House of Commons
Monday 28 November 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—
Young People’s Social Mobility: Student Finance Rules:
We have always believed that anyone who wants to, and can benefit from it, should get access to a world-class higher education. Since we took over from Labour, 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are 82% more likely to enter full-time higher education—that is for 2021 compared with 2010. Our reforms will make student loans more sustainable and fairer for graduates and taxpayers, and will help to boost learning across a lifetime, not just in universities. A full equality impact assessment of the changes has been conducted and was published on 24 February.
In his autumn statement, the Chancellor spoke for nearly an hour but failed to mention students once. The Office for National Statistics reports that three in 10 students are skipping lectures to save money and a quarter have taken on new debt because of the dire economic situation. Why are the Government neglecting students who are buckling under the pressure of the cost of living crisis?
I assure the hon. Lady that the Chancellor did mention teaching and all our teaching staff, which of course includes university teaching staff. 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. Any student who is struggling should speak to their university about the support it offers. Many universities are doing a fantastic job to provide further support: the University of Leeds has increased its student financial assistance fund almost fivefold to £1.9 million; Queen Mary University of London has a bursary scheme for lower-income families; and Buckinghamshire New University has kept its accommodation rates for halls of residence at pre-pandemic levels, so a lot of support is on hand for students.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her new role and wish her all success. I strongly support the reforms to make the student loan repayment system fairer for students so that graduates will no longer repay more than they have borrowed in real terms. That is good news. Does she agree that Conservative Governments have delivered on our commitment to address student loan interest rates?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome. We did commit to address student interest rates and we have delivered on that, which I am sure all hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome.
Cost of Living: Government Support for Schools and Parents
I recognise the current challenges faced by families and public services. We know that things are tough out there, which is why we are acting in the national interest and why we have secured funding to increase the schools budget by £2 billion next year and the year after. All education settings are benefiting from the energy bill relief scheme, which will protect them from excessively high energy bills over the winter. In addition, we are committed to supporting the most vulnerable households through the toughest part of the year with additional direct support, and we are supporting schools and parents to make sure that we can all get through this.
I, too, welcome the Education Secretary and her team to the Front Bench. I thank her for that response, but I point out that due to runaway costs, schools can barely stay open for five days a week, let alone provide transport. Home-to-school transport is being pared back and public transport, certainly in east Durham, is unreliable and deteriorating. Can she give us some good news and tell us what she is doing to ensure that schools can afford to pay their heating bills and stay open? How will she guarantee access to education during the cost of living crisis?
I can give the hon. Gentleman good news, because we heard in the autumn statement that education will be funded by an extra £2 billion next year and the year after. We will be working through how that will affect schools; each school will get its individual allocation. School funding is £4 billion higher this year compared with last year, and the autumn statement has confirmed that increase, which takes the core schools budget to an historic high of £58.8 billion. That will deliver significant additional support to pupils and teachers and will, I am sure, be welcomed by the sector.
What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to promote the Government’s Healthy Start scheme, and to ensure that eligible families receive the vouchers to which they are entitled?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Healthy Start scheme, on which we are working with the Department of Health and Social Care, delivers healthy foods and milk for women over 10 weeks’ pregnant or anyone with a child under four. Beyond this, our investment in families is very important, and we are also investing £300 million in the Start for Life family hubs, which will complement all of the others. We will of course make sure that people are aware of all the schemes in those family hubs.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her new position, and indeed her team.
It was deplorable that the Chancellor failed to expand free school meals in his autumn statement. It means that at least 100,000 schoolchildren in poverty in England will continue to be denied a nutritious meal at school, which puts additional pressure on parents trying to provide for them. Will the Secretary of State urge the Chancellor to replicate the work of the Scottish Government, who have committed to providing universal free school meals to all primary children?
We understand the pressures that many households are under, and that is why we are spending more than £1.6 billion per year so that children have access to nutritious meals during the school day and in holidays. The Government have indeed expanded free school meals more than any other Government in recent decades. We have put in place generous protection that means families on universal credit will also retain their free school meal eligibility. We now have a third of children in this country on free school meals, and I know that is very welcome for the families. We will have extended free school meals, and we will continue to support further education students with them as well.
Accessible and Affordable Childcare
We are committed to improving the cost, choice and accessibility of childcare, and have spent more than £20 billion over the last five years supporting families with the cost of childcare.
The Government are knowingly underfunding the entitlement to 15 or 30 hours of childcare by over £2 per hour, thereby forcing providers to cross-subsidise and leading to astronomical costs for parents. New Ofsted data shows that 4,000 childcare providers closed within the year to March 2022, thereby further limiting access to childcare. When parents are having to pay more for their childcare than on their rent or mortgage, and adults without children are saying that childcare costs are forcing them out of parenting and precluding them from that, does she agree that she and the Government are presiding over a broken childcare system?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. Childcare is of course enormously important, and it is this Conservative Government who have expanded the childcare offer successively over a number of years. Last year in the spending review, we set out an additional £500 million to come into the sector, and we are also supporting private providers with their energy bills this year.[Official Report, 6 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 4MC.]
SEND Delivery: Rural Areas
All local authorities, including those in rural areas, are subject to robust special educational needs and disabilities inspections, and Ofsted will shortly be announcing plans for a strengthened inspection framework. This is an area that both the Education Secretary and I are incredibly passionate about, and one which she knows from her time as a Health Minister and I know from my time as the Minister for disabled people. Today, my right hon. Friend has sent letters to those in the sector confirming that we will publish a full response to the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper, with an improvement plan, early in the new year.
Many of my secondary school heads believe that, with the further devolvement of responsibility away from local education authorities, they could significantly enhance provision in their rural area. Would my hon. Friend agree to meet my school heads to discuss their ideas?
I would like to thank my hon. Friend for a productive discussion last week. I absolutely agree with her—I know she is a former teacher—that empowering schools is crucial to ensure we have the right provision for SEND children in rural areas. The SEND and AP Green Paper proposed new standards based on the evidence of what works to make sure that local schools feel the sense of empowerment she so rightly talks about. Of course, if her heads write to me, I would be happy to respond.
The excellent community-run Ted Wragg Trust, which runs all the secondary schools in my constituency of Exeter, recently wanted to take over a failing local school—it started as a Steiner school, was then pushed on to another provider, which failed, and it has now been pushed on to another one—but the Government have decided not to allow that to happen. Could she explain—if not now, then perhaps in writing to me—why the Government did not listen to this very good idea to expand and improve local special educational needs provision in my constituency, but stuck to their ideological obsession with privately-run academies?
I will be happy to look into that in detail and write to the right hon. Gentleman further about it, but I would say that the Department is working to improve all schools in terms of SEND needs across different sectors and we are working with all of them.
I call the Opposition spokesperson.
While this Government have been preoccupied with their own internal disputes, the trashing of the UK economy and an endless merry-go-round of ministerial reshuffles, children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families are left to suffer. It is now eight months since the publication of the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper and more than four months since the consultation closed. The Minister’s predecessor had promised a response to the consultation by the end of the year. Can the new Minister confirm when the full results of the consultation and the Government response will be published, because children with SEND and their families have already been waiting for far too long?
If the hon. Lady had been listening, she would know that I just said we will be publishing early in the new year; if she was not just reading out a scripted question, she might have cottoned on to that point. This is an important area. I have many affected constituents so have seen all of this first hand, as I have in previous roles and from talking to parents across the country. We want to make sure that we are delivering for parents and children with SEND. We will set out that paper early in the new year addressing many of the challenges they are currently facing.
School Places: Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities
We are making a transformational investment in SEND places by investing £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 to help deliver new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND or who require alternative provision as well as up to 60 new special and AP free schools.
I welcome that news and investment. Wiltshire Council has a policy of investing, particularly in mainstream places for children with special needs, and I applaud that. Does the Minister agree that that means parents need proper accountability for the performance of the schools their children are going to, and will she encourage Ofsted to do more to appraise mainstream schools on the support they give to children with special needs?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for Wiltshire and I applaud the council on the work it is doing. Ofsted is revising its framework on this area, which was set out in the Green Paper earlier this year. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that we are also looking at better local and national dashboards to improve local accountability.
I thank the Minister, who has already said that the consultation results will come out in January, but day in, day out in Leicestershire we hear cases involving parents who have had to struggle and fight to get SEND support, which is one of the biggest problems they face. Will that be put at the heart of the review? Secondly, the Minister talked about the £2.6 billion. How can the likes of Leicestershire get hold of some of that cash to improve one of the biggest areas of struggle in SEND provision?
