House of Commons
Monday 24 October 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Students: Cost of Living
My Department continues to work with the Office for Students to ensure that universities support students in hardship by drawing on the £261 million student premium.
I have been hearing from students from the University of Lancaster and the University of Cumbria, and I share the concerns of the organisation MillionPlus, whose report “Learning with the lights off” highlights the difficulties that around 300,000 students are facing. Has the Secretary of State seen the report, and will he meet me and representatives of MillionPlus to discuss how the report’s recommendations on bringing immediate grant support to students could be implemented by his Government?
I am afraid that I have not yet seen the report, but I will ask my team to dig it out and give it a look over. If the hon. Lady has specific issues that she wants to raise, I will be more than happy to meet her. Alongside the significant funding that we are putting into the student premium to deal with hardship in the student body, many students who are not living in halls of residence or other tied accommodation will benefit from the wider cost of living package that the Government have put together.
I know that the rate of interest on student loans is a matter of great interest to my right hon. Friend and his constituents. The switch from maintenance grants to loans that are effectively contingent upon income has been a success, in that we have seen during this period a significant increase in the likelihood of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going into higher education, but of course we constantly keep these things under review.
I have been speaking to a lot of students in recent weeks and they are obviously anxious about the cost of living. While student maintenance loans have increased by just 2.3% on average, inflation has rocketed to more than 10%, accommodation costs are up 5%, food costs are up 14.5% and transport costs are up by 10.6%, hitting commuter students particularly hard. The result is that students are facing an average funding gap of £439 per month and dropping out, while the Government are facing a credibility gap in this sector. Can the Secretary of State tell us what students are supposed to do?
As I outlined previously, £261 million is available in this academic year to support disadvantaged students who need additional help. We have been working closely with the Office for Students to make sure that universities support those who are in hardship. It is worth pointing out that students will also benefit from reductions to their energy costs if they are buying from a domestic supplier, through the energy cost support package that we are putting in place. We have, as the hon. Gentleman said, continued to increase support for living costs over the last few years. He will know, however, that we keep these things under review constantly and an announcement on the uplift for this year will be forthcoming shortly.
STEM Teachers in Disadvantaged Areas
As someone who was a teacher for nearly nine years in disadvantaged areas in London and Birmingham, may I say that teaching is one of the most rewarding jobs you can have? In 2020-21 there was an increase of more than 4,400 full-time teachers in state-funded schools in England. This has resulted in the largest qualified teacher stock since the school workforce census began in 2011. We know that there is more to be done in some areas, which is why early career maths, physics, chemistry and computing teachers working in eligible schools with disadvantaged pupil cohorts can now claim our tax-free levelling up premium.
One of the key disadvantages we have in Cornwall is the relatively high cost of housing. Cornwall is beautiful and people want to live there, but what more can the Department do to encourage teachers to come to Cornwall and not to other places with cheaper housing?
My hon. Friend will understand only too well, as a former resident of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, that, like Cornwall, it too is a place of outstanding beauty. This Government are committed to ensuring that affordable housing is delivered, and since 2010 more than 9,000 homes have been delivered in Cornwall. In August 2021 we announced £1 billion of funding from our affordable homes programme, which will be used to deliver more than 17,000 affordable homes across the south-west. I am pleased to say that Cornwall is also an education investment area and has 26 schools that are eligible for the levelling up premium, including Liskeard School and Community College in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and specialist teachers in certain subjects in those schools can claim up to £3,000 tax free annually. Finally, in March 2022—
Disadvantage knows no boundaries and, likewise, we have huge challenges in our schools in Hackney. The Government promised that the starting salary for teachers would be £30,000. How close are the Government to reaching that manifesto commitment?
Vocational Alternatives to A-levels
We are reforming technical education to ensure that all post-16 students have access to technical options that support progression and meet employers’ needs. We have introduced T-levels, a new high-quality programme designed with employers that will give learners the knowledge and experience needed for skilled employment and further study, including higher education or higher apprenticeships. We are also reviewing existing qualifications that sit alongside A-levels and T-levels to ensure they are high quality and lead to good outcomes for students.
We have some fantastic creative and manufacturing industries in Stoke-on-Trent, but many of these industries say to me that they often struggle to fill certain vacancies. Will my hon. Friend look at what more we can do to help to incentivise vocational skills to get our economy growing?
I know this is of great importance to my hon. Friend. Many different sectors face skills needs and challenges, which is why we are investing in skills through T-levels, apprenticeships, skills boot camps and free courses for jobs, giving people of all ages the opportunity to obtain the skills that industries like and that support economic growth.
There is potentially a huge number of good green jobs for young people to go into, such as retrofitting homes, installing heat pumps and restoring wetlands, but many young people do not know these jobs exist, let alone the pathways to get into them. What are the Government doing to open their eyes to these opportunities?
I thank the hon. Lady for her important question. I am proud of the Government’s record of investing in green jobs through T-levels, apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications and boot camps. Never before have there been so many opportunities to engage with green industries. We are also working closely with these industries to make sure they are at the heart of what we do.
The most popular high-quality vocational qualifications currently offered at level 3 are BTECs. Last week, the Education Committee heard evidence about the 6,500 level 3 students and 7,500 level 2 students whose results were delayed this year. The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) rightly criticised the failure to reveal the number of students affected at the time and all the uncertainty that caused. When did the Minister first know how many students had not received their results? Why did she not insist that the number be made public?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a strong proponent of BTECs, having been a BTEC girl myself. The Department informed us, and we acted on that straightaway. I will have to get back to him with the exact date. Looking at the whole landscape, I assure him that it has been simplified and that, most importantly, these courses lead to good outcomes for students, ensuring they have a bright future.
Educational Underachievement of Black Children
We are focused on raising educational standards for all pupils, irrespective of their ethnicity.
The Government will be aware that, although many ethnic minority groups have narrowed the gap with white pupils, and in some cases overtaken them, some groups continue to underachieve, particularly black Caribbean boys. At a time when there are so many skills shortages, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure all our pupils achieve their potential?
I am pleased to say that the right hon. Lady is right and a number of minority groups now outperform the average, not least the largest group of the black community, those who would identify themselves as black African, who outperform the average in a number of ways. She is right, however, that there is underperformance by a number of black Caribbean pupils, mainly boys, and I certainly undertake to her to try to investigate why. However, I am sure she would agree that although external factors such as disadvantage can influence educational outcomes, the standard of the school and of the teaching that those pupils receive can often overcome many of those barriers. If she has not already done so, I urge her to visit the Michaela Community School in Wembley, which I visited two weeks ago and which is seeing extraordinary results from a very mixed and diverse community, in a very challenged part of London.
One key reason for underachievement—of all pupils, including pupils from different ethnic minorities—is the absence of children from school. At the start of term this September, there was just 93.5% attendance in all schools, which means that children lost up to an estimated 17.6 million hours of learning. At the start of school term, we would expect to see higher rates of attendance, of about 98%. I know that the Department has appointed 13 attendance advisers, but we have 1.7 million absent children and 100,000-plus so-called “ghost children”. What is my right hon. Friend doing to get those children back into school, so that the 1.7 million persistently absent children are safely returned to the classroom?
The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right to push hard on this issue because it is vital to the future of not only those children, but their families. He is right that following the pandemic we have seen a reduction in attendance. One silver lining coming out of the pandemic was the fact that we now have real-time attendance data for a majority of schools—we are working to complete that for all—which allows us to focus in our efforts on driving attendance in those schools. Given my previous job at the Home Office, I am particularly keen that police, schools and local education authorities should work closely together to make sure that those children who are not at school and are not findable at home are found somewhere out in the community and brought back.
Cost of Living: Additional Support for School Pupils and HE Students
In September 2022, the Secretary of State for Education held introductory meetings with his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That produced wide-ranging discussions, including on cost of living issues. Education is devolved, so additional support in this regard would be the responsibility of the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Government’s lead adviser on food issues, Henry Dimbleby, has condemned the Minister’s response to the national food strategy, warning that it could mean more children go hungry. Just yesterday, the headteacher of a multi-academy trust reported that children are breaking down and crying because of hunger. In Scotland, all children in primary 1 to 5 receive free school meals and from 14 November all eligible children up to the age of 16 will be receiving the Scottish child payment of £25 per week. As this cost of living crisis deepens, when will this Government match the actions of the Scottish Government to support children in most need?
