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Commons Chamber

Volume 731: debated on Monday 17 April 2023

House of Commons

Monday 17 April 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

I am pleased to announce that as part of our efforts to make the work of this House more widely accessible, British Sign Language interpretation will be available for all oral question sessions in the Chamber on parliamentlive.tv—starting today, with Education questions.

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

School Buildings: Information on Condition and Safety

1. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of the information her Department makes available on the condition and safety of school buildings. (904495)

Well maintained, safe school buildings are essential, and it is the responsibility of academy trusts and local authorities to maintain school buildings and keep them safe. The Government carried out a review of them back in 2014; since then, we have completed one of the largest reviews in the UK public sector, in which we reviewed every state school in the country, and we are undertaking a further survey. We have allocated over £15 billion since 2015 to improving the condition of school buildings. That includes £1.8 billion committed for the financial year 2023-24. Our school rebuilding programme will transform buildings at 500 schools, prioritising those in poor condition with potential safety issues.

I think the Secretary of State is presenting a rather rosy picture, because the Government have admitted that it is now very likely that some school buildings will collapse, owing to a decade of inadequate funding and serious structural issues. She did not say that her Department has failed to publish data on where those buildings are, and what repairs are needed. May I tell her about a school in Kingston upon Hull North, on Hall Road? It has been raising the alarm about its dilapidated state for many years, but so far under the school rebuilding programme it has only been selected to attend a seminar and fill in a questionnaire. Will she tell me when that school in my constituency will be rebuilt, as is absolutely necessary?

I assure the House that there are no open areas in school buildings where we know of any immediate safety risk. If the Department is made aware of any dangerous building, immediate action is taken to ensure safety and remediate the situation. To address the challenges in the school estate, we first needed a true understanding of its condition. That is why it is so disappointing that over the 13 years of the last Labour Government, including when the right hon. Member served as Minister with responsibility for schools, there was not a single comprehensive review of the condition of the school estate, so we had a lot of work to do, but we now have full data.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools for the efforts made when asbestos was discovered in the King Edmund School. I appreciate the work that the Secretary of State is doing. Is she particularly concerned about the impact of aerated concrete on schools, and on children’s education when remedial works are done?

The Department is gathering information from the responsible bodies in all schools, further education colleges and local authority maintained nurseries. We are asking them to complete a questionnaire on the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete on their premises. That questionnaire covers nearly 22,000 schools, 230 further education settings and 371 nurseries. It is the responsibility of academy trusts and local authorities to maintain those settings and keep them safe, but we want settings to submit a response to the RAAC questionnaire, and I urge all those that have not yet done that to do so, so that we can take action.

One of the first decisions that the Government made on coming to power was to cancel seven school rebuilding programmes in my constituency. Since then, we have seen greater cuts to local government spending, so the buildings have continued to disintegrate. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that some of the resources that she has mentioned will go to schools in Redbridge and Waltham Forest, to stop their further disintegration?

Since 2015, we have allocated over £15 billion to maintaining and improving the condition of the school estate. Our school rebuilding programme will transform buildings at 500 schools; 400 of those have already been announced, including 239 in December, but there are more slots to allocate. We will prioritise buildings in poor condition and those with potential safety issues. The Minister for Schools is always happy to meet to discuss specific schools.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the school rebuilding programme, which is welcomed by Government Members —it is an innovation that we appreciate—will transform the educational environment of hundreds of thousands of children, particularly those in schools in the poorest condition?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I have been to many schools that are not only rebuilding the schools but transforming their facilities, so that children have excellent conditions in which to get the most fantastic education.

Safeguarding Children in Schools

The safety and wellbeing of our children is one of our highest priorities. Parents place their trust in teachers and schools and, by extension, in my Department. Those responsibilities are taken extremely seriously, and I pay tribute to all teachers for putting our children’s safety first.

We provide schools and teachers with information and guidance to enable strong safeguarding in schools and colleges. Our “Keeping children safe in education” guidance and our searching, screening and confiscation guidance, updated in the light of recent events involving Child Q, support schools to create a safe environment for children.

The case of Child Q was shocking, but the recent report by the Children’s Commissioner found that 14 strip searches took place either in schools or in a police vehicle, and states that that number could be higher because no location was recorded in 45% of cases. That report recommends changes to Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 codes A and C to strengthen the statutory safeguards for children, including excluding schools as an appropriate location for strip searches. Does the Secretary of State agree that that should be implemented as a matter of urgency, and will she press the Home Secretary to get on and implement all the report’s recommendations in full?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I want to be clear that any use of strip search should be carried out in accordance with the law, following safeguarding codes of practice, and with full regard for the dignity and welfare of the individual being searched.

As the hon. Lady has said, the Children’s Commissioner recommended that schools be specifically excluded as an appropriate place to strip search children. That is a recommendation that the Home Office will need to consider, and my Department would need to update any schools guidance accordingly. The Home Office does not hold figures on the number of pupils strip searched by police officers in primary or secondary schools each year, or on how many of those searches were conducted without an appropriate adult present, but it has now introduced a data collection on strip searches to the annual data requirement. That data collection includes details on the age, sex and ethnicity of the persons strip searched by police in England and Wales.

I welcome that there will be a review of the teaching of relationships and sex education—that review cannot come quickly enough. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the scope of the review will include extracurricular activities and clubs and assemblies, as well as timetabled RSE lessons? I have had quite serious parental concern expressed about both.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, we are undertaking a review of relationships, sex and health education guidance in our schools, and I have asked the Department to look at wider settings as part of that.

Mental Health Training in Schools

Schools promote and support the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils to help them thrive and reach their potential. My Department is helping schools to develop effective approaches to mental health by offering senior mental health lead training. More than half of all state schools and colleges have received that training grant since September 2021. To give children more access to support, we are increasing the number of mental health support teams from 287 in 2022 to 400 in 2023, and the number of teams will grow to 500 in 2024. I recently visited St Wilfrid’s Catholic School in Crawley, where I saw the fantastic work done by that school and West Sussex’s mental health support team to offer one-to-one support and group sessions for pupils who are struggling to prepare for their next steps.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her comprehensive answer. Like a few other colleagues, I recently visited Baton of Hope UK, whose work on suicide awareness and prevention is second to none—it is admirable. Will she commit to meeting Baton of Hope to further its efforts to improve children’s access to mental health support?

Many of us and our families have been struck by the tragic loss of loved ones to suicide, and we must work together to support young people’s mental health and to prevent suicide. A new suicide prevention strategy will be published this year, and we are working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to drive progress on reducing youth suicides and helping children to access the support they need.

Baton of Hope is a brilliant organisation that does excellent work in raising awareness and on prevention. I met Mike McCarthy, who is the co-founder of Baton of Hope, when I was the Minister for care and mental health, and I am sure that my successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), would welcome its input to this important work.

An investigation by The House magazine found that a quarter of a million children struggling with their mental health who were referred to the NHS were either denied treatment or redirected elsewhere due to burgeoning caseloads. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that schools play a vital preventive role in building children’s resilience and ensuring that the NHS is not overwhelmed, yet the mental health support teams in schools programme is due to end abruptly in 2024. Will the she assure the House that that programme will continue and reach every school in the country?

As the hon. Lady rightly says, the programme is continuing up to 2024. We are evaluating its success, and the early signs are that it is vital in helping more children access lower-level mental health support, such as group and one-to-one sessions. We will certainly be putting the case forward for continuing the roll-out of this successful programme.

Children’s Social Care Implementation Strategy

4. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of the children’s social care implementation strategy on (a) the social care sector and (b) children in care. (904498)

Our reforms will deliver transformational change in children’s social care. The strategy we set out, “Children’s social care: stable homes, built on love”, will put in £200 million of additional investment to lay the foundations for wider reform. Our approach balances the need to scale complex intervention safely and effectively with evidence at its heart and the need to address urgent issues immediately.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but here is the reality: 34 children that we know of aged 16 and over in the state’s care have died in unregulated accommodation. The last time I asked the Secretary of State about this, she said that regulations would be introduced, yet those regulations shamefully legitimise unregulated accommodation, placing more of these children in tents and caravan sites, alone and without any care or supervision at all. What on earth is she playing at?

We have taken steps forward on regulating accommodation. We are working closely with the sector. We are going further than we ever have before to make sure that we can have not only quality accommodation for some of our most vulnerable children, but quality of care too. I know that the hon. Lady cares deeply about this issue, and I would be delighted to meet her to discuss it further.

Disadvantage Gap in Schools

Closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils has been the guiding star leading all our education reforms since 2010. Central to that has been ensuring that children are taught to read in the first years of primary school using systematic phonics, the method that all the evidence says is the most effective way to teach children to read. In PIRLS, the progress in international reading literacy study of the reading ability of nine-year-olds, England rose from joint 10th to joint eighth in 2016, which is largely attributable to improvements in reading by the least able children.

The Minister paints a rosy picture, but the disadvantage gap continues to be wider than it was in 2019 and the Government have limited the uptake of education recovery programmes, such as the national tutoring programme, and failed to ensure that tutoring was always directed towards the most disadvantaged pupils. Worse still, they have provided less than a third of the funding that their own education recovery commissioner recommended. Will the Minister commit today to increasing funding to meet these urgent needs?