My hon. Friend is right that many parents find the system adversarial. That is one of the key things we are seeking to address by making what parents can expect much clearer and by simplifying and digitising their EHCP—education, health and care plan—application process, among our other measures. Meanwhile, Leicestershire will continue to be supported through its delivering better value programme, among other things.
Since I was elected in Ipswich we have had two new special schools, the Sir Bobby Robson School, which now has 60 pupils, and the Woodbridge Road Academy, currently in temporary buildings and moving into permanent buildings in 2023, with 16 pupils going up to 60 pupils. However, the Sir Bobby Robson School is already very over-subscribed and I imagine the same will be the case for the Woodbridge Road Academy. Will the Minister visit Ipswich to meet me and the heads of both schools to discuss how the funding formula could be tweaked to ensure that Suffolk SEND is fairly funded and that we have more top-quality places in special schools for the wonderful neuro-diverse thinkers in Ipswich?
My hon. Friend has spoken to me multiple times about the excellent school provision in his area, and I would be delighted to visit and see more for myself.
I welcome the Minister and the whole Front-Bench team to their new roles. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that children from low-income backgrounds are more likely to have a special educational need but less likely to receive support or interventions that address their needs. I note the comments the Minister has just made, but given that Barnsley has one of the highest numbers of EHCPs in the country, can she guarantee that she will move heaven and earth to make sure schools have the resources they need for this specialist provision?
We absolutely need to address the plight of low-income families struggling with the system when their children have SEND. The amount of funding that has gone into the SEND high needs block has risen by 40% over the last three years, so we are putting the funding in, but we absolutely need to ensure that it is going to the right families.
Teaching assistants providing one-to-one support are vital for children with additional needs to succeed in the classroom, but many are leaving because the pay is too low for them to survive during the economic crisis. What steps are Ministers taking to improve both recruitment and retention rates for SEND teaching assistants?
I point to the £2 billion extra funding that is going into the schools system next year and the year after as well as the huge increase of funding that I just mentioned going into the SEND sector.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place and indeed the whole ministerial team. I acknowledge the extra money going in from the autumn statement, but when I met the Hoyland Common Academy Trust, I was told that its energy bills are going up by 400% and that budgetary pressures mean that support for all pupils—including those with SEND—will be affected. I have written to the Secretary of State along with my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), so will she meet us to discuss that further?
As I have mentioned, there is extra money going into the schools system, which was set out in the autumn statement. The energy relief scheme, which is helping schools with their energy bills, will also last throughout the winter.
I call the Chair of the Education Committee. Congratulations.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. High needs pupils need
“the right support in the right place at the right time”.
Those are not my words but those of the Government’s Green Paper, and yet BBC local radio in Worcestershire is reporting today that a nine-year-old with autism missed a year of education because our specialist schools are full and he could not get the support that he needed in mainstream. Instead, he was offered a placement 110 miles away, but that fell through. What progress has been made in spending the billions of extra high needs capital announced at the spending review? When can we expect more provision in Worcestershire?
It is absolutely tragic that anyone might spend that amount of time outside of school. In March we announced £1.4 billion of high needs provision capital allocations, of which Worcestershire is receiving just over £10.7 million between 2022 and 2024 to help create new places in both mainstream and special schools. It is up to the local authority to determine how best to use that funding. However, the practice of sending children very far away is one thing that we would like to address in our response to the Green Paper.
Students: Cost of Living Support
I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), for her authenticity and passion for skills. 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. The Government have also introduced the Energy Prices Act 2022, which ensures that landlords pass energy bill discounts on to tenants, including students.
The Office for National Statistics has reported that more than half of students are facing financial difficulties and a quarter are taking on extra debts. Indeed, I recently met student union reps who confirmed that. Students must not be the forgotten victims of the cost of living crisis. The Government claim that they support learning for life, yet part-time, often mature students face particular challenges in the cost of living crisis. Will the Minister look at the Open University’s recommendations calling for the extension of maintenance loans to undergraduate students studying part time, an extension to parents’ living allowance and childcare grant for all part-time undergraduate students and the introduction of maintenance bursaries for undergraduate students who are in most need?
I have great admiration for the Open University and will of course look at those recommendations carefully. However, I reiterate that we are doing everything possible to help students with financial hardship. I mentioned the £261 million student premium and the help with energy bills meaning that students who are tenants of landlords will get up to £400. The student loan has been frozen for the past few years. Students facing hardship can apply for special hardship funds and can also have their living costs support reassessed. The hon. Member will know that, as has been highlighted, interest rates over the next couple of years will increase only in line with the retail price index.
I welcome the new Secretary of State and the rest of her team to the Front Bench. On 19 October, in a written parliamentary question, I asked the previous universities Minister, the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), whether she had conducted an equalities analysis of the impact of rising prices on students. In short, the Government had not, so do they have any idea of how the cost of living is affecting students from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds?
We know that the cost of living is affecting students from all backgrounds, and especially disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why, as I mentioned, students can draw on the £261 million student premium; why students facing hardship can access their university’s hardship fund; why students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who find that their living costs have increased significantly, can apply to have their costs reassessed; and why we have increased the maximum loans and grants by 2.3% this academic year to try to help students. In every possible way we are trying to help students who face financial hardship.
Education Recovery: Support for Pupils
Welcome back, Minister.
It is a pleasure to be back, Mr Speaker. The Government are spending £5 billion to help children recover from missed education as a result of covid lockdown periods. That includes up to 100 million tutor hours for five to 19-year-olds and a catch-up and recovery premium paid directly to schools to provide evidence-based approaches to help pupils catch up, and all 16 to 19-year-olds in education will receive an extra 40 hours of teaching a year.
Students in my Dudley North constituency need and deserve the best possible education. As they are our future workforce, businesses and public services depend on that. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that all Dudley schools have access to the best facilities, the best funds and the best teachers as they recover from time lost during covid and, moreover, historically poor access to the best lifetime opportunities?
Fifty-five educational investment areas, including Dudley, are being prioritised for funding to help strong multi-academy trusts to grow and to help improve underperforming schools. Nearly all secondary schools in Dudley are eligible for the levelling-up premium, which is a £3,000 tax-free bonus for maths, physics, chemistry and computing teachers in the first five years of their careers who work in schools where they are needed most. The Government are using every tool available, including funding, to help ensure that every child can catch up on lost education due to the pandemic.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming pupils and teachers from Pontypridd High School who are in the Public Gallery? The teachers do fantastic work in trying to catch up from covid, but one of the increased pressures on time is the rise and threat of harmful incel culture in our schools. None of the past four Education Secretaries has made any public comment on the rise of misogynistic ideology in our schools, so will the Secretary of State outline her plans to support teachers, who deal with that day in, day out, in their efforts to tackle incel culture, which poses a unique threat for women and girls across society?
I join the hon. Lady in welcoming the school pupils in the Public Gallery today—it is very good to have children visiting the Houses of Parliament, and I welcome all children who love to come to our House. I also agree with her about having a respectful culture in our schools. It is hugely important, both online and offline, that pupils and staff feel safe and respected in our schools.
Headteachers across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke see the importance of the national tutoring programme, but they were concerned when Schools Week reported that £150 million could be clawed back from the scheme through the Treasury. Will the Minister back the plan that I was hoping to initiate when I was in the Department—albeit briefly—and make sure that we reinvest that in the third year of the national tutoring programme to increase the grant to nearly 50%?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the passionate way in which he conducted the role of Schools Minister in the Department and for bringing to that role all his experience as a schoolteacher. We have allocated almost £5 billion to catch-up programmes, including £1.5 billion to tutoring. My hon. Friend is right: because the evidence about the effectiveness of one-to-one and small-group tuition is so strong, we want schools to use the money we have given them for that. We have been clear that the national tutoring programme funding can be used only for tutoring and that the Department will recover any unspent NTP funding.
Helping children to catch up after the pandemic is partly about providing fit-for-purpose facilities, but the Government’s plan to cut education capital spending by £1 billion in real terms puts that at risk. Tiverton High School has been waiting for more than a decade to be rebuilt. Can the Minister guarantee that my constituents will not have to wait another decade? Will they finally see the rebuild approved in the next funding allocation?
We have been spending £13 billion on capital since 2015. The Department has met representatives from Tiverton High School to discuss its buildings. We are currently in the process of assessing nominations for the school rebuilding programme; we expect to prioritise up to 300 schools in the financial year to 2023. An announcement of the successful bids under that programme will be made before the end of the year.
Financial Education in Secondary Schools
I am a passionate champion of an education that gives children the real-world knowledge and skills that they need for later life. A good grounding in maths for children is essential for understanding things like interest rates, compound interest and the changing landscape of financial products. On Thursday, I was pleased to visit Chesterton Primary School in Battersea with the Schools Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), to mark the first ever set of national data on children’s times tables, alongside announcing up to £59.3 million of investment to continue to increase the quality of maths teaching.