We have provided £1.9 million of funding in free school meals and more than £2 billion in pupil premium. We are there to support disadvantaged students, which is why we are reforming education to give them a good start in life. Perhaps the hon. Lady and her counterparts in the devolved nations could learn from what we are doing here in England.
But of course £1.9 million is not even going to touch the scale of the problem that we have here. Recent research from PwC found that for every pound invested in free school meals there was a return of £1.71 in savings to the state. Given that many families have moved beyond “just about managing” into “just about surviving”, when will this Government match the Scottish Government’s commitment to universal free school meals for primary children and the transformational Scottish child payment?
As the former Education Secretary rightly says, it was our idea.
Let us look at the funding that we are giving Scotland. The devolved Administrations are well funded to deliver their devolved responsibilities. They have had block grant funding of an average of £41 billion a year. The Government have also extended free school meals to more children than any other Government over the past half a century. We remain committed to supporting the most disadvantaged children.
EBacc Subjects and Modern Foreign Languages at GCSE
The Government remain committed to improving uptake of Ebacc subjects, specifically languages. Building on our modern foreign language pedagogy pilot, we will establish a national network of language hubs from autumn 2023. We are also expanding the successful Mandarin excellence programme, as well as exploring an Arabic language programme.
The Ebacc pioneered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has been highly successful in driving uptake of mathematics, sciences and humanities, but there is much further to go in reaching our targets in modern foreign languages. What progress have Ministers made on the development of an Arabic language programme for schools and on ensuring that more pupils have the chance to study world languages?
My hon. Friend raises an important question about the availability of more world languages, which are important for our young people because the United Kingdom operates in a global market. I can confirm that we are exploring an Arabic language programme, which will aim to build on the existing infrastructure of Arabic teaching. Our language hubs programme will also increase support for home, heritage and community languages.
Teacher Recruitment and Retention
The Department is committed to attracting and retaining the highly skilled teachers we need by investing £181 million in this year’s recruitment cycle, including training bursaries and scholarships worth up to £29,000. We are also delivering 500,000 training opportunities, reforming teacher training and delivering on this Government’s manifesto commitment of £30,000-a-year starting salaries.
That sounds very rosy, but teacher vacancies have gone up 240% since 2011. According to the latest National Education Union poll, 44% of England’s state school teachers plan to quit by 2027—22% of them in the next two years. Things are particularly difficult because experienced teachers—who may have 20 years’ experience—are leaving the profession. What steps is the Minister taking to address pay, stress and an unmanageable workload, which are driving the most experienced teachers out of the profession?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that great question, because being a teacher is so important and positive, and it is a shame that he used his opportunity to be a bit negative about the profession. As we try to recruit and retain staff, we need people to talk up what a great profession this is to work in. [Interruption.] I am being shouted down by Opposition Members, but there is not a single year of teaching among them—I have nine years’ experience and I get shouted down for simply being someone who worked on the shop floor. The lessons should be learned from the past.
However, let me tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing. We are making sure that we have the £30,000-a-year starting salary, which is amazingly competitive with the private sector. We are going to have the £181 million in scholarships and grants, including £29,000 in physics, for example. And we are going to make sure that we tackle retention and workload through the Department’s workload toolkit, which has so far reduced workload on average by about five hours.
Wow! This Government have no ambition for our children’s futures: soaring numbers of council schools are in deficit, the attainment gap is at a decade high and the Schools Bill has been ripped up. However, the recruitment and retention of secondary school teachers—not just Prime Ministers—is in crisis. Estimates based on DFE data suggest that the Government are set to fall 34 percentage points below their recruitment target. Will the Minister explain what specific action he will take to stop the rot and fix his own Government’s failure on this issue?
Mr Speaker, I am making the point very clearly. The hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to stand at the Dispatch Box and talk up the teaching professions, talk up our schools, and talk up our reforms since 2010-11, which have seen the attainment gap narrowed—that was until, of course, the global pandemic, which has affected every single sector of our economy. Sadly, things have not gone in a way that we would have liked, but we are putting in the effort through the national tutoring programme, the £1.3 billion recovery premium, and the £650 million catch-up premium. That is an awful lot of money going into the system. We are also making sure that teachers are of a high quality, and, most importantly, that they have high-quality mentoring, an initial teaching training round and an early career framework, which give them the support that they need.
Local skills improvement plans place employers at the heart of local school systems, facilitating more dynamic working arrangements between employers and training providers to make technical education more responsive to employers’ needs in the area. All areas in England now have a designated employer representative body in place to lead on devising their plans.
I know that my hon. Friend is a real advocate for colleges in his area and I thank him for his question. Local skills improvement plans will forge stronger and more dynamic partnerships between employers and providers that will enable training to be more responsive to local skills needs. The relationship between Wigan and Leigh College and local employers aligns closely with the aims of this improved collaboration. It is a great example of how stakeholders can work together to meet local skills needs and help people to get good jobs. I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to see its great work in progress.
I do not know whether the Minister was able to go to the Association of Colleges reception recently, but it was a very good way of meeting all the college leaders. Does she agree that there must be more joined-up thinking and activity between colleges, schools and universities? We were talking about green skills. There seems to be no curriculum at 16 that meshes with that at 18 and 21. I ask her please to talk to colleges and get something moving.
I was at a reception for our Love Our Colleges campaign. I am a true advocate on this matter and one thing I am passionate about is the parity of esteem between vocational and technical qualifications and academic qualifications. I ask Members please to put their trust in us as a Government, because we are fully behind all sectors and we are continuing a dialogue between colleges, schools and universities. As I have said, there have never been more options open to young people, and I am completely proud of our record in government.
Freedom of Speech in Universities
This Government are committed to the protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and introduce clear consequences for breaches as well as a duty on universities and colleges to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom.
How my right hon. Friend and his team address the concerns of many that mandating university students and staff to complete training in contested theory such as unconscious bias, like the Radcliffe Department of Medicine’s implicit bias course or the University of Kent’s Expect Respect course, is worrisome, especially given recent data from the King’s College “The state of free speech” report on the increasing reluctance of students to engage in challenging debate.
I know my hon. Friend recognises that universities and colleges are independent organisations. None the less, I share his concerns that where opinions, beliefs or theories that are contested are presented, they should not be presented to young minds alone. The context in which they are created, and indeed the arguments for and against, should be presented to young people. Indeed, it is the duty of those who are tasked with the education of young minds to give the widest possible sense of perspective on all these issues.
Computer Numerical Control Operation: Training
We are investing in programmes that support science, technology and digital skills so that learners of all ages—including my young son, who is up in the Public Gallery supporting mummy today—are equipped to fulfil careers in the likes of computer numerical control operation. We are delivering on that objective through our skills reform programme, which is putting employers at the heart of our skills system.
We need around 1 million more engineers in this country, and among those we need computer numerical control operators, who can earn around £50,000 on the shopfloor. I have engineering businesses in my constituency that are desperate for them. Can we please get on top of ensuring that we have a talent pipeline so that people are well paid and those engineering businesses can flourish?
I understand that things are uncertain, as my hon. Friend’s two colleges are merging at the moment, but the level 3 engineering technician apprenticeships provide CNC content and there are more than 140 providers of that training, including three with national coverage. I would also like to look at our T-levels to ensure that we have some of that content in there too.
Rising Costs: Support for Schools
The Government are committed to supporting schools. That is why we are investing significantly in education, with a £4 billion increase in the core schools budget this financial year, which will help schools facing the challenges of inflation brought about by global events.
Schools across my constituency face extraordinary financial pressures, particularly in special educational needs settings where costs per pupil are higher, and in older schools where the Government’s failure to invest in the schools estate means higher costs for heating and repairs. With inflation running out of control, which is an effective 10% cut in real terms to this year’s budgets, senior management teams are desperately worried that they will not be able to balance the books, especially with higher demand for things such as breakfast clubs as parents feel the pinch. Can the Secretary of State please inform us what representations he has made to the Treasury to address the crisis in education funding?