During the eight years prior to the pandemic, the disadvantage gap closed by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools by 2019. The hon. Lady is right that the gap widened over the course of the pandemic, which is why we introduced the national tutoring programme, providing intensive one-to-one and small group tuition to those who have fallen behind. It is why altogether we are spending £5 billion on an ambitious multi-year education recovery plan, why the recovery premium is targeted towards the most disadvantaged and why the pupil premium, introduced by the Conservative-led Government in 2010, is being increased from £2.6 billion to £2.9 billion this year.

I congratulate the Minister on having the bravery when he first entered the Department back in 2010 to narrow the disadvantage gap and stand up to the unions when it came to some big reforms in our education sector. It is just a shame that the Labour party continues to stay silent while the unions hold children’s futures to ransom over the fact that they want teachers to continue striking, no matter the disruption it will cause to children’s learning and, potentially, their ability to pass their exams in the summer. What work is being done to ensure that students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not have to suffer because union baron bosses such as Bolshevik Bousted and Commie Courtney seem to want to destroy the lives of the young people they serve?

Well, my hon. Friend makes an understated case for making sure that young people are in school, and it is disappointing that pay negotiations are being conducted by holding strikes. We have reissued guidance to schools to make sure that, where schools have to restrict attendance, they prioritise the most vulnerable children, the children of critical workers and, of course, children in exam years.

The Government’s failure to invest in our schools and children has been laid bare, with disadvantaged pupils now further behind their peers than at any point in the last 10 years. Given that the Minister has been in post for the vast majority of that period, what does he put this failure down to?

The hon. Gentleman obviously did not hear the answer to the original question. We had actually closed the attainment gap prior to the pandemic by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools. Of course, the gap did widen during the pandemic, which is why we are allocating £5 billion to help children catch up. The hon. Gentleman really ought to condemn the strikes that have been happening in our schools, because the worst thing we can do to help children catch up is to close a school.

It has been revealed by openDemocracy that private schools received more than £157 million in Government loans during the pandemic. Just one of those loans has cost taxpayers over £350,000 in fees and interest, and another was received by a school that recorded a financial surplus of £13 million in the year it used the loan. Will the Minister explain why such funds were not available to state schools to help tackle the disadvantage gap?

Actually, we are spending £5 billion helping schools to tackle the disadvantage gap and help children catch up. We funded schools fully throughout the covid pandemic, and we provided over £400 billion of support to the UK economy and to families up and down the country during the covid crisis.

Lifelong Learning

The lifelong loan entitlement will ensure everyone has access to opportunities to upskill and reskill to progress in their careers. We have led a huge raft of reforms to the skills system since 2016 to deliver on this ambition, building on the reviews led by Professor Alison Wolf, Lord Sainsbury, Sir Philip Augar and others. Over this time, we have worked with over 5,000 employers to deliver apprenticeships, backed by the landmark £2.7 billion apprenticeship levy. The £3.8 billion we are investing over this Parliament will support more people to benefit from apprenticeships, skills bootcamps, T-levels, free courses for jobs and new returnerships, and will deliver our flagship institutes of technology.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comprehensive reply. It is welcome that the Government, in their response to the lifelong loan entitlement consultation, have acknowledged the need for maintenance support. However, so that lifelong loans are available to the many and not to the few, can my right hon. Friend ensure that there is a clear pathway for those who do not yet have level 3 qualifications, such as A-levels, to participate in this vital initiative and ensure that it is the game changer that will unleash the skills revolution?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I agree with him that there should be a clear pathway. That is why level 3 courses are fully funded for a range of individuals through funding streams such as free courses for jobs, the adult education budget and advanced learner loans. The adult education budget allows eligible adult learners aged 19 to 23 undertaking their first full level 3 course to be fully funded, and free courses for jobs gives eligible adults the chance to access high-value level 3 courses—423 of them—for free. The Government aim to support learners building up or stacking up LLE-funded modules on pathways to full qualifications across their working lives.

Building on that answer and on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), will my right hon. Friend tell the House what her ambitions are for lifelong loan entitlements and when they might come into force, so that older potential learners in Basildon and Thurrock can start to reskill for the 21st century?

The lifelong loan entitlement will radically transform opportunities for people, including the nurse I met outside my local hospital in Chichester, who retrained having worked for years as a domiciliary. Thousands of people like me who look for a change of career later in life have used the apprenticeship system, but now all providers registered with the Office for Students will have the opportunity to deliver LLE-funded courses, which will initially focus on higher technical qualifications, helping to address skills gaps to support learners into jobs where employers have need. The LLE will be introduced from academic year 2025-26.

Learning opportunities should be there for everyone everywhere, yet since 2010 almost 4 million fewer adults have taken part in learning, thus holding back their learning and economic potential and our country’s productivity. It has been a decade of decline, which we cannot afford to continue, so will the Secretary of State back Labour’s plans for a better skills system, working for people and businesses across the country, starting with the urgent reform of the apprenticeship levy, which she will have heard criticisms of, just as we have?

The hon. Lady may have some different figures, because 5.4 million people alone have been trained as apprentices and about half of them have been adults. But we have done a lot to reform our skills system, working with 5,000 employers to make sure that business and education meet. We are very happy with the reforms we are making and think they will offer a lot more opportunity for lifelong learning to support adults with the skills they need.

For many refugees and asylum seekers, access to lifelong learning is all the more important because their learning may have been disrupted. On Friday, my constituent Grace Franklin, a volunteer ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—teacher, and Maryhill Integration Network both raised with me access to ESOL classes for asylum seekers and refugees, which is often hampered by people staying in temporary hotel accommodation. What commitments do the UK Government have to invest further in ESOL in England, so that Scotland can benefit from the Barnett consequentials?

We have the adult education budget scheme, which is often run by local authorities and devolved in some cases to the mayors as well, and that includes ESOL provision.

The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill could be transformational to post-16 education. However, in annexe 2 to the recent 2023-24 ministerial guidance letter to the OFS, the Secretary of State slashed funding for LLE preparation by £5 million. These are clearly complex and expensive changes for the sector to address, so how does she expect the sector to deliver these reforms without the funds to do it?

The LLE will be available for four full years of study, for higher technical and degree level and, for the first time, for modules of high-value courses regardless of whether they are provided in colleges or universities. Of course this is a big change and we are engaging with a wide range of stakeholders to gather the input to inform policy development, to build further awareness and to inform future budget development.

Early Years Support for Families

In the past five years, we have spent more than £20 billion supporting families with the cost of childcare. Since 2010, we have introduced the offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds and doubled the entitlements for working parents of three to four-year-olds, and we are now going further and have announced 30 hours of free childcare for children of working parents from nine months.

I recently visited the outstanding Laurels Childcare Company in Durham to listen to its concerns about childcare funding. Such providers are crying out for clarity on the Government’s plan. More free hours must not mean more underfunded hours. The Government admitted in 2020 that it costs £7.49 to deliver an hour of free childcare for a three-year-old, yet in September providers will be paid just £5.50 for those hours. Can the Minister tell me why?

We conducted a survey of 10,000 different providers, and that is what we have used to set out the funding rates. In some of those areas, for example, for two-year-olds, the rate is going up by 30% because we know that is a much higher cost for providers, but overall we have announced the single biggest investment ever in childcare and will be spending £8 billion on this in four years’ time.

The commitment in the Budget to invest in childcare in the early years was extremely welcome and I congratulate my hon. Friend on her part in securing it. Can she update the House on the feedback she is getting from the sector on the proposed funding rates and whether they will allow it to meet the inflationary pressures it is facing, including soaring business rates bills? Will she continue to address with the Treasury some of the unavoidable costs, such as the increase in the national living wage and the business rates increases, faced by the sector?

As I said, we used feedback from the sector—we surveyed about 10,000 different providers—to come up with the rates, and as we progress we continue to talk and work closely with it. There has been a lot of positivity about the rates we set out, in particular for one and two-year-olds, and the £200 million we are putting in this year and the £288 million we will be putting in next year.

One thing I am most concerned about in terms of educational attainment in early years and primary is food insecurity, which is rising in all our constituencies. Much of this is devolved, of course, but I do not want to see hungry kids anywhere and hungry kids cannot learn. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that seven out of 10 children in families on universal credit are not entitled to free school meals. Do Ministers not agree that they should be?

We have increased the number of children on free school meals to the highest ever level. We also have programmes such as the holiday activities and food programme—one of the things I visited over the recess—which is providing nutritious meals alongside activities. We are doing a lot to support parents with the cost of living, too.

Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the work done by the private sector, and in particular to Busy Bees, which was founded in Lichfield 40 years ago this year and operates over 400 nurseries in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Europe and the United States of America, and wish it well for the next 40 years?

My hon. Friend is testament to the fact that good things come out of Lichfield. I have met Busy Bees a couple of times. It does some really impressive things, in particular on retention of staff and training programmes. I wish it well in the years to come.

Degree Apprenticeships

My hon. Friend will know that “degree apprenticeships” are my two favourite words in the English language. My hon. Friend’s constituency of Wantage has had 330 extra degree-level apprentices since 2018. We have had over 180,000 starts overall since 2014 and we are investing an additional—an additional —£40 million over the next two years to support degree apprenticeships.

