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Westminster Hall

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 22 November 2023

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

UK Citizenship Test

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Life in the UK citizenship test.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I want first to talk about my constituent, Kate Jeffery. She is an Australian by birth, and she married her husband in Banbury in 1992. They returned to Australia shortly thereafter and then came back to the UK—her husband’s home—in 2017. They have settled here, and Kate has built her life here. I am happy to say that she has now decided to make North East Fife her home; it is a lovely home.

When the time came for Kate to apply for indefinite leave to remain, she did so on 26 April, almost eight months ago. In making that application, Kate also applied for an exemption from the “Life in the UK” test due to her dyslexia, which is so severe that it means she can never study for or take the test. She did this with the formal written support of her GP, which is no mean feat, considering the waiting time to see GPs these days.

This, sadly, is where things started to go wrong. In June, her exemption was refused on the grounds that GP support did not count as evidence of a diagnosis. Kate started to worry about her right to remain, so she reached out to my office for assistance, paid out of her own pocket for a private diagnosis and sought legal advice. Evidence in support of Kate’s application was sent by my office and her solicitor to the Home Office on multiple occasions between June and August, but no acknowledgment of receipt was provided, and there was no trace of that evidence when we rang for updates. We knew that at least one set of the documents was received—it was sent by recorded delivery—but still we had no progress.

After chasing throughout September, my office finally received notification on 25 September that the documents had been uploaded to the Home Office system on 15 August, so we all had a moment of temporary relief that this ongoing situation would be over. But, unbelievably, at the start of this month Kate was contacted by yet another caseworker at the Home Office who asked again for the same supporting documents to be sent. This is a farce and an utter failure, both in ensuring that leave to remain applications are dealt with consistently and in providing a basic good customer service level.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this debate forward. Many people have described the UK citizenship test as a “bad pub quiz”. The questions asked are incredible, and many people born British would not even pass the test, including you and I, Sir Christopher. Does the hon. Lady agree that for someone to understand our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we need to focus more questions on the inclusion of the devolved institutions, such as the operation of governmental systems and how they support integration and community in the UK? She is outlining her constituent’s case very well.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. I will come on to speak about the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee report last year and the Government’s commitment to review the test, but I agree: there should not be a test of history or obscure facts. It should be a test that helps people who are applying for British citizenship or indefinite leave to remain to better integrate into UK society.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, we know that the “Life in the UK” test has serious flaws, and the Home Office knows it too, because of the inquiry I referenced by the House of Lords Committee, which concluded in June last year. Accessibility of the test for applicants with long-term physical and mental conditions, like Kate, was one of the specific issues highlighted. The Committee found that the threshold for exemption from the test is very high. That is understandable, but although the Government claim to have adaptations available to accommodate individuals, no information on those adaptations is available to applicants. Worryingly, although the purpose of the test is to promote social cohesion, all it does is test people’s ability to learn and repeat a lot of information. Many people struggle with that, and when we talk about education, we say it is a bad thing.

The Government’s response has been disappointing. In response to the House of Lords Committee’s report, they gave a letter from the former Minister with responsibility for safe and legal immigration simply stating that test applications are driven by candidate requests, rather than the other way round. In the first instance, that might sound positive: “We don’t constrain you; you tell us what you need.” But—and it is a big but—for those who are not familiar with the system, who are scared of losing their right to be here and who already face barriers to the process as a result of their disability, all that does is put up another barrier. Instead of making it easier for people with disabilities, the Government are making it harder because of that disability. It is completely subjective and dependent on a logical Home Office case handling process that, as I have outlined, does not seem to exist.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising these issues. Does she agree that the review also needs to take account of the case I have raised many times of people in Northern Ireland who were born just over the border in the Republic, but have been Northern Ireland residents, taxpayers and voters for decades and who are still asked to do the test? That is ludicrous, given the duration that they have been UK citizens.

I find that quite shocking. We are so many years on from the Good Friday agreement, which gave residents and citizens of Northern Ireland the right to be part of both countries, and that is a key issue around social cohesion. I find it quite shocking that the Government have not sorted that out. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for continuing to raise that issue, and I hope the Minister will respond to that.

Other barriers to accessibility were set out in the House of Lords Committee’s report. They do not directly affect my constituent, but given that the Minister is here to give us an update in response to the report, they are worth touching on.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making an excellent speech. Given that the objective of the citizenship test is to test and encourage the integration of people coming to this country, and that there are tens of thousands of people languishing as asylum seekers, most of whom will, on past evidence, be granted refugee status at some point, is it not a terrible waste not to allow them to work? That would help contribute to their costs and, therefore, save the taxpayer money, and would help them to integrate by developing better language skills and being part of their community so that when the test comes, they are more likely to pass it.

My hon. Friend knows that we and our party are aligned on that: we should give people the right to work while they are waiting for their applications to be processed. If nothing else, it would reduce the burden on the state and take away some of the stigma, of which we have sadly seen too much in recent immigration debates. It would also start the process of integrating into our country. The person on the journey that my hon. Friend laid out might end up, many years later, taking a “Life in the UK” test, and I hope that the ongoing systemic issues that I have highlighted can be resolved before then.

Let me move on to some of the other barriers to accessing the test. The House of Lords Committee heard evidence of test centres having only male staff to carry out searches of candidates. I am sure everyone here would agree that that is unacceptable. There was evidence of test centres being inaccessible by public transport and of centres being oversubscribed, which meant that applicants have to make long journeys far from their home. That makes the test even more off-putting and, arguably, even more expensive.

Concerns were also raised about the test’s contents, which other hon. Members have highlighted, and the “Life in the UK” handbook. In its response to the House of Lords Committee in September last year, the Home Office stated that it intended to set out a timetable within 12 months for a review of the test. It was the weakest of commitments—the Home Office announced that it would do something at some point within a whole-year period—yet it seems to have failed to deliver even on that. I very much hope the Minister will give us an update on the timetable for that long-promised review. The Home Office promised to look at ensuring the accessibility of centres, but I cannot see that any changes or updates have been made. It was also mentioned that the Government were considering a remote testing pilot. I would be grateful for an update on that, particularly given that they seem to be really keen on digital by design in other areas of policy.

Even in that response last year, the Home Office failed to take seriously the Committee’s recommendations, particularly when it came to making sure that disabled candidates have the same access to the test as everyone else. Why has the Home Office not considered citizenship courses to remove the need for a test? Why did it refuse to provide guidance on the sort of adaptations available? Why is the burden of proof so high that my constituent could not rely on evidence from her doctor and had to pay out of her own pocket to see a specialist? Kate cannot help but feel, and I agree with her, that she is being discriminated against by the Home Office and that her application has been made deliberately harder because of her dyslexia.

I am sure the Minister can at least agree with me that the handling of Kate’s case has been beyond poor. Looking at the lost documents and delays alone, there are two possible explanations: either Kate has been discriminated against or the Home Office is just demonstrating general incompetence. It has been five months since the second round of evidence was submitted. There can be no excuses or explanations for what has happened. I always say that if systems and processes in Government at all levels worked as they should, I would not need any caseworkers, and I am sure that others here would agree. We must get to a situation where people do not need to get in touch with their MP for such process issues.

The “Life in the UK” test is the end of a long journey for people such as Kate, who have spent years building their lives and planning their futures here. This is just another brick being removed from the UK’s reputation as a welcoming country in which people can live, work and contribute to the economy. The system is clearly broken and I urge the Government to outline what reforms they will make to the test, which seems to be pretty maligned. In the meantime, I hope the Minister can look at Kate’s case and finally give her some good news.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate. I would like to say at the start that I cannot comment on an individual case, but I know that the Home Office will be happy to look directly into the circumstances that she has outlined in relation to her constituent. I urge her not to conflate the issues that have been experienced by her constituent, which do sound irregular, with an indication that the system as a whole is failing.

Since 2003, successive Governments have been clear that all those seeking to make the UK their permanent home should be prepared to integrate successfully in the UK, with both an appropriate level of spoken English and a sufficient understanding of life in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the guidance book that is published to go with the “Life in the UK” test makes repeated reference to respect and commitment to British values. Many citizens would recognise and agree that that should be a fundamental requirement for anyone looking for permanent settlement.

Adult applicants between the ages of 18 and 65 are required to demonstrate that they have sufficient knowledge of the UK—not just our current political systems, but our history. I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady was saying; she was a bit critical about that, but I gently remind her that the past does inform the present. Here we are in Westminster Hall, a building that has gone through the centuries and has told the story of what this great nation really means. I have to say, with respect, that I think it is important that people are cognisant of our great history before they secure permanent leave to remain in the United Kingdom. Citizenship of this country is a privilege, and it is absolutely right that we have mechanisms in place that emphasise the importance of integration.

I want to contextualise some of what the hon. Lady was saying about her constituent. She made two points that I think are worth referring to. She talked about how her constituent has profound dyslexia, possibly veering into what would meet the statutory definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010. We will certainly look at why that somewhat higher threshold for medical evidence was required.

The hon. Lady also made the point that it was somehow surprising that the application had to be made by her constituent herself. I remind her very gently that it is likely that this case would be covered by section 20 of the Equality Act, “Duty to make adjustments”. In any case of this nature, where someone is dealing with a service provider that would be covered by that Act, it is for the person complaining to identify the “provision, criterion or practice”—here, it might be the circumstances of the test—and say why that puts them at a “substantial disadvantage”, before the service provider decides what action, if any, it is going to take. That is the statutory language that applies and it is therefore consistent with that language that the Home Office requires applications to be made on an individual basis.

To give a little bit of context, since 2013 over 1.7 million attempts have been made to pass the test, with 1.2 million people—70% of applicants—passing it the first time. Applicants do not have to get 100%, thank God. If we look even further into that data, we see that the vast majority of people pass the test by the third attempt. Although the test is quite comprehensive and, yes, it goes into history, it is not so onerous that people cannot pass it or that they do not have the right to citizenship because they fail. They are able to do it. There are 24 questions. It is computer-based and multiple choice. It requires those who wish to make their home in the United Kingdom to demonstrate a knowledge of the history, culture and government of the United Kingdom, and of the principles that sit at the core of British democracy.

Those who are taking the test will already have been living here for at least five years. The test therefore focuses on the more in-depth knowledge that is expected of someone who has presumably already sought to integrate within UK society and is committing to the next step by applying for permanent residence or citizenship. I hope that that answers, to a degree, the point that the hon. Lady made about those who are applying for asylum under the auspices of the refugee convention.

We can have a disagreement about whether those who are at the application stage should or should not have the right to work, but I will simply make three points. It is consistent with all our immigration practices that those who are applying do not yet have the same rights as somebody whose application, whether it is for a work permit or for asylum, has been granted; that is one of the reasons why they are treated differently. It is not irregular that people who are given refugee status are not required to take an equivalent test or are not given the opportunity to learn for it, because usually a grant of asylum is finite; it is not the same as getting indefinite leave to remain, so it is right that we treat those two categories of applicant differently. Somebody could get asylum, remain in the United Kingdom for an extended period, make the application for indefinite leave to remain and then have to take the test in the usual way. There is not differential treatment between those two categories; they are fundamentally different categories.

The hon. Lady talked about a review of the test. I am certainly aware of the House of Lords Committee’s report. I am also aware that the test has been in circulation for some time. It, or at least the guidance for it, is published by the Stationery Office on behalf of the Home Office and is available in paperback, audiobook, e-book and other digital formats. In other words, the training materials certainly are available in accessible formats that somebody with dyslexia or another kind of special educational need would be able to access.

The Home Office’s contract with the Stationery Office includes a commitment to enhance current digital learning materials and develop a new online platform, and the Home Office continues to work with the Stationery Office to ensure that materials are available in a digital format to meet customer demand and support candidates. The release of a new e-learning platform in 2020, in addition to a continued improvement process for the mobile apps based on customer feedback, has helped to drive a shift towards sales in digital format, from 23% in 2018 to 60% last year. The Home Office will continue to work with the Stationery Office to offer innovative digital products that meet customer needs and value for money.

In relation to the House of Lords report, I am aware that the UK handbook was first published over 10 years ago. Although much of the material, particularly the historical aspect, remains pertinent, the Home Office is aware of the need for the content to remain up to date, above and beyond minor amendments and perhaps the improving digitalisation of the training programme.

I recognise that there are strong views on how a review should be conducted, particularly in relation to the scope of the review, who should conduct it and what consultation should be undertaken.

Will the Minister undertake, in discussion with colleagues, to ensure that the review that is going to be forthcoming will be wide-ranging and comprehensive, to take account of some of the concerns that have been raised today? Then, hopefully, we can see some improvement for the future.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I was coming to that point. I think it is appropriate that I write to the hon. Member for North East Fife once the scope and timeframe for the review is known, so that she is aware. Of course, we will be listening carefully to the points that she has made.