Notwithstanding the significant increase in the schools budget last year, we are monitoring the impact of those global inflationary forces on schools across the whole country. We are in constant conversation with leadership, unions and headteachers about their finances. Perhaps the hon. Lady does not know this, but we acted immediately when it became clear that schools would be severely impacted by the rise in energy costs, to ensure that they were included in the energy bill relief scheme. We continue to have dynamic conversations with Treasury colleagues on the importance of school funding.
School Budgets and Costs to Parents
The Department is working closely with stakeholders to monitor cost pressures on schools. Our generous 2021 spending review package is supporting schools with a £4 billion increase to core schools funding in this financial year alone and we are protecting schools through the energy bill relief scheme, although schools and trusts remain responsible for setting their own budgets. The Government are also assisting families directly: as well as the energy price guarantee for households, we are providing more than £37 billion to help households in the greatest need, thanks to our new Prime Minister.
Data from a National Association of Headteachers survey shows that 90% of schools expect to run out of money by the end of the next school year. I have spoken to headteachers who say that while school debt is escalating, demands on schools continue to increase, and the energy crisis is only one element of the funding crisis in education. Can the Minister tell me how the Government expect schools in my constituency to deliver standards and provide additional support when they cannot afford to survive?
As I said in my earlier answer, we have £7 billion until 2024-25 through the spending review. There is the £5 billion in catch-up to maintain standards and ensure that disadvantaged pupils in particular get high-quality support, particularly in tutoring, so that they can catch up on their lost learning, because we know the pandemic had a detrimental impact. There is also the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Act 2021, which was introduced by a Labour Member, which the Government adopted and sent out as guidance to make sure that the overall cost of uniform comes down. We are taking this all very seriously, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and headteachers in his local area to hear from them directly and see what other support we can give.
School Places: Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities
We are making a transformational investment to support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, investing £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025. That investment will deliver new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND or those who require alternative provision, as well as establishing up to 60 new special and AP free schools.
Over the last few months, I have been working closely with schools in some of the most deprived areas of Blyth Valley. Although schools are doing an amazing job, there is a need for increased special educational needs provision to support the most vulnerable young people. While a new special educational needs school is to be built in Blyth Valley, progress is slow, and I feel that more could be done to address the situation. Will my hon. Friend please meet me to see how we can progress this matter?
I share my hon. Friend’s commitment to improving special educational needs provision in Northumberland, particularly in his constituency. The Department is working closely with stakeholders to develop a sustainable solution. The opening of the new free special school has encountered several challenges, but we expect to deliver the school places in the 2023 academic year. As part of our investment in school places for children and young people with SEND, Northumberland is receiving £3.7 million from the fund between 2022 and 2024. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter.
I recently held a roundtable of headteachers in my constituency. We talked for almost two hours but, sadly, very little of the conversation was about teaching. Instead, we discussed serious issues around recruitment and retention of staff; inadequate funding and severe pressures on budgets; online safety; mental health—theirs and the children’s—and SEND pressures. What are the Government doing to ensure that all schools have the resources they need to provide pupils with special educational needs and disabilities with the support they need while also being able to maintain high-quality teaching and manage the huge range of other pressures that they face?
As I mentioned, we are investing £2.6 billion over the next three years in new spaces for SEND and alternative provision. We have also implemented £1.4 billion in high-needs provision capital allocations for local authorities, and £9.1 billion—an increase of 13%—in high-needs funding. The hon. Lady will know that we launched the Green Paper on SEND and AP back in March. We are currently looking at the responses and we hope to respond by the end of the year.
I welcome the Minister to her place. She inherits the Government’s SEND review, which has caused widespread concern among parents of children with SEND that the Government are seeking simply to reduce expenditure and erode the rights of parents and children to access the support they need. As the Chancellor trawls for departmental cuts to pay for the Government’s reckless economic experiment, can the Minister confirm that the SEND review will not be used as an excuse to erode further the resources that children with special educational needs and disabilities rely on?
I can confirm that the SEND and AP Green Paper—the SEND review—was not and is not an opportunity for us to reduce the support that children with special educational needs require in this country. As I have already outlined, we have increased our high-needs funding by 13% to £9.1 billion, and we have also designed a package to support the delivery of any of our reforms. That is a £70 million programme that will test and refine measures in order to ensure that children get the support and education they need, and that parents feel that they have a choice in the matter and are well supported.
This week we are celebrating National Care Leavers Week. As we celebrate the many success stories, we must also keep working to identify and stamp out any and all abuse. I was therefore shocked and saddened as I started to read the report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse last week. The scale of abuse and exploitation suffered is horrifying. The courage of those who came forward will help improve services to protect children. The inquiry was established by the Government seven years ago. Since then we have taken action to make sure that children are better protected, and I am determined to continue to improve children’s social care so that every child has a safe and loving childhood. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make a statement on the matter shortly.
There have been four Secretaries of State for Education in the last year, and nine out of 10 schools in England say that they will run out of money this year. The dogs in the street know that the Government are so unstable as to be unfit for purpose. Does today’s Secretary of State for Education agree with me and the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) that the new Prime Minister will face an “ungovernable” and “riven” Tory party and that a general election is the only answer, otherwise things will go from very bad to much worse?
I am sorry to hear of the issues that my hon. Friend’s constituents have been having and the distress that that is causing for those families. In March, the Government published the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper, which sets out a number of the proposals, including on the education, health and care plans. Those proposals aim to improve the experience and outcomes for those with SEND. The consultation has closed and we plan to publish an improvement plan later in the year.
I begin by welcoming the fourth Education Secretary in the last four months to his place. For the time being, he has the best job in Government. In May, internal Department documents described some school buildings as a “risk to life”. After the Conservatives crashed our economy, does he believe that there should be further cuts to school capital budgets?
I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. She is absolutely right that this is the best job in Whitehall and, indeed, the most important Department, given that we hold the future of the country literally in our hands. She is right that the comprehensive survey of school premises that the Department undertook revealed some alarming problems, and we are working closely with local education authorities, multi-academy trusts and others to try to rectify those. She will know that we have invested significant amounts of money in the school rebuilding programme. We continue to have conversations with the Treasury about how we may be able to do more.
As a result of the Conservatives crashing our economy, school leaders are now warning that they will be forced to cut back on equipment, sport and the very staff who enable all our children to achieve and thrive. Last month, I set out Labour’s fully funded, fully costed commitments to end tax breaks for private schools and to invest in breakfast clubs for every child in every primary school in England. If the Secretary of State genuinely believes in delivering a great state education for all our children, why does he not adopt Labour’s plans?
As the hon. Lady will know, we already have breakfast clubs in a number of schools across the country, which are targeted at where they are most needed. Our approach to such issues is to do exactly that: to look for vulnerabilities and the areas that require assistance and then to target funding accordingly. At the start of our hopefully long relationship across the Dispatch Box, I hope that as well as doing her job of challenging the Government to do ever better, she will recognise some of the significant achievements in education over the last decade, not least the fact that 87% of our schools are now good or outstanding and that we stand at our highest ever level in the international league tables for literacy.
I do sympathise with Brackenfield School’s predicament. Supporting children and young people with SEND to live fulfilling lives is of paramount importance. The local authority is responsible for deciding on the age range at a maintained school, but I share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I will investigate what is going on.
The head of the Russell Group has said that the window for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe is “closing fast” and that
“failure to move forward with UK association would be bad news for research.”
What assurance can the Secretary of State give researchers that funding is imminent and that research will be protected at all costs?
Mr Speaker, as I am sure you will have heard from other Ministers, we recognise that science and technology is critical to our future economy, and much of that originates from research within universities and other research bodies. We have made a huge commitment financially to research across the whole of the UK, and that will persist. We are dead keen to join the Horizon programme, but the hon. Member’s question is better directed at our European friends.
As a rural Member myself, I am very alarmed to hear my hon. Friend’s stories. She is right that we should be encouraging schools to educate children about where food comes from, and indeed about the very high standards that UK farmers have produced, not least in animal husbandry, but I have to say that there is a way to intrigue children and make them curious about some of the challenges to climate change brought about by farming. I read recently about an additive made from seaweed that we can add to dairy cows’ feed that reduces the amount of methane they produce. I gather it is in operation very effectively in Australia and being looked at in this country.