My right hon. Friend is a great supporter of degree apprenticeships, as am I, but he will know they do not always function as the route for social mobility that they should. We have seen a much higher proportion of the most affluent young people obtain them than we have the poorest young people, so what is he doing to ensure disadvantaged students get their fair share of degree apprenticeships?

We are transforming careers advice on apprenticeships in our schools and targeting that advice towards disadvantaged students. The Office for Students has asked higher education to increase the proportion of level 4, 5 and degree apprenticeships as part of reforms to wider access. We also increased the care leavers bursary from £1,000 to £3,000, and are providing £1,000 to employers and training providers when they recruit young people. Our determination is to get more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds doing degree apprenticeships and apprenticeships across the board.

During a recent visit to the excellent South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, the Minister and I were quite properly schooled by two smart apprentices, who told us quite bluntly what they thought of the Government communications campaign to encourage apprenticeships and raise awareness of them. They were not hugely impressed and had some ideas themselves. After meeting the Stroud apprentices, will my right hon. Friend consider creating a new national campaign to raise awareness of this really important use of learning?

I had a wonderful visit with my hon. Friend to the excellent South Gloucestershire and Stroud College. She is absolutely right that we need to communicate the good work of apprenticeships and we are doing exactly that. We have a national campaign, Skills for Life, which is all over the national media. As I mentioned in my previous answer, we are also transforming careers advice on apprenticeships to ensure that students and learners have interactions with apprentice organisations to encourage them to do apprenticeships when they leave school. We have also worked with UCAS to ensure that apprenticeships are treated at the same level as when people apply for degrees.

The number of apprenticeship starts has dropped significantly this year, and around £600 million of the levy was returned to the Treasury in the last year. Given the skills shortages affecting our economy, would it not make sense to let businesses in my constituency and elsewhere utilise at least some of that returned money for relevant non-apprenticeship training designed to alleviate the skills gap?

The hon. Gentleman cares passionately about these things. Apprenticeship starts increased by 8.6% in the past year. I am happy to send him the figures. For higher apprentices, that increased by 11%. The £600 million that he talked about—or £750 million, as quoted by the newspapers over the weekend—is money from the overall United Kingdom apprenticeship levy that was sent to the devolved authorities for them to spend on skills as they see fit.

I thank the Minister for that response. It is important that everyone has the opportunity to do degree apprenticeships, working in partnership with businesses and companies to ensure that the opportunity works on the floor. It is important that ladies have the same opportunities as men. How is the Minister ensuring that ladies have those opportunities as well?

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right that we want to encourage more women to do apprenticeships, especially STEM apprenticeships. As I mentioned, we are doing a lot of work on careers. The apprenticeship and skills network is going around schools promoting apprenticeships and targeting disadvantaged students and areas where we need more female apprentices, including in STEM.

Apprenticeships: People Over 16

9. What steps her Department is taking to encourage people over the age of 16 to take up apprenticeships. (904504)

My right hon. Friend and I are passionate about apprenticeships. We are promoting this excellent route into a career through our apprenticeship support and knowledge programme in schools and our career starter apprenticeships campaign. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education mentioned, we are working with UCAS so that people can search and apply for apprenticeships alongside degrees, creating a one-stop shop for young people.

The Secretary of State is a fantastic advocate for apprenticeships. Importantly, she recognises the need to open up training and apprenticeship opportunities for school leavers. We can never forget them. Will she join me in thanking the many local businesses in Witham that supported my recent careers fair held in a local school? On top of that, will she look at how to make the apprenticeship levy much more agile and flexible so that more school leavers participate in the scheme, and look at devolving more skills funding to Essex?

I share my right hon. Friend’s appreciation of the wonderful employers in Essex that are building the next generation—such as Stansted airport, Rose Builders and Simarco—as someone who left school at 16 and started on that route. I know through my right hon. Friend’s work, more than 8,000 apprentices have started in Witham since 2010, many in engineering, automotive and aerospace.

More than 99% of the apprenticeships budget was spent last year, which is a fantastic demonstration of the value that apprentices bring to businesses. We will continue to ringfence the levy to support that demand. Essex Chambers of Commerce are working with employers to develop a local skills improvement plan. We look forward to working more with them and local employers on their needs.

I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I totally agree with the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who rightly urges the Minister to support Labour’s policy on greater flexibility for apprenticeships. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development described the Government’s approach to apprenticeships as having “failed by every measure”. Alongside starts having fallen by a third, the Government’s own data shows that 47% of apprentices do not complete their apprenticeships. Will the Secretary of State join me, the Labour party and the right hon. Member for Witham in supporting the wide range of businesses and employers that support Labour’s plans for reform of the apprenticeship levy?

I understand that many employers have asked for that, but it is as ill-thought-through and ill-designed as Labour policies such as the tax on private schools and non-dom status. We are already spending 99.6% of the levy, so Labour’s policy would mean that we would have to take some apprentices away from SMEs to be able to create that levy.

High-quality Apprenticeships: Access

We are improving quality and supporting more apprentices to successfully complete their programmes. We have moved from frameworks to standards, we have asked all apprenticeship providers to reregister on the register of apprenticeship training providers, Ofsted will inspect all providers by 2025 and we have provided £7.5 million for a provider workforce development programme.

A constituent was in touch with me recently as his daughter has started a level 3 veterinary nursing qualification. There are no places to take that qualification in north Wales, so she registered with a training provider just across the border, in Chester. As she works for a veterinary practice in Colwyn Bay and spends more than 50% of her practical learning time in Wales, she is not eligible for English apprenticeship funding, yet the Welsh Government say that, because the training provider is based in England, she is not eligible for Welsh apprenticeship funding either. Can my right hon. Friend tell me why it is so difficult for the UK and Welsh Governments to work together on such things, so that people such as my constituent do not fall through the cracks?

My hon. Friend has been a battler for his constituent and has written to me about this case. A 50% rule has been developed to support apprenticeship training for those who spend some of their time working in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. That rule is maintained, but I will continue to support cross-Government collaboration to see if these problems can be sorted out and I am happy to write to the Welsh Government about his constituent’s case.

Independent Schools

11. What recent assessment she has made of the quality and value of education provided by independent schools in England. (904507)

Independent schools, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, are an important part of our school system, giving parents choice. Independent schools drive innovation, support social mobility through bursaries and attract significant international investment. The diverse independent sector includes schools that serve small faith communities and that create special school capacity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Can he ensure that other members of the Government show similar enthusiasm for the work and achievements of the independent schooling sector? Will he take this opportunity to thank all the families who make significant financial sacrifices to pay the fees of those schools for acting in the public interest and saving taxpayers quite a lot of money?

I am very happy to do that. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that approximately 8% of pupils attending Independent Schools Council schools receive around £480 million of bursaries and means-tested assistance.

Early Years Provision

We are removing one of the biggest barriers to parents working by vastly increasing the amount of free childcare that working families can access. By 2027-28, we expect to be spending in excess of £8 billion every year on free hours and early education, helping working families with their childcare costs.

As chair of the APPG on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes, may I welcome the extended entitlement introduced in the spring Budget, but will the supplementary funding to nursery schools be increased to cover the total entitlement, not just the 15 hours universal entitlement?

The Government recognise that maintained nursery schools make a valuable contribution, improving the lives of some of our most disadvantaged children. We will provide further details on funding arrangements for the new entitlements for 2024-25 in due course.

One of the multiple barriers to increasing early years provision is the availability of suitable and affordable premises in which to run pre-schools. For example, Chearsley and Haddenham under-fives pre-school in my constituency, known locally as CHUF, is on notice to vacate its current Haddenham site and has just over a year to find brand new premises. What can my hon. Friend’s Department do to support CHUF in its search for a new Haddenham site? What steps is she taking, in particular with colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to ensure sites for childcare provision are fully included as an essential item to be funded through the new infrastructure levy?

Under the new infrastructure levy, which is being introduced through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, local authorities will have the flexibility to direct funds towards their own infrastructural priorities. That definitely includes childcare facilities. The Department also has regular contact with each local authority in England about its sufficiency of childcare and any issues that it may be facing.

In the spring Budget, the Chancellor announced new incentives for people registering as childminders, and a double incentive to register with childminding agencies. Will the Minister set out why she considers it necessary to incentivise childminders to sign up with agencies, and what conversations she and the Secretary of State had prior to the Budget with the Prime Minister and the agency in which his wife is a shareholder?

There is a very simple reason: we subsidise Ofsted’s registration costs, so a registration costs it about £35, whereas registering a childminder can cost a childminding agency £500-plus. The discrepancy is simply to balance out the fact that they have different costs. I know that the No. 10 team is collaborating with the commissioner to establish the facts and show that everything has been transparently declared.

Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

15. What steps she is taking to help improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families. (904511)

21. What steps she is taking to help improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families. (904518)

I want every child and young person, regardless of their special educational need or disability, to receive the right support to enjoy their childhood, succeed in their education and feel well prepared for their next step. The SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, which was published last month, sets out the next steps that we are taking to deliver a more positive experience for children, young people and families.

Today’s Guardian front page and our own House magazine lay out the disabling effects of severe mental health crisis among our young people. What urgent action will the Minister take to ensure wider access to crucial child and adolescent mental health services so that talking therapies can be delivered on time and be effective, and so that children can retake their learning and get on with their studies?