Overall, it is right to say that the “Life in the UK” test is an important element of gauging commitment to integrating and to a permanent life in the United Kingdom. I hope that the irregularities that the hon. Lady has described in respect of her own constituent can be resolved. I do not believe that they are indicative of an overall weakness in the test, which by and large has proved highly successful and which nearly all applicants, in the end, do manage to access.

Can the Minister tell us whether a review date has been set, and what the scope of the review will be? It appears that up to this point, the Home Office has not met the commitment that it gave to the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee last year.

That is a fair question. I am not aware of the timeframe yet, to be completely honest. However, I hope I am giving the hon. Lady a little bit of guidance. I would say that I do not think that it is recognised that there are inherent flaws in the “Life in the UK” test, although the Home Office is completely aware of the recommendations in the Justice and Home Affairs Committee report. It is considering the scope and will do a review, which I have already indicated that I will write to the hon. Lady about, with the timeline and the scope. I think that that is the context in which I should root my answer. I thank the hon. Lady once again for securing today’s debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Apprenticeship Levy

[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the apprenticeship levy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq, and I am looking forward to this debate on the apprenticeship levy. As a former teacher and the former Minister for School Standards, I cannot state enough how important apprenticeships are for young people. They unlock opportunities for them, allow them to earn while they learn and drive social mobility. As the proud co-chair of the all-party group on apprenticeships and the employer of two apprentices—Mya and Jess, who are based in my constituency office—I know just how effective apprentices can be in the workplace.

There have been significant achievements in places such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, where we have had 13,240 apprenticeship starts since May 2020. One of the great standout legacies of the past 13 years of Conservative government is our outstanding record on education. Compared with 2010, over 2 million more pupils are at good and outstanding schools, and our kids are some of the best readers in the western world.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), who served with grace and honour as Minister for School Standards—a role I held briefly, although I basically kept the seat warm for his return—on his hard work in improving literacy and numeracy rates, restoring discipline in the classrooms, empowering a generation of learners and bettering educational attainment. His legacy will live on in this House and across the nation, and we are truly thankful for his service.

I served proudly with the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education when he chaired the Education Committee, and he understands, as do we all, that further education plays a vital role in providing the skills needed to revive key sectors such as manufacturing and ceramics, so that we can level up the country. We have made great strides since 2019. We introduced T-levels and the lifelong learning entitlement. Government initiatives such as the skills bootcamp scheme, which works with local employers and local authorities to fill skills gaps and vacancies in local areas, should continue to be expanded.

Apprenticeships offer a great opportunity to learn and earn, and they keep talent and skills in our local area, making a vital contribution to the labour market. The huge demand for apprenticeships is waiting to be matched by supply. Almost half of the young people registered on UCAS are interested in apprenticeships, yet only 10% go on to start one. In recent years, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of new apprenticeship starts. Since the apprenticeship levy was introduced in 2017, overall apprenticeship starts have fallen from half a million in 2016-17 to just over a quarter of a million in 2022-23. That urgently needs to be reversed. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the number of apprenticeship starts for 16 to 18-year-olds has fallen by 41% since 2015-16. For 19 to 24-year-olds, it has fallen by 31%, and for those aged over 25, it has fallen by 26%.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points he is making. Last year, more than £3 billion of the levy was not spent, I guess for many of the reasons he is setting out. In my community, many of the businesses that would love to have an apprentice find it too hard to get into the scheme. Would it be wise in an area such as mine, where one in four people work for themselves and many opportunities come through small businesses, to redirect some of the underspend to encourage small businesses to take on apprentices? That would be good news for our economy and for everybody else, for that matter.

I could not agree more: the levy should be much easier to access for small and medium-sized enterprises, and even for big levy payers, such as Lloyds Bank, which I met recently in my constituency at Saint Nathaniel’s Academy in Burslem. It said that it found it incredibly tricky to navigate the system to try to get money to the frontline. In that case, it was for digital apprenticeships and skills for those teachers and support staff, as the school went to a Google Classroom-based learning system. I will set out later how I think the levy can be reformed to make it more accessible and to ensure that more SMEs get more opportunities to take up apprenticeships. It is all well and good talking about skills, but if we do not have enough apprentices in the first place with the opportunity to access them, we will always have to overly rely on cheap foreign labour from abroad to fill vacancies. I suspect the hon. Gentleman and I have slightly different opinions on that, but the Chancellor said in the autumn statement today that he wants to see us skilling up and levelling up the opportunities for young people here.

The fall in the number of apprenticeship starts suggests that apprenticeships in their current form are not benefiting young people and helping them get into the workforce. We require businesses to invest in their existing workforce. Increasing the flexibility of the apprenticeship levy would help businesses with the cost of investment in British talent, further militating against the dependency on mass migration. Although increased collaboration between the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and the Migration Advisory Committee will not eradicate reliance on immigration for vital skills, it will shift the focus to prioritising British upskilling and offer a long-term solution to the nation’s skills shortages.

As evidenced in “The New Conservatives’ plan to upskill Britain”, which I proudly wrote with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici), red wall areas have been hit especially hard by the reduced number of younger apprentices in SMEs. In northern and coastal constituencies, the number of apprenticeships has fallen, while it has grown in places such as Wimbledon and Chelsea. As the New Conservatives’ skills paper suggests, areas such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke need more home-grown apprentices so that we do not rely on cheap migrant labour to fill the skills gap. That is why it is so vital that we take on recommendations from industry and reform the levy, so that communities can benefit from apprentices.

One way the New Conservatives’ skills plan seeks to do this is by pushing for the Migration Advisory Committee to work much more closely with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, by identifying gaps in the market where unspent levy funding can be used to support the training of home-grown talent that will help to close the skills gap. With net migration standing at over 600,000 in the year to June, it is essential that we explore ways to wean the economy off cheap migrant labour, which puts immense pressure on our public services, including our schools, our NHS and our housing supply, with migrants now making up half the demand for new builds. I am confident that reforming the apprenticeship levy to allow underspends to target specific gaps in the job market will help to solve one of the UK’s most challenging long-term problems.

In the New Conservatives’ skills plan, we also raise issues surrounding the levy transfer mechanism and suggest raising the current transfer from 25% to 35%. Since the introduction of the levy five years ago, £4.3 billion has been raised by the levy but kept back by the Treasury. In 2021-22 alone, the revenue raised was £750 million—more than the entire apprenticeship budget—and according to FE Week analysis, His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs pocketed an extra £415 million in the year to September 2023. I know that this is an issue for small and medium-sized businesses in Stoke-on-Trent, and I was shocked to see the Sentinel report in January this year that Stoke-on-Trent City Council was forced to send its £1 million apprenticeship underspend back to HM Treasury.

As co-chair of the APPG on apprenticeships, I have spoken to many businesses that say the system for transferring funds is immensely bureaucratic and requires excessive paperwork, which dissuades businesses from pursuing it. Our skills paper therefore sets out plans to increase the apprenticeship levy transfer to 35%. As the New Conservatives’ report sets out, the current cap at 25% limits employers making the most out of their funding, and it is difficult for businesses to transfer funding to SMEs outside their supply chain. That is why we advocate increasing the ease with which funds can be transferred by including other SMEs local to the region of the levy payer, which would keep investment local and widen access to apprenticeship funding.

The New Conservatives and I want to see a greater amount of the billions of pounds of unspent levy funding—like the £1 million underspend in Stoke-on-Trent—spent on skills locally, which will help the levelling-up agenda and assist young people in finding good career prospects near to home. However, to do that, the Government need to be brave and expand access to apprenticeship funding, as we outline in our report.

We need to allow for training to be more sensitive to labour market demands, so that we can upskill our homegrown talent. We should seize on local areas’ expertise, such as Stoke-on-Trent’s thriving video game industry, to make apprenticeships work for the economy. Alongside using unspent levy funding to support SMEs with grants, we should look to make it flexible enough to support shorter courses. Microsoft has identified that a modular approach to apprenticeships would allow apprentices to fit into the gaps in the labour market much more effectively. It says that this is essential to ensure that people are equipped with the digital skills they need to perform an increasing number of tasks.

In some cases, labour market demands do not require long courses, so making the levy more flexible will support shorter courses that meet existing needs of the business, rather than fulfilling bureaucratic apprenticeship requirements. This will enable employees to develop much-needed skills and help employers to address specific skills shortages that they face. Microsoft identifies such flexibility as being necessary for businesses to adapt to the rapidly changing requirements of digital roles, noting that the current 18-month waiting period for the digital apprenticeship standard to be approved is too long. Such long approval times stifle growth and leave employers without the skills that they need. Increasing the flexibility of the apprenticeship levy will also help Britons to upskill, improving productivity and reducing the skills gap.

In my role as the co-chair of the APPG on apprenticeships, I have also spoken with many leading businesses in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke as well as across the country, and they have outlined ideas about how to make the levy work. Policy Exchange’s excellent paper, “Reforming the Apprenticeship Levy”, makes the disappointing point that SME involvement in the apprenticeship system has plummeted since the introduction of the levy, and it states that that has wider implications because, historically, SMEs train higher proportions of apprentices, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As such, Policy Exchange has proposed a number of recommendations to streamline the process and support SME involvement in the training of apprentices, including financial support for off-the-job training. It suggests that SMEs should be supported with £2,500 to fund off-the-job training for apprentices under the age of 25, with an additional £500 on completion.

Given that FE Week reported that HMRC pocketed around £415 million generated by apprenticeship levy receipts last year, I want the Government to explore whether there is scope to use some of that underspend to back SMEs with the £3,000 payment advocated for by Policy Exchange, which believes that such support would cost around £200 million. The policy was backed by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor during the covid-19 pandemic, so I urge him to consider that to get more people doing apprenticeships once more.

For some businesses, especially SMEs, the hidden costs are often what prevents them from being able to hire an apprentice in the first place. The funding is there to support our SMEs and to support our apprentices with more than just training, and this simple change could be transformative.

Alongside reforms to the levy, I want to use this time to raise the issue of functional skills requirements, which are also a barrier to apprenticeships. For someone to be an apprentice in England, they must prove that they have good qualifications in English and maths. If they cannot do so, the Government pay to enrol them on a course and enter them into exams to prove that. That is wasting tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, because, in some circumstances, despite an older apprentice holding a degree or other level 4 qualifications, the fact that they cannot find their GCSE or even O-level certificates means that they must retake the exams.

The current focus on functional skills qualifications also poses a challenge to some hoping to complete apprenticeships, disproportionately impacting those from disadvantaged backgrounds and SME employers that are more likely to offer apprenticeships to younger and less well-educated students. I wrote to the Department for Education to raise my concerns about this issue and was disappointed with the response I received this week from the Minister, who said that they are

“currently unable to offer any flexibility here”.

If we were to relax those requirements, there would be a significant public savings benefit, meaning that money could be spent on helping businesses to support their apprentices more effectively. Over the past five years, the Government have spent £379 million on functional skills, with the per-apprentice cost increasing by 64% since 2021-22. If we reduce those costs by being more flexible about functional skills requirements, businesses will benefit.

As the co-chair of the APPG on apprenticeships, I have spoken with businesses who told me that reviewing functional skills requirements, which is also a recommendation in the New Conservatives’ skills paper, will improve retention rates for apprenticeships. That will give businesses confidence that the investment they make in new employees will be worthwhile.

Data supplied to me by Multiverse shows that 60% of apprentices undertaking functional skills exams already have degree certificates, but they do not have their school qualifications to hand, or they were schooled internationally. I do not believe that it is necessary for someone to take on extra training in English and maths if they have a degree-level qualification. A degree should be an indicator of competency in English and maths, and new recruits should be focused on developing skills that are fit for industry and not on functional skills training.

Multiverse argues that this requirement is a significant and unnecessary barrier to work. Its data shows that 74% of apprentices withdrew from their course when they were required to undertake English and maths exams. Given that fewer people have been undertaking apprenticeships since the introduction of the levy, we need innovative and simple ways to improve retention rates, and removing functional skills requirements could help to achieve that.

However, outdated attitudes towards higher education are thankfully ending. Recent polling shows that the British public are more positive about technical and vocational education than they are about university education, with 48% of parents saying that they would prefer their child to get a vocational qualification after leaving school, compared with 37% of parents who would prefer their child to go to university.

More broadly, there is support for prioritising further education and higher education equally, with 31% thinking that vocational education should be prioritised by the Government over university education and only 9% thinking that university education should be prioritised over further education. It is regrettable, therefore, that equal treatment of higher education and further education is not shown through the welfare system. Families should not be penalised if their child opts for an apprenticeship rather than other post-16 education. However, current welfare policy requires child benefit to be removed from families with children aged under 19 in apprenticeships, unlike if their child were studying for A-levels or T-levels.