In conversation with my local Jobcentre Plus team earlier this year, I was told that the No. 1 thing missing for school leavers is employability skills, which are partly about understanding finances, bank accounts, loans, credit cards and taxes—all the stodgy, boring, grown-up stuff. Does my right hon. Friend agree that making sure that school leavers are equipped with information about those things will stop them getting into financial difficulty as young adults and will set them up well for the future?
I agree that understanding finances is essential; I learned that myself in my Saturday job at St John’s market, where I worked in a shop from the age of 13. Education on financial matters also provides an opportunity to teach about fraud. Pupils receive financial education throughout the national curriculum in mathematics and citizenship; for pupils of secondary school age, that includes compulsory content covering the functions and uses of money, financial products and services, and the need to understand financial risk.
I am currently the only degree apprentice in this House, but I am determined to ensure that I am the first of many. We have seen year-on-year growth in degree-level apprenticeships, with more than 148,000 starts since their reintroduction in 2014, including apprenticeships in law, accounting and clinical science. We are working in schools and colleges and with UCAS to ensure that more young people are aware of the benefits of apprenticeships. We are making £8 million available to higher education providers to expand their degree apprenticeship offers.
In Southend West, 830 young people are undertaking degree apprenticeships, including many at our outstanding South Essex College. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if local businesses that require mechanics, bricklayers, lawyers and so on could be incentivised to connect with the college and help to train apprentices, rather than just providing work placements, it would be a brilliant way for local employers not only to headhunt the best students for good jobs, but to provide better-quality apprenticeships, boost opportunities and boost our local economy?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who continues to champion students and businesses in Southend West. The local skills improvement plans that we have introduced under the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 will place employers at the heart of local skills systems and will facilitate more dynamic working arrangements among employers, colleges and other skills providers. Essex Chambers of Commerce has recently been chosen to lead on the development of an LSIP for the Essex, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock area. It is good to see that South Essex College is working with Essex Chambers of Commerce to achieve that.
I welcome the Secretary of State and her team to their new positions, or back to their old ones. From her work on the Public Accounts Committee, among other things, she will know of the desperate need in this country for digital and cyber skills. At the recent Silicon Milkroundabout, a special day called Next Gen was set up to encourage companies to take on new graduates or people with lower qualifications, but companies said that they would only really take people with three years’ postgraduate experience. Does she think that there is an opportunity in the sector to boost apprenticeships? Would she be willing to work with businesses in Shoreditch to promote them?
I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. I would be very happy to work with businesses in Shoreditch. When I was the skills and apprenticeships Minister, I worked with Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, and I know that it is vital for digital and cyber offers to be made across the landscape. I recently visited Aston University, which is working with a local college to develop an institute of technology to provide, for instance, much-needed digital apprenticeships and full-time courses, and I would be happy to work with anyone who wants to ensure that that vital provision continues.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her latest position—she has had a dizzying array of jobs recently, so it is great to see her in this post, as I know that she has a real commitment to skills and apprenticeships.
I do not know whether the Secretary of State has had an opportunity to speak at length with the new Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), but when he chaired the Education Committee he stressed the need for greater flexibility in the apprenticeship levy. He spoke powerfully about too much of it being spent on managerial apprenticeships, and the Committee agreed entirely, so it was a considerable disappointment to hear last week that the Government now appear to be ruling out reform of the levy. Labour’s plan to increase its flexibility has been widely welcomed by employers. Do the Government recognise that the levy is not working, and that we need to give businesses and employers the flexibility they are demanding?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and for welcoming me and referring to the variety of jobs that I have had—in fact, I did 30 years’ worth of jobs before I came here, so I am used to a lot of change.
The apprenticeship levy was created to support the uptake and delivery of high-quality apprenticeships, and has been set at a level to fund this employer demand. We are making apprenticeships more flexible, providing new flexi-job and accelerated apprenticeships that are accessible to employers in all sectors—something I was working on when I was last in the Department. We have also improved the levy transfer system so that employers can make greater use of their levy funds. More than 215 employers, including Asda, HomeServe and BT Group, have pledged to transfer £14.62 million to support apprenticeships in businesses of all sizes.
West Dorset Constituency: Replacement of Temporary Classrooms
The Department provides annual funding to improve the condition of school buildings, and has committed £1.8 billion this financial year, including £2.3 million for Dorset Council. The Government’s school rebuilding programme will transform buildings in 500 schools over the next decade, prioritising those in the poorest condition and those with safety issues.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind answer. He will remember that I asked him this question when he was last at the Dispatch Box, and indeed I have asked the Chair of the Select Committee the same question many a time. My former secondary school, the Gryphon School in Sherborne, has reached a point at which the temporary classrooms are so bad that there has been a request for severe needs funding to sort them out. These are temporary classrooms in which I was schooled 25 years ago, and we have been asking about this matter for a very long time. Will my right hon. Friend kindly prioritise our request, so that the school can bring about the vital improvements that are required? I would be delighted to hear when that might happen.
My hon. Friend has meticulously, passionately and repeatedly made the case to Government for investment in the replacement of temporary buildings at the Gryphon School. Bids for the school rebuilding programme are being assessed by officials, and we expect to confirm the selection of up to 300 schools during the current financial year—in fact, we hope to make an announcement by the end of December.
The issue of school buildings is as relevant in West Dorset as it is in the rest of the country, not least because we do not know how many buildings may pose a risk to life. Given that more than one in six schools in England are in need of urgent repair, will the Minister commit himself immediately to publishing the underlying data from the Condition of School Buildings Survey—or is he happy to sweep it under the carpet?
It was this Government who started the national surveys of the condition of the school estate, and we continually keep that data up to date. Well-maintained, safe school buildings are a priority for the Government, which is why we have allocated more than £13 billion since 2015 to keeping schools safe and operational. That includes £1.8 billion in this financial year.
STEM Subjects: Uptake
At every stage, from STEM in schools to STEM in skills, we are boosting careers advice and quality qualifications, through our boot camps, our free level-3 courses, our 350-plus apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications and, of course, our 21 institutes of technology.
I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome him to his place.
Great British Nuclear is soon to announce plans to get behind gigawatt-scale and small modular reactor nuclear power stations. This massive and exciting clean energy programme is bringing our country back as a global leader in nuclear. The scale of the programme will require tens of thousands of highly skilled people in communities across Wales and England. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we have a skilled workforce to deliver this programme at pace and to create career opportunities for our young people, such as those on Ynys Môn?
My hon. Friend is a human dynamo and a champion of new nuclear. I agree it is essential that we have a workforce to support the nuclear industry and the development of gigawatt-scale and small modular reactor nuclear power stations. She will know that our reforms across the skills system will ensure that we build the highly skilled workforce we need to meet our net zero targets by 2050. If she wants to see at first hand the commitment of this Government and the Department for Education to net zero, both the Schools Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), and I are recycled Ministers.
Early Years Teacher Training
The Department has significantly expanded the number of fully funded initial teacher training places in early years for the next academic year, and it is reviewing the level-3 qualification criterion for early years, both of which are part of our package of £180 million-worth of support.[Official Report, 6 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 3MC.]
I recently visited Jelly Babies nursery at Longbridge Methodist church. [Interruption.] I did not eat any jelly babies on my visit, but I met the fantastic team who do so much to equip young children with new life skills. The Early Years Alliance is running its “We Are Educators” campaign, which I hope the Minister will support by recognising its work and the benefits for young children across the UK in general, and in Birmingham, Northfield in particular.
I know that my hon. Friend is a huge supporter of Jelly Babies, both the nursery and otherwise. The Government are supporting early years professionals with £180 million for qualifications and specific training, such as on dealing with challenging behaviour following the pandemic and on early communication.[Official Report, 6 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 3MC.]
High-quality early years education is vital, and it is the best possible investment in our future—that includes both training and provision for all. Given that school budgets were protected in the autumn statement, where will the two years of real-terms funding cuts set for the Department for Education fall? Can the Minister confirm they will not fall on early years education?
As I said in answer to earlier questions, we put an extra £0.5 billion into the early years sector in the 2021 spending review to increase the hourly rate. We are also spending money on qualifications and training for teachers. This sector is very important to us, and we continue to consider all the ways we can support it.[Official Report, 6 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 4MC.]
Undergraduate Degrees: Equal Standards
Our important sector-recognised standards are agreed by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment to ensure that degrees equip students with the skills and knowledge required for them to succeed. Provider autonomy on what and how they teach is vital, and we must avoid driving standardisation over innovation. The Office for Students regulates to these agreed standards and investigates any concerns.
