme. That is not happening.
Let me illustrate the impact on an area such as the one I represent. I am one of four MPs from the Wakefield district, and Wakefield Council is the 54th most deprived council area in the country. When we look at levels of educational attainment, we see that one in five people get to national vocational qualification level 4. The national figure is twice that, and the levels of attainment in Uxbridge, the Prime Minister’s constituency, are 250% higher than those in my constituency. Given the levels of deprivation and attainment that I mentioned, we would think that Wakefield Council would get more money, rather than less, in the distribution of school funding, but that is not the case. The cuts to schools in the Prime Minister’s Uxbridge constituency amounted to £276 a child. In my constituency, they amounted to £514, which is almost twice as much. How can that be right?
I will put on my Facebook page an analysis of the cuts in our area to every school. However, to take one at random, St Helen’s Primary School in Hemsworth—I know the school, which is in a great community, with lovely parents and vital, vibrant children—has had £746 cut per pupil since the cuts began, and yet 38% of the children are on free school meals. That deprived community is doing its best against a Government who are cutting, cutting and cutting. Why should children in an area such as the one I represent, and in deprived areas up and down the country that are lacking in social mobility, have to face cuts on that scale while children in the Prime Minister’s constituency—a better-off community, with higher levels of attainment than in mine—do not?
The truth is that the Government have presided over the most prolonged and savage cuts to education since at least the war. They have cheated the children, staff and parents in deprived communities everywhere for the benefit of those who live in the least deprived, most well-off communities. That is not right; it is immoral. Today’s estimates fail dismally to make proper provision for the damage that the Conservatives have done since they took power in 2010.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place and congratulate her on her promotion. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate; I have always admired his passion and commitment on all issues relating to education and social mobility. He speaks from the heart most of the time, but I thought that he made a valiant case for the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), given what we know about what went on in Downing Street last night.
During their time in secondary school, a year 11 pupil who finished their GCSEs in the past couple of weeks will have seen five—yes, five—Education Secretaries in charge of policy and spending that have a significant and lasting impact on their lives. Any state school that got through that many headteachers in such a short period would certainly have been put into special measures by now, yet this chaotic Government limp on. Time and again, we see the Department for Education, sadly, notched up as a temporary staging post on the climb up the greasy pole for ambitious Ministers.
That is a depressing and damning indictment of the way in which the Government view children and young people and their education. It is indicative of the short-term thinking that pervades a Government who are focused on campaigning, rather than governing. However, with our children being our most precious resource—the future of our nation—on whose shoulders our future economic success will be built, not only should the Department for Education be viewed as the most coveted brief, to be mastered and championed relentlessly over many years, but it should be funded as a long-term investment.
Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major told The Times Education Commission that education expenditure should be seen
“as capital investment, on the basis that its effect will linger for a lifetime”.
I could not agree more, so as we consider the education estimates, I ask: where is the ambition for our children and young people? Why is it—as the right hon. Member for Harlow said—that according to the IFS, by 2025, over a period of 15 years, we will effectively have seen less than 3% growth in education spending while health spending will have risen by 42% in the same period?
It is time that we viewed our children’s future in the same way that we view key infrastructure projects. Human capital—for want of a better phrase—invested in properly, will deliver a significant return for our economy and society. However, it does not fit into three-year spending cycles or four to five-year parliamentary cycles—although we seem to be on two-year parliamentary cycles at the moment, and who knows? We might be in a general election this time next week.
Turning to catch-up funding, the long-term economic impact has been laid out starkly by the Education Policy Institute. It calculates that without sufficient investment and support, children could lose up to £40,000 of income over their lifetimes, equating to about a £350 billion loss to the economy. With pupils having missed out on millions of days of face-to-face teaching, and with the Department for Education, frankly, failing to act swiftly to support schools or put a proper catch-up plan in place quickly, the attainment gap is widening.
The National Audit Office said in its report last year that the Government did not take action to enable vulnerable learners to attend school and to fund online resources quickly enough. They could have done more in some areas. The NAO recommended that the Department
“takes swift and effective action, including to learn wider lessons from its COVID-19 response, and to ensure that the catch-up learning programme is effective and reaches the children who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged.”
Just yesterday, we saw the first set of SATs results since the pandemic, showing a steep decline in the number of children achieving the expected standard at key stage 2.
Alongside the educational gap, children have paid a very high price in terms of wellbeing and mental health. That is a top priority for headteachers in my constituency. Parents are at their wits’ end. I have talked about this month in, month out in the Chamber, and we all know the NHS statistics that show that the number of children with a mental health condition has risen from one in nine to one in six since 2017.