More needs to be done to ensure that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit from apprenticeships rather than being short-changed by their university experience. For those with low academic attainment or opting for low-return courses, a quality apprenticeship could offer a better option for a variety of reasons. Such a route should not be closed off due to parental financial worries.

In conclusion, the over-expansion of university education by Tony Blair and new Labour has left too many young people in debt, without the skills needed to secure well-paying careers. At the same time, investment in high-skilled trades has dropped, leading to an over-reliance on cheap immigration from abroad to meet our ever-expanding list of job shortages. As the party that values hard work and aspiration, we need to reverse that trend and invest in local talent that matches local labour market demands.

The policy suggestions presented in the New Conservatives’ skills paper aim to shift the balance from Government overspending on low-return higher education and repurpose all money saved for investment in quality technical and vocational education that keeps talent local and high-skilled. That will be achieved only by both disincentivising students from poor-quality university education and incentivising them towards high-quality technical and vocational education.

Such measures also need the support of local businesses. Small and medium-sized businesses need to feel that their investment in local talent is worthwhile and supported by the Government. With renewed prioritisation for apprenticeships and other technical and vocational training and education, our country can upskill its workforce, meet labour demands without reliance on immigration, and ensure good jobs for the present are there for future generations as well.

The central message of the New Conservatives’ skills plan is to increase the parity between further and higher education funding. That means that it is essential for the Government to support all apprenticeships offered by an SME regardless of how much of the levy is used. That will help businesses and individuals get greater access to apprenticeships, which is in line with my vision to make apprenticeships a more viable option and to make clear that degrees are no longer the sole gold standard in education.

This is two days running that I have been called directly after the proposer of the debate. I am in a state of anguish and shock that I should be called so early.

I am pleased to be here. I am also pleased to see my good friend, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) leading today’s debate, and I look forward to other contributions from the shadow spokespersons. We have a Minister in place—I am not saying anything that is not true, because we all subscribe to this—who eats and sleeps education; a Minister who works his butt off to do the best for all pupils. Whenever he is here to answer, we all know we will get the answers we seek, because he has the same passion for the subject matter as we all have. I mean that honestly and with all sincerity, because that is how I feel about him, and I suspect others feel every bit the same.

I am aware of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North’s involvement in the APPG on apprenticeships as co-chair, and I thank him for all his work. I am a bit biased, because he is the guest speaker at my association dinner in Northern Ireland, and I am very pleased that he is coming to speak to us next year. As a true Unionist, he will be able to encourage my association members on the things that matter for us here at Westminster and elsewhere.

As I am sure everyone is aware, there are different rules regarding apprenticeships in the devolved nations, so I come here to give a Northern Ireland perspective, as I do all the time. There are two different systems. The Minister does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland, but I want to sow into the debate the thoughts we have back home. The levy is paid into an apprenticeship service account, and funds in the account must be spent on apprenticeships, training and assessment. Since 2017, there has been a large fall in the number of apprenticeship starts. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) referred to another methodology for taking advantage of moneys that have not been used, and I support that. In fairness, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North gave an indication that he, too, would be appreciative of it.

At the end of the 2021-22 financial year, the total value of the levy funds in apprenticeship service accounts was just under £5 billion. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all receive a share of that funding through the Barnett consequentials. Some of the moneys go to us in Northern Ireland, but also to Scotland and Wales, so there is a spin-off, of which we can take advantage. Apprenticeship funding is crucial for society. I believe it is absolutely critical to put people on the path to work, especially young people who have no desire to go to university and who are insistent on learning a skill to better their future. I see the importance of apprenticeships to many young people who have taken up apprenticeship jobs. They ensure opportunity and are really important.

I will give a classic example that I often think of and refer to. I know of a mechanic in my constituency of Strangford who is now 25. He left school when he was 15, and was keen to do something with his hands. He started as an apprentice in a local Ford dealership on £3.67 per hour. My goodness! Apprenticeships are never highly paid. They certainly were not highly paid when he was 15. He has worked his way up the system through his apprenticeship, and qualified as a mechanic, and on the journey, he learned all the necessary skills to become a fully qualified technician for Royal Mail. What a really good example of what apprenticeships can do, and how they can change lives and give people opportunities!

Apprenticeships allow young people to learn high-level professional skills. Skills policy, including responsibility for apprenticeships, how they work, and how apprentices work their way up, is a fully devolved matter, so each Administration across the United Kingdom has developed an apprenticeship policy tailored to the needs of its skill priorities. Regionally, that is done through the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. As I have stated many times, Northern Ireland has a large agricultural industry, which is especially evident in my constituency of Strangford. I live on a farm, and there are farm-related opportunities for apprenticeships. To give two examples, Dale Farm and Lakeland Dairies offer apprenticeships for young people.

In addition, City & Guilds offers level 2 and level 3 agriculture apprenticeships through NI Direct. That is a fantastic way to get people involved in the industry, especially in the rural community where I live, where there are not as many opportunities as there could be. Apprenticeships in the rural community are on offer, and our young people can and do take advantage of them, which is good news. I know that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has the same interest, because he lives in a rural community as well, so we understand the role for apprenticeships and how we can move forward.

We did not plan this, but it is really good of the hon. Gentleman to let me intervene. He makes important points. I represent a community in which there are well over 1,000 farms. We have a real issue with succession of farmers, and bringing new people into the farming industry. Less than 60% of the food that we consume in the UK is grown in the country, which is deeply troubling. The answer surely must be to bring more young people into farming. Does he agree that the Minister should look carefully at how we can enhance agricultural and other farming apprenticeships, so that we can make it attractive and financially possible for young people to enter the industry and feed us all?

The hon. Gentleman makes a salient and important point that underlines the issue for us as representatives of predominantly agricultural constituencies. Our role in the rural community is to feed others, and we have the potential to feed even more of our nation, which will reduce the amount of food that we have to import. Hopefully, we can look towards a time when we can be almost self-sufficient; we will never be fully self-sufficient, because we cannot grow some of the stuff that we import, but his point, which I wholeheartedly support, is that we have opportunity. When the Minister sums up, perhaps he can give the two of us—and others in this Chamber—some encouragement on the way forward.

There is no doubt that apprenticeships work and are good for society. There is much pressure on young people to go to university and get a degree. I am not saying that they should not, but not every person is of a mind to do that. Not every person has the capabilities, the functioning or perhaps the focus to make that happen. I have three boys who are now young men, and my neighbours down the road, who are also farmers, had three boys around the same age, and they all went to school together. I knew early on that the oldest of those young boys was never going to get on at school and get all the qualifications that it gives. He only wanted to work on the farm. That is where he wanted to be, and where his love was. Those are the things that we need to focus on. Whenever the hon. Gentleman speaks highly of agriculture and how we can move forward, I endorse that, because I have examples of what he is talking about in my constituency.

When apprenticeship opportunities are successful and are proven to work in the United Kingdom, they deliver opportunities, and lifelong jobs and commitment. If apprenticeships are worse off for the levy, then I urge the Minister to look at other ways in which the moneys could be used. Despite this being a devolved issue, I believe that the Minister has an interest in the situation in Northern Ireland, and a sincere responsibility to ensure that it does not fall behind. I recognise, of course, that this is about Barnett consequentials, and the moneys that come from here to us.

Apprenticeships are about ensuring that underachieving females and males can succeed. It is great that today we can talk about apprenticeships giving opportunities, and jobs for life. In other words, they are about giving not just our children, but our children’s children, a future that we all endorse and would wish for—a future in a stronger United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where apprenticeships matter and make a difference.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate, which is well synchronised with the Chancellor’s autumn statement.

If we are to unleash sustained economic growth and enhanced productivity, we need a fully functioning labour market. It requires an entry system that enables people to pursue their chosen career path and opens up opportunities in sectors that are vital to our future economic prosperity, such as low-carbon energy on the East Anglian coast. A vital means of achieving that goal is through the apprenticeship levy, which the Government introduced in 2017 as part of a package of reforms of the apprenticeship system. Those measures were rightly ambitious, and they were based on two principles. First, for apprenticeships to succeed, they must have a long-term, sustainable funding source. Secondly, apprenticeships must be rigorous, so as to gain the confidence of both employers and learners. The apprenticeship levy is designed to deliver the first of those objectives.

Six years on, I think that we can say that the levy is here to stay, but it has had a challenging start, and it has had to go through a great deal, including covid, the consequences of the war in Ukraine, and the cost of living crisis. There have also been outcomes that were neither intended nor foreseen. Now is the time to pause and refine the system.

The Association of Colleges provides the secretariat to the APPG on further education and lifelong learning, which I chair. It has identified the following challenges. There has been a dramatic decline in the number of people undertaking apprenticeships in recent years. It is now down to 60,000 young people starting apprenticeships each year. In the past six years, we have lost 160,000 engineering and manufacturing apprenticeship training places, at a time when those sectors are crying out for more staff.

The levy has been very successful in creating higher-level apprenticeships in larger firms, but there is a need to provide apprenticeship opportunities for younger people and new labour market entrants. Many small businesses are put off by the bureaucracy, as we have heard. Local skills improvement plans provide an appropriate local framework for meeting the needs of local labour markets, but we need a national strategy, so as to address such challenges as the technical skills gaps at levels 4 and 5. There is a worry that the budget allocated is nearly fully committed, though I accept that it is not necessarily all being spent. There is a need to consider how to either increase the levy and maintain growth through existing funding, for example by reforming the transfer mechanism, or look for savings that will not impact on quality.

As to how to improve the system, there should be a focus on new job starters, and consideration should be given to returning to the recommendations of the 2012 Government review, which stated:

“Apprenticeships should be redefined…clearly targeted at”,

and promoted to,

“those who are new to a job or role that requires sustained and substantial training.”

In addition, the following technical changes to how the apprenticeship levy operates should be given full consideration. First, there is a sense among some in the industry that the two-year expiration on levy funds is inadvertently encouraging the adoption of a “spend it or lose it” mentality, leading to rushed financial decisions, rather than strategic workforce development. A more nuanced, flexible approach is needed. Extending the expiration period could encourage more thoughtful expenditure, in which training initiatives are aligned with long-term business strategies.

Secondly, I am receiving feedback that the apprenticeship minimum duration requirements are too rigid. The 12-month minimum length for an apprenticeship, while suitable for some programmes, does not necessarily align with the operational demands of others. We need a more flexible approach to minimum length requirements that enables better tailoring of apprenticeships to specific job roles and industry needs. Thirdly, poor retention rates in apprenticeships require attention. High drop-out rates appear to be due to a combination of factors, including the apprenticeship wage structure and lack of clear progression pathways. Some have argued that increasing the apprenticeship minimum wage could help, by providing financial stability and demonstrating to apprentices the value of their contribution, thereby enhancing job satisfaction and increasing commitment. That is an option that, among many others, the Government should consider to improve retention rates.

In conclusion, the 2017 apprenticeship reforms, including the introduction of the levy, were good. However, the economic landscape is rapidly changing, both in the UK and globally. There is a need to listen, adapt and refine. The refinement is about more than making minor tweaks; it is about ensuring that our apprenticeship system remains relevant, responsive and effective. If we do that, people, whatever their background, can realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential, and the UK economy will be able to motor forward in fifth gear, not third.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing it and on the valid points that he made. I have not yet found time to read his New Conservatives’ paper, but I have a bit more time on my hands now, so I will make sure it becomes part of my reading material.

It is also a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). He knows the work that we have put in. Indeed, some of the new courses have been put on in colleges in his constituency, which serve constituents of mine, and in Ipswich. Together, it is all about providing a pathway for people to access high-skilled, good-quality jobs with good salaries. That is why I commend the apprenticeship levy. I am conscious that there is a different apprenticeship system in the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), but his belief in apprenticeships is really important.

Last but not least of the Members who will be speaking today—I do not know quite so much about the hon. Gentleman just to my right, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden)—is the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who used to wear a ladder badge when he was in the Department before. He also tried to change the symbol of our party to the ladder to represent that aspiration. I must admit that, as an Environment Minister at the time, I was happy we kept the tree, but I think both symbols are good. We grow from seeds—as we know, a little acorn makes a grand oak. That is an important part of what we seek to achieve in supporting apprenticeships.

It is fair to say that the apprenticeship levy is an integral component of modern workforce development. In an era marked by technological advancements and shifting economic landscapes, a skilled and adaptable workforce has never been more critical. The apprenticeship levy, introduced just six years ago in the UK, stands as a testament to a proactive approach to addressing this need.