For every other serious qualification, any particular grade is worth the same whether a person studied in Truro or in Tadcaster. Even though universities accept the principle of moderating their standards, no employer or student thinks a 2:1 in English or chemistry is worth the same from every university. Does the Minister agree that equally valuable degrees would give a second chance to anyone who does not get into their first-choice university, would wipe out some of the snobbery that still infects parts of our higher-education system, and would level up life chances across the country?
Of course I will consider what my hon. Friend has said, but my priority for higher education was set out in a recent speech—it is skills, jobs and social justice, by which I mean ensuring that disadvantaged people can climb the higher education ladder of opportunity. He will know that the sector regional standards set out the terms of grading and content, but we should judge students on the outcomes: are they getting good skills and are they getting good jobs?
Attendance in all state-funded schools in the period 12 September to 21 October was 93.6%. Broken down by school type, attendance was at 94.9% in primary schools, 92.2% in state secondary schools and 88.1% in special schools. Our focus now is to help and support those pupils who face barriers to returning to school following the covid lockdown.
I thank the Minister for his answer. We know that following the pandemic there was an increase in persistently absent pupils, but there has also been a recent increase in the number of children being home educated. I know from meeting constituents in Rugby that that can often arise as a consequence of a breakdown between parents and the school, and it also disproportionately affects children with special educational needs. So what steps is the Department taking to encourage that group of pupils back into the classroom?
My hon. Friend is right; attendance at school is key to a child’s life chances, but the pandemic has affected some children, particularly some with special educational needs and disabilities. We are working with headteachers, teachers and children’s social care to help to overcome the barriers that those children face in returning to school, be they mental health issues, driven in part by the lockdown, or having fallen further behind in their studies. As I have said, we have committed £5 billion on catch-up programmes and one-to-one tutoring, focused on the children who have fallen furthest behind.
I am not sure I do welcome the Secretary of State to her new post, because she was such a good co-chair of the acquired brain injuries programme board in her previous job. The Minister will know very well, as will the Secretary of State, that one thing that sometimes affects attendance at school is kids who have had brain injuries. For the first few months, everybody understands in the school but perhaps a year later their executive function is not as well developed as it might be, they have problems with attendance, they end up being treated like a naughty child and they end up in the criminal justice system. Will the Secretary of State make sure that her Department plays as strong a part as she previously did in making sure that we have a national strategy on acquired brain injury, so that we do not let our kids down?
The hon. Gentleman is right: we need to make sure that every child, no matter what injuries they have suffered, and what cognitive problems or mental health problems they face, are able to thrive in our schools system, and we will do precisely what he suggests.
I, too, pay tribute to my predecessor and the ministerial team. Last week’s national teaching awards celebrated the inspiring work our brilliant teachers do, and I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating this year’s winners and saying a massive thank you to incredible teachers such as Angela Williams, who won the lifetime achievement award, after 37 years of inspiring young minds in the Huddersfield and Kirklees area. During her career, she has helped more than 18,000 young people to achieve their dreams.
This Government recognise that a good education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better. That is why we are investing an extra £2 billion in our schools next year and the year after, and that will be the highest real-time spending on schools in history. That is what was asked for by teachers, heads and unions. Given that, I very much hope that both sides of the House will be united in calling on the unions to end the threat of strike action as our children work hard to catch up on lost learning.
I welcome this ministerial team, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who did such a brilliant job as Chair of the Select Committee on Education. I look forward to working with them all and seeking to hold them to account. I have heard concerns from both sides of the House, including today from the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), about the affordability of childcare, and I am keen that the Select Committee urgently looks into that matter. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to meet the Prime Minister’s objective of education being a silver bullet and helping more people into work, affordable childcare is essential?
Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend and I would like to take a moment to welcome him to his place. I congratulate him on becoming the Chair of the Education Committee. I am sure he will do a fantastic job and I look forward to working with him.
The early years are a vital part of every child’s education, helping to set them up for life. We are committed to improving the affordability, choice and accessibility of childcare, and have spent more than £20 billion over the past five years supporting families with their childcare costs.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to her position and, I am sure she will agree, to the best job in Government.
Parents in key worker jobs—care workers and teaching assistants—are spending more than a quarter of their pay on childcare. Parents across our country are being forced to give up jobs that they love because of the cost of childcare. Yet, in the last two fiscal statements from the right hon. Lady’s Government, there has been no action to support families. Why not?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for welcoming me to my place. It is indeed the best job in Government.
We have taken a lot of action in this area. The last Labour Government had 12.5 hours of free childcare. That is now up to 30 hours. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on early education entitlements and more than £20 billion over the past five years supporting families with the cost of childcare. Thousands of parents are benefiting from Government childcare support, but we will also work to improve the cost, choice and affordability of childcare.
On schools, Labour is committed to ending the tax breaks that private schools enjoy and to investing in driving up standards for every child. Why should we continue to provide such
“egregious state support to the already wealthy”—
the children of plutocrats and oligarchs—
“so that they might buy advantage for their own children”?
Those are not my words, Mr Speaker, but those of the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Does the Secretary of State agree with him?
I agree that the most important thing is to ensure that we focus on every child who goes to a state school getting a brilliant education. That is about 90% of all children in this country. The policy that the hon. Lady has been talking about and that Labour is developing is ill-thought through. Indeed, it could cost money and lead to disruption, as young people move from the private to the state sector. It is the politics of envy. We have fought for an extra £2 billion in the autumn statement, the highest per pupil spend in history, and I am sure that the hon. Lady—
Order. I remind Members that these are topicals and we want to get all the Back Benchers in. We do not want Front Benchers to take up all the time.
Yes, and I am delighted to return to the Department as Secretary of State to find that T-levels, which I launched as a Minister, are off to a great start. They are rigorous courses for young people. It is a fantastic achievement that, for the first cohorts of students, the pass rate was 92%. I urge all Members to visit their local college or institute of technology to see what the future of technical education looks like.
Reports that this Government could cause monumental damage to higher education by restricting international students to so-called elite universities have been described by former Universities Minister Lord Johnson as a “mindless crackdown”. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this Government will not implement such a mindless policy?
I can confirm that we have a world-class education system and we will attract the brightest students from around the world. That is good for our universities and delivers growth at home. We were proud to meet our international student ambition earlier this year to attract 600,000 international students per year by 2030. Today that is worth £29.5 billion and we are now focused on bringing in £35 billion from our education exports, which are the best in the world.[Official Report, 19 December 2022, Vol. 725, c. 2MC.]
The first thing we need to do is invest, and we are investing an extra £3.8 billion over this Parliament in skills. We have introduced the T-levels and higher technical qualifications. We are strengthening careers advice and, of course, championing apprenticeships. I am pleased to say that apprenticeship starts have increased by 8.9% over the past year.
Schools such as King’s Oak primary in Bedford are experiencing significantly increased demand for support around special educational needs and disabilities and social, emotional and mental health needs, due to the cost of living crisis. While additional funding is a relief, the Government need to urgently make clear what the overall funding announcement will mean, to ensure that essential support can be sustained for the most vulnerable children. When will the details be announced?
We have set out the announcements on funding for SEND, which, as I said, has increased by 40% over the past three years for the high needs block funding. We have also set out spending on capital grants. We are setting out early next year our proposals for the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper to make sure that that money is spent well.
Trentham Academy has recently received a very good Ofsted rating, with a number of outstanding features, following significant improvement. But the school building is in a very serious condition, with rat infestations, a number of areas of safety concerns and more than one third of classrooms below 40 square metres. Will my right hon. Friend agree to support Trentham’s being in the school rebuilding programme?
Thanks to my hon. Friend, I am very aware of the serious issues affecting the condition of the Trentham Academy building, and as always he continues to make representations on behalf of the schools in his constituency. We plan to confirm further schools for the school rebuilding programme later this year.
Children growing up in poverty have poorer school outcomes and disadvantage, which often blights lives into adulthood. The autumn statement funding announcements, much vaunted today, will only restore real-terms per pupil funding to what it was in 2010, at a time when experts are urgently calling for a new child poverty strategy to tackle that widening gap. Given the Government’s so-called commitment to levelling up and social mobility, when will they announce that new strategy?
The hon. Lady should know that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the additional schools funding announced in the autumn statement— some £2 billion extra on top of the money already announced in the White Paper—and £3.5 billion in the spending review will fully cover expected school costs up to 2024. As she rightly says, it will take spending per pupil back to at least 2010 levels in real terms, which she will recall was the highest ever level of funding.
One pledge in our 2019 manifesto was the introduction of an arts premium. The British arts are central to our soft power projection across the globe and they start in the classroom. I will be teaching an acting class in Clacton very soon; in case the question is raised, can the Minister tell me that there will be a commitment to an arts premium or an arts-specific package?