We are working closely with our counterparts in the Department of Health and Social Care, which is investing billions to ensure that 345,000 children can access CAMHS support. We are also rolling out mental health support in schools and are setting out best practice guides this year on a range of SEND issues. One of the first will be mental health and wellbeing, so that all teachers in all settings can ensure that they are doing the right thing.

The Children and Families Act 2014 sets out national standards in legislation for children with special educational needs and disabilities, but those legislative safeguards have not succeeded in delivering appropriate support for children and young people. Special needs school staff in Putney are excellent, but they have highlighted to me that the lack of funding or link-up to social care services—and to mental health services, as the Minister has highlighted—is the major barrier to providing the care that is needed. Why does the Minister believe that having new standards in the plan, but no new legislative underpinning, will deliver better outcomes?

One thing that we have tried to do in the reforms is get under the bonnet and find out why local authorities are struggling to deliver. That is why we are setting out a specialist workforce strategy and looking at initial teacher training: to ensure that we can catch things early and address them. I reassure the hon. Lady that we published the strategy in tandem with the Department of Health and Social Care, because we know that it is critical to achieving that.

It was recently proposed that the caretaker’s bungalow at Bridgewater Primary School in Berkhamsted was to be used for adult social care purposes, against the wishes of the school and many parents, who wanted to use the space to provide wraparound care provision. Of course I recognise the need for adult residential care, but does the Minister agree that we should be jumping at such opportunities to provide on-site provision for SEND students?

That particular decision will be one for the local council, but one thing I will say is that we are asking areas to set out local inclusion plans, not only so that they can assess all the need in their area, but so that we can assess whether they are meeting it.

While we all recognise the importance of increased maths, which has been much discussed today, it is vital for children’s life chances that literacy continues to improve. The only way to achieve that is by having better provision for children with special educational needs, including dyslexia, so will the Minister ensure that that continues to get the drive that it needs? Will she update the House on where she is up to with the improved teacher training that was committed to in the excellent paper earlier this year?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that literacy is one of the major priorities for the Department. We will be setting out best practice guides on early speech and language. In tandem with the phonics tests, they will be a really good way to screen children for dyslexia and make sure that with our initial teacher training improvements we are capturing and helping children who are struggling with things like dyslexia, as soon as possible.

Topical Questions

This morning I visited the London Screen Academy with the Prime Minister, who described his vision of all young people studying maths until the age of 18. We have set out the next step towards making that a reality and delivering a truly transformational change for the economy and society. As the Prime Minister made clear today, this is not about requiring every young person to study A-level maths but about ensuring that all young people have the skills that they need in order to succeed in a broad range of industries, as well as the life skills that will enable them to deal with the challenges that we all face, from securing the best deal at the supermarket to taking out credit or applying for a mortgage. We are assembling an expert advisory group to advise the Prime Minister and me on what a “best in class” modern maths offer to 16 to 18-year-olds looks like, and we will draw on that updated research, which will help us to learn from the race ahead of our international competitors.

I thank the Secretary of State for the record levels of capital spending that we are seeing in Fylde’s schools, most notably on the rebuilding of Lytham St Annes High School. However, the job is never done. Carr Hill High School in Kirkham, and other schools in my constituency, are seeking funds with which to modernise buildings and facilities. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the capital requirements of those schools?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the Government’s investment in school buildings. We recently announced the provision of £1.8 billion to fund improvements in the condition of schools in 2023-24, which includes about £15 million for Lancashire County Council, the body responsible for Carr Hill High School. As my hon. Friend said, we have transformed Lytham St Annes High School via the school rebuilding programme—and of course we will be happy to meet him.

As this is the first session of Education questions since the tragic death of Ruth Perry was made public, may I take the opportunity to extend my condolences and those of the entire Labour party to her family, her school community, and everyone who knew her?

Parents know that accountability is crucial for our schools. A year ago I said that as Ofsted turned 30, it was time for it to turn a corner. The former chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has now said that the Secretary of State must respond as a matter of urgency to what he describes as

“a groundswell of opinion building up”

that Ofsted is getting some things wrong. Does the Secretary of State still believe that there is no room for improvement in the inspection of schools?

I always think that there is room for improvement in absolutely everything. Ruth Perry’s death was a terrible tragedy, and my deepest sympathies are with her family, her friends, and the whole school community. A shocking event such as this will inevitably raise questions about inspection practice, which is understandable, but the safeguarding of pupils is also vital. I know that His Majesty's chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills has listened to school leaders who have expressed concern about the way in which safeguarding is inspected, and is reviewing the current approach as part of an ongoing process of evaluation and development, and I welcome that.

That is why, as we have said, Labour believes that safeguarding reviews should take place annually. Reducing schools’ performance to a one-word headline means high stakes for staff but a low level of information for parents. The current Ofsted chief inspector has described Labour’s plan to move from headline grades to a new system of school report cards as a “logical evolution”. Does the Secretary of State agree with the chief inspector?

I think the hon. Lady stood on a manifesto to abolish Ofsted in 2019, and now she has said she would remove the grading of schools. I too have a quotation from Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has said:

“This risks lowering standards in schools and is a distraction”.

I would go further, and say that this shows that Labour is happy to prioritise the asks of teaching unions over raising standards and safeguarding our children.

T2. Has the Department had words with the Ministry of Defence about the siting of 2,000 illegal migrants on an RAF base? I ask that question because not 200 yards from where those illegal migrants are to be housed are a nursery school and a primary school, set in a community of 1,000 people in the former married quarters. Should not Ofsted and the Department be taking an interest in this matter, in the context of child protection? (904521)

Of course we always take the interests of child protection very seriously. The Home Office has confirmed that the proposals for RAF Scampton are based on the accommodation of single adult males, so there will be no children there. We remain constantly in contact with both the Home Office and local councils as these proposals develop, and my focus is on promoting the wellbeing of all children, including those who are refugees.

High-quality teaching is only possible when teachers feel valued and supported. The Scottish Government have engaged in constructive dialogue with teaching unions and agreed a pay deal for teachers with a 12% salary increase this month. Rather than hurl insults at dedicated teachers, when will this Government come up with a realistic pay offer for their committed teaching staff?

I pay tribute to all our dedicated teachers. All of us across the House will agree that we cannot have a world-class education system without world-class teachers, and I am committed to making sure that we recruit and retain the best teachers. Obviously, we have had intensive talks with the unions and we offered them a one-off payment of £1,000 and an average of 4.5% for the period from September 2023 to 2024, when inflation is expected to be way below 2%. It is really disappointing that they have rejected that offer. It is also disappointing that they claim that it was not fully funded or affordable to schools, because we have confirmed that it is, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that as well.

T3. The Department for Education has announced that it intends to subsidise the so-called Oak National Academy by £43 million in the coming years, much to the dismay of some of the educational software sector. Did the Department carry out a full assessment of the impact of that subsidy on competition and innovation in the sector before it made the decision, and if it did so, will it publish that study? (904522)

We believe that Oak can coexist with high-quality commercial publishers and that it will stimulate the market, helping teachers to become better informed consumers of resources. This country is one of the lowest users of commercial textbooks and our expectation is that Oak will increase the use of high-quality knowledge-rich textbooks in schools. The full business case for Oak, including the market impact, was published on gov.uk on 1 November.

T4. The next Labour Government will recruit thousands of new teachers to ensure that every child has access to a broad curriculum that includes music, art, sports and drama. What is the Government’s plan to increase pupil access to these vital subjects? (904523)

Of course we want children to have the benefit of a high- quality curriculum including music and the arts. We have a high uptake of arts GCSEs in our system, we have published the model music curriculum and we have a national plan for music education as well as a cultural plan for music education that is about to start its work.

T5. Children across the country are returning to school today after the Easter break, but sadly, reports in Southend suggest that a fifth of school pupils are missing 10% of their lessons over the course of a year. Last December, a shocking 11.5% recorded unauthorised absences. I know that this is something that the Secretary of State takes really seriously, and given the life-transforming potential of education, could she update the House on her action plan to tackle unauthorised absences? (904524)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question; this is something that I take seriously, too. The Government remain committed to legislating to introduce statutory “children not in school” registers. On attendance, our priority is to reduce absence and to ensure consistent support for families, and we have published updated guidance setting out how we expect schools and local authorities to work together to improve attendance.

T8. The number of children living in poverty is increasing, and a third of the children in my city are now experiencing food poverty. With commitments from the Mayor of London and the Welsh Government on implementing universal free school meals to fight the scourge of hunger, will the Minister work with me and Liverpool City Council on piloting the roll-out of universal free school meals for all primary and secondary pupils in our city? This would be a £13 million investment in our children’s future and it would ensure that all children had the chance to fulfil their potential. (904527)

I am always happy to talk to the hon. Member about these issues. The Conservative Government since 2010 have extended free school meals to more groups of children than any other Government over the past century, and we have been able to do this because of our careful stewardship of the public finances and the economy. Some 1.9 million pupils are eligible for benefits-related free school meals, which is up from 1.7 million in 2021. That increase is due largely to the protections put in place on transfer to universal credit.