One of the most compelling aspects of the apprenticeship levy is its role in redefining the traditional route to career progression. By offering an alternative pathway to acquiring skills and qualifications, it presents an attractive option both for employers and for individuals seeking to expand their knowledge base. Apprenticeships provide hands-on training and allow people to earn while they learn, thereby bridging the gap between education and employment.

It should also be recognised that the levy is designed to be a tool that allows employers to be inclusive and diverse in the workforce they recruit. Such recruitment fosters an environment of equal opportunity, which not only benefits individuals seeking to enter the workforce, but enriches companies by bringing in a fresh perspective and innovative ideas that we may not get from people who have just gone down the traditional road.

I must admit that there are many good intentions behind the apprenticeship levy, and it has achieved so much. However—dare I say it, having now left Government —as plenty of Ministers and civil servants will know, in my time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in particular I was seeking to make reforms and have that debate in Government. Some progress was made, but I believe a lot more could still be done.

I believe without question that improving the system to make it more agile and adaptable to employers’ needs is critical to addressing the productivity challenge that we face. To give a simple example, as I have already had parts of these discussions with the Minister, I have seen consistently that we need to substantially increase the take-up of level 4 and 5 apprenticeships, which I believe is a good bridge going on from T-levels. Not everybody will necessarily be able to make it to degree-level apprenticeships, nor should they have to in order to recognise that they will still be getting a substantial salary. Meanwhile, they will fill key skill gaps between levels 3 and 6, which many industries are crying out for. We all know that part of the challenge is a combination of the provider and how employers can access some of that funding and structure accordingly.

Let me turn to some of the constraints. I appreciate that every policy gets criticised from a variety of angles, but the lack of flexibility has been a consistent complaint from many employers. I think the national health service had to be given an extra £120 million to boost the take-up of nurse apprenticeships. That was because the apprenticeship levy would not be allowed—is still not allowed, as far as I am aware—to cover back staff for that one day a week that people are off. I do appreciate that there have been some good changes recently. It is about not just the 20%, but the six hours, which, if someone is working full time, can still be less than 20% in terms of out-of-job training.

Employers really do need to be listened to. I recall a visit that I made to Severn Trent as part of kickstart; I went with Boris Johnson. The chief executive, the excellent Liv Garfield, was pleading to see changes, because she believed that she would be able to produce at least 50% more apprenticeships that would help, whereas all the other costs associated with helping people to fulfil that apprenticeship route had been deemed prohibitive.

I am also very conscious that there is a substantial surplus that goes back to the Treasury. I recognise that that money is usually used for other sorts of skills, or indeed to help to access the route for smaller employers, but I think that there is still a gap there. This is not about trying to be easy on big businesses; if anything, we should be challenging them to make more use of the levy through their supply chains, which, again, is a flexibility that was introduced a few years ago. Nevertheless, I believe that it tends to be larger organisations that have the HR in place to address that. Alternatively, more of the levy needs to be used for those sorts of auxiliary services to facilitate this, as opposed to the small employer, who might be taking on one or two people and already has, dare I say it, enough to do.

I encourage the Minister—again, a little bit with my DWP hat on—to consider what has happened to the number of intermediate apprenticeships. I am very conscious that the number of higher apprenticeships has gone up, not just at levels 4 and 5 but at level 6, the degree apprenticeships, and indeed level 7. However, I ask the Minister to really interrogate what is happening, particularly with level 7 qualifications. I have heard stories, although I have not actually got the proof to back it up, that the police superintendents’ course had become a level 7 apprenticeship so that police forces could use their levy. That is not really what it is designed for.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney spoke about how apprenticeships should really be for new jobs and so on. I do not agree; I think that there should be an opportunity to change career within a company, or indeed to progress. One thing I hope has happened, given that there are far fewer intermediate apprenticeships, is that those people who have completed level 2 have gone on to advanced and higher apprenticeships. I hope that that has happened, but I am concerned that that might not be the case. I encourage the Minister to get the analysis for that.

Yes, the number of starts has fallen. Some of that will be linked to the costs of the different levels of courses that people are taking up; doing a level 5 or 6 will inevitably require substantially more funding than a level 2. Nevertheless, it is worth looking in detail at the analysis of whether we are really getting the transformation that this apprenticeship levy is meant to have.

My hon. Friends the Members for Waveney and for Stoke-on-Trent North have spoken about drop-out rates. It really is a worry that so many people are dropping out, although there may be very good reasons for that. I think a significant reason is that they go and get a job elsewhere, either because they have finished what they needed to do or because they want more money—let us be candid about that. Employers who do not offer just the bare minimum wage are much more enlightened, because they are more likely to keep their apprentices if they pay them a regular rate or at least something closer to it. On retention, there are too many complaints along the lines of “Oh, well—they finished it and they have gone elsewhere for more pay.” However, I appreciate that it is about more than that, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have a good answer.

I agree with the suggested reforms involving a shorter course to accelerate the transition where appropriate. We cannot get away from the issues that have been raised. When I went to visit Andy Street, we went to one of the HGV academies. Basically, Eddie Stobart said that it would guarantee a job to anybody who passes the sorts of course that are available through an apprenticeship; I think this one was a CPC. No more interviews—they just had to pass the course and get the job. There was a big take-up. I know that the Mayor would be keen for more options for providing that sort of apprenticeship or other aspects of professional qualification for skills that are highly in demand and are in short supply.

I encourage the Minister to see about the range of courses that are available. I think I am right in saying that the HGV course is available as an apprenticeship, but that the course to drive the smaller size of vans, which still require an additional driving qualification, is not. That is despite my best efforts to persuade the Department for Transport to take a Brexit bonus. Somebody who got their driving licence before ’97, as I did, can drive a C1 and a D1 without any further qualifications, whereas nowadays it costs about £2,500 or £3,000 to qualify. I appreciate that that is a slightly different debate.

Coming back on topic, I encourage the Minister to think about the really good flexibility that we have seen in the freelance industry and in the media sector. That is really welcome, and we could see what more could be done on aspects of the supply chain.

I turn to agriculture. I represent a rural constituency. The Minister and I have had a separate discussion about the provision available through T-levels for certain sectors. I commend Suffolk New College, which has established Suffolk Rural College to try to keep the pipeline of agricultural workers open. There are definitely challenges around the funding levels given for different elements.

I know that the Department has been generous in giving capital grants. If we want to train people to be welders, there need to be colleges that have that sort of equipment readily available. Let us think about the rural college that needs to keep a herd of 30 cattle going in order to provide the equipment for people to work with.

We need diversity. Let us not just think about IT, admin and, dare I say it, traditional manufacturing. Let us think about wider elements, access to the levy and new routes that can help that to happen. The reasons why those courses is no longer being provided or offered really need to be investigated.

I know that the Minister is passionate about the issue. With the kickstart scheme that I worked on and helped to design, I feel that there was definitely a lot more flexibility. It was able to use Government grants in order to provide for people to have that ladder. Frankly, kickstart was a lifeline. I ask him to think about things we have done that worked surprisingly well, and to bear it in mind that although I fully support the fact that we are trying to get quality apprenticeships, we must make it easier for people to start and finish. This could be a further supply-side reform that would really help to unlock the growth that we need. I know that business would welcome it if he looked at these issues again.

The apprenticeship levy was critical in providing a pathway for individuals to realise their potential and for businesses to thrive in that ever-evolving landscape. The regulation and the design of the scheme needs to evolve to keep at pace. This is a commitment. It is not just a financial levy; it is a recognised commitment to invest in the future and in people of all ages. The Minister will know that the number of older people taking up apprenticeships has increased significantly. A future in which skills, talent and opportunity intersect to create a stronger and more resilient workforce is what UK plc needs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, and to follow the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). I shadowed her when she was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but I have to say that I much more enjoy the unchained version of her, offering criticisms of what has happened in Government. As a serious point—and the same might be true of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—there is value in having former Ministers remain in the Commons to offer constructive criticisms of policy, to dwell on their time and to reflect on what they might do differently. It helps to inform the decisions that Ministers take.

I thank the hon. Member for Woke-on-Trent North—not “Stoke-on-Trent”, for the purposes of Hansard, but Woke-on-Trent. I am sure he will love that. He is genuinely a good friend of mine, despite the fact that we have nothing in common. I commend him for securing the debate.

As a former modern apprentice, I must confess to having a very strong interest in the subject. I have long been of the view that in recent years we have perhaps not got the balance right in terms of what we churn out into the labour market. The reality is that if I have a leaking pipe at home, I need a plumber, not an accountant or a lawyer. In this place in particular, I think that there are far too many lawyers and not enough apprentices, but that is a separate story. We have to make that balance a bit better. I certainly did my bit by completing my apprenticeship back in 2008.

We in the SNP hold the belief that an investment in apprenticeships is, in turn, an investment in our young people. That is particularly true for young people in Scotland. I stand here as someone who left the gates of Bannerman High School in Baillieston and went on to carry out an apprenticeship at Glasgow City Council. That has stood me in good stead and has very much helped me to navigate life in my role as a Member of Parliament. According to Skills Development Scotland, as of 30 December last year there were 3,626 modern apprentices in training in Glasgow. The modern apprenticeship achievement rate in Glasgow was last reported as sitting at around 68.6%. However, we are currently in an area where the apprenticeship levy is both reserved and devolved. That presents several challenges to Scottish businesses. I want to reflect on just a couple.

Just over two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to visit a local KFC branch in my constituency of Glasgow East, where, coincidentally, we discussed the impact of the apprenticeship levy on businesses. KFC’s corporate team told me how, like many businesses, they struggle to spend their levy pot because of the many barriers in meeting the UK Government’s definition of an apprenticeship. Those barriers are due to the rigidity of the specified qualifications for completing an apprenticeship: they are too narrow, they are too long or they require too much off-the-job training. I was told that this year alone, KFC has lost a six-figure sum of its levy fund to the Treasury. I would hope that that is not the case for everyone who is subject to the levy, but it certainly paints a picture of what many businesses face. I should add that in the east end of Glasgow, we have four young people employed in KFC’s Glasgow Forge and Glasgow London Road restaurants as a result of its pre-employability programme Hatch, which I commend to the Minister.

Scotland’s share of the annual levy pot is calculated and assigned by the Westminster Government, but Scotland has adopted a slightly different approach—a more relaxed approach, I would argue, whereby Scottish employers can spend the levy on other types of training that they judge to be right for them. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) has rightly highlighted, the rigidity of the UK Government’s apprenticeship levy can somewhat hinder employees as a result of the specifications of how levy funds can be spent.

I reiterate to Members across the House that the apprenticeship levy was imposed on Scottish businesses without consultation with the Scottish Government, despite skills and apprenticeships being a devolved matter. Nevertheless, the Government in Edinburgh have tried to use the funds from the levy in ways that I would argue have been more effective in increasing the skills of the workforce in Scotland. That is mostly thanks to the flexible approach that they have adopted after consulting and engaging with Scottish employers, at every step of the process, on how best to use the funds that have been made available from the levy.

In this case, the Scottish Government have been very clear that the share of the levy that Scotland receives through the Barnett consequentials largely replaces money that was already made available to the Scottish Government. That is why the UK Government policies in this area have not achieved what they ought to have achieved in terms of providing new streams of funding to the Scottish Government. As a result, their policies have delivered a reduction in spending on devolved public services by imposing the levy on public sector employers.

That point takes us back to the need for a bit more flexibility. In comparison with England, the Scottish Government have adopted a more flexible approach to how levy funds are used. The options available for using funds include modern apprenticeships, college training, support for skills development and employment-focused training for young people. The Scottish Government’s approach has provided Scottish employers with a greater sense of agency and freedom as to what they can spend the funding on. That begins at the point of consultation, engaging Scottish businesses in that very discussion, whereas the apprenticeship levy in England has failed to increase the number of apprenticeships: there were 145,700 fewer apprenticeship starts in 2021-22 than in 2016-17.

North of the border, our more flexible approach has resulted in the number of apprentices in training in Scotland reaching its highest level ever and surpassing the Scottish Government’s ambitions for modern apprenticeships this year. However, I say to my colleagues in Edinburgh that they can and should go still further; I go back to my point questioning whether we have got the balance right in churning everybody out through university, when in my constituency we cannot get a bricklayer, for example. That makes more of a case for some of the trades.

All of this reiterates the need for the devolution of employment law. Ultimately, in my view—this will come as no surprise to this Chamber or to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—it makes the case for the full powers of independence, to allow us to introduce a comprehensive strategy that develops the skills and productivity of the Scottish workforce. The successful use of funds in Scotland, compared perhaps with other parts of the UK, only highlights the benefit of Holyrood having control over skills and apprenticeships.