I would love to see my hon. Friend’s acting class at some stage. The arts and music are an essential part of a broad and balanced curriculum. That is why we have published, for example, a detailed model music curriculum based on best practice. Given the significant impact of covid-19 on children’s education, priorities were necessarily focused on education recovery in the last spending review, but we—
Order. I will just say once again, Minister, please stop taking advantage of these poor Back Benchers, who are desperate to get their questions in.
It is estimated that 4,000 Muslim young people every year choose, with a heavy heart, not to enter higher education because their faith bars them from paying interest on a student loan. David Cameron said nine years ago that he would fix that. Will the new ministerial team, whom I welcome, commit to introducing alternative student finance and give us some indication of when that will be?
I am strongly committed to introducing alternative student finance, something my Harlow constituents have also lobbied me about. The issue is that we want, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, to introduce the lifelong learning entitlement, and we will introduce alternative student finance in conjunction with that.
In Chelmsford, we are very proud that Anglia Ruskin University has more students graduating in health and social care-related subjects than any other university in the country, but the university would not be able to provide such high-quality courses to students from the UK if it did not have the income from overseas students. Can my right hon. Friend categorically confirm that the UK will continue to welcome students from across the word to all our universities?
I have good news for my right hon. Friend: we were proud to meet our international target of 600,000 students by 2030; we have actually met that target already. It is currently worth £25.9 billion to the economy and it will be £35 billion by 2030.
In his autumn statement, the Chancellor said that he wanted to make the United Kingdom a science superpower, yet academic researchers and scientists are being hamstrung by the continued failure to reassociate the UK with the Horizon programme. What discussions are Ministers having with EU counterparts to re-engage the UK in the Horizon programme?
Our preference remains for an association to Horizon Europe. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have committed £20 billion to R&D by 2024-25, and we have just announced the Horizon Europe guarantee, a grant offer with a total value of £500 million issued by UK Research and Innovation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: careers advice is central to getting young people on the skills ladder of opportunity. We have strengthened careers advice with the Baker clause. Ofsted is carrying out a review of careers training in schools and colleges. We are investing £30 million to support schools and colleges in careers, and setting up careers hubs in secondary schools and colleges.
I welcome the Secretary of State and her team to their roles. May I start by congratulating the Government on their international education strategy, which has already been mentioned? The Secretary of State knows that international students contribute £30 billion a year to the UK economy—much of it in areas identified by the Government for levelling up—and that they are vital to the viability of our universities, enrich learning for UK students and strengthen our role in the world. Does she therefore share the concern of Members on both sides of the House about reports that consideration is being given to returning to the failed policy of restricting numbers, and will she raise that concern with the Home Secretary?
On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I could not have put it better myself. International students add enormous value. As I mentioned in my previous answer and in the Westminster Hall debate we had a couple of weeks ago, we have met our target of 600,000 students a year early—before 2030—and that remains our target. By 2030, that will mean £35 billion-plus in exports.
I am concerned about the provision of music in state schools. A report by the British Phonographic Industry states that the provision has decreased dramatically in recent years. It estimates that
“30% of state schools have seen a decrease in curriculum time for music, or a reduction in the number of qualified music teachers.”
Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State assure me that the Government recognise that, and update me on the steps that her Department is taking?
The 2021-22 academic year saw more than 86,000 hours of music teaching in secondary schools—the highest number since 2014. They were taught by more than 7,000 music teachers in secondary schools—the highest number since 2015. Schools should provide timetabled curriculum music of at least one hour a week. We have published an excellent model music curriculum that schools can lean on to help to deliver that.
Why will the Secretary of State not listen to her Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Levelling Up and the Government’s own food adviser by expanding the eligibility for free school meals? Hungry children cannot learn and tend to behave badly, too.
I think we have already discussed this to some degree, but we have extended free school meal availability. Now, more than one third of children in school settings have access to a free nutritious meal. We are spending £1.9 billion on that facility.
I met a 12-year-old constituent a couple of weeks ago. He has been excluded from school and is now being home tutored, but he is struggling to see where his home tutoring will get him in his aspiration to become a mechanical engineer. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss getting some provision that will suit my constituent and people like him in my constituency?
I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I thoroughly enjoyed working with her on many things vocational and technical education when I was last in the Department. We very much need more mechanical engineers, so I encourage that young student and very much look forward to working with my hon. Friend.
What steps are Ministers taking to achieve the target of delivering 20,000 defibrillators in schools by 2023?
We have been delivering defibrillators in schools up and down the country—it is a successful programme. I will write to the hon. Member with the precise figures that she is seeking.[Official Report, 29 November 2022, Vol. 723, c. 8MC.]
First, I congratulate all the staff and pupils of Ferryhill Station Primary School, where I was once a governor. Led by the head, Joanne Sones, it has now achieved an Ofsted rating of good.
I am sure the Minister would like all pupils everywhere to develop their sports skills and improve their mental health through sport. What is being done to focus the sports premium on schools in challenging areas such as Ferryhill? I would also encourage the Minister to come and—
I call the Minister.
—meet our outstanding ambassadors.
Order. I am sorry, Mr Howell, but you are taking complete advantage. That is totally not fair to others. I call the Minister.
Improving school sport and PE is a key priority, and we recognise the important role that they play. We are considering arrangements for the primary PE and sports premium for the 2023-24 academic year. I pay tribute to the headteacher of Ferryhill Station Primary School for achieving “good” in the Ofsted inspection.
The Government funded 128 new special educational needs places at the Austen Academy in Basingstoke, which opened about a year ago, but a new, permanent academy trust is needed to operate the school. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the importance of making that appointment swiftly?
I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend. She is an incredible campaigner on these issues, which are also important to the Government.
King Edmund School, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), is currently closed while building materials containing asbestos are removed from the site. Will the ministerial team look into this situation with a view to getting kids safely back to school as quickly as possible?
Yes, I certainly will look into that. The school was initially closed as a precaution while we carried out enhanced testing. Testing is now complete, and the school buildings are safe, but asbestos remains on the site of a previously demolished building, so the school will remain closed while that is removed. However, we are doing everything possible to ensure that the school site reopens by 3 January.
Before we come to our next business, I wish to make a short statement. I have received a letter from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) requesting that I give precedence to a matter as an issue of privilege. The procedure for dealing with such a request is set out in “Erskine May” at paragraph 15.32. The matter in question is the conduct of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) relating to private correspondence between him and my office. The House will recall that I gave the hon. Member an opportunity to apologise.
While “Erskine May” is clear that the granting of applications for precedence is a matter for the Speaker, given that the subject relates to my office, I have consulted with the Deputy Speakers before making my decision. It is not for the Chair to decide whether a contempt has been committed, but instead whether there is an arguable case for the House to examine such.
I have considered the issue, taking account of advice from the Deputy Speakers and the Clerks of the House. I have decided that this is a matter that I should allow the precedence accorded to issues of privilege. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden may therefore table a motion to be debated tomorrow. The motion will appear on tomorrow’s Order Paper, to be taken after any urgent questions or statements and before Government business. The motion will be available to Members once it has been tabled, which will be before the rise of the House today. If necessary, I will advise the House tomorrow on the usual conduct in debate on such motions. I hope that this is helpful to the House.
Independent Cultural Review of London Fire Brigade
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on Nazir Afzal OBE’s independent cultural review of London Fire Brigade.
Let me start by thanking the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) for her question. The report written by Nazir Afzal OBE makes for deeply troubling reading. The behaviour uncovered is totally unacceptable. The London fire commissioner, Andy Roe, commissioned this review due to his significant concerns about the culture in his own service. The review also followed the tragic suicide of Jaden Matthew Francois-Esprit, a trainee firefighter. I know that colleagues will share my sadness and shock at the testimony of those who shared their experiences, as outlined in the review. I pay tribute to them for their courage.
I wish to assure the House that the Government have taken, and continue to drive, action in this area. Through the introduction of the independent inspection of fire and rescue services, we have highlighted issues with the culture in the fire service, and it is clear that these are not confined to the London Fire Brigade. That is why we published the fire reform White Paper in May, which set out proposals to reform the way that fire services support and value their people. At the heart of the White Paper are plans to improve culture and professionalism, and put ethics at the heart of the service.
Furthermore, the Government have funded a number of important change programmes in the fire sector. We have supported the creation of a new code of ethics for fire and rescue services, setting out clear national expectations for standards of behaviour. The fire standards board, which the Home Office funds, has produced a fire standards code to support the code of ethics, as well as a specific safeguarding standard, supported by guidance from the National Fire Chiefs Council. It will shortly publish new fire standards on leadership, addressing issues such as those raised by this deeply disturbing report.