Despite all that, we barely hear any mention of catch-up support for our children and young people. The Government want to stop talking about covid—sadly, covid is still with us, although the Government want to move on—but our children and young people will bear the scars of their sacrifices during the pandemic for a very long time. As the EPI suggested, many will pay the price for the rest of their lives, so we owe it to them to heed the advice of the Government’s adviser, Sir Kevan Collins, who felt compelled—like many Ministers now—to quit in his capacity as a Government adviser because they would not take his recommendations seriously and put in the investment in children and young people that I have mentioned. He said that he did not believe
“that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size.”
I remind the House that he recommended that £15 billion be invested in education recovery, but we have seen a commitment to only a third of that.
We know that children and young people fare better when parents are empowered to engage with their education. That is one reason why the Liberal Democrats have called not just for the £15 billion commitment to be made immediately, but for some of that money to go towards vouchers to be put directly in the hands of parents to support their children, whether that is with tuition, sport, art or music, with whatever they need for their physical wellbeing and social engagement with their peers, or with counselling to tackle mental health issues with the advice and support of their school. Our children and young people are suffering a double whammy: they have felt the impact of the pandemic, and now they are at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis.
In my constituency, many children are going to school and having their only meal of the day there, because of the crisis that this Government have forced on the residents of our constituencies. Does the hon. Member agree that it is absurd that that is happening? Many schools are not even opening for the full five days.
The hon. Gentleman must be psychic or have very good eyesight, because he has pre-empted what I was about to say about free school meals. About 2.6 million children are in families that experience food insecurity; as he says, the reality is that many children are going to school hungry, because parents are struggling to put food on the table. Hunger and poor nutrition affect children’s ability to learn, their development and their mental health. How can our most disadvantaged children, who already have a much bigger gap in attainment as a result of the pandemic, be expected to catch up? I pay tribute to the schools and teachers up and down the country who are working their socks off to put additional support and interventions in place to help them to catch up, but how can children who are going to school with empty tummies and sitting hungry in lessons be expected to benefit from the catch-up?
I sincerely hope that the Government will think again and take the advice of yet another Government adviser they chose to ignore: Henry Dimbleby, who advised them on their food strategy. He recommended that every child in a family in receipt of universal credit should be entitled to a free school meal. To be honest, I am shocked that that is not already the case. I really urge the Secretary of State: if she does one thing in her first few days, please will she address that? It is a scandal that children are going to school hungry.
The Ark John Archer Primary Academy in Clapham is not in my constituency, but I visited it recently because I was told about the fantastic early years offer that it is developing; Ark has invested money, alongside the Government’s paltry investment in early years, to support some of the poorest children. The headteacher asked me why, although some two-year-olds are eligible to receive 15 hours of free childcare a week because they are from disadvantaged backgrounds, we are not providing them with free school meals. It just seems really odd. The school is funding meals for everybody, right across its nursery and primary provision. Whether the child is eligible or not, they are making sure that every child gets a healthy, nutritious meal.
The school pointed out to me that with some childcare providers, disadvantaged two-year-olds who are getting free childcare are having to bring in a packed lunch—quite possibly not a very nutritious one, but with cheap things that the parents can afford—and will be sitting alongside children whose parents are able to pay for their childcare and who are getting a far better lunch. I find that contrast between the haves and the have-nots really quite distasteful. When the Education Secretary looks at free school meals, will she look at the case of two-year-olds?
As has been said many times in this place, our childcare costs are among the highest in the world. In the cost of living crisis, parents are struggling even more to make ends meet with their nursery and childcare fees. Liberal Democrat analysis of Coram statistics suggests that parents in inner London who fund 50 hours per week of childcare will have seen an increase in costs of almost £2,000—I will say that again: £2,000—over the past year. That is just shocking. The problem is that as childcare costs go up and parents struggle to make ends meet with their mortgage or rent, their food and their other bills, fewer and fewer children will be put into childcare. That is bad for a range of reasons.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I could not agree more about the cost of childcare. Does she agree that the answer to the problem is not to decrease the staff-student ratio? I was taken on a tour of Robin nursery in Kidlington the other day; Teresa, the wonderful person who runs it, was concerned that if that ratio goes down, she will not be able to give the safe and caring level of care that parents need. She is concerned that, unfortunately, it will be the most disadvantaged students who lose out, because they are quite often the ones who do not yet have the help with special educational needs and disabilities that they need, and they are the ones who need the most love.
I could not agree more. The Government are trying to tackle the issue of childcare funding in completely the wrong way. My hon. Friend makes the point about safety and the ability to support children with SEND. Given the razor-thin margins with which so many childcare providers operate—we know that they are going under all the time—if the Government power ahead with this after their consultation, and if they really think that the saving will be passed on to parents to help with the cost of living, they are living in cloud cuckoo land, because of exactly what my hon. Friend says.