With control over the ability to set levies, the Scottish Government could and would work to reduce the burden that the apprenticeship levy places on businesses, to which many other Members have referred, and ensure that it works to increase the funds available to businesses to train their workforce in the way that we all know they are asking for. However, while we remain a part of the Union, we will continue to consult the industry to ensure that the funds raised from the levy are used in the best interests of Scottish businesses and Scottish employers, in the exact way that KFC outlined to me just two weeks ago.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this debate. I know he cares deeply about the issue; his experience and expertise certainly came through in his speech.

I also acknowledge the contributions from other Members, particularly the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). It is interesting that there almost seems to be a consensus that there is a need for some reform and refinement of the system. The issues raised have included access for people who may be from more disadvantaged backgrounds or who may not have the standard qualifications; access for SMEs; the need for flexibility; the potential for shorter courses; the retention of apprentices after their apprenticeship starts; making sure that people are able to complete their apprenticeship; and recognising that this is a mode of work and study that seems to be catching on with the older generation, as the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal commented. The oldest apprentice I have heard about was 73 years old.

I also recognise the work of the Association of Colleges and the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning, which the hon. Member for Waveney leads. He made a very important point about the need to respond to changes in the economic landscape. I hope that I will be able to address a number of those issues in my remarks.

Labour believes that apprenticeships are a gold standard in skills development, incorporating both on and off-the-job training. Apprenticeships are transformative for social justice, career progression and business growth. Of course, the greatest advocates for apprenticeships are apprentices themselves. UCAS recently reported that 63% of apprentices were likely to recommend the training route to others. Research by the apprenticeship provider Multiverse found that 78% of businesses that hire an apprentice say that it has a positive impact on their organisation.

As shadow skills and further education Minister, and before, I have appreciated meeting and hearing from apprentices in different sectors around the country and learning from their experiences. That includes those in my constituency, those working at Heathrow, those on nursing apprenticeships at Hugh Baird College in Liverpool, and those at the Newcastle Aviation Academy, which I visited last week. They have told me how life-changing apprenticeships are and how they allow people to earn while they learn, give them specialist skills and empower working people, their regions and the country’s economy at the same time as teaching valuable employability skills and giving important workplace experience. At the same time, they support the employer’s development of the workforce, closely aligning training with skills needs.

The Labour party knows that apprenticeships are one of the most valuable tools we have to break down barriers to opportunity and shatter the class ceiling. Right now, the way the apprenticeship levy works is letting down working people, our businesses and our economy. The Conservatives have overseen a decade of decline in skills and training opportunities. Businesses are unable to fill job vacancies, and are held back by a lack of people with the skills they need. The Tories’ failure on skills is holding back our economic growth.

Apprenticeship starts have plummeted, with 200,000 fewer people starting these training opportunities. Since the introduction of the levy, intermediate apprenticeship starts have been slashed by 69%. Seven in 10 students miss out on professional careers advice, making it even more difficult for young people to discover pathways with good prospects, such as apprenticeships. At the same time, employers have surrendered more than £3 billion to the UK Treasury since 2019 in apprenticeship levy cash that they were unable to spend. According to the Government’s own findings, more than one in 10 employers report at least one skills gap.

Research by City & Guilds and the charity the 5% Club early this year found that a staggering 96% of businesses wanted to see a change to the levy, with just 4% of employers spending their full apprenticeship levy funding. SMEs have been hit hard, with apprenticeship starts in small businesses down 35% since the introduction of the levy. New data also shows that less than one in 50 apprenticeship starts in the past academic year were funded through transfer from levy-paying organisations to smaller businesses.

Today, the Government announced £50 million more investment for apprenticeships, in a pilot with Make UK and others. Investment in apprenticeships is always welcome, but I await more details. Perhaps the Minister will have some. We do know that £50 million does not scratch the surface of the £3 billion handed back to the Treasury. It is important to understand what these new pilots will address.

Just this week, there were announcements of levy reform at a time when we have the botched reform and defunding of the level 2 and level 3 qualifications, as well as a decline in apprenticeship starts. That is an issue, because our number one priority as a nation must be to grow our economy and to achieve the higher living standards and better public services that our constituents deserve. That requires investment in skills.

We have a proud record on boosting skills and training opportunities. We removed the age cap of 25 on apprenticeships, and ensured that work experience was compulsory for every student. Boosting Britain’s skills will similarly be a national priority for the next Labour Government, led by a new national skills body, Skills England, bringing together our regions, businesses, training providers and unions to drive the ambitions and skills of our industrial strategy and green prosperity plan. That is why we will also transform the apprenticeship levy into a growth and skills levy. Under our proposed system, companies will have the freedom to use up to 50% of their total levy contributions on non-apprenticeship training, with at least 50%—or 100%, if they wished—reserved for apprenticeships. SMEs that do not pay the apprenticeship levy would continue to receive 95% co-payments. We believe that that would give businesses the flexibility that they are asking for and would allow them to train their workforce, deliver growth, create modular skills in priority areas such as green skills, digital skills, social care and childcare and create functional skills and pre-apprenticeship training. It would tackle key skills gaps that hold back individuals and organisations.

The Minister will be well aware of the calls across business and education for greater flexibility in the levy, but let me remind him of some of them. The Manufacturing 5 have called for more flexibility. During National Apprenticeship Week, the British Retail Consortium, techUK and others called for more flexibility. Calls came from the Co-operative Group and City & Guilds in February, the British Chambers of Commerce and Superdrug in August, and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in October. Despite the Government’s best efforts in recent days to resist reform through a couple of half-hearted calculations about our policy, the chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute said that the Government’s analysis was

“pretty simplistic and we need a bit more of a nuanced analysis.”

Opportunity for all, skills for business, and growth for our regions and our country—that is what lies at the heart of our reforms. What a contrast they would be with this Government. We plan and will build growth from ordinary people, for ordinary people. We will back young people by expanding opportunities and boost Britain’s skills to meet the economy’s needs over the next decade. That is how we will get Britain’s future back.

It is an honour to serve under you in the Chair today, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend from Woke-on-Trent North; I beg your pardon, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis)—slip of the tongue. He is a passionate advocate of apprenticeships and skills, and he made a very thoughtful speech, as did all my colleagues and everyone here today. I will try to respond to some of the points that hon. Members have raised, but where I do not I will write to them.

I have made it my political life’s mission to champion apprenticeships and skills. My hon. Friend said he employed apprentices, which is a wonderful thing. I was the first MP to employ apprentices in Parliament. I have had many, and one of them has gone on to be the leader of my local council—I think the youngest ever leader in history. That shows the power of apprenticeships.

Let me focus on a few of the things that my hon. Friend said. It is worth noting the increase in starts between 2021 and 2022. In 2022, there were 349,000 starts, which is 8.6% higher than in 2021. I am not saying that we do not have challenges when it comes to the number of starts—Members have spoken about starts—but we have to focus on quality, not just quantity. That has been a problem in the past, especially if I may say so with the party of the shadow spokesman, hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), although I greatly respect her. Her party had an obsession with 50% of people going to university. That was about quantity rather than quality, and we are trying to give people a choice between university and apprenticeships.

It is also worth knowing that 70% of apprenticeships are at levels 2 and 3, and more than 50% are done by young people. Both my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—who was a brilliant Secretary of State, who did a lot to protect the environment and who I massively respect—and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North talked about modular apprenticeships. I am firm in the belief that we want quality apprenticeships. We want to move away from the pre-2010 past, when many apprenticeships were not seen as high quality. That is why we moved from frameworks to standards. I believe that apprenticeships should be for a minimum of a year, but of course many are over a year—two to three years. They have to be about quality. They are designed by employers. We now have over 680 apprenticeship standards, which are designed by employers with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. However, there are career starter apprenticeships and short skills courses—bootcamps. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal spoke about HGVs, and there are HGV bootcamps. Our multimillion-pound package on bootcamps has been a great success. They are 16 weeks, so people can do them and go on to an apprenticeship or get a job. Many people on bootcamps get good outcomes. They have been a huge success and are an example of the Government investing in skills.

I want to make a point about the levy budget. We have spent 98% of the apprenticeship budget given to us by the Treasury and we give hundreds of millions under the Barnett consequential formula. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I am going to call him my hon. Friend because he is a very kind friend—rightly mentioned Barnett consequentials, as did the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). We give hundreds of millions from the levy, but I recognise the points made about the devolved authorities. They decide their apprenticeship policies, but I am happy to work with officials to ensure that we work with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to support them in every possible way to make those policies a success.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) —the great FE champion in the House of Commons—asked about the minimum wage. This is really good news, and he is absolutely right. Last year, we increased it by 9%. I am pleased about today’s announcement that we will increase the apprenticeship minimum wage not by 9%, 10%, 11% or 15%, but by 21%, which will benefit an estimated 40,000 apprentices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney talked about levels 4 and 5, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal. It is worth remembering that we have introduced 106 higher technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5 with 140 providers. We are spending £300 million on 21 institutes of technology all over the country. We have a national strategy on apprenticeships and skills. We have the Unit for Future Skills for data. We have the local skills improvement plan, which identifies skills needs in local areas. Only a week or so ago, we announced £165 million to benefit 38 areas in the country. There were over 66,000 starts at levels 4 and 5, which is about 20% of total starts, and 151 standards approved for delivery at levels 4 and 5.

I am excited that we have introduced not only nursing apprenticeships but doctor apprenticeships. The workforce plan puts apprenticeships and skills at the heart of the NHS workforce strategy, with 22% of all training for clinical staff to be delivered through apprenticeship routes by 2031, up from 7% today. We expect that 20% of registered nurses will qualify through the apprenticeship routes by 2028-29 compared with 9% now.

I have been to see policing degree apprenticeships in Manchester and they are second to none, but I will look into what my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal said. I visited Staffordshire University, where many constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North go. It does a brilliant degree apprenticeship policing programme. I know that the quality is second to none, but I will look into the question raised by my right hon. Friend and write to her.

The shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston, was incredibly kind to mention the extra £50 million that we announced today for a two-year pilot to boost high-value apprenticeships in priority growth sectors. The Chancellor mentioned engineering today, but we will set out further details. It is worth noting that we will spend more than £2.7 billion on apprenticeships by 2025. That is a huge whack of money, especially in the current difficult economic climate.

The other point I will make is very important. My right hon. and hon. Friends and Opposition Members talked about businesses not using their levy. When that happens, the levy is used to fund 95% of the training costs for small businesses, which is what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North wants. We fund 95% of the training costs, and if a business has less than 50 employees and employs somebody aged 16 to 18, we fund all the training costs. That is where the money goes. When big business does not use its levy, we use it to fund training costs.

Given some of the things that have been raised today, it is also worth noting that we give £1,000 to every provider. We give £1,000 to every business that employs an apprentice to help them along the way, and we are trying to slash regulation. I have a phrase that I use in the Department: I call it Operation Machete. I do not like regulation, and there is too much of it. We are doing a huge amount of work in this area. We have significantly reduced regulation for small businesses when they start to employ apprentices. We have also removed the cap on the number of apprentices they can employ. There used to be a cap, which we have changed. I am absolutely determined to do everything we can, but it is important to remember that when big business does not use the levy, the money is used to fund smaller businesses’ training costs.

I do not necessarily expect the Minister to answer this, but perhaps he could undertake to write to me. Those of us on the Work and Pension Committee are interested in things such as auto-enrolment. I ask the Minister to go away and have a look at why auto-enrolment does not kick in at age 16, when a lot of people are doing apprenticeships. That might be one of the areas where we could look at retention and how we help young people. It is not the Minister’s brief, but I would appreciate it if he could write to me about that.

I would be very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, and I respect the thoughtful way he set out his remarks today.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston quoted organisations that do not like the levy. I have a whole list of businesses that do like the levy and use it brilliantly. Virgin Atlantic has used the levy extensively.

That is a fair point. I just want to point out that many businesses not only support the levy and have used it effectively, but recognise the flexibilities that we have introduced. For example, Virgin has created an apprenticeship programme that attracted 500 engineering apprenticeships alone. I think the apprenticeship levy is like the Ronseal advert, which is one of my favourites: it does what it says on the tin. As I said, 98% of the apprenticeship budget was spent in the last two years. It is clear that employers understand this message well.

I know the value of apprenticeships to young people and under-25s. As I say, they continue to make up over 50% of starts, and just under 70% of starts are at levels 2 and 3. It is important to mention that we are spending billions of pounds not just on the apprenticeship offering and the 680 apprenticeship standards, but on skills bootcamps, T-levels and higher technical qualifications—all Government investment in skills.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston spoke about careers. We have introduced the Baker clause to ensure that schools encourage students to do apprenticeships. The awareness of apprenticeships in schools has now rocketed up, although there is lots more work to do. We have the apprenticeship support and knowledge, or ASK, network, reaching 2,300 schools and something like 625,000 pupils, ensuring that they know about apprenticeships. I visited the Oasis Academy to see that. We have also worked with UCAS to introduce the UCAS apprenticeship scheme, which will bring a dramatic transformation in the take-up of apprenticeships, because people will be able to access them when they decide to go to university.