I welcome the fact that the London fire commissioner has committed to addressing and implementing all 23 recommendations in full and note that the National Fire Chiefs Council has also committed to considering the report carefully. Through the White Paper and otherwise, the Government will continue to press to eliminate the appalling behaviour that this shocking report uncovered.
Nazir Afzal has found institutional misogyny, racism and discrimination in the fire service. His report is based on the testimony of 2,000 members and contains 23 recommendations, including the introduction of body-worn video by firefighters, an historic review of complaints about racism, misogyny and bullying, and secure facilities for all women.
As the Minister said, the report comes after the death of Jaden Francois-Esprit, a trainee at Wembley fire station, in my constituency in the London Borough of Brent. Two years ago, Jaden took his own life, aged just 21. My condolences go out to his family and friends. Jaden was teased about every little thing, even the Caribbean food he brought in for lunch, and he made 16 requests to be transferred to another station. Nazir Afzal’s report said:
“Jaden’s position was not unique. We have spoken to others that are equally isolated and harbouring suicidal thoughts.”
I know some Government Members will accuse the report of being too woke or promoting wokery, but let me highlight some of the incidents. Female firefighters were found to have been groped and beaten, and had their helmets filled with urine and their clothes violated with semen. Some male firefighters who visited women’s homes for safety visits would go through drawers looking for underwear and sex toys. A black firefighter had a noose put on his locker, and a Muslim firefighter had bacon and sausages stuffed in his pockets and a terrorist hotline sign posted on his locker. If being more woke will stop this behaviour, then I think we are not woke enough.
As the chair of London Labour MPs, I spoke to London fire commissioner Andy Roe, and he is determined to sack every single firefighter who is misogynistic, racist or homophobic at work, and that sends a strong message. I need to know what strong message the Government will send. We cannot bring back Jaden, whose life was lost, but the Government can make sure that other young people, who are starting out on their career in the London Fire Brigade, are not met with the same experience, but with consideration and acceptance by a service that is alert and awake to bullying and discrimination.
The Government must lead the call for change and tackle structural and systemic discrimination in all our old institutions, and understand that being woke is a good thing. That would be a fitting legacy to Jaden.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady that the behaviour and the incidents that she just enumerated that were uncovered by the report are completely unacceptable. They have no place in any modern public service, whether that is the fire service or anywhere else. I am sure the whole House will join her and me in condemning that sort of behaviour unreservedly.
I spoke to London fire commissioner Andy Roe on Friday to set out my strong feelings that this behaviour is totally unacceptable and needs to completely end. As the hon. Lady said, he has committed to implementing all 23 of the report’s recommendations, including, importantly, outsourcing the complaints service, so that complaints are dealt with externally to the London Fire Brigade, and going back and looking again at all the complaints made over the last five years, to make sure they have been properly investigated—clearly, in many cases they have not been. He committed to ensuring that anyone found guilty of the sort of behaviour that she outlined from the report will be removed from their position. As I say, the behaviour that has been uncovered is totally unacceptable, and I am sure the whole House will join in condemning it.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and agree that there is absolutely no place for racism or bullying in our society or any of our public services. Will he outline what he might also be doing to ensure that disciplinary measures are dealt with in a timely manner? There was a disciplinary issue in my local police force, as opposed to fire service; that was dealt with well, but it took three years. Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that such cases will be dealt with in a more timely manner in future, whether in the fire service or police force?
My right hon. Friend is right about timeliness; that is one of the reasons why the London Fire Brigade Commissioner has said that he will be outsourcing the handling of complaints: to make sure that they are dealt with faster. Things work a bit differently at the police force, but there is an issue with timeliness. A number of police officers, including both the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police have raised the issue with me as well. We are looking at a number of ways of speeding up the process, including potentially through legislation. I completely recognise what my right hon. Friend has said and we are actively working on that at the moment.
Here we have an urgent question on shocking standards in the fire service, and we have a statement later on appalling conditions in Manston. The Home Secretary is not here for either of those—why not? Where is she?
The report is grim: firefighters huddled around a screen watching porn; putting bacon in the sandwich of a Muslim colleague; and hanging a noose around the locker of a black co-worker—a pack mentality and systematic failure to stamp it out. Some 2,000 firefighters in London have told their story, thanks in large part to Linda Francois, the mother of Jaden, who tragically lost his own life. She campaigned for this report, and we welcome the immediate action that Andy Roe, the commissioner, is taking.
However, these shocking findings are not news to anyone. The Government have been put on notice time and again about cultural failings in our fire service. In 2015, an independent review in Essex found dangerous and pervasive bullying; in 2018, the inspectorate found failings in culture, values and the grievance process; in 2019 the inspectorate warned of an unchecked, toxic culture in many services; and in 2021, it found that change was urgently needed.
What was the Government’s response? It was a haemorrhaging of the budget on training, ignoring the warnings from the inspectorate and playing politics with our fire service. We have repeatedly said that when it comes to police failures we have had enough of the Home Office sitting back and leaving things to individual forces. Will the Minister immediately commission a fundamental review of national standards and culture in our fire service? Will he agree, now, to publishing national statistics on misconduct and will he today commit to national professional standards?
There were 11,000 fires across London alone last year. Our brave firefighters run into danger every day. We must expect the best from all of them and stamp out this culture of misogyny and racism. The Government must end their complacency and act.
I assure the hon. Lady that there is not any complacency. She should be aware—I am sure she is—of the White Paper published just a few months ago setting out a range of measures to tackle shocking cultural issues such as those we have heard discussed this afternoon.
The hon. Lady asked about national standards. As I said in my opening comments, the Fire Standards Board is in the process of publishing a number of standards that will be publicly available and that we will expect fire services to abide by. Those, of course, will be inspected against. She asked about issues outside the London Fire Brigade. I agree that those need attention, and we will be discussing with His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services what work it can do to look at behavioural and cultural issues such as these across the whole country.
Obviously, we will respond to the White Paper consultation shortly. In the meantime, we will of course be working with Commissioner Andy Roe, who I spoke to on Friday, about the issue. As the report relates to London, I will also be in touch with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who of course has responsibility for oversight of the London Fire Brigade.
May I remind the Minister that the Mayor, the Greater London Assembly and the fire services inspectorate ought to have known and done things about this situation years and years ago? Were all these incidents unknown to them? If they were reported, what did they do about them?
Through the Minister, I say to those looking after our great services in London and around the country that they need to be able to answer this question: when will the colour of someone’s skin be as important but no more than the colour of their eyes or hair?
I completely agree with the Father of the House’s last comment about the importance of complete equality, whether based on gender, ethnicity or anything else. Everybody should be treated equally and everybody should have exactly the same opportunity. In relation to the work of the inspectorate, one of the reasons the consultation was published a few months ago was in response to concerns previously raised. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has oversight responsibility for the London Fire Brigade, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and I will raise these issues with him as well.
I call the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee.
This report is a catalogue of shameful and appalling behaviour. In April 2020, the National Fire Chiefs Council committed to publishing an annual report on equality, diversity and inclusion. When the Home Affairs Committee questioned the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council earlier this year, he told us that he did not know whether the report had been published. When we questioned the chair again earlier this month, the annual report still had not been published. The NFCC does not plan to publish it until April 2023, and it is not sure whether it will publish another. Does the Minister agree that this as yet unfulfilled commitment and the equivocal statement relating to its work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion are concerning? The leadership and commitment from the top of organisations such as the National Fire Chiefs Council is critical to rooting out the sexism and racism evidenced in this review.
I agree with the Select Committee Chair that this is a vitally important issue. We expect leadership from the entire fire system, including the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council. She mentioned the question of report publication, and I think she said it intended to publish in April 2023. I am happy to take that away and raise it with the NFCC. I am sure she probably expressed a view in the Committee that it should be published sooner.
The right hon. Lady is nodding, so I am happy to raise that point again and see whether publication can be expedited.
May I say how welcome it is that Commissioner Andy Roe commissioned this report and is finally leading and gripping this problem? We know that the Fire Brigades Union is particularly strong within the fire service across the country. What evidence is there of the FBU’s role in reinforcing or challenging this culture?
As of when I came over today from the Home Office, I do not think the FBU had published or put out a formal statement responding to the report, so I am sure my hon. Friend and others in the House will study its report or respond carefully when it chooses to put one out.