T6. Following the recent public consultation by the Orbis Education Trust, will the Government confirm that it is now their intention for the proposed new Hanwood Park free school in Kettering to be open to both boys and girls? (904525)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s interest in ensuring that the new free school best meets the needs of pupils in his constituency, and indeed for his general interest in high-quality education in his constituency. The consultation closed on 5 March, and we are currently considering the outcome ahead of reaching a decision on the school’s designation.

T9. The latest Government data, released last Thursday, reports a 4.1% drop in apprenticeship starts compared with the 2021-22 academic year. I have a great deal of respect for the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, but is he sure he was right to claim in an earlier answer that apprenticeship starts rose this year? (904528)

I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to explain that, over the past year— 2021-22—we increased apprenticeship starts by 8.6%, as I mentioned earlier.

T7. I was pleased to see a commitment in the SEND improvement plan to train up to 5,000 level 3-qualified special educational needs co-ordinators and teachers to ensure that children identified as having SEND can thrive in school. Does my hon. Friend agree that expanding this training and working to make it a mandatory part of all training for teachers and co-ordinators will improve the baseline assessments looking for SEND markers in those entering school. (904526)

Early identification of SEND is vital, which is why we are training 5,000 early-years SENCOs and reforming initial teacher training and the early-career framework for teachers in later stages of education.

T10. I recently surveyed all the schools in my Weaver Vale constituency, and over 50% of headteachers mentioned issues with the recruitment and retention of teaching and learning assistants, many of whom work with children with special educational needs. What are the Government doing to improve the pay and terms and conditions of teaching and learning assistants? (904529)

We are recruiting a record number of teachers, and we have a record number of teaching assistants in our schools. The Chancellor announced an extra £2 billion of school funding in the autumn statement, which means there has been a 15% increase in school funding in just two years.

Given the proven correlation between children having access to a good school library and their academic achievement and literacy, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that every primary school in Rother Valley and across the UK has a dedicated library or reading space?

We have spent £15 billion on capital since 2015, and it is up to schools how they allocate that capital. I share my hon. Friend’s view that every school should have a school library, or at least a space in which children can sit and read.

At the last Education questions, the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education noted that he is very proud of the UK’s intake of 600,000 international students every year. International students, as we know, inject billions into our economy, bring huge value to our campuses and enrich our wider society. Can he therefore confirm on the record that the Government will not introduce an illogical policy designed to restrict foreign students?

What I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman is that our target was 600,000 international students per year, we currently have 680,000—or just under—international students per year and that 600,000 annual target remains. Obviously, visas are a matter for the Home Office.

I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on music. Has the Minister considered replicating the success of the London BRIT School in Bradford?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, this morning she, the Prime Minister and I visited the London Screen Academy in north London and saw some of its excellent facilities for 16 to 19-year-olds studying the technical side of film making. I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) is so passionate about this bid. All applications for new free schools are currently being assessed, with successful bids being announced before the summer.

I pay tribute to my constituent Ruth Perry, the former headteacher of Caversham Primary School. She was a much-loved member of our local community. Will the Secretary of State consider the very serious local concerns when she looks into this matter, and will she agree to meet me, local headteachers and Ruth’s family to discuss this important issue?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and of course I would be happy to meet. This is a tragic case, and I send my heartfelt sympathies to Ruth Perry’s family and friends, and all of the school community in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

NHS Strikes

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on the impact of the junior doctors’ strikes and what steps he is taking to prevent further strike action in the NHS.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. On its first part, we will not have firm figures on the number of patient appointments postponed until later today, because the NHS guidance has been to allow trusts a full working day to collate the data on those impacts. We do know from the previous three-day strike that 175,000 hospital appointments were disrupted and 28,000 staff were off. There is an initial estimate that 285,000 appointments and procedures would be rescheduled, but it is premature to set out the full impact of the junior doctors’ strike before we have that data. I am happy to commit to providing an update for the House in a written statement tomorrow. In the coming days, I will also update the House on the very significant progress that has been made on the successful action taken over recent months to clear significant numbers of 78-week waits, which resulted from the covid pandemic.

It is regrettable that the British Medical Association junior doctors committee chose the period immediately after Easter in order to cause maximum disruption, extending its strike to 96 hours and asking its members not to inform hospitals as to whether they intended to strike, thus making contingency planning much more difficult. Let me put on record my huge thanks to all those NHS staff, including nurses and consultants, who stepped up to provide cover for patients last week.

I recognise that there are significant pressures on junior doctors, both from the period of the pandemic and from dealing with the backlogs that that has caused. I do want to see a deal that increases junior doctors’ pay and fixes many of the non-pay frustrations that they articulate. But the junior doctors committee co-chairs have still not indicated that they will move substantially from their 35% pay demand, which is not affordable and indeed is not supported by those on the Opposition Front Bench.

Let me turn to the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question and the steps we are taking to prevent further strike action in the NHS. We have negotiated a deal with the NHS Staff Council; it is an offer we arrived at together, through constructive and meaningful negotiations. It is one on which people are still voting, with a decision of the NHS Staff Council due on 2 May. The largest union, Unison, has voted in favour of it, by a margin of 74% in favour. So we have agreed a process with the trade unions, which I am keen to respect, and we should now allow the other trade unions to complete their ballot, ahead of that NHS Staff Council meeting on 2 May.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

Finally, the invisible man appears; the Secretary of State was largely absent last week during the most disruptive strikes in NHS history. He was almost as invisible as the Prime Minister, who previously said he does not want to “get in the middle” of these disputes—what an abdication of leadership during a national crisis. An estimated 350,000 patients had appointments and operations cancelled last week—that is in addition to the hundreds of thousands already affected by previous rounds of action. Having failed to prevent nurses and ambulance workers from striking, the Government are repeating the same mistakes all over again by refusing talks with junior doctors. Patients cannot afford to lose more days to strikes. The NHS cannot afford more days lost to strike. Staff cannot afford more days lost to strikes. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to swallow his pride, admit that he has failed and bring in ACAS to mediate an end to the junior doctors’ strike?

Last week also saw the Royal College of Nursing announce new strike dates with no derogations and a new ballot. What does the Secretary of State plan to do to avert the evident risks to patient safety? Government sources briefed yesterday that they are prepared to “tough it out”. That is easy for them to say. Will the Secretary of State look cancer patients in the eye, while they wait for life-saving treatment, and tell them to tough it out, as they are the ones who will pay the price for his failed approach?

Finally, writing in The Sun on Sunday, the Secretary of State said that he is worried about patient safety, but he offered no plan to get this matter resolved. He is not a commentator; he is nominally the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care with the power and responsibility to put an end to these strikes. When will he put his toys back in the pram, stop blaming NHS staff, sit down with junior doctors and negotiate a fair resolution to this terrible, damaging and unprecedented dispute?

The shadow Secretary of State seems to ignore the fact that we have negotiated a deal with the NHS Staff Council, and it is a deal that it has recommended to its members. Indeed, the largest health union has voted in favour of the deal—indeed it is his own health union that has voted in favour of it—and yet he seems to suggest that we should tear it up even though other trade unions are voting on the offer, and their leadership had recommended it.

Secondly, the shadow Secretary of State says that we should sit down and negotiate. We have made an offer of 10.75% for last year, compared with the Labour Government in Wales, who have offered just 7.75%, which means that, in cash terms, the offer in England is higher than that put on the table by the Welsh Government, whom, I presume, he supports. He says that he does not support the junior doctors in their ask of 35%, and neither does the leadership there. We need to see meaningful movement from the junior doctors, but I recognise that they have been under significant pay and workforce pressures, which is why we want to sit down with them.

The bottom line is that the deal on the table is reasonable and fair. It means that just over £5,000 across last year and this year will be paid for a nurse at the top of band 5. The RCN recommended the deal to its members, but the deal was rejected by just under a third of its overall membership. It is hugely disappointing that the RCN has chosen not to wait for the other trade unions to complete their ballot and not to wait for the NHS Staff Council, of which it is a member, to meet to give its view on the deal. It has chosen to pre-empt all that not only with the strikes that come before that decision of the NHS Staff Council, but by removing the derogations—the exemptions—that apply to key care, including emergency care, which is a risk to patient safety.

Trade unions are continuing to vote on the deal. The deal on the table is both fair and reasonable, including just over £5,000 across last year and this year for nurses at the top of band 5. The deal has been accepted by the largest union in the NHS, including, as I have said, the shadow Health Secretary’s own trade union. It pays more in cash to Agenda for Change members than the deal on the table from the Labour Government in Wales. It is a deal that the majority of the NHS Staff Council, including the RCN’s own leadership, recommended to its members. We have always worked in good faith to end the disruption that these strikes have caused and we will continue to do so. None the less, it is right to respect the agreement that we have reached with the NHS Staff Council and to await its decision, which is due in the coming weeks.

Reports over the weekend suggest that the British Medical Association has asked its members not to engage with trusts if they intend to strike, as the Secretary of State has confirmed today. That is putting trust chief executives—and this is not their fault—in an impossible position. They are being asked to meet very challenging targets that we are rightly setting them, not least with respect to the covid backlog. What more can he do by his good offices to break that impasse? It is patients who are losing out.