Hon. Members have also spoken about apprenticeship achievement volumes, which are substantially higher than they were the previous year—in 2022-23, they are up by 20%—so we are doing a lot to drive up the achievement rate, which I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal cares about. We also have £7.5 million of investment in professional development to support the workforce.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North talked about English and maths skills. He rightly challenged me, and if he does not mind I would like to challenge him back. I absolutely believe that people need basic English and maths if they are to do an apprenticeship. He wants that to happen in schools, and with the advanced British standard people will be learning English and maths till the age of 18, so we should have the same for apprenticeships. We should not say that one group of people does not have to do English and maths because it is too much of a burden, but that it should happen in schools, which my hon. Friend cares about. He will be pleased to know that we are increasing the English and maths funding rate for apprentices by 54% to match the adult education budget. That will kick in from January 2024.

I have talked about removing the regulation on small businesses. We have an expert provider pilot to allow the best providers to offer more support to SMEs. We have a transformation in degree apprenticeships. We created degree apprenticeships—those are my two favourite words in the English language. There have been 200,000 starts at levels 6 and 7 since 2014, and starts are almost 9% higher than last year. We are investing an additional £40 million to support more people to access degree apprenticeships.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston spoke about social justice, which is why I am such a passionate supporter of apprenticeships—it is what motivates me. We increased the apprenticeship care leavers bursary to £3,000 this August and, as I said, we give £1,000 to employers and providers who take up apprenticeships; that is very welcome.

I really hope the hon. Lady moves away from the policy that the Labour party announced on skills. As I said, you had a target of 50% of people going to university because Labour believed it to be the only route to success. That led to the growth of poor-quality university courses, although of course most of our universities provide excellent courses. That was all about quantity over quality. The DFE analysis has found that your apprenticeship policy would slash the number of apprenticeship starts.

Order. I am sure the Minister did this inadvertently, but we are always told to be very tough on people who keep saying “you”, as that is technically me. So just de-you it.

I beg your pardon, Dr Huq. I was talking about the Labour party, but I understand. I will follow your ruling.

DFE analysis has shown that the policy the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston is suggesting would reduce the number of apprenticeship starts by 140,000 per year, cutting them in half. The reality is that the moment the apprenticeship levy is diluted, there will be gaming of the system and much less spending on apprenticeships. The policy would undermine the apprenticeship starts that the hon. Lady says she is so keen to increase.

I return to the quote I shared from the CEO of the Learning and Work Institute, who said that the Government’s analysis of our policy was pretty simplistic and that we need a bit more of a nuanced analysis. There is a long way to go before that analysis challenges our policy and the outcome it would achieve. We should remember that it is up to 50%. For those who spend their full apprenticeship levy, it does not say that they have to spend it any other way.

The reality is that if the levy is diluted and people are allowed to spend it on skills, there will be thousands and thousands fewer apprentices. As I say, I want the apprenticeship levy to do what it says on the tin: it should be a levy that supports the take-up of apprenticeships. I want to build an apprenticeship nation.

Order. Before we get into too much of a ding-dong, the Clerk is reminding me that the normal time has been exceeded. I know we are not up to the hour, but the Minister would usually be doing his conclusion by now.

The good news is that I will conclude.

I mentioned the advanced British standard, which will provide young people with knowledge and skills. That includes £600 million in investment over the next two years, much of which will go to support colleges.

In conclusion, these are exciting times for apprenticeships. Yes, we always have to look at our reforms and make sure things work, and I have listened to everything hon. Members have said in the Chamber today. However, it is vital that we give employers and providers the time and stability to deliver gold-standard apprenticeships across even more apprenticeships and that we offer a ladder of opportunity to every young person and to those who want to train and retrain throughout their lives.

I wanted to leave time for Jonathan Gullis—I will not repeat that joke for the third time—to conclude.

Thank you, Dr Huq. I thank everyone who took part in the debate, and it was great to see broad consensus across the House. As Members have said, the levy is here to stay; no one doubts that, and no one, I think, wants to see it go. Indeed, how can it, now that we have seen it in action for some time? It has been looked at, reflected on and made to work in the interests of both the apprentice and the employer, who work hand in hand and get the maximum value for the taxpayer, who pays into the system.

I commend the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for being brave enough to admit publicly that we are friends, and I, too, put that on the public record. I certainly hope it will not cost him at the next election in Glasgow East when he has to admit that he has befriended a rabid Brexiteer and Unionist, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) correctly pointed out. I hope that it does not cost him.

It was bewildering suddenly to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—someone I have watched on the Front Bench for so long—by my side in the debate. She has experience of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She not only did great work, but she has first-hand experience of making the levy work in the interests of getting more people into employment. That will greatly benefit the wider debate as we go forward, and I hope the Minister will engage regularly and persistently, as he always does, with my right hon. Friend to make sure we get answers to our questions.

I also have huge respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who I always enjoy listening to, particularly on these matters. He has spent a lot of time digging into the detail and making sure he understands it, which is very commendable.

Of course, I also thank the Minister himself. I love the fact that he has challenged me, and we will have that back-and-forth. Although I agree with him, and I want to see better quality English and maths coming out, nothing should be a barrier to people getting into education, particularly those who might have learning difficulties or needs that were not supported or identified when they were previously in education. There are also households where people may not have that academic attainment—in Stoke, 12% of my workforce have no formal qualification at all. I do not want generational poverty or educational disadvantage to be passed on, so we must make sure that young people can get level 3. As was pointed out, level 4 and 5 qualifications are important as well, and we must make sure we deliver on them.

I totally accept that we need to see educational attainment kept at a high standard, and I would never want a degree to be seen as a lesser qualification because of the removal—which I personally hope will happen—of this functional skill requirement. However, I understand the danger in removing it and how that could be left open to interpretation, so I look forward to going back and forth with the Minister and seeing how we can go forward.

Finally, Dr Huq, thank you for chairing the debate so well and for being so patient. I welcome any feedback from Members as we leave.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the apprenticeship levy.

Helicopter Search and Rescue Service

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future design of the helicopter search and rescue service.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I welcome the Minister to his new position. I know that this topic is not within his brief, but sits with his colleague in the other place, but I also know that he is a diligent Minister and will no doubt have full command of the facts for us today.

Dr Huq, if you were to stop anyone in Shetland and ask them what they thought of Oscar Charlie, you would get an almost universally positive response. If you were to test that in an opinion poll, Oscar Charlie would get the sort of approval ratings that I, you, the Minister and even the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) would bite a hand off for. It is our good fortune, then, that Oscar Charlie is not a politician, but the search and rescue helicopter based at Sumburgh airport in Shetland.

Oscar Charlie was the call sign originally, but then became the name by which the helicopter service is known. The original Oscar Charlie was actually taken out of service in 2007, but in 2013 the operator of the service, Bristow, bowing to the inevitable, renamed the current helicopter Oscar Charlie—I know that because I officiated at the naming ceremony.

I say all that to illustrate that, for people in the northern isles, the helicopter search and rescue service is not somehow detached from us; it is not an anonymous service. It is a service that we value massively, and it is every bit as much of a blue light service for us as the police, fire or ambulance services are for other communities.

When Shetland has needed the service, Oscar Charlie has been there. In 1993, at the grounding of the Braer, Oscar Charlie was in the thick of it. In 1997, at the loss of the Green Lily, which led to the tragic loss of Bill Deacon, the winchman on Oscar Charlie, it was absolutely central to the rescue effort. Just a few weeks ago, when the Stena Spey drilling rig in the North sea broke free during Storm Babet, it was Oscar Charlie that came to the rescue. It is also an invaluable support for air ambulance services in the northern isles. When the air ambulance proper is not able to serve us, Oscar Charlie and the search and rescue service step in.

News of a proposed change to the way in which the service is delivered has caused enormous concern in the local community. The change came to light on 5 October this year when a whistleblower delivered two pages of a document prepared by Bristow, headed “UKSAR2G”. It is from a memorandum issued to all UK SAR personnel dated 20 September 2023. I only have pages 1 and 2, but according to the document itself, it runs to seven pages. I have asked Bristow for a copy of the memo, but it says, no, it cannot give it to us and that it has to come from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I asked the MCA, and it said, “No, no, it is Bristow’s document, so it has to come from them.” So my first ask of the Minister is, can we please have this document put into the public domain? I know it is not his to control either, but I suspect he has a bit more influence than I do.

It is worth reading into the record what the document says about the new generation of the search and rescue service. Page 1 says:

“The UKSAR2G system is designed to deliver greater capability at a lower price”—

it is the “lower price” thing that concerns many people—

“than today’s Aerial Surveillance and Verification (ASv) and UKSAR contracts. The Rotary element will consist of: 12 bases, two more than the existing service provision...Create two new seasonal bases (Nevis and Lakes) to cover areas of high-density SAR activity”—

I am guessing that that would be for mountain rescue—and have

“18 aircraft: 9 AW189, 3 S-92, 6 AW139.”

It is on page 2 of the memorandum that we see the news that most concerns people in my constituency: it is anticipated that, under the new service, the readiness state for the helicopter based at Sumburgh, which is currently 15 minutes, is to be increased at the end of 2026 to 60 minutes. That is a significant increase in the readiness state.

Those who work in the sector and who know what they are talking about, including some who have worked in it and retired, tell me without any overstatement that this change could put lives at risk. That is why this issue must be dealt with properly; we cannot just rely on people making decisions about which the community has no prior knowledge and on which there is no meaningful consultation, and then find ourselves left without the service when we most need it.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward. He rightly said that His Majesty’s Coastguard provides 24-hour maritime and coastal search and rescue across the United Kingdom. His Majesty’s Coastguard has helicopter bases in every part of the United Kingdom apart from Northern Ireland. Although I support the right hon. Gentleman in what he is calling for, given the concerns he has raised about the waiting times, does he agree that consideration should also be given to funding a helicopter base in Northern Ireland, to ensure that there is protection from potential mountain and water incidents back home? I support him, but I also seek his support.

I think we can make a mutual support case here. As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point, and it is grounded in the understanding that where communities need this service and local industries rely on it—I know from my work in the main Chamber that the hon. Gentleman has a significant fishing and maritime presence in his constituency—everybody should be given the assistance they require and nobody should be left behind.

I say again that we can only have this discussion because we now know what is being planned. If the hon. Gentleman and others were invited in to help to shape the service—bringing in the fishing industry in his constituency and other maritime interests—all these concerns could be put out and would not have to be dealt with in this way.

When I saw the proposed change, my immediate question was, where is the risk assessment? I thought that for one particular reason. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has some form in this regard. Three times in the last 13 years, it has tried to take away the emergency towing vessel stationed in my constituency. The most recent time it tried, it was asked, “Where is the risk assessment?” It turned out that no risk assessment had been done. Eventually, time was taken and the MCA had a proper independent risk assessment done, and its conclusion was that it was not an acceptable risk to remove the emergency towing vessel, which remains there to this day. Will the Minister find out from the MCA whether a risk assessment has been done? If one has been done, will it be published? If one has not been done, will he ensure that one is?

I have raised this matter at business questions and in correspondence with Ministers. I received a reply from the former Minister, Baroness Vere, on 31 October. She said:

“I have spoken with officials at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency…who confirm that the transition to the new Search and Rescue Second Generation contract…takes place over a period of two years with Inverness being the first base to go live in October 2024 and Sumburgh the final base to transition on 1 January 2027.”

It should not have been a long phone call, because the Department issued a press release to that effect on 21 July last year. That does, however, contradict the Bristow memo, which says that Stornoway will be the final base to transition, on 1 January 2027—I think Sumburgh is due to transition at the end of November 2026. Again, it would be enormously helpful if the Minister could clarify that when he replies.

Baroness Vere goes on to say:

“With regards the proposed changes to the readiness state at Sumburgh, internal information from our contractor Bristow was released in error and subsequently a redaction has been issued.”

I confess: the words are all identifiably English, but I have no idea what that sentence actually means. First, the information was not released in error. It was released, quite deliberately, by a whistleblower. It was not released by Bristow; and what

“a redaction has been issued”

is supposed to mean is anybody’s guess. It would be useful if the Minister explained what the Government’s position currently is with regard to this information, and if he could ensure that it is put into the public domain.

Baroness Vere concludes:

“The MCA is at the first stage of assessing any proposed changes, and discussions with the contractor are ongoing.”