Confidence in our emergency services is built on trust—trust that they will be there for people in their moment of need and do everything possible to help them, and trust that no matter what they look like or who they are, they will be treated with respect. Sadly, this report brings that trust into question. In moments such as this, my Vauxhall constituents will need confidence in their emergency services, yet when they hear the shocking reports about the fire brigade, soon after revelations about the police, they might question whether there is a wider cultural problem in our services. I salute the 2,000 firefighters who came forward, but recent scandals in the police and fire service reveal the importance of having a strong whistleblowing procedure. Will the Minister say from the Dispatch Box whether he will commission a national review of standards and culture to ensure that no one is afraid to come forward to raise this abuse?
The hon. Lady is right to say that constituents, regardless of their background, should be able to have full confidence in the service, and that is why I think the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade rightly said that he will implement all 23 recommendations to deliver that. It is worth saying on that point that on a daily basis firefighters across the country put their lives at risk to keep us safe. While being appalled by this report and absolutely determined to make sure there is substantial change, we should keep in mind at the same time that firefighters are putting their lives at risk daily. In terms of her question about whistleblowing, that is something we can take away and consider. Whistleblowing should be available. Firefighters from all backgrounds should be able to raise issues when they encounter them, and it is vital to make sure that those channels exist, so that is something I will take away.
As we have already heard, some of the report’s findings are utterly shocking. I agree with the Minister, however, that many firefighters are out there across the capital, not least in Twickenham fire station, putting their lives on the line every day to protect us all. Can I clarify a couple of his previous answers? Does he agree with Nazir Afzal’s recommendation that we need a national inquiry into the culture of a number of public bodies? Londoners’ faith in many of our public services has been shaken, because the findings of this report are reminiscent of what we found in the Metropolitan police.
In terms of the fire service nationally, as I said, His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services obviously has a role to play. I will be raising that issue with the inspectorate to make sure that it is looking at it. I can speak only for police and fire, but I am sure that ministerial colleagues will want to ensure that such issues are rapidly dealt with for other public services. On a point of clarification, when I said a moment ago that an organisation had not yet issued a statement, I was referring to the union—the Fire Brigades Union.
Although I congratulate the LFB on having the courage to have Nazir Afzal in to do his work and to find these distressing and troubling conclusions—in the Minister’s words—what is to say other forces and institutions are not afflicted by or riddled with the same unacceptable behaviour? As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) said, examples have been found in the Met police that are way more than just the odd bad apple. What advice does the Minister have for employees elsewhere, who are forced to suffer in silence and hide in the shadows in their workplaces, so that this never happens again anywhere?
It is a good question, which comes back to the whistleblowing point that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) raised. It is vital that anyone in any public service, whether fire, police or anything else, can raise concerns—or more than concerns, in the case of the shocking examples that we have heard—and that they are taken seriously, treated confidentially and properly investigated. It is right that the fire brigade is appointing an external organisation to look at the complaints going back more than five years. Every public sector organisation needs to make sure that proper whistleblowing channels are available so that nobody’s concerns get ignored or overlooked.
London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, which we should all be proud of, yet many Londoners listening to this, and those who have heard about and read the report, will have no confidence in our fire service with its racist and misogynist culture. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that firefighters wear body-worn video cameras when they enter families’ homes? Confidence will be very low and we need to ensure that we are working not only for all our constituents but for those people who are watching and may not believe that we are doing our job.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. On confidence, the commissioner of the London Fire Brigade has committed to implementing all 23 recommendations. From memory, one of those is to introduce body-worn cameras, so I believe that is something that the London Fire Brigade intends to introduce. It is vital that the public have confidence in our firefighters, who work bravely on a daily basis to keep us safe. The public must understand, however, that they do that without any bias or prejudice, which is why it is critical to implement the recommendations.
The circumstances and findings of the report are appalling, and troubling for those of us who have worked closely with the London Fire Brigade in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, particularly on product and building safety. Poorer and ethnic minority communities are more at risk, so what will the Government do as part of their response to Grenfell in the light of that? I am also now totally confused about where the Government are on a national inquiry. Yesterday, the Transport Secretary said that he did not want people
“setting up inquiries all over the place.”
Will the Minister confirm from the Dispatch Box that there will be a national inquiry?
No: to be completely clear, for I think the third time, I have said that I will ask His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services to take a look at these issues. It obviously inspects the 44 fire and rescue services and the 43 police forces regularly. It can also—if it chooses, because it is independent of course—conduct thematic reviews on issues such as this, and I will be raising the issue with it.
I really appreciate that the Minister is appalled by the findings in this report, but he should not really be shocked, as successive reports from His Majesty’s inspectorate have shown similar findings. Why does he think that successive Conservative Governments have ignored the warnings in those reports?
I would say, with great respect, that the reports have not been ignored. As I have said already, a White Paper was published just a short while ago with a number of very detailed and specific recommendations designed to address precisely these kinds of issues, so with respect, I do not accept the characterisation the hon. Lady has set out. Clearly, from this report, urgent action is needed in London, and that is why the 23 recommendations will be implemented in full. I think the commissioner, Andy Roe, has accepted that. I will be discussing the issue with the Mayor of London’s office as well.
This feels depressingly familiar from the many times that Ministers came to this House to reassure us about the culture of the Metropolitan police. Would it not save the Minister and us a great deal of time if he were to agree to the recommendation in the report of a national review, supported by the Labour party, rather than having to come back time and again to repeat these excuses and say there is no complacency, when actually this toxic culture is not being dealt with at local level?
On the right hon. Member’s first point, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) a moment ago, the Government did bring forward a White Paper with a number of quite important reform recommendations designed to address precisely these kinds of issues. There is a huge amount of work going on in relation to misconduct, which we have debated in this House before, including in the police. Of course, action is now taking place specifically in London on the fire service, and I will be discussing these issues with the Mayor of London, who has responsibility for fire in London.
It is a sad fact that in Britain in 2022 we will all come across ignorant people who judge others not by what is in their head and in their heart, but by the colour of their skin, their sexuality or their religion. Unchallenged in any organisation, that is deeply damaging and divisive, and it leads to the problems we have seen in this report. Does the Minister agree with me that this is a failing not only of management, but of the Fire Brigades Union, which should have looked after the interests of all its members?
I think all those responsible for the conduct of the London Fire Brigade need to take responsibility for what has happened. Culture does not come from any one place; it develops in an entire system. That is why I think system-wide change is needed, so I do agree with the point my hon. Friend makes. The 23 recommendations are a starting point, but everyone needs to contribute to changing culture to make sure that gender, race and other characteristics play no part whatsoever in the way somebody is treated.
Saudi Arabia: Death Penalty and Spike in Executions
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty and the recent spike in the number of executions taking place.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the urgent question.
Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office human rights priority country, particularly because of the use of the death penalty and restrictions on freedom of expression. We seek to engage the kingdom and support positive reform, and Lord Ahmad, the Minister responsible for our middle east and north Africa policy, visited the kingdom in February to advance UK strategic engagement on human rights specifically. Key areas included promoting freedom of religious belief, lobbying on individual human rights cases of concern and encouraging justice reforms. Saudi Arabia is committed to an ambitious programme of economic and social reform through Vision 2030, which has already delivered significant change, including increased freedoms and economic opportunity for women. However, the human rights situation is likely to remain a key issue in our engagement for the foreseeable future.
It is a long-standing UK policy to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances in all countries as a matter of principle. The Saudi Government are well aware of the UK’s opposition to the use of the death penalty. The Saudi authorities have executed around 150 individuals in 2022, a marked increase on the 67 executions last year. On 12 March 2022 Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in a single day, and the British ambassador raised UK concerns with Saudi authorities at both ministerial and senior official level in Riyadh on 14 March. The then Middle East Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), also raised concern over the 81 executions with the Saudi ambassador to the UK. More recently, Saudi Arabia has executed 20 individuals for drugs-related offences since 10 November despite Saudi Arabia’s moratorium on the death penalty for drugs-related offences announced in January 2021.
Lord Ahmad, the Minister responsible for the middle east and human rights, requested a meeting and spoke to the Saudi ambassador last week, on 24 November. He raised UK concern over the recent executions and pushed for the 2021 moratorium for drugs-related offences to remain in place. During the meeting Lord Ahmad also raised an important case for my right hon. Friend, that of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, who is assessed by respected international non-governmental organisations to be at risk of imminent execution. There are allegations of torture and forced confession in this case, and the Minister reiterated His Majesty’s Government’s long-standing position on the death penalty and the importance of ensuring the 2021 moratorium was upheld.
Through Ministers and our embassy in Riyadh we regularly raise the death penalty as a key issue of concern with Saudi Arabia. We will continue to do so, and no aspect of our relationship with Saudi Arabia prevents us from speaking frankly about human rights.
I thank the Minister for his description of Lord Ahmad’s work so far, which is welcome, but I have to say that in the context of the current circumstances we may have to step this up somewhat.