The hon. Lady knows that I am a huge admirer and fan of hers, which she may not put on any election leaflets. I can tell her that the PE and sport premium is very important to me, especially after the fantastic victory by the Lionesses. They really set the tone with the great work of making sure that sport, particularly football, is more accessible no matter people’s gender, race or anything else, so it is so important that we get this right. I am fully committed to working with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to get that premium, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss it further.
At the end of the first full T-levels cycle, can I commend colleges, including Alton College in my constituency, for their work with employers? What more can be done by Ministers across Government to encourage more employers to come forward and offer industry placements to invest in the talent pipeline, both for their own good and for the good of our entire economy and society?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I also thank his college. Colleges and sixth forms have been doing amazing work in rolling out T-levels. It is amazing, and I will just give an example before I go on to his question—
Topicals—all right. On results day, I visited a local college, and it was amazing—I wish I could bottle that enthusiasm—but my right hon. Friend is right that the key is working with local businesses and industries, which is why the whole programme was designed with them in mind.
As I said earlier, we recognise that schools are under significant pressure, as is most of society, and we must work together to try to get through it in good shape. We will obviously be making representations to Treasury colleagues as we move towards a statement on Friday, and indeed beyond, about what those pressures are, so that the Chancellor and new Prime Minister—hooray—can make choices within a priority framework that reflects the priorities of the Government.
Ministers will be aware that at the weekend it was reported that the school in England that has recorded the best Progress 8 score, and the best measure of how much value is added during time in the classroom, is Michaela Community School in Wembley. Michaela is a free school. It encourages students to study EBacc subjects, and it is Ofsted outstanding. The Labour party opposed the creation of free schools, opposed the EBacc, and wanted to abolish Ofsted. What lessons can we learn from that?
My right hon. Friend puts his finger on the point exactly. He will be pleased to know that only 10 days ago I visited Michaela school to see exactly what goes on, having heard an awful lot about it and indeed having watched the moving documentary about the work done there. I confess to being rather alarmed by the aggression that that school attracts from the wider educational establishment, particularly on social media. Although the head of that school is obviously very outspoken, she is outspoken because it seems she has a cause. It was gratifying at the weekend to see that in the Progress 8 scores she proved that she was right.
Despite my private Member’s Bill, Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms), becoming law to reduce the cost of school uniforms, far too many schools have their heads in the sand, with logos upon logos, emblems upon emblems, and they are not responding to the requirements of the law. What will Ministers do about that?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the passage of his Bill, which is an important piece of legislation. Guidance is clear: schools should be considerate when wanting their own branding, and ensure that it is done in a fair and sustainable way for households. If the hon. Gentleman has any examples or wishes to meet to discuss the issue further so that guidance can be given to schools, I would be more than happy to arrange that.
This past year adoptions have gone up, but it is on a lower trajectory. One potential reason for that is that in 2013 a court ruling confirmed that adoption orders should be made only when there is no alternative provision. That has led to an increase in special guardianships. We will obviously keep the issue under review. The time that it is taking for children to be adopted has reduced, and we want to ensure that no child remains in care any longer than they need to be, and that we find supportive parents for them.
Off-rolling is a hidden crisis happening in some of our schools, with black schoolboys being disproportionately affected by the practice, and many being given only a few formal hours of teaching, if any at all. We should be outraged at that, given the attainment gap and the disproportionate numbers of black children who are being excluded from school. What action is the Secretary of State taking to tackle the crisis of off-rolling, and will he ensure that all schools that engage in that practice are recording the numbers affected, including their ethnicity, age and gender?
Off-rolling is totally unacceptable, and no school should be doing that or using it as a method. Where there are unruly children, we must also balance that carefully by ensuring that headteachers have the power to remove them from the classroom, because their impact has a detrimental impact on the other 29 in the class. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to look at any examples she can provide, so that we can call out schools and school leaders who are using that tactic inappropriately. The Department is monitoring the issue and taking it seriously.
Arden is one of the most successful schools in my constituency and the country, despite the majority of its buildings having been built pre-1958 and it accommodating three times as many pupils as was originally intended. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss Arden’s proposal for investment through the school rebuilding programme so that we can support it to be the best that it can be?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for the constituency of Meriden and indeed for the school rebuilding programme. He will understand that I cannot comment as the bid is in and the Department must go through a process, but I am more than happy to arrange a meeting for him with my noble Friend Baroness Barran, who is the Minister responsible for this portfolio area.
As the right hon. Member will know, the legislative timetable is under review—or it was, under the previous Prime Minister. We wait for the opinion of the new Prime Minister as to his priorities in the months to come. We will have to wait and see what we has to say.
As I hope the House knows, I am a passionate supporter of the power and creativity of engineering and its ability to address the most serious challenges that we face globally. Will my hon. Friend agree to look at the curriculum for opportunities to improve the teaching and understanding of engineering?
My hon. Friend will know that in March 2022 the Department introduced the “engineers teach physics” programme to help recruit high-quality engineers into our workforce. Because of the pilot’s success, the programme has been extended across the country for the 2023-24 recruitment cycle. I am more than happy to see how much more we can do to ensure that science, technology, engineering and maths are driven through the heart of the curriculum, alongside EBacc, which is vital to helping to educate everyone.
I am sure that the Secretary of State is as concerned as I am about the number of children attending school who are hungry. Has he made any representations to the Department for Work and Pensions about raising the £7,400 household income eligibility threshold for free school meals?
As the right hon. Member would expect, we are in constant conversation with not just the DWP but the Treasury about the impact of the global fight against inflation that so many families face. It would be wrong for me to front-run what may be announced on Friday, but she can be assured that we constantly put in front of colleagues the pressures on families putting kids into schools as well as those on schools.
Even the drama in this place does not match the daily drama of the childcare juggle, so we must listen to millions of mums and dads who are asking for affordable and flexible childcare options in a system that is effectively not fit for purpose. Will my right hon. Friend reassure parents and early years educators that the Department is looking at that closely? Will he work with me and the think-tank Onward to bring about reforms?
My hon. Friend is quite right that the childcare system—not through anything other than an accident of increasing numbers of ministerial initiatives—has become complicated to the extent that there is not enough availability and it is not affordable or flexible enough. For example, some of the payment mechanisms are complex, not least tax-free childcare, so we have not seen the take-up that we expected when that was introduced. We are reviewing the entire process from end to end. She can be assured that we are looking not just to tinker, but, hopefully—with the blessing of the new Prime Minister—at something that will really provide a reformed system to give her and other parents exactly what they are looking for.
On Friday, I received an email from the acting headteacher of Reay Primary School in my constituency. She said that
“many of our children are hungry. Our cook is providing as much as she can but the children want more. This tells me that the children must be missing out on food at home. We are going to provide bread”
but the school needs more money.
I have listened to the Secretary of State answer many questions about the cost of living crisis that parents face, but parents and teachers cannot wait. What more can he do to address this now?
The hon. Lady will understand—she is a fantastic champion for her constituents—that the current global economic state is very serious. Inflation is not unique to this country. For example, it is at 17% in Holland and 10.9% in Germany. We are very aware of the pressures on households, which is why the £4 billion front-loading in the spending review has been so important, with the additional funding for the national tutoring programme, the recovery premium and the catch-up premium, the £2.5 billion for the pupil premium and the free school meals programme.
Fairer funding has been a manifesto commitment for our party on many occasions. I campaigned for it from the Back Benches and tried to deliver it from the Front Bench. Whatever the timing of legislation, can the Secretary of State confirm that a direct national funding formula is a legislative priority for his Department?
The independent review of children’s social care highlighted the cost of the failure of residential care settings—both the financial cost and, most importantly, the cost to children of failed care. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to improve that care and to ensure that we move from a marketised system to a regional system, as suggested?
As the hon. Lady is aware, we are currently evaluating the three reports issued earlier this year, in particular the independent review of children’s social care. I have been working flat out since I was appointed to this role to make sure we are able to bring forward a response to it with an implementation plan to ensure that all young people in our care system are looked after, but also that there are answers and options to move forward.
Children from all over the country, quite a few of whom are in my constituency, are being home educated by parents who, unfortunately, cannot themselves read or write. What are we going to do to ensure we value the education and life chances of every single child, and do not leave home educated children behind?