I have given the example of my son’s childminder before. She has to do all this jiggery-pokery with her invoices every month, because she has been told categorically that she cannot make it clear that I have to pay to top up the 30 hours of “free” childcare that we are meant to be getting, because it does not cover her costs. It is an add-on. That is fine—I have no problem with paying it; I am in a position to pay for it—but the point is that many parents will not be able to afford that top-up or will end up putting their children into what might be fairly low-quality childcare. Our most disadvantaged children are the ones who need the most high-quality input. By the time children start school, the most disadvantaged are about 11 months behind their peers. That gap continues to widen, which has been accelerated by the pandemic.
There is a really important point to make here. Childcare is not just about babysitting. It is about high-quality early years input, with properly trained staff who should have an early years qualification; who should not be on poverty wages, as so many are; and who should have continuous professional development so that they can pick up on things like developmental delays in speech and language, which have become even more prevalent as a result of the pandemic.
It should be about investing in our early years to help children to get on in life, but also about supporting parents who wish to go to work from when their children are at a very young age. We know that people—mostly women, sadly—are leaving the workforce or reducing their hours in very large numbers. Once again, that takes us back to the economic argument for long-term investment in children and in education. It will be harmful for our economy that fewer women will be in work and setting up businesses, because so many are having to give up work to look after their children. Finally, let me return to where I started. The Government say that they want to help Britain back to work and they say that they want to tackle the task of levelling up. The former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is now the Chancellor, has talked about children, skills and education being his passion, and I hope he will put his money where his mouth is. He is now in the Treasury, which was the biggest blocker preventing him and his many predecessors from doing the right thing by children. They are our future. They will be the innovators, they will continue to make this country great, and every single child, regardless of background, deserves the very best start in life.
If the Secretary of State will not listen to me, I ask her to listen to the Government’s own advisers, such as Kevan Collins on catch-up, Henry Dimbleby on free school meals, and Josh MacAlister on children’s social care; so many children are simply written off by the system because we have a broken social care system. I ask her to step up now, to make the necessary investment in children and young people, and to end this Conservative chaos. Our children are depending on it.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. I hope she has an ambitious plan for however many hours she will be in office before the downfall of her Government—but this is no laughing matter. The fact that we have had three Education Secretaries in three years tells us all we need to know about the Conservatives’ priorities. Theirs is a party with no plan, no ambition and no vision for our children. In contrast, education is so important to us on this side of the House that we say it three times.
Let us start with childcare and the early years, a time of indisputable importance with an impact that lasts a lifetime. The Government’s unforgivable failure to support early years providers shamefully saw 4,000 of them close over the last year. When parents are paying more on childcare than on their rent or their mortgage, the system is truly broken. The prohibitive cost of childcare means that many young couples face a choice between being priced out of parenting and being priced out of work. If they cannot afford the childcare costs to return to work, or if those costs outweigh the salaries that they bring home, work simply does not pay, no matter how many times the rhetoric is repeated at the Dispatch Box.
Ours is statistically one of the most expensive countries in the world in which to raise children, with net childcare costs representing 29% of income. We should compare that with 11% in France, 9% in Belgium and just 1% in Germany. If families cannot afford the childcare—for instance, the before and after-school clubs that boost children’s learning and development—the attainment gap grows. Those children will arrive at school to find that funding per pupil has fallen by 9% in real terms since the Tories came to power. That means that, by 2024, school budgets will have seen no overall growth in 15—yes, 15—years.
Meanwhile, many young people are still catching up from the lockdown school closures. Lockdown was temporary, but it could have a lifelong impact: the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that students who lost six months of schooling could see a reduction in lifetime income of 4%. However, the catch-up programme does not even come close to meeting
“the scale of the challenge”.
Those are not my words, but the words of the Government’s own education recovery tsar, whose resignation a year ago is all the evidence that anyone needs when considering whether the scale of the challenge is really understood.
Why is it that our children, teachers and schools are treated as an afterthought at every stage by this Government? The crumbs of catch-up support that are available will let down an entire generation of young people and, on the Government’s watch, the pandemic’s impact on their education will be lifelong. In contrast, Labour’s children’s recovery plan will provide breakfast clubs and new activities for every child, small-group tutoring for all who need it, quality mental health support in every school, continued development for teachers—that is essential, given that a staggering 40% of teachers leave the profession within five years—and an education recovery premium, targeting investment at children who risk falling behind. Those are not just warm words. Under the last Labour Government, our rhetoric matched the reality: 3,500 Sure Start centres were delivered on time, offering a place in every community for integrated care and services for children and their families.
Now is the time to be ambitious about education in a post-covid modern society. I believe that we should be putting tech at the heart of learning, tailoring classrooms to the modern day by ensuring that every child has the kit and the connectivity to get online. We should be challenging the norm by considering qualifications in tech and coding, providing real-world work experience, and using our ability to connect and learn with and from others around the world. The 21st-century opportunities for children, for teachers and for education should be endless. If there were a competent and functioning Government to take on that challenge, we would be there; but we are not.