As the Minister said, despite assurances of a moratorium on the death penalty for non-violent drug offences, announced by Saudi Arabia’s own Human Rights Commission, Saudi Arabia has executed 20 people for drugs-related offences in just two weeks. We believe there are 55 other people currently at risk of the death penalty.
I wish to raise in particular the case of Hussein Abo al-Kheir. Mr al-Kheir is a poor Jordanian national, who is elderly and in poor health. He was arrested in 2014 for, supposedly, drug offences. He was tortured into a false confession, including being hung upside down from the ceiling and beaten. He has served seven years on death row and was told just days ago that he will be moved to a condemned cell. The UN working group on arbitrary detention has found his detention to be without legal basis and called for his release. He is clearly at risk of imminent execution, possibly with the Saudis thinking that the world’s attention is distracted by the World cup or something else. Al-Kheir’s case demonstrates the unabashed brutality of the regime: 147 people have been executed this year alone, including 81 on one day.
We know already that being too soft with totalitarian states comes back to bite us. We were too soft over Litvinenko’s murder, and we ended up with the Skripal poisonings. We have seen how Saudi Arabia behaves abroad, with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi; it is time to make it clear in no uncertain terms to it that it must abide by international civilised standards. If the Foreign Secretary—and I do say the Foreign Secretary—does so firmly enough, he will almost certainly save 55 further lives.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising these issues and for doing so with his characteristic passion and conviction. His record on civil liberties and human rights is well known, and I want to reassure him once again that Lord Ahmad raised the case of the Jordanian national Mr al-Kheir with the Saudi ambassador on 24 November—so just last week he requested that meeting and had the conversation—and earlier in the year, on 25 January, Lord Ahmad raised the same case with the Saudi Justice Minister during the Minister’s visit to the UK. Our embassy in Riyadh has raised this case with relevant authorities and we will continue to monitor it and raise it at the highest levels.
Labour unequivocally condemns the recent executions in Saudi Arabia and the use of the death penalty anywhere in the world. In the last two weeks, executions have been taking place on almost a daily basis in Saudi Arabia. In total, according to the UN, 144 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia this year alone, which is a record high for the kingdom, and more than double the number last year. The recent executions have been for alleged drugs and contraband offences following the Saudi authorities ending a 21-month moratorium on the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences. That is deeply concerning, especially after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s public assurances that the kingdom would minimise use of the death penalty altogether.
The UK should join the international community in condemning these executions in the strongest terms. What steps have the UK Government taken to raise our concerns about the resumption of executions and the wider crackdown on freedom of expression and activism with the Minister’s Saudi counterparts? I note the Minister’s comments about the meeting with Lord Ahmad, but this needs to be an ongoing process. How do the Government intend to use the close relationship between our countries to press for a change in Saudi Arabia’s approach? I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) in calling on the Government to do everything in their power to prevent the imminent execution of Hussein Abo al-Kheir. What steps have they taken so far to secure that goal?
We must oppose the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances. Will the Minister confirm whether the Prime Minister raised the importance of standing up for human rights, which should be at the heart of British diplomacy, when he met the Crown Prince earlier this month at the G20?
It speaks volumes when we have condemnation coming from both sides of the House. I am grateful to the hon. Member for his contribution and for joining us in condemning this spike in use of the death penalty. We are seeking further clarification of its cause at the highest level. That was part of the conversation that Lord Ahmad had, because, as the hon. Member said, that does not sit comfortably with what was previously said by the Saudi Government. We are seeking that clarification as a key priority. As I said, we are raising this matter at the highest possible levels.
I call the Father of the House.
It would be good for the House to know whether the Crown Prince—the Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia—thinks that he is personally involved or uninvolved in what is going on. It is now four years and seven weeks since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. I think it is time that our friend—our ally—Saudi Arabia got to know that whenever a senior member of its country comes abroad, unless such executions stop, they will be associated with them.
May I also make the point that any suggestion that a confession was gained by torture makes it invalid? We know from our past that seven times a year, people convicted of a capital offence were innocent or should not have been convicted. I suspect that the same applies in Saudi Arabia.
The Father of the House makes important points. As he is aware, the UK has always been clear that Khashoggi’s murder was a terrible crime. We called for a thorough, credible and transparent investigation to hold those responsible to account and imposed sanctions against 20 Saudis involved. I cannot speculate about future designations or sanctions as that would reduce their impact, but he can be assured that we will speak up clearly and call out any confessions secured under torture, which are abhorrent and against all that we stand for.
The SNP is a party of international law, and we condemn the death penalty wherever it occurs. We think it is a barbaric punishment that never fits the crime. I must say to the House that, in Saudi’s case, it is personal for me: I grew up in Riyadh in the late ’70s and ’80s and know the Saudis well, so forgive me, but I am immune to the flannel and hypocrisy that we are used to hearing when talking about Saudi in this place.
We are united in our condemnation of the spike in judicial murder. I think we need to see some consequence to what is happening. We have seen 138 individuals executed this year, which must be sending a signal internally on the part of the regime to potential dissidents or somebody else. What is causing the spike now? I would be curious to hear the Minister’s assessment of that. If there have been this many judicial murders in a key partner of the UK, does he really think that it is a suitable partner to be receiving billions in arms exports from this country?
I thank the hon. Member for his comments, which are always well grounded, particularly when we talk about the middle east and north Africa—I remember our recent debate on Yemen. He asked a very good question about the spike in executions, on which we are seeking further clarification. As I said, that does not sit easily with what the Saudi Government have said, so we are seeking further clarification—[Interruption.] I am grateful for the mobile phone notification that things are happening on the Opposition Benches. That has distracted me from the other points that the hon. Member made. He mentioned his concerns about arms sales. I reiterate that the UK operates one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world and that every licence application is vigorously and rigorously assessed against strategic export licensing criteria. Risks around human rights abuses are a key part of our assessment.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on asking this urgent question, and thank you for granting it, Mr Speaker. The fact that the fate of an elderly impoverished Jordanian in a Saudi jail who has had his confession extracted under torture still matters to the House, and that you are prepared to bring it immediately to our attention as the hook on which to discuss this wider issue in Saudi Arabia, reflects huge credit on the House of Commons collectively under your leadership.
Those of us who count ourselves as friends of Saudi Arabia and who want Britain to have a friendly, close relationship with Saudi Arabia find it astonishingly frustrating that Vision 2030, under the leadership of the Crown Prince as the executive leader of the Government—that was a great visionary statement, including on the delivery of religious freedoms and the delivery of more freedoms for women—is accompanied by the kind of appalling barbarity that is formally being meted out, allegedly in the judicial system. I want to reinforce the question that the Minister has been asked: what is the explanation for the astonishing schizophrenia in the presentation of Saudi Arabia?
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and question. We welcome the socioeconomic reforms in Vision 2030, but as I said, we continue to have concerns about human rights and we are particularly concerned about the spike. As I said, Lord Ahmad is seeking to understand how that fits with previous statements by the Saudi Government. He will continue to ask those questions, and we will continue to seek answers to them at the highest level.
I echo what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said about the case of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, and I pay tribute to the work that Reprieve has done to raise this and other cases. How much can we rely on the Government to do that when the Foreign Office has just doubled the amount of taxpayers’ money handed to the Saudis under the Gulf strategy fund? That was after the Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister told the BBC:
“What you…call a dissident, we call a terrorist.”
Some of that money is going into counter-terrorism, so are the Government not sending out, at best, mixed messages? Do we not need a much clearer line if we are going to stop further executions?
Our long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia is underpinned by very frank engagement, as the hon. Member can see from points that I and others in the Chamber have raised. We regularly raise concerns when our values differ, as they do on these matters, and no aspect of our relationship prevents us from speaking candidly about human rights.
Will the Minister make a commitment that he and his fellow Ministers will continue to push for progress in Saudi Arabia on all areas of human rights, not exclusively, but including on the death penalty, women’s rights and freedom of religion or belief?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is not just about the very sad spikes in executions; we seek to engage on a much wider agenda on human rights, not least on the freedom of religion or belief. We will continue in the grown-up relationship that we have, in which we can confront values that we do not think sit with ours and help to move that agenda further forward.
I have lost track of how many times we have been round this course with regard to Saudi Arabia in recent years. Every time, we get the same formulations from those on the Treasury Bench. They are the right things to hear, delivered in the right earnest tone, about raising things at the highest possible level and monitoring the situation, but still the situation keeps getting worse. Surely it is apparent that whatever we are doing, it is not working. Now is the time, before Hussein Abo al-Kheir is executed, to take a different approach and work with other countries, especially in the region, to ensure that there are not just words bu