The contract has been signed; why these discussions were not held before the contract was signed is anybody’s guess. It does not look like something that would particularly impress the Public Accounts Committee. On 10 November, I met in Shetland—in relation to other stuff—the Scotland director of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. He confirmed that the issue was being looked at again, and that it could be reopened if necessary. This is a novel approach to contract negotiation but, frankly, if at the end of the day we get to a place where my constituents, and other coastal and island communities, have the service that they need and deserve, I am not going to make too many complaints about how we got there. So has that review been carried out and who will be making the final decision?

Briefly, there are a few issues of wider concern about the contract. It is difficult, at present, to understand exactly which helicopters are going to be in service under the new contract. The Bristow memo that I have referred to speaks—on page 2, part 3, in relation to training—of a transition from the AW189, which is currently in use, to the AW139. There are also three Sikorsky helicopters—S-92s. It is believed in the industry that they are likely to be withdrawn from service; Sikorsky has apparently closed the facility that currently produces them.

It looks to me, and this is the understanding of many who currently work in the service, as if, under this new and improved contract—and there are improvements: mountain rescue is an obvious one—we are going to be relying on one type of helicopter. The service’s current resilience is due to there being more than one type of helicopter. If we are indeed going to be left with one type of helicopter, then there needs to be a plan B. We all know that occasionally accidents happen, and unforeseen design issues arise with helicopters or aeroplanes. When that happens, they are all grounded. If at some future stage—and we hope this never happens—there were to be a grounding of the AW139, and that was the only helicopter in use, where would our entire nationwide search and rescue service be left? Where is the resilience? Where is the plan B? If we were able to have an open and outward-looking consultation in the first place, we might know the answer.

The issue is not just that what is proposed is bad and dangerous—we know that—but the way in which it has been handled. If I could ask one thing of the Minister, it would be that when he goes back to his ministerial colleague who does have responsibility for this, he starts with a blank sheet of paper and says, “This has not been handled well. It is too important to be done badly, so let us have another go—and this time, let us get it right.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and congratulate him on bringing this issue before the House. It is genuinely important to his community in Shetland, which I was pleased and honoured to visit in the summer. I know Sumburgh well, because I was fogged in there for some considerable time. I got to know his constituency from going all the way to the Sullom Voe terminal to support the jobs there and, in my previous job, from visiting the jobcentre in Lerwick. I also met the amazing Shetland Community Bike Project, which the right hon. Gentleman and I both support; the lady who runs it in such an amazing way is Caroline Adamson.

Parking that to one side, for rural or coastal communities such as the right hon. Gentleman’s—likewise, my constituency in Northumberland is one of the largest in England—it matters tremendously to have air ambulance or search and rescue available. That principle is totally accepted. As he rightly identified, I am not the Minister who deals with this particular matter, which was previously dealt with by the noble Baroness Vere, but the responsibility has passed to my new Lords colleague, who will doubtless be in contact with the right hon. Gentleman on an ongoing basis.

I put on the record my thanks to my local air ambulances, and that I have raised money for them. They are a vital organisation: the Great North Air Ambulance in my part of the world is very special and I have fundraised for it. The air ambulances in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency are also exceptionally good; I know of them and have met people from them in the past.

We need to pay tribute to the amazing work done by our search and rescue services. They continue to provide a superb response, saving lives across the country, often in the most difficult circumstances. As the right hon. Gentleman so eloquently detailed, search and rescue has clearly done great work through Storms Babet, Ciarán and Debi, over the past few years. In particular, there was the incident when helicopters from Sumburgh and Humberside, along with an oil and gas helicopter, successfully rescued 45 workers from the Stena Spey on 21 October.

I want to address some of the points made in the letter of 31 October and on the ongoing situation raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. For the first part, I correct the date given in the letter of 31 October: it is not 1 January 2027, but 1 October 2026. Secondly, like him, I find interesting the comment about what a redaction of a leak is, but the blunt truth is that that is not a document that the MCA has or has seen. More particularly and importantly, it is an internal Bristow document at, I suspect, an early stage of the particular processes that we are not aware of.

It is important to understand the degree of funding here. For the first part, Government funding to the MCA has gone up over the past few years and also this is a £1.2 billion investment into search and rescue on an ongoing basis. I will set out a little of that. The Department for Transport has made huge efforts to ensure that we have a robust national network of search and rescue aircraft, with the capacity to meet the operational challenges faced by His Majesty’s Coastguard throughout the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned with Shetland, but I will give a brief overview.

An agile fleet of aircraft is not restricted to specific operational areas, but can instead be deployed across the country and it can surge according to demand. That is not simply helicopters, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly outlined; there are huge numbers of additional support, which can be provided. The award of the UK second-generation search and rescue aviation programme to the incumbent, Bristow Helicopters, was announced in July 2022. That is a further £1.6 billion investment in maintaining and enhancing our search and rescue aviation fleet for the next 10 years.

No bases are being closed in any way whatever. All the existing bases will continue to provide a 24-hour search and rescue service, as they do today. They will be supplemented by two new seasonal bases to provide enhanced support to northern England, Scotland and the coastal areas during the busy summer months from April to September.

It is always a delight to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place; we have crossed swords in an amicable way on many occasions in the past. He asked about this issue in relation to Northern Ireland. At the present stage, his community is covered by Caernarfon and Prestwick, and there is ongoing support across there. Obviously, he has his own situation—

I welcome the Minister’s understanding of that, but the point I tried to make in my intervention is that Northern Ireland needs its own. The issue is all about time whenever these things happen, and we need the response in a shorter time that what is offered. I am grateful for the response, but I suspect that it is not adequate for Northern Ireland as a whole with its population of 1.95 million.

The point is fairly made. My noble Friend in the Lords will answer him in writing and I am sure will very happily meet and discuss that with the hon. Gentleman on an ongoing basis. There is cover from a multitude of bases on an ongoing basis, and what we are dealing with here is obviously in respect of search and rescue over and above any air ambulances that operate locally.

To return to the points raised, there is also the use of fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, with fixed-wing bases being established at Newquay and Prestwick. These aircraft, which are equipped with state-of-the-art maritime search technology, are crucial in supporting search and rescue operations across the United Kingdom. There is also the introduction of the King Air B350 extended range, with which HM Coastguard will have the ability to deploy assets to the extremity of the UK search and rescue region in the mid-Atlantic. It also uses a number of technological innovations in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles and a novel communication called OneLink.

Turning to the service provision in Scotland, I want to address the key point raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland in respect of the situation going from 15 to 60 minutes. That was supposed to be the situation going forward, but I can confirm that the Department for Transport has been informed by His Majesty’s Coastguard that it has begun an analysis of the SAR incident data compiled after the UKSAR2G procurement commenced. That work has begun and is ongoing, and obviously the results will be conveyed in the future to all Members who are particular concerned by it—the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), who have raised this particular point in correspondence.

The analysis is in recognition of the fact that the UKSAR2G procurement was undertaken at a time of considerable societal and economic upheaval during the pandemic, and that may have had a lasting impact on demand for the service. There is no doubt, if one looks at the statistics—and I have the statistics—that on occasions, over the last few years, the numbers have clearly been potentially lower than they may be going forward.

In fact, the briefing given to me by the Shetland Fishermen’s Association this morning said that there had been something in the region of 180-plus call-outs of the Sumburgh-based Shetland helicopter—over what period that is, I do not know. But the issue is not just about the number of call-outs; it is about the fact that, because of where we are, we are that much further removed from other opportunities for rescue services. Also, we do get some of the worst weather in country—and not just in the form that the Minister has experienced.

I completely accept that August is the best time to visit the Shetland Isles in many respects, notwithstanding the fact that I was fogged in. The right hon. Gentleman’s point is fairly made—the further north we go, the further the weather impacts.

I want to assure the House and the right hon. Gentleman that the UKSAR2G contract terms allow for a review of any area of the service against changes in demand, technical developments or innovations, which will be done periodically. The point is that that would have been done in any event. Should the analysis in this instance indicate that amendments to the new service are required in light of changes to the demand profile, then the Department for Transport can pursue those via the appropriate contractual mechanisms and approval processes.

The review will be undertaken at the end of this year going into next year, at which time we will be happy to share the outcome with hon. Members. It will take many months, so it will not happen in the short term. I make the simple point that there will be no change to this service, in any event, for many years to come; as the title of the right hon. Gentleman’s debate on the Order Paper suggests, we are talking about the future provision. I can advise that all four current helicopter bases in Scotland will remain open, with additional fixed-wing capabilities and a seasonal base in north-west Scotland to provide additional enhancements on an ongoing basis.

The right hon. Gentleman raised other, particular points. I have answered in relation to the date and the redaction. With regard to the change in aircraft type due to take place on 1 October 2026, it is clearly the case that the introduction of the Leonardo AW189 provides a high-endurance and world-leading capability. It is proven in the search and rescue environment under our existing service. It is also comparable to the current Sikorsky S-92 —operating at both Sumburgh and Stornoway—in terms of range and speed. It is unquestionably the case that there was appropriate due diligence before it was made the helicopter of choice on an ongoing basis.

I do not believe I can add much more, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the organisation concerned will go away and work out what documentation it is able to disclose that is not sensitive to contractual matters—those, he will understand, one cannot disclose. But this is a publicly funded service, provided for all of us taxpayers and paid for by the taxpayer, and it is right and proper that there should be proper publication of all matters in relation to that. Ultimately, that will be a matter for sign-off by my noble Friend Lord Davies of Gower, the Minister who has overall control of this, but I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will disclose whatever we are able to in the circumstances. I thank him for bringing forward the debate. I take the matter very seriously and I fully understand the concerns he has raised. I commend this debate to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Marine Protected Area

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of strengthening the Marine Protected Area around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. Those are words that I have not said for a long time in Westminster Hall, so it is a pleasure to be here. I am delighted to be joined by not only the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), but other colleagues from across the House, some of whom are themselves returning to Westminster Hall after a bit of an absence in Government.

I am delighted to open this important debate on an issue that, perhaps surprisingly, is close to my heart, mainly because of the penguin—I will come back to that in a moment. First, I want to talk about great British wildlife. If we are asked to think about it, what actually comes to mind? We might think of the barn owl, the red squirrel, or—rightly, I think—the humble hedgehog, or even the newly reintroduced Eurasian beaver. But I think first of all of the Rock of Gibraltar and the Barbary macaque climbing those fabled pillars of Hercules. I think of the critically endangered mountain chicken frog on the island of Montserrat. I think of the world’s smallest flightless bird, the Inaccessible Island rail. Inaccessible Island is just off Tristan da Cunha. Most importantly, I think of the great British penguin.

Why are all these things linked? It is because of the British overseas territories. Through our overseas territories, we are responsible for not only chicken frogs and Inaccessible Island rails; we are responsible for one third of the world’s penguins. That is a staggering statistic—but it is only one statistic, because it does not stop there. Over 90% of the UK’s biodiversity is found in the British overseas territories, which also hold over 94% of the UK’s endemic species. Sometimes there is an attitude that perhaps prevails that the overseas territories are just a few rocks with no real importance to the UK and only of interest from a financial services perspective. But that is not true: it is not true from a historical perspective, it is not true from a strategic perspective, and it is certainly not true from an environmental perspective.

Spread across five of the seven seas, and with environments ranging from tropical to polar, the overseas territories are invaluable to our nature conservation and restoration work. We can be very proud that, over the past decade, the Government have taken firm action to conserve these precious ecosystems. For a start, the Darwin Plus scheme has seen over £32 million of funding go to 162 environmental projects in the OTs, including 33 projects in South Georgia alone.

I want to talk about the Government’s other vital initiative with the overseas territories: the blue belt programme. Successive Conservative Governments have grown and strengthened this network of marine protected areas, working with 10 overseas territory Governments to do so. As a result, we have now protected over 4.3 million sq km of ocean. That is 1% of the world’s ocean—an area the size of India. According to the Government, the managing, monitoring and surveyance of the blue belts has come at a cost to taxpayers of only £10 per square kilometre of ocean.

One of these 10 overseas territories is the focus of our debate today—South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, a remote archipelago in the South Atlantic ocean, perhaps made famous in the minds of many of us by the events of 1982. It is said in this context to be more biodiverse than the fabled Galápagos islands immortalised by the journeys and travels of Charles Darwin. This uninhabited overseas territory first joined the blue belt programme back in 2013, with a commitment to review the marine protected area every five years. Having last been reviewed, and subsequently strengthened, back in 2018 after valiant campaigning by the then Back-Bench MPs, the noble Lords Benyon and Goldsmith, the time has come again for the Department and the SGSSI Government to decide whether to strengthen those marine protections further. It will come as no surprise that I believe we should.