I agree; it is extremely surprising that the BMA has asked its members not to liaise with NHS managers as they put in place those contingency plans. I urge the BMA junior doctors committee to think of those colleagues who have to provide the cover for those strikes. I reaffirm my thanks to all those staff in the NHS who provided cover following the Easter period, but it puts more pressure on other NHS staff if the BMA junior doctors committee is not willing for its members to liaise with management on sensible contingency measures, as I urge them to do.

The bigger dereliction of duty by the Secretary of State is not addressing the retention crisis among junior doctors, who have the choice of going to New Zealand or Australia, to be paid more than double what they receive now, or to move over to work as locums, where they will not carry the stress levels they currently do. What is he doing to address the retention crisis of junior doctors in the NHS?

In part, that is why my door is open and I am keen to discuss with junior doctors the pressure they face not just on pay, but on non-pay issues. There is the issue of support for the number of doctors and the workforce plan we have committed to bring forward to boost recruitment, but other non-pay issues are also frequently raised by junior doctors, such as booking annual leave and rostering. I am keen to work constructively with junior doctors to address those, but for us to do so they need to move from an unrealistic and unaffordable 35%, which the Leader of the Opposition himself has recognised is an unreasonable position.

The Secretary of State is right to say that the pay offer that has been put on the table, notwithstanding the junior doctors, is fair and reasonable. What should drive all parties in this situation is putting patients first, moving forward to address the serious challenges of recovering from covid and seeking to address the issues within the NHS. Everyone should be focused on patients first as this situation moves to a resolution.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend that this is a fair and reasonable settlement. As I say, it is more than £5,000 at band 5, and the NHS Staff Council has recommended it. The majority of trade unions, including the RCN, recommended this deal to their membership. That is why we should respect the NHS Staff Council process, respect the ballot that is still live and allow those votes to continue.

Has the Secretary of State seen the recent report on the BBC that billions of pounds—my words, not the BBC’s—are being squandered on agency labour from private providers, with huge profits being generated? Is it right that one doctor alone received £5,200 for a single shift, as was reported by the BBC? What does the Secretary of State think the impact of that would be on his own staff? How can it be right for him to use bellicose language about the staff associations and unions while larding money into the pockets of the private agency providers?

One of the concerns at the moment is the BMA rate card, which is significantly increasing the cost of providing the required cover for the strikes, and in turn taking money away from things NHS staff have raised with me, such as improving our tech offer, improving the NHS estate and the many other priorities on which money could be spent. I am keen, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is, to bring down the cost of agency workers. That is why we have the commitment to the NHS workforce plan and why I am keen to sit down constructively with the junior doctors committee, in the same way that I did with the NHS Staff Council. After we reached our deal, the leader of those negotiations for the trade unions commented on the meaningful and constructive approach that we took with the Agenda for Change negotiations. We are keen to do the same with the junior doctors, but that has to be based on a reasonable opening position from them.

When union bosses open their pay demands at 19% for nurses and 35% for junior doctors, is it any wonder that some ordinary members feel let down when they have been asked to settle for a generous and fair 5%? Would it not be far better if the BMA junior doctors committee revised its ludicrous demand for 35%, got around the table and did its members some service by negotiating for a fair and reasonable pay offer?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The fact that even the Labour party does not support 35%—the Leader of the Opposition himself says that is not affordable —indicates how out of step the junior doctors committee co-chairs are on what is realistic to get the balance right in bringing down inflation and on the wider economic pressures we face. We stand ready to engage constructively with the junior doctors committee but, as my hon. Friend says, that has to be on the basis of a meaningful opening position.

On 5 July, the British public will want to celebrate 75 years of our amazing NHS, but if they are still feeling the brunt of NHS strikes at that time, does the Secretary of State think it would still be right for him to be at the Dispatch Box?

We have agreed an offer with the Agenda for Change staff council. That is something that the staff council and the majority of trade unions have recommended to their own members, and that the largest health union has voted in favour of. I think we should allow that ballot to take place; it reflects meaningful and constructive engagement. That was reflected in the fact that trade union leaders themselves recommended the deal to their members. I hope that, when we come to the 75th anniversary, we can celebrate that.

What actions are senior NHS managers taking to resolve non-pay issues for which they could offer better work experiences to doctors? What use can they make of flexibilities over pay increments, promotions and gradings so that good staff can be better rewarded?

As ever, my right hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. As part of the negotiation with the AfC staff council, a number of non-pay issues were discussed. Job evaluation is one such issue. Likewise, for junior doctors, areas such as e-rostering are extremely important. I share his desire for investment in technology, and to look at the time spent by clinicians that could be spent by others in the skills mix or through better use of artificial intelligence technology and a better estates programme. That is why it is important that we continue to have that funding, as well as reaching the offer that we have with the AfC staff council.

Nurses, junior doctors and paramedics do not take strike action lightly; it is a last resort after more than a decade of working harder and longer for less and less. The Secretary of State will say that there is no money for a fair pay deal, but that is not true: it can be paid for by taxing the richest and redistributing the wealth. Ending non-dom status would raise £3 billion; introducing a 1% tax on assets worth over £10 million would raise £10 billion; and equalising the capital gains and income tax rates would raise £14 billion. What do the Secretary of State and Conservative Members prefer: nurses having to use food banks, or taxing the richest and making them pay their fair share?

The odd thing is that the hon. Lady seems to be disagreeing with the trade union leadership, which is not her usual position. Unison described it as a “decisive outcome” when 74% of its members voted in favour of the deal. It is odd that she wants to deny the GMB and other trade unions the space to vote on what their leaders have recommended—the GMB leadership has also recommended the deal to its members. Even the RCN leadership recommended the deal to its members. As Pat Cullen herself said:

“Negotiations work by compromise and agreement. We did not get everything and nor did the government. Ministers made improvements every day of those three weeks because we were able to say that returning to striking was the clear alternative. No union could enter negotiations and flatly say ‘no’ until you get everything you want. These talks will not be reopened if members reject this pay offer.”

The leadership of the RCN recommended the deal, as did the leaderships of the GMB and Unison. It is odd that the hon. Lady does not want to recognise that.

It is ironic to hear the British Medical Association complain about staff shortages when it has in the past resisted the expansion of training places for doctors. When there have been disputes in the health service, those involved have always taken steps to ensure that lives were not endangered by the dispute. That appears to be no longer the case. That is, to my mind, a dereliction of professional duty. Will my right hon. Friend send the strong message to those involved that preserving life is a professional duty that must be maintained?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on patient safety and the duty that all involved have to safeguard it. Indeed, I have previously given the Royal College of Nursing’s leadership credit and praise for granting strike exemptions, known as derogations—notwithstanding our disputes, I was happy to recognise that on the record. Given that less than a third of the RCN’s total membership has voted against the deal, and that the RCN’s leadership recommended it, it is very odd that it has now hardened its position and removed those exemptions. I very much hope that it will reflect further on the matter in the coming days, because I think its previous stance of granting exemptions was right.

We need to be clear: junior doctors have had a 26% real-terms pay cut. Restoring their pay would cost around £1 billion a year. That is less than half the giveaway handed to the super-rich through the non-dom tax avoidance scheme. Is it not the case that a proper pay rise for junior doctors is affordable—it is just that the Government have the wrong priorities?

It perhaps will not surprise the House to hear that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with his party’s leader on that, because the Leader of the Opposition says:

“I don’t think 35% is affordable”.

The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) is also wrong on the quantum, because the cost would be £2 billion, not £1 billion as he says. [Interruption.] Well, that has never been how departmental budgets operate—not when his party was in power, and certainly not now. He is wrong on the amount and wrong on the policy.

Given that the terms “emergency care” and “intensive care” imply that the life of those who need them is at risk, does my right hon. Friend share my dismay that people in that predicament are now clearly being targeted by strikers? Will he—and hopefully his Opposition counterpart—represent to the medical unions that whatever other strike action they take, they should not endanger the life of people in emergency or intensive care?

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Patient safety should come first for all parties in this dispute. That is why I urge the Royal College of Nursing to wait for the NHS Staff Council decision on the offer. Voting is still ongoing, and it would be premature to announce strike action ahead of that decision.

Nurses and junior doctors are being pushed to breaking point, because there simply are not enough of them, and the Government have failed to plan the workforce properly. A nurse I spoke to at the weekend told of the terrible queues in corridors, and said that patients were waiting in pain, and not in the dignified environment that they should be in. She also spoke of the lack of care packages to enable the safe discharge of many patients. Why are we still waiting for the NHS workforce plan, which the Government promised? Can the Secretary of State tell us on what date we can expect to hear a statement on it? Also, what urgent action will he take to address the social care crisis?

On social care, which relates to the hon. Lady’s point about discharge, she will recall that in the autumn statement the Chancellor put additional funding into adult social care—funding of up to £7.5 billion over two years, which is the largest ever increase in funding for social care. Also, I announced at the Dispatch Box in early January a reprioritisation of funding in the Department—it was a £250-million package—in the light of urgent and emergency care pressure. That included funding to support greater discharge, to get more flow. I touched on the workforce plan earlier. We will publish it shortly; in the autumn statement, the Chancellor committed to doing so.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BMA pay demands are over four times the average private sector pay increase and that, were the Government to agree to them, they would place a huge additional tax burden on hard-working taxpayers across the country—including in Southend West—at just the time when they are battling with an unprecedented cost of living crisis?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. If that demand were agreed to, it would mean some junior doctors receiving a pay rise of over £20,000. We need to find a balance, with a fair and reasonable settlement for NHS staff, recognising the huge pressure from the pandemic and the backlogs it has caused, while at the same time bringing inflation down, because that matters not just to NHS staff, but to all working people who are impacted by inflation.