It is absolutely the right of parents to decide to educate their children at home should they so wish, but as a society we have a duty to make sure they get exactly the kind of education that everybody else is getting. My hon. Friend has championed the issue in many other forums, particularly as it affects his constituency, and I would be happy to hear his ideas on how we may go further.
Members Sworn or Affirmed
Order. I now invite remaining Members to swear the Oath or make the solemn Affirmation to His Majesty. We will suspend at about 3.45 pm before resuming our substantive business at approximately 3.50 pm. Let us now begin. I invite Members who have not yet sworn or affirmed to do so.
Members present took and subscribed the Oath, or made and subscribed the Affirmation.
Great British Railways
The case for rail modernisation is now stronger than when Keith Williams set out the plan for rail in 2021. Covid-19, recent macroeconomic events, industrial relations and financial challenges have increased the need for it. The railways are not meeting customers’ needs, with delays, unreliability and uncertainty exacerbated by the rail strikes. When people look at the rail sector, we need them to see a system that stands for reliability and sustainability, so it is clear that we have to change.
This Government will therefore deliver the most ambitious changes to our railways in a generation, and will deliver for the people who matter: our passengers, customers and taxpayers. Although we will not be introducing rail reform legislation during the current Session, due to limits on parliamentary time, we are committed to introducing the legislation necessary to create a guiding mind, Great British Railways, as soon as possible.
As many Members are aware, a competition was run to identify the location for the Great British Railways headquarters. I welcome the support of colleagues for the six shortlisted towns and cities, and I note that the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has been vocal in her support for York to be the winner. I hope to be able to announce the successful location shortly—subject to other events outside the Chamber. Ahead of the legislation, we will continue to work with the Great British Railways transition team and the wider sector to push ahead with our ambitious modernisation programme to deliver real benefits for customers.
Reforming our railways means more reliable trains, faster journey times—in all, a modern, future-facing rail industry; a sector with an unswerving focus on meeting the needs of its customers, creating a simpler, better railway for communities across Britain. There will be a GBR at the heart of our rail network, with its headquarters located in one of our great railway communities. The details will be confirmed shortly, but our commitment to deliver is unchanged.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
Following the publication for the House of the Williams-Shapps review, the Government announced in the Queen’s Speech on 10 May 2022:
“Legislation will be introduced to modernise rail services and improve reliability for passengers”.
As part of this process, the then Transport Secretary launched a high-profile competition for the location of the headquarters outside London. Forty-two locations bid and six were shortlisted, including York, as part of the levelling-up agenda. Each location shortlisted hosted a ministerial visit over the summer of 2022, involving public sector, rail industry and community stakeholders. In parallel, the public participated in a public vote over their preferred destination. All this was at significant cost to local authorities. Last Wednesday, the Secretary of State shelved her plans for this Session. No written or oral statement has been made to the House until today.
Let me therefore ask the following questions. Why did the Secretary of State not have the courtesy to announce her U-turn on Great British Railways to the House? If the relocation of the new headquarters is to proceed, what will the process be, and if not, given that hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent by local authorities, how will the Secretary of State compensate shortlisted authorities? What was the result of the public vote? What are the reasons for shelving the plans for the future of Great British Railways in the current Session? How, in the interim, will the Secretary of State address the failure issues across the rail network that Great British Railways was to resolve, including contract failure on the west coast main line and elsewhere? What discussions has she had with the trade unions on abandoning her plans, and on the implications for the workforce across the rail sector? Is she now abandoning Williams-Shapps, levelling up, and any semblance of government? The Great British public deserve better.
I think it is worth pointing out that the comments referred to were made to a Select Committee of this House, the Transport Committee, and that the Secretary of State was therefore giving information in her role as Transport Secretary and keeping Members up to date. As I touched on in my initial answer, there will be a Great British Railways HQ located in one of our great railway communities. I am sorry to disappoint people, but I will not be announcing from the Dispatch Box today where that will be, but it is something that we are committed to doing. It has been inspiring to see the excitement about the competition; it shows what rail can bring to local communities. Certainly there will be a successful bidder, so to speak, and they will be announced in the not-too-distant future.
Yes, the Secretary of State has met the general secretaries of the leading trade unions involved in the rail sector, but that was not to discuss abandoning the plan, because we have not abandoned the plan. We are still taking forward a range of work to reform and modernise our railways, and there is plenty we can do, even in the absence of a Bill in the third Session. I am confident that Great British Railways will make a difference to our rail network. It would be tempting, in these interesting circumstances in which I come to the Dispatch Box, to make a raft of pledges on things I would quite like to do with the railways, but we are certainly conscious that we need to reform and move forward, and that is something that most people across the sector realise. There might be slightly different views about exactly how to go about that, but I am keen to see it taken forward to make the difference for our customers and communities, who deserve a rail network that delivers for them.
It was in the Transport Committee that the Secretary of State gave us this news about Great British Railways. I understand the concern about her not coming to the Dispatch Box to do so, but surely everybody supports the concept of a Select Committee getting fresh information from those who come before it. The Secretary of State also told us that the guiding mind of Great British Railways can still be advanced without legislation, because there is a lot that can be brought forward and very few parts of it need legislation. Can the Minister set out some of the ideas that would see the guiding mind being brought forward, notwithstanding the fact that the legislation would be slightly lagging behind?
The Chair of the Transport Committee is absolutely right to highlight the role that his Committee can play as a group of experienced, and in some cases expert, Members who can analyse issues and question Ministers on their performance. It is appropriate to use a Select Committee as a place to engage and discuss where Government’s thinking is going. What can be achieved without legislation includes workforce reform, delivering local partnerships, bringing forward a more long-term strategy for rail and reforming how we use ticketing. I think we all recognise that post-pandemic far fewer people are buying season tickets compared with on-the-day tickets, and we are looking at the changes that may flow from that changing pattern. There is still plenty that we can be cracking on with and delivering at the initial stage of reform without having primary legislation as part of it.
As usual, this Government are in chaos of their own making. We would not be standing here today if they were capable of making commitments and sticking to them. They are stopping a project in its tracks despite millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money already having been spent. They are asking towns and cities to invest precious time and money in their headquarters bids but completely mothballing the relevant legislation in any transport Bill within this parliamentary Session. They are showing a serious lack of ambition and long-term vision and leaving the whole of the rail industry in the lurch.
I asked the rail Minister about this very issue in the last Transport questions but was effectively fobbed off. We should not be surprised at that, considering the mess they have made of our railways. Last week 55 services on the TransPennine Express were cancelled in just one day, and two of our northern Mayors could not travel to Liverpool for a press briefing on train cancellations because of train cancellations. Avanti West Coast has slashed more than 220,000 seats per week, but despite this, one of the Transport Secretary’s first acts was to ensure that a lucrative contract extension was in place. As usual, the Tories are rewarding failure. People across our country are paying the price for a system that the Conservative party has already admitted must change but refuses to say how or when. The Conservatives promised at their party conference, with a straight face, to get Britain moving, yet all we have seen is stoppages, strikes and the managed decline of our railways, and now they are abandoning their flagship policy as a direct result of their aimless and distracted party. They are a shambolic Government with no plan and no ideas.
Will the Minister clarify the future of Great British Railways? Has it been stopped in its tracks? When will his Department get a grip on the railways and deliver a proper service for passengers across our country?
Luckily, I have already answered the hon. Gentleman’s first question. We have certainly not brought Great British Railways to a halt. Again, we said the location of its headquarters will be announced shortly. This has not been stopped, abandoned or any of the other things we are hearing from the Labour party. We are very clear that we want to look forward to a rail network that is seeing massive, almost unprecedented investment, and in which customers can look forward to better facilities and better services that deliver for their communities. I leave it to the hon. Gentleman to look back wistfully at British Rail.
It is clear we have a very busy legislative programme, but that does not necessarily mean we have to stop things like fares reform, network efficiency, flexible ticketing or encouraging more people back on to our railways. Those things do not need legislation; they just need progression. This time will allow my hon. Friend to ensure a significant role for the private sector in rail reform and, of course, to further consider the merits of York as the location of the headquarters of Great British Railways.