South Georgia is a spectacular island. It is the size of Cornwall, and has over a dozen peaks that rise higher than Ben Nevis. Its wildlife is as spectacular as its geography. It is home to 3 million penguins of four different species; as I previously mentioned, one third of the world’s penguins are British and nearly half of them live in South Georgia. The island is also home to most of the world’s Antarctic fur seals, half of the world’s southern elephant seals and four species of albatross, which we know from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are the world’s largest flying birds. I resist the temptation to quote reams of that noble Romantic verse—many of us have studied English to a very high level.

I wanted to mark in passing that, although South Georgia is indeed the home of a vast quantity of penguins, fur seals and elephant seals, they are currently being very badly affected by avian flu. Officials are extremely concerned that the numbers will be severely depleted in the months to come.

My hon. Friend is right to issue an alert about the danger that those important populations face from pervasive infections such as avian flu and how quickly we can go from a situation of abundance to one of endangerment. That is why this debate is even more timely.

We must not forget the South Sandwich Islands. That chain of volcanic islands is also home to millions of penguins, including a colony of over 2 million on Zavodovski island alone—the largest penguin colony on earth. What albatross, seals and penguins share is the ocean: they are all reliant on the sea. The marine environment of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is what gives life to them, and when the ocean suffers from the impacts of climate change and over-exploitation, so do the islands.

The threat that I will focus on is the exploitation of krill populations. Human-led demand for krill is growing significantly. The Chinese industrial fishing fleet that operates in the region needs more krill to fuel the ever-growing demand for aquaculture. However, krill is also the vital first link of the food chain on which the penguins, whales and other charismatic creatures of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands depend. As this threat increases, so too does the need to protect more of the waters from it. The UK Government and the local SGSSI Government have recognised that, and they deserve praise for the work that they have done to protect the waters. The marine protected area around the territory currently fully protects over 283,000 sq km, which is 23% of the overseas territory’s exclusive economic zone. That is well enforced, at relatively low cost, by the local Government.

But as the risk from industrial fishing in these waters grows, so does the need to act to fully protect more of the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. With that in mind, this year’s review of the MPA creates an opportunity to put in place various new measures to protect ecosystems across the territory. In particular, I urge the Government to take the bold step of designating all 400,000 sq km of ocean around the South Sandwich Islands as a no-take zone. Unlike South Georgia, which has a scientific presence and is visited by tens of thousands of tourists every year on cruise ships, the South Sandwich Islands are virtually untouched by humanity. If there is any part of Britain’s global maritime estate that should be protected in this way, this is it.

I should stress that I am not calling for a full no-take zone in the waters around South Georgia. I am cognisant of the fact that fishing licences are a vital source of income for the SGSSI Government, and sustainable, limited and effectively managed fishing has a role to play in the future of South Georgia’s maritime zone. However, around the South Sandwich Islands, where only a small amount of fishing happens at present, we have to be bold.

I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. and learned Friend twice, but I want to pick him up on one matter, which is his indication that the Chinese are mass fishing in those waters. They are not. He may not be aware of this, but there has been no commercial fishing of any kind in the waters around the South Sandwich Islands in the last 30 years. Two ships go there once a year; they take in 50 or 60 tonnes, and that is all. There is no fishing around the South Sandwich Islands because it is too far away, and therefore bringing in a no-catch zone of the kind that my right hon. and learned Friend describes would not achieve anything.

I am afraid that that is not the information that I have received. Even if my hon. Friend is right, there is nothing to be lost from confirming the reality that he asserts that there is little or no fishing or fishing take in that area.

I was going to go on to talk about the existing large no-take zones in both the Tristan da Cunha and the Pitcairn Islands MPAs, both of which have human populations. It would therefore make complete sense to have one around the SSIs. Together with additional targeted extensions to protections around key areas in South Georgia’s waters, that would bring substantial benefits to the territory.

Scientists have been clear on the risks to the marine environment in the region, and with krill stocks being damaged by climate change, we cannot afford for them to be also threatened by any industrial fishing. With last month’s worrying news about bird flu, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, it is incumbent on us all to do everything we can to protect the avian life of the islands. That would start by protecting its food source. Thirty leading marine biologists and polar scientists have called for the Government to upgrade the MPA and I urge the Government to listen to that evidence-based argument.

Some may argue that the best way to strengthen the MPA is through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the multilateral body for the Antarctic region. However, the frankly meddling activities of Russia in the process make any positive action, whether environmental or otherwise, seemingly impossible, certainly for the foreseeable future. Thanks to unilateral action by our Government in 2018 at the last MPA review, a precedent has been set for the UK to act unilaterally to strengthen protections for the waters of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Given that SGSSI is our sovereign territory, we should be able to act to do what we see as best for protecting the biodiversity that it holds. We know that marine protected areas work. Scientists have recently seen some positive signs within the territory’s albatross and whale populations, which they link to the existing MPA. Ministers have a real opportunity this year to go further with those protections and give the territory’s endangered species the best chance of recovery.

Before I wrap up, and at the risk of being slightly tangential, I want to touch on one other overseas territory, which is the world’s largest marine reserve around the Chagos islands, with 640,000 sq km of protected ocean. I am not going to talk today about the strategic considerations the Government should make in their negotiations with Mauritius, but I ask that the Government allow Parliament to have proper time to discuss those matters. I want to stress the importance of the environmental considerations that the Government must bear in mind. The tropical environment of the British Indian Ocean Territory is very different from that of South Georgia but is of equal global importance. Having led for the United Kingdom in the International Court of Justice case against Mauritius, frankly, it is a mystery to me why we are negotiating with Mauritius in the first place. I view that judgment as advisory only and the sovereignty of the UK is inviolable. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations might be, we cannot let the environmental protections around the Chagos islands be compromised.

Coming back finally to South Georgia, if we were to visit Grytviken just 60 years ago, we would have stood among the carcases of whales as the bay was stained red with blood from industrial whaling. The transformation in the past few decades has been incredible. In the first half of the 20th century, 175,000 whales were killed, leading them to almost vanish from the area, but in recent years, sperm, humpback and, crucially, blue whales are returning in ever-increasing numbers to those waters. We have much, therefore, to be proud of.

It makes complete sense to me that we continue this vital work and create as safe an environment as possible for the millions of fish, birds and mammals who are dependent on the waters of this territory. It is time to show that the UK is not just a world leader but the world leader in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic conservation.

I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), who is my colleague and the acting Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, on setting the scene incredibly well. It is hard not to be excited by the scene that he has set for us all to understand and encapsulate in our minds. The reason I am here is to support him.

The right hon. and learned Member’s theme has been protection and how we can do better. He outlined what we are doing across the world, and specifically what the United Kingdom is doing, with the necessity to do more perhaps.

Healthy marine ecosystems provide benefits for human wellbeing. It is estimated that our maritime activities contribute some £47 billion annually to the economy. Our maritime protected areas aim to achieve long-term nature conservation and protection, by alleviating pressure from human activities, whether domestically or internationally. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, it is important that we protect our marine conservation. I am pleased to add my support to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the others who will speak with the same obligation and focus in their hearts.

The SGSSI is a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic ocean. It is a remote collection of islands, consisting of South Georgia and a smaller chain called the South Sandwich Islands. South Georgia is the biggest at 165 km long, and the largest island in the territory. With that of the others alongside, it is grossly and fantastically important. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) referred to in his intervention, last month—October 2023—the highly pathogenic avian influenza was confirmed on Bird Island. When it comes to protection, that is something we should respond to.

I am sure the Minister will tell us, when the opportunity comes, what has been done to address that. In particular, the brown skua population in South Georgia has been impacted greatly. Since then, several other cases of symptomatic birds have been reported to the Government of South Georgia. In addition, a high level of mortality has been detected in the elephant seal pups at three sites around South Georgia, and animals have all displayed symptoms that are consistent with avian influenza.

There is an issue and we are keen to help and assist. When the Minister responds, perhaps she could give us her ideas on what our Government are doing to address the issue. Our overseas territories are an important part of our maritime systems, and are crucial to understanding the vastness of nature and wildlife. There is not one of us who does not watch the wildlife programmes on TV presented by David Attenborough and others, and who is not enthused when seeing the wonderful nature that we have. The right hon. and learned Gentleman outlined that in his own way, and it is important that we respond.

Healthy seas will help to regulate climate and reduce the negative impacts, including providing seafood and supporting people’s livelihoods as well as biodiversity. It has been revealed that one in three marine ecosystems in the UK have been degraded by human activities, including fishing, sewage, oil and gas disposal. There needs to be a joint approach and effort throughout the UK, to protect our ecosystems at home and further afield.

The Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 requires the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to establish a network of MPAs, together with the MPAs designated by other UK Administrations, to contribute to the conservation and improvement of the marine environment in the UK and the marine area. We are doing it here already, as a collective effort within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as ensuring that we protect our maritime ecosystems domestically. Doing so overseas is equally important; the right hon. and learned Gentleman set that scene admirably. Just because those places are geographically further away does not mean that we give them any less of our time, and this debate has come at the right time.

I am conscious that three hon. Members have yet to speak in the limited time for debate. To conclude, we all know it can take several years to generate and analyse data to form an assessment. The right hon. and learned Gentleman set out some of that data, information and evidence. In response to last month’s news about influenza in animals and birds in South Georgia and the surrounding islands, we can clearly do more, through our Minister and Government, to strengthen the MPAs. I hope that, as a collective nation, with compassion, interest and commitment, we can do so for our overseas territories, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman set the scene so admirably.

A word of warning: we will take the three Front Benchers at 5.10 pm, so if everyone’s speeches remain within six and a half minutes, everyone will get in comfortably.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I want to thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), whose contribution was eloquent and erudite. He covered a significant amount of the ground that I had intended to cover.

I have to say that this is a real passion of mine. I served in Government, in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for over four years and, just recently, for a year as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have to mention the work that we have done. The launch of the blue belt was a clear Conservative achievement, the Darwin Plus funds have been going for some time, and there is the Blue Planet fund. Of course, my right hon. and learned Friend has already mentioned the fact that about 30% of the world’s penguins are formally British, which is not something that anyone would necessarily instinctively think.

I am very conscious that there are a number of political issues, and I also will respect collective responsibility—although officials will already be aware of my views on this matter. I think, of course, that it matters that we respect the Government of SGSSI. I am conscious of the difficult issues, but we also have to show leadership and think big. I am really pleased: I was going to ask the Minister when she expects the review to be complete—we had initially anticipated that it would be this year, but I think Dr Simon Brockington has only just been appointed. He is a former DEFRA civil servant who is excellent and who I think will really help with the review. Perhaps the Minister can indicate what she thinks the latest expectation for completion is.

I am very aware of the political issues and some of the issues around CCAMLR. We share one ocean, right around the world, but when it comes to thinking big, we should consider whether this could become part of the very first BBNJ—biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction —treaty. Lord Ahmad signed the treaty on behalf of the UK Government at the UN General Assembly—I was there for that—and I know that my brilliant former departmental officials have been working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has its expertise. I can assure the House that our brilliant officials are truly amazing at trying to secure these sorts of agreements. This is something on which we should think big, and it would be a great announcement for our Prime Minister, in collaboration with the Government of SGSSI.

At the very start, before I get into some of the substance, I would also like to thank my special advisers from my time in DEFRA: Ed Winfield, Meg Trethewey and Alex Kay. They all had a passion for the penguins, and they were desperate for me to go to SGSSI. That did not happen—it is a very long way away, which is one reason why it is so special—but I want to thank them for all the work they have done to support the environment.

This cause transcends boundaries and resonates with the very essence of our planet’s health. The urgent need to strengthen the marine protected area around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is self-evident, but I am conscious of some of the diplomatic challenges. This area, which is nestled in the southern reaches of the Atlantic ocean, is a remote and stunning corner of the world—in fact, it is featured in this month’s edition of National Geographic—but it is also a crucial ecosystem that demands immediate attention, care and protection. As we have already started delving into the complexities of ocean conservation, we are faced with the daunting reality of declining biodiversity, overfishing and the imminent threat of climate change. Climate change, of course, is already impacting oceans, and we are now seeing ocean acidification. That has a real impact on krill, which is the foundation of our food chain.

This invaluable marine ecosystem is not, however, shielded from the growing threats that afflict our oceans worldwide. I have already mentioned rising temperatures in the ocean, unregulated fishing practices and habitat degradation, all of which pose severe challenges to the delicate balance of life. The time has come for decisive action, and a commitment to safeguarding these waters for generations to come would be a very strong commitment indeed. This would not merely be an act of preservation; it would be an investment in the future and a pledge to protect biodiversity and ensure the resilience of our oceans.