The BMA has made it crystal clear that it is willing to enter into negotiations, so will the Secretary of State commit right now to asking ACAS to negotiate and mediate? If not, why not?

As I have said, we need to see meaningful movement from the BMA. The 35% demand that it has set out is not affordable, which is a point that is recognised by most colleagues across the House—certainly, Opposition Front Benchers recognise it. We need to see significant movement from the BMA to be able to have constructive and meaningful engagement.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s acknowledgement that junior doctors deserve a pay rise, and not just because my wife is a junior doctor, and his focus on non-pay issues. For all the talk about ACAS from Opposition Members, is it not the case that so long as the BMA leadership maintain that their starting point is 35%, there is no point in going to ACAS, because the BMA is not prepared to negotiate? It is setting its face against the interests of doctors and patients. The only way to get through this is to get around the table with a meaningful starting point, and that cannot be 35%, as the Leader of the Opposition has said.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and he is right to highlight the wider issues that we want to discuss. The previous negotiation with the junior doctors included, for example, setting up a higher pay band, which has meant that there has been a cumulative increase of over 24% over four years. It included targeted action such as a £1,000 a year allowance for junior doctors who work less than full time, and targeted action around unsocial hours and weekend work. Those are the meaningful discussions that we want to enter into with junior doctors, but that has to be on the basis of a realistic and deliverable discussion, and 35% is not that.

I am not sure the Secretary of State understands just how angry people are. My constituents are absolutely furious with the Government’s stewardship of the NHS. Hull is the most under-doctored area in the country; we have the longest waits in A&E in the country; and we have had a very poor Care Quality Commission report on our local hospitals. On the junior doctor strikes, when will the Secretary of State start to put patients first? I want to make sure that he goes away from this Chamber and gets ACAS involved, so that we can get the junior doctors back at work, with no further delays and cancellations for my constituents and patients in Hull.

The rather odd thing is that we have a larger cash offer on the table for 2022-23 than the Labour Government in Wales, and we have reduced our longest waits far more than they have in Wales. We have a deal that the trade union leaders themselves have recommended, that the majority of staff councils have recommended and that the largest health union has voted emphatically in support of. It is right that we allow time for that deal to go through, and we stand ready to have similar meaningful and constructive engagement with the junior doctors once they move from what is an unrealistic position.

Regulars in this Chamber will know that Opposition Members have habitually taken to urging Ministers to adopt their own policies. Does the Secretary of State share my difficulty that, in respect of this urgent question, none of us has any idea what their policy is?

In short, the position of the shadow Health Secretary seems to be to deny the vote of his own union, Unison, which voted 74% in favour; to not wait for the NHS staff council to reach its decision; and to unravel to some extent what has been meaningful and constructive engagement with the “Agenda for Change” staff council. My right hon. Friend is right to be confused about the Opposition’s actual position.

I can see at least two other Members in the Chamber who know from personal experience that early diagnosis and treatment of cancer can save lives. I very much hope that any action taken over the next few weeks will not affect that, because that could mean people losing their lives before their time.

I have two significant worries about the long-term future of the NHS. One is seeing so many people, including those from poor constituencies and poor families, using all their life savings to buy an operation, because they know that that is their only means of getting back to work as there is such a long backlog. That feels like a form of privatising the NHS.

Secondly, there are terrible problems with recruitment and retention, with more than 110,000 vacancies in the NHS. I really hope we will see the workforce paper soon. It has been promised for a very long time, and I suspect “summer” may go on until autumn—it tends to every year, I suppose. It would be good to see that paper soon, because there are so many different parts of the NHS where we need to recruit more people. Everybody in this round is worrying, “Will the NHS be worth working for in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time?”. We can only do this if there is real confidence in the future.

The hon. Gentleman makes two important points. The workforce plan is critical, and I have referred to that already. He also raises the importance of early diagnosis of cancer, and he is absolutely right on that. He will have seen that the faster diagnosis standard was met in the latest operational performance data for February, which was extremely welcome news. There is obviously more still to do. That is why we are rolling out the programme of diagnostic centres and surgical hubs. We are redesigning patient pathways to streamline those journeys, and we are looking at variation in performance on such things as faecal immunochemical tests. There is a huge amount of work, but I hope he can see some progress in the latest figures.

More widely in terms of elective recovery, we made progress in the summer on the two-year waits, in stark contrast to Wales, which was significantly above 50,000. We got it under 2,000 in the summer. I will update the House shortly on the 78-week waits. We are working through the key actions in our elective recovery plan as we deal with the consequences of the build-up from the pandemic.

We all recognise how hard junior doctors work, but if we are to have successful negotiations, we need honesty and integrity in them. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the BMA’s figure—its central campaign claim—of £14-an-hour pay for junior doctors has been shown to be misleading?

I do share my hon. Friend’s concern. Full Fact has shown that the figure is inaccurate. It disregards higher pay later in the evenings and at weekends. It ignores the 20% that goes into pensions and that junior doctors, probably more than any other profession, have very quick pay and career progression. That is why, as part of our listening exercise, we made changes to pensions in the Budget. That was a reflection of the fact that senior doctors have often accumulated those pension pots, which is one of the other challenges we are dealing with. It is an indication of the career and pay progression that many junior doctors will see later in their careers.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for his endeavours to find a pay settlement, ever mindful that it is more than pay that some NHS staff wish to see. To give an example of that, I recently sat listening to one of my constituents who is in foundation year 1. She was brought to tears by the stress and pressure on her young shoulders. When she finally finishes shifts, she lies awake going over the decisions made. In her view, she would keep her pay the same to have more qualified staff available. How will the Secretary of State’s proposals make adequate support on the wards possible?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and there is a lot more we can do around the skills mix in the NHS and ensuring that people operate at what is referred to as the top of their licence and make the maximum of the training they have. Often there are restrictions in place. We are looking at physician associates and medical examiners and at the role of pharmacists within primary care, as well as at how we get the right continuing professional development to train people, so that we get more of the career ladder from different roles.

There is a lot that we are looking at, in the context of the workforce plan, around the right skills mix, the right training and job evaluation. That was one of the issues in my discussions with the staff council—for example, there was a particular focus on apprenticeships. Sometimes people take a pay hit when they go into an apprenticeship if they were at the top of their previous band. That is one of the things we agreed to work on with the staff council. Again, I am sure that an area of consensus in the House will be that apprenticeships offer great opportunities for people to progress, and we should not have a financial penalty when people pursue them.

Many hon. Members have raised extremely important points, but the central issue is that the reckless and irresponsible actions of two trade unions are putting the lives of my constituents and people throughout the country at risk. The right to strike can never trump people’s right to receive healthcare and not have their life threatened by the actions of left-wing trade unions. Can I ask what my right hon. Friend is going to do to address this issue and to hold trade unions to account if they continue with this appalling behaviour?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. We have worked constructively with the Royal College of Nursing and, as I say, I was happy to put on the record my acknowledgment of the exemptions it had previously granted. I hope that between now and the end of the month, it will further reflect on the fact that the 48 hours of continuous strike action will happen without consultation with other staff council members and without waiting for the decision of other trade unions that are currently balloting. He will know that “Agenda for Change” is a deal that covers all the trade unions, not just the RCN in isolation, and I think it is right to wait for all the trade unions to vote and for the staff council to meet.

I draw the attention of Members of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

On Friday, I was working at the hospital and my usual clinic had cancelled all but one patient. I spoke to the secretaries about the various cancellations they had had to make as result of the strikes, and I was really sad to hear not only that they had often been verbally abused by people who were upset, but that they have had to cancel some patients on two occasions because of the earlier strikes and the more recent ones. I was also sad to hear that we are looking at further strikes in the next few weeks.

Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the members of staff who came into work, who did not strike and who continue to deliver a very important and valuable service? What is he doing to expedite the legislation on minimum service guarantees, so that we do not have any implications from strikes on emergency and intensive care in particular?

First, I thank my hon. Friend for her service and for the work she was doing on Friday. I join her in putting on the record my thanks to all those staff who did provide cover, as I said in my opening remarks. She is right to highlight the minimum service legislation, and we will obviously need to reflect on recent events in that context. She also points to the fact that the decision by the BMA junior doctors committee to advise members not to notify hospital management about whether they were striking obviously made it more likely that clinics would be cancelled, even when it then transpired that doctors could have provided cover. That is clearly regrettable and indicates the need for resolution, and we want to work constructively with the junior doctors on this.

Vladimir Kara-Murza

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the trial of Vladimir Kara-Murza.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this urgent question. I share her concerns about the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition politician, journalist and activist, and a British national, who has today been sentenced on clearly politically motivated charges and faces 25 years in prison. His detention is yet another example of Russia’s efforts to shut down dissent over the war in Ukraine and to silence opposition voices.

I pay tribute to Mr Kara-Murza, a champion for human rights who has shown immense courage in speaking out against the aggression of the Russian state. I also want to recognise his wife Evgenia and commend her for her tireless efforts to promote her husband’s cause.