I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a range of things we can take forward, not least fares reform and innovative practices such as last year’s rail sale. There is plenty of work that can still be done, and we will certainly be getting on with it.
The rail industry and GBR are in stasis, and there is little evidence of progress coming from the Department for Transport. Six months ago, the previous Secretary of State promised we “would not be disappointed” with the legislation to create GBR, but I am feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The Williams review promised that GBR will
“take a whole-system view, allowing it to make choices and decisions more effectively. It will enable the railways to be run as a public service”.
That vision lies in tatters for now. We know that long-term thinking and planning are key, but instead we have a piecemeal, stop-start process that will take years, if not decades, to achieve real change in a key part of our national infrastructure.
When can we expect anybody, GBR or otherwise, to take a whole-system view of rail in this country? With ScotRail back in public ownership, there is one part of the UK where the railways are run as a public service. Will the Minister use the transport mini-Bill to devolve Network Rail to Scotland, to ensure that a fully integrated and fully publicly owned railway can be run somewhere in the UK?
I can understand why not having an integrated rail network across Great Britain is a particular priority for the Scottish National party. It clearly is a priority for this UK Government. We will not be looking to devolve responsibility for rail infrastructure, not least because the SNP’s main idea at the moment seems to be stopping the trains for passport control at the border.
On the wider pitch, we are determined to make a difference with our railways. We are seeing real innovation, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have looked at, for example, the experience of Lumo trains from Edinburgh to London. Lumo is an open-access operator that is pulling traffic away from air and on to rail, which is exactly what we want to see. We will get on with the many reforms we can make without primary legislation, but one of them will not be creating a disjointed rail network.
When will the Government and railway companies come forward with proposals for an improved pattern of services that attracts many more fare-paying passengers? We need to get the deficit down very quickly and the best way of doing so is by getting more people paying fares willingly.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Clearly, demand patterns have changed dramatically during the pandemic. For example, a lot fewer people are commuting into London at 7 am to 9 am and then leaving between 5 pm and 7 pm, or they are doing that three or four days a week rather than five, so there is a need to look at how we can adapt. We are giving slightly more flexibility to some operating companies, and looking at how we use our ticketing and, in particular, our ticket pricing. The rail sale was a great way of getting a lot of people on to trains that might otherwise have been relatively quiet, producing new revenue to the railways. In addition, as I said in response to the SNP spokesperson, Lumo is targeting traffic that goes by air to get it on tracks.
My constituents would really struggle to describe British railways as “great”, because their lives are made a misery by Avanti and TransPennine, which continually cancel trains, leading to their missing job interviews, school and education. Today, a commute that should have taken me two and a half hours took me almost five—I only just made it in time for Education questions. May I ask the Minister why on earth his Government extended the contract with Avanti? Frankly, my constituents do not understand why.
We made it clear when we extended the contract for only six months that it was a probationary period, to allow Avanti to implement the recovery plan that it has and is intending to bring forward in December. We will judge whether to extend its contract any further based on how that goes.
The rail Minister is right to talk about the need for rail reform, but may I urge him to use the couple of months of extra time that he has won by postponing legislation to revisit some core conclusions of the Williams-Shapps review, which are out of date because they are based on work done before the pandemic? He has mentioned the changes in customer demand and we need to rethink some crucial things, particularly the role of Great British Railways as the fat controller and a central planner rather than a genuine slimline system operator.
I am keen that GBR adapts to the changes we have seen since the pandemic, but we are seeing this across the whole industry and in the discussions the train operating companies want to have with Government. We will certainly use any time we have to ensure that our proposals make a difference and have the most positive impact for customers and communities.
My constituents were recently informed by Southeastern of huge timetable changes, with the result that they will have to make significant amendments to their commutes. Southeastern did that with no public consultation, despite being a publicly owned franchise. Will the Minister ensure that Southeastern goes back to consult, so that rail users have their voices heard before such significant changes are made?
I am aware that Southeastern is taking feedback on its proposals. It is important that it engages with communities and, in particular, with their representatives in this House. Given the number of changes that have had to be made in the past couple of years, there is more flexibility for operators, including those that are publicly owned, to react to emerging patterns of demand. However, I understand that Southeastern will be listening and looking at the feedback it gets on its proposed changes.
The Minister has been brilliantly clear that the creation of GBR will play a significant part in levelling up transport connectivity in the north and midlands, but he also knows that it is vital to ensure that London and the home counties are better connected. Travel times from my constituency, and particularly from Camberley, Frimley and Bagshot, to London have not improved since the age of Queen Victoria. Will he put a Stephenson’s Rocket up the fundament of those bureaucrats who have been standing in the way of the progress my constituents require?
Presumably it would be more like putting an electrified Michael on the case as well. Demands have changed, particularly in London and the south-east. We are seeing the results of investment, particularly that which my right hon. Friend was instrumental in helping to secure during his time in the Cabinet, for example, with the opening of Bond Street station to passengers this morning. People are starting to see major improvements in London and the south-east, but I accept that they will also look to what is happening on their local line and I will be happy to discuss with him what could be done on the one he cites.
The setting up of Great British Railways was meant to include ticketing and pricing, and the cost of commuting continues to weigh heavily on my constituents, particularly during the cost of living crisis. Furthermore, if we want to encourage people on to the trains and out of their cars, it is key that we make trains affordable. The Department for Transport has said that it will not put up regulated rail fares by 12.3%, in line with July’s retail prices index, but will the Minister commit to freezing rail fares next January, to help with the cost of living crisis and the fight against climate change?
It is worth saying that there are a range of fares available on our railways, particularly in London and the south-east, where people use pay as you go and contactless bank cards. We have said that we will not take the normal approach—which also existed during the coalition—of using the RPI figure to set fares next year, and a fair rise has been delayed. We look forward to introducing plans that strike a balance between a railway that is affordable for not only the taxpayer but customers and communities.
The pandemic and the reckless strike actions we have seen have caused significant disruption to our rail services. Does my hon. Friend agree that the focus should now be on restoring services and maximising investment in improving stations—for example, by reopening the stations at Meir and Trentham in my constituency?
I am always pleased at the Dispatch Box to hear colleagues argue passionately for the reinstatement and further expansion of parts of our rail network. It has also been good to engage with Members on both sides of the House on the Restoring Your Railways project, and our goal is to get services restored. A lot of passengers are coming back on to the railways, and we are keen to see that, but people must have the confidence to come back, and that is where industrial action is so damaging. We are looking to restore many services, but we also have to take account of the fact that patterns of demand have changed, particularly in relation to commuting between 7 am and 9 am and between 5 pm and 7 pm, given the changes in the wider economy.
As the birthplace of British railways, Newcastle has bid to be the home of GBR, so will the Minister tell us what we would win if we were to win? The last Prime Minister, or perhaps she is still the Prime Minister—I am not sure, because I cannot keep up with Tory chaos; anyway, it was a recent Prime Minister—committed to the implementation in full of Northern Powerhouse Rail, so will the Minister also tell us whether that commitment will outlast the transport Bill?
The NPR statement from the Prime Minister was very welcome, and it was welcomed on both sides of the House. The winning community will be very much the headquarters of the UK’s railways, and I very much look forward to announcing—subject to some of the things that have been alluded to—the successful town or city in the near future.
In the spring and early summer this year I spent many days campaigning and collecting signatures for a petition for Doncaster—the greatest railway town in the country—to become the home of the Great British Railways headquarters. Will the Minister confirm that my boot leather was not wasted and that Doncaster is still very much in the running?
I am glad to hear of the effort my hon. Friend put in. I can see a couple of colleagues in the Chamber who will agree with his views about Doncaster, and others who might suggest other communities instead. As I have said, there will be a winner and there will be a headquarters for Great British Railways, and I genuinely hope to be the person to announce that fairly soon.
I am sure we would all agree that failure should not be rewarded with promotion or long contract extensions. I hope we would also agree that Great British Railways will never be truly great without the considerable investment needed in infrastructure across our rail network. Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify the Government’s progress on the Network Rail enhancements pipeline, given that a report published today noted that there had been no progress on one third of all the projects since the plan was published for 2019-24?
The updated rail network enhancements pipeline will be published in due course—shortly might be another way of putting it. But I look at the investment that we are putting into our railways and see £96 billion in the integrated rail plan. I look at the fact that the first major mainline in this country since the Victorian era is under construction now and is on its way to Birmingham, then Crewe and then Manchester. That level of investment in our railways is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, and it is very welcome.
I declare a very personal interest in this matter, Mr Speaker. In the past three days, I have tried to make four journeys between Manchester, Edinburgh and London. Two were more than half an hour late, three were cancelled and one was then uncancelled when the driver of the preceding cancelled train turned up after all and was able to drive my train. However, I say to the Minister, because he has talked about ticketing and pricing, that there is a particular issue where different companies serve the same destinations and charge different and non-interchangeable prices. Can that be addressed ahead of legislation?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point about making sure that ticket prices are able to be clearly understood by customers and consumers and that they are fair overall. However, open access operators, for example Lumo from Edinburgh, provide a different pricing plan which is of benefit to customers. It is something that we are keen to see simplified and an area on which we look to work.
Bedford residents are sick and tired of waiting for a detailed decision on East West Rail. Some are finding it difficult to sell blighted homes. Others are living under the spectre of their homes being demolished if plans in their current form go ahead through Bedford. Shockingly, we are still waiting for a response to the consultation that ended a year and a half ago, in which time there have been three rail Ministers. Will the Minister put an end to this chaos and confirm when the plans will be published?
I thank the hon. Member for raising East West Rail, a major investment we are making in improving connectivity across our country, driving economic growth and revitalising rail lines, some of which have some of the least used stations in the whole country, which will soon become much more vibrant hubs for their local community. We look forward to confirming further details on stages 2 and 3, in particular between Bedford and Cambridge, in the near future.
It seems to my constituents that improving efficiency involves cutting trains altogether; they cannot be late if they do not run. I have lost three peak-time train services on the Sidcup line that serves New Eltham and Mottingham and two peak-time train services in the morning at Eltham and Falconwood on the Bexleyheath line and at Kidbrooke. The Minister says that Southeastern is listening, but the reason it is not, as Southeastern told the scrutiny panel at Greenwich Council last week, is that it sought and got permission from the Department for Transport to make these cuts without consultation. Will the Minister go away and ensure that there is proper consultation and that we run train services that people actually want?
I thank the hon. Member for his points. As he will be aware, the process for changing timetables has been altered over the past couple of years, again, because of the radically changing demand during the pandemic. As traffic returns, we can see that it is not returning in a uniform way across the whole network. A quick look at some of the rail usage statistics would show that. But we do expect Southeastern to be responsive to the feedback that it is getting, although I take on board the fact that, particularly at peak times in London, there have been shifts in public demand.
The former Transport Secretary was very keen to try to steal Labour’s clothes with the announcement of Great British Railways, no doubt mindful that the overwhelming majority of voters support nationalisation. Sadly, his version of Great British Railways was not the real deal. I am sure that my hon. Friend on the Front Bench will be more than happy to take the Minister or his successor through Labour’s White Paper, “GB Rail: Labour’s plan for a nationally integrated publicly owned railway”. Would the Minister like to take up the offer?
It is extremely kind of the hon. Gentleman to offer to take me through a Labour party policy document. However, I would rather stick with the plan for rail that is the Government’s policy—the one that we will continue to take forward. My focus will always be, not on dogma, but on whether customers and communities are being served. Considering the way Labour Members try to portray British Rail as a panacea of customer services, I suggest they look back on some of the old news reports about how it used to operate.
The long-awaited transport Bill, which has now been abandoned despite having been in the Queen’s Speech just months ago, was not just going to deliver Great British Railways, but address a whole range of pressing and long-overdue transport problems in this country: the menace of pavement parking, regulating e-scooters and so on. Is not the reason for this chaos that we do not have, and have not had for some months, a functioning Government? Would it not be more democratic and better if there was a general election and we had a Government with a mandate that was united to address the pressing problems the country faces?
The Minister says he is getting on with the job, so can he please get on with the job for passengers facing daily misery in Hull? TransPennine Express cancels dozens of services every day, causing real problems for commuters. It is also responsible for the toilets at Hull station, but cannot even manage to keep those clean and maintained. Can he ensure that TransPennine honours its contractual obligations and, if it cannot, that he terminates its contract?
I declare an interest, as a big supporter of the Doncaster bid, but I share the frustration of many across local government who have committed time and money in good faith to a process that so far has not delivered an outcome. Given that uncertainty, and the need to confirm the Government’s intentions for Northern Powerhouse Rail, which the Minister mentioned a moment ago, does he agree that there is an urgent requirement for the Secretary of State or a senior member of the Government to come to the House and provide clarity about the Government’s intentions in this particular area?
I have already made clear that we will—hopefully I will—look to make an announcement around the result of the headquarters competition for Great British Railways. I take on board the points made by a number of hon. Members about wishing to have a decision on which of our great railway communities will host that HQ. On the second point about Northern Powerhouse Rail, the hon. Gentleman will have heard the commitment. We are keen to engage with the region and key stakeholders, including Members of Parliament representing the communities, about how we turn the vision into a hard plan for delivery.
Doncaster Sheffield Airport
Following the strategic review of the airport announced in July this year, the Government are incredibly disappointed that Peel Group has taken the difficult decision to announce the potential closure of Doncaster Sheffield airport. While it was a commercial decision made by the owners of the airport, I fully appreciate the impact it has had not only on passengers who use the airport, including the constituents represented by many hon. Members in the South Yorkshire region, but on those businesses, organisations and people who work at the airport and within the supply chain.
As I know from growing up underneath the flightpath of Manchester airport, regional airports are key in serving our local communities, supporting thousands of jobs in the regions and acting as a key gateway to international opportunities. That is why during the pandemic the Government supported airports through schemes such as the airport and ground operations support scheme, through which Doncaster Sheffield airport was able to access grant funding.
I need to be clear that, while the UK Government support airports, they do not own or operate them. However, devolved Administrations, local and combined authorities are frequently shareholders in airports that serve their communities, as is the case with Manchester Airports Group, Birmingham airport, London Luton airport and, most recently, Teesside International. The UK aviation market operates predominantly in the private sector. Airports invest in their infrastructure to attract airlines and passengers. We will continue to support all parties to seek a commercial or local solution.
Since the announcement by Peel Group on the airport’s future on 13 July, the Government have been actively working with local stakeholders to encourage a future for aviation at the site. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and the Department for Transport have met Peel, and I understand that the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority and Doncaster Council have been working during the review to explore options for a locally led solution. The local authorities have now written to Peel Group to pass on the details of those who are interested in potential options to invest in the airport, and I understand that Peel has begun to engage with those parties.
The aviation Minister, Baroness Vere, met Peel on 19 October and strongly encouraged it to look seriously at any commercial interest. She has also been proactively encouraging Peel Group to strongly consider the local and combined authorities’ offers of bridging support if it requires extra time to take forward any discussions with investors.
The Government remain engaged and we look forward to seeing further progress. The House has today highlighted the importance of Doncaster, and I will convey the strength of feeling among Members present to Baroness Vere as she continues her work. I call on Peel Group to continue to work with stakeholders to find a commercial solution or to minimise the impact of its review of the airport.
Doncaster Sheffield airport is an important regional economic asset with thousands of jobs dependent on it. Despite Peel Group’s announcement of its closure, local leaders have made every effort to work with the group and press the Government to secure the airport’s future. The South Yorkshire Mayor made Peel Group an offer of public money to keep the airport running, and local leaders have helped to find three potential investors who are seriously interested in keeping the airport operational, but those efforts have met resistance at every turn. Having already run the airport down, Peel Group is still refusing to confirm whether it is willing to suspend its closure, or whether it is even in a position to sell Doncaster Sheffield Airport Ltd.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State, who could not even be bothered to turn up today, will not engage with interested parties and is refusing to invoke powers such as those in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to protect the airport. She refused three times on the Floor of the House to meet local leaders and is yet to respond to a petition signed by more than 125,000 people, despite assurances from the outgoing Prime Minister that the Secretary of State would address the issue “immediately” and “protect the airport”. Actions speak louder than words. Having created a climate of uncertainty, neither Peel Group nor the Government are using the powers and influence they have to explore every option to ensure the airport’s future. That is not good enough—for workers, for businesses, or for all of us who rely on the emergency services stationed at the airport.