Mr Kara-Murza has on numerous occasions, both in Russia and abroad, set out the facts of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, an invasion witnessed by the whole world. He has now been convicted of spreading false information about the Russian armed forces and of participating in the activities of an undesirable organisation. On top of this, he is further convicted of high treason. The charges brought against him are symptomatic of the Russian state’s repression and blatant censorship of anyone who dares criticise it.

Mr Kara-Murza is one of over 500 individuals arrested by the Russian authorities for criticising the war in Ukraine. The repression of opposition voices and of those condemning Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is a glaring attempt to control discourse on the matter. His Majesty’s Government condemn the politically motivated sentencing of Mr Kara-Murza and of all those who speak out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I echo the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe in continuing to call for his release.

Politically, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to pressure Russia to release Mr Kara-Murza. Since his initial arrest in April last year, we have continued to condemn publicly his politically motivated detention and to call for his release. We have raised Mr Kara-Murza’s case repeatedly both with the Russians directly and in international fora, including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations. Today, Foreign Office senior officials have summoned the Russian ambassador. They will make it clear that the UK considers Mr Kara-Murza’s detention to be contrary to Russia’s international obligations on human rights.

Mr Kara-Murza’s welfare remains a priority for the Foreign Office and we continue to push for consular access. Diplomatic officials at the British embassy in Moscow have repeatedly attended the court building and, where permitted, the courtroom. His Majesty’s ambassador was present at the court today when the verdict was given and delivered a statement to Russian media and spectators.

Consular officials remain in contact with Mr Kara-Murza’s family and their lawyer to ensure that our actions remain aligned with his wishes. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) that we will continue to raise Mr Kara-Murza’s case at every appropriate moment and to call for his release.

I am disappointed that an urgent question was required today when clearly a statement was in order, but I welcome the fact that the Government have called in the Russian ambassador.

We should be very clear that the sentencing of Vladimir Kara-Murza is a farce. His crime was speaking out against Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine and we should pay homage to his courage in returning to Russia after the renewed illegal invasion to make sure those who do not support Putin’s actions were heard and to marshal those efforts against it.

It is only two weeks since the Foreign Affairs Committee released our report on state hostage taking entitled “Stolen years”. In it, we made it very clear that, should a British national be arbitrarily detained and sentenced, it is vital that the British Government speak as loudly as they can to ensure these individuals are kept as safe as possible.

So my ask today of the Government is as follows. First, will they set out in more detail how they are working to secure Mr Kara-Murza’s release? They have recognised this is arbitrary—we should therefore be working to get him out. Secondly, how are we demanding that he gets the medical care he deserves? Under Russian law, the condition he has as a result of the two failed poisonings against him should mean he cannot be held in a Russian prison—so under Russian law he should not be being held. Thirdly, will we sanction the 29 individuals responsible for him being held—not the two already sanctioned because of Magnitsky and their efforts to help murder him, but the 29 responsible for Kara-Murza being held? Finally, will the Minister call for all British nationals to return home? It is not safe any more to remain in Russia.

I put on record that this House feels very strongly about the way in which British nationals are having their nationality weaponised against them. Today the hearts of all in the House go out to Vladimir and his family. We hope the Government will show the same commitment that those on the Back Benches have to get him home.

I thank my hon. Friend for the trenchant way she spoke on behalf of the whole House. The Government agree with pretty much everything she said.

The trial was conducted behind closed doors. No diplomats or observers were allowed in. The defence was not allowed proper time to prepare and was refused permission to examine witnesses. My hon. Friend asks about the action we are taking. The Russian ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office and is expected to arrive shortly. We will be looking specifically at the issue of the healthcare and medicine that is available. As she said, Mr Kara-Murza was poisoned in 2015 and 2017. We also summoned the ambassador on 6 April and a note verbale—our third—has gone out today, which seeks consular access.

On sanctions, I make it clear to my hon. Friend that, under the Magnitsky propositions, we have already sanctioned both the judge and the jailer because of their involvement in that case, and I have instructed officials to investigate the possibility of sanctioning everyone who was involved in the trial. We expect, within the next week, to come forward with a package of further measures in that respect.

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for submitting this urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it.

We are deeply disturbed and horrified by the sentencing today of Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison. His only fault appears to be having had the bravery and courage to speak the truth about Putin’s criminal regime and the illegal and barbarous war against the people of Ukraine. The actions we have seen today are simply those of a regime that fears that its own people will come to learn the truth about their Government’s actions.

I too met Evgenia Kara-Murza recently and was overwhelmed by the incredible resolve of both her and her husband. She told The Sunday Times this weekend that she was “baffled” by the UK Government’s apparent lack of support. My greatest sympathies are with her and her brave family today. We have particular responsibilities to Vladimir, as a dual British citizen, yet his family apparently do not feel that has been provided. Indeed, Bill Browder described the Government as “negligent” in dealing with his situation. Vladimir is a patriot who has worked relentlessly, at great personal risk, for a democratic Russia free of the tyranny extolled by Putin and his regime of criminals. The actions of the Government in the coming days will be critical in securing his safety and wellbeing.

I have three questions. First, at least 31 Russian officials have been directly involved in the false prosecution and imprisonment of Vladimir. Can the Minister tell the House or publish a full list of how many of them have actually been sanctioned? The Canadians and the Americans appear to have sanctioned all those responsible. Have we done so? If not, why not? Secondly, he spoke about Vladimir’s wellbeing. There have been attempts to poison him twice. Those involved in his incarceration have a dark record and there is a real risk to his health. What assurances have we received? Lastly, how many times did Ministers raise the case publicly or privately? I was deeply concerned that, before the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), did not even appear to be briefed on the case when answering questions from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). What consular support has Vladimir been permitted or provided with? Have the Foreign Secretary or Ministers spoken to his family today or in the last week?

We stand firmly alongside Vladimir and all those who seek a free and democratic Russia, and who expose the truth of Putin’s barbarous regime.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I believe the Government have been extremely strongly supportive during this appalling trial and the events that have taken place. He asks me about the 31 officials involved in the trial and what steps the Government are going to take, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). As I have told him, I have instructed officials to investigate the possibility of sanctioning everyone involved in the trial. We will report back on that in due time.

The hon. Gentleman asks for an assurance on Vladimir Kara-Murza’s health and mentions the two previous poisonings, in 2015 and 2017. The ambassador has been summoned—he should be arriving at the Foreign Office any moment—and the issue of Vladimir Kara-Murza’s health will be right at the top of the agenda.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, and his appearance in front of the FAC. I should make it clear that he is not the Minister responsible for this specific matter. The Minister responsible, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), is very much seized of all the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Vladimir Kara-Murza is a former journalist and one of 22 journalists currently imprisoned in Russia, including Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal. Can he update the House on the efforts being made to obtain the release of Mr Gershkovich, and will he look at introducing targeted sanctions on all those involved in the persecution of journalists in Russia?

As my right hon. Friend will know, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the British Government have been heavily involved in taking action through a variety of different means, including conferences to try to protect the rights of a free press and journalists around the world. On the case that he raised, I will write to him imminently to give him an up-to-date answer, and I will make the letter available to the House. On his overall point, we seek every way we can to stand up for a free press and open journalism, and to bear down on states that do not respect the important role that a free press play.

Let’s face it: Russia does not have a criminal justice system of any kind; it has a cruel and arbitrary punishment scheme for those who disagree with Vladimir Putin. As with Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny, it is probably Putin’s intention that Vladimir Kara-Murza dies in prison. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that that does not come to pass, including making sure that Putin does not win in Ukraine.

I worry about the Government’s reaction because, in November last year, the Europe Minister, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), said in a written parliamentary answer that the Government had already looked at the sanctions that Canada introduced in this respect, but they still have not done anything. Months have passed and only now does the Minister come to the Dispatch Box to say that he has told Ministers to start looking at it. That is not good enough. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), to whom he referred earlier, is the consular Minister—surely, every single Government Minister should know each and every one of these cases when they appear in public, as they are at the top of our list. Much as I like the Minister who is at the Dispatch Box, as he knows perfectly well, we all just want the Government to put some welly into this issue, and not always wait until the Russians make the first move.

The hon. Gentleman slightly over-chides my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield. What the hon. Gentleman said about the trial was absolutely correct—I set out in my first response the key points where natural justice was clearly totally denied. He is quite right about that. He asked about the danger that Kara-Murza will die in detention. Clearly, that is very real, which is why the ambassador was summoned on 6 April and is being summoned again today. At today’s meeting, the issue of his health will be specifically addressed.

On the issue of consular relations, let me make it clear to the House that under the Vienna convention on consular relations, there is no clear policy on dual nationals and on which takes precedence. There is a bilateral agreement from 1965 between the Soviet Union and the UK that talks about nationality being determined by the sending state. We are looking to see whether there is any extra leverage that we can gain through international law to pursue the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

My right hon. Friend talks about seeking out and sanctioning the individual officials, but this is an action of the Russian state, not of individuals. Since the Ukraine war, just the major countries in Europe have expelled between 27 and 45 diplomats each. Is that not a measure that we should look at?

As ever on these matters, my right hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. We have to balance the national interest in how we pursue our diplomacy, and we keep these matters under review. In view of his comment, I will take another look at the issue that he has raised.