I thank Doncaster Council, the South Yorkshire Mayor, my right hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton) and for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). Local leaders want the Government to work with us rather than taking a hands-off approach. Potential investors in the airport need certainty in the next 24 hours. It is imperative that Ministers step up, take action and use their powers to do everything they can to save Doncaster Sheffield airport.
The hon. Lady speaks with passion and partisanship in not mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). I think she is a little late to the party; even a cursory glance at my hon. Friend’s social media feed will show that he is on day 105 of his campaign to save Doncaster airport. He has met a series of different parties, and it is slightly beneath the hon. Lady not to recognise his efforts to protect his local community.
Baroness Vere, the aviation Minister, met Peel on 19 October, and it assures her that it is open to meeting potential investors. The Secretary of State has met Peel twice. The implication that we are not doing everything to find a solution for regional airports, which we recognise are incredibly important, is not correct.
I am sure that the Civil Contingencies Act will come up in other questions, so let me allude to it briefly. The Civil Contingencies Act is for absolute emergencies only. Even one of the operators at the airport has written to the Prime Minister to explain that it can still find contingency efforts elsewhere, so the threshold for the last Labour Government’s legislation has nowhere near been met.
This issue also came up in the Transport Committee session with the Secretary of State. We asked her whether there would be any intervention. She made it clear that it would not be financial, but that all technical assistance would be offered in the hope that there would be a solution similar to that for Teesside International Airport, where the Mayor of the Tees Valley found a solution.
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for the question. As I do not have the aviation portfolio, I will not commit from the Dispatch Box to things that are not exactly accurate; I will ask Baroness Vere to write to him with the specifics of the technical assistance. I do know that there have repeated meetings at a number of levels. When it comes to regional airports, he makes a good point. As I outlined in my opening remarks, in Manchester, Liverpool and the Tees Valley, among others, local authorities are investing to support a commercial solution. That option is available to the South Yorkshire mayoral combined authority and to Doncaster Council in this case.
I like the Minister very much and I wish her well in her ministerial duties, but she is not the aviation Minister; the Secretary of State should be here to answer this urgent question. A critical regional airport is days away from closure and she cannot be bothered to turn up. What message does it send to the people of South Yorkshire, 125,000 of whom signed a petition to keep the airport open, that she will not attend the Chamber and cannot even attend meetings with South Yorkshire MPs and leaders to discuss how we can protect Doncaster Sheffield airport? The Government have repeatedly refused to meet the Mayor of South Yorkshire and other regional leaders to discuss what options are open. It is truly a slap in the face to the hundreds of people whose jobs currently hang in the balance.
When the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—the Prime Minister for the next few hours at least—came to Yorkshire, she gave a commitment on behalf of the Government to protect Doncaster Sheffield airport. That commitment must outlast her Government, not least because this airport is of strategic significance: it has one of the longest runways in Britain, it is the base for the National Police Air Service, and it is a home to national coastguard operations.
Thanks to the leadership of the Mayor of South Yorkshire, credible investors have been identified, but it is obvious that the Peel Group never had any intention of negotiating in good faith, so it is not an option for Doncaster Council or the Mayor to purchase shares in the airport, given that the Peel Group is refusing to sell. It is willing to let the airport close, to let infrastructure be degraded and to remove any chance of its being reopened in future.
The case for action from the Government is crystal clear. The use of emergency powers under the Civil Contingencies Act is the only possible measure to keep the airport running. Potential investors have made it clear that the Secretary of State’s refusal to use those powers is creating far greater uncertainty and instability, and is making purchase at any point in future even more unlikely. Can the Minister outline precisely why the Secretary of State has refused to consider the use of the Act? That decision is political, so it is beholden on her to explain to the people of South Yorkshire why she refuses to use it. If she continues to refuse, will the Minister lay out what powers exist anywhere else that could keep the airport running?
As we await the third Prime Minister in seven weeks, there is less than a week left to save the airport. If the Government do not take the action that the people of South Yorkshire desperately need them to take, the people will conclude that this is final proof that the Tories’ levelling-up agenda is dead.
The message to the people of South Yorkshire is that they have an incredibly strong local champion in my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who has been working tirelessly to make it happen from day one. The previous aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who is present, has already met the combined authority. The hon. Lady asks where the power lies; it lies with the Labour mayoral combined authority—the local council. [Interruption.] Well, let me address the Civil Contingencies Act: it was introduced by the Blair Government. When the Minister brought it to the House, it was envisioned that it would be used in only the most serious circumstances and
“would be used rarely, if ever”.—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1109.]
No Government have used it in 18 years. The Opposition—[Interruption.] The Labour party bringing in a law that was not serious; that would astonish me! What you are doing is trying to find a piece of politicking, instead of sitting down—[Interruption.] Sorry, it is my first go, Madam Deputy Speaker. You are—[Hon. Members: “You’re doing it again!”] The hon. Lady will forgive me, as it is my first go. [Interruption.] What we need is for the Peel Group to sit down with the commercial people, and that is what it promised to do when it sat down with the aviation Minister on 19 October.
I believe that this urgent question has been raised today to take away from the Adjournment debate on this subject tonight. The Opposition have actually shown an interest in this issue for the very first time. We have a combined authority that has been sadly lacking for over three years, and the people will learn the truth tonight about that. There are Opposition Members who have only shown any interest in the last fortnight. Certain Members on the Labour Benches, who have thousands of likes on their Facebook account, pin their books to their page rather than share the petition to save our airport, and they should sit there in disgrace. Does the Minister agree with me that, if the combined authority had done its job properly, we would not be in this position now?
I warned many times, while the attention was disproportionately on the Heathrows and the Gatwicks of the world, about how the perilous position of regional airports—their recovery from covid has been far slower—was being ignored. The closure of Doncaster Sheffield is a blow to vital regional connectivity. What is—and, indeed where is—the Government’s strategy for regional connectivity? Regional connectivity is not just about flights to London, which the current public service obligation legislation solely supports, and such flights are always the first to go when slots are needed for more lucrative routes. Direct regional links with European and global destinations have to be the priority.
I have also said many times that retail is a much higher proportion of regional airports’ revenues, but we have seen VAT-free shopping at the point of sale abolished. It was to be replaced by a less generous VAT reclaim scheme, but that has also been abandoned. I ask that this issue is looked at again. At the very least the Government must look at arrivals duty-free, which has cross-party support. Will they do so?
Finally, what plans does the Minister or her colleagues have to meet people from the regional airports, including Glasgow in my constituency, to find out and act on what they need, rather than what Greater London wants?
The hon. Gentleman may be able to guess from my accent that London is not always at the forefront of my mind when making decisions. As he well knows, Doncaster airport does not have any domestic internal flights, and airlines will set those up primarily from the perspective of commerciality. I agree with him about the importance of regional connectivity. On how communities can best work together to engage with what airports want and how regional connectivity work, I refer him to models mentioned previously in which other airports have a mixture of private and local engagement that really grounds operations within them. On the position on VAT, I am afraid that I will have to write to him rather than commit a snafu at the Dispatch Box.
The Minister mentioned the Civil Contingencies Act earlier. She knows—indeed, the whole House knows—that it is a very specific piece of legislation that is intended only to be invoked in the face of a military assault, a terrorist attack or an unprecedented threat to the life of the nation. It is frivolous for the Opposition to call for it in this way, and they know that were it to be invoked by her or any other Minister, it would be subject to judicial review and struck down in the courts. Can she remind us of anywhere else that a mayoral combined authority has constructively acquired an airport, and might the person who did so be a Conservative who is more interested in delivering for people than in posturing on the Floor of this House?
It is important to commend hugely the work that has been happening at Doncaster airport with the National Police Air Service fixed wing, as well as 2Excel Aviation, the commercial company that in no small part is a preventive for oil spills and provides other important environmental protections. Not only is my right hon. Friend correct about the scale of intervention under the Civil Contingencies Act, but 2Excel has confirmation that it can meet its contracts and determinations in a different way with contingency plans, even further lowering that. I thank Members for their service, but this is not the nature of the emergency for which the Act was set up by a previous Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 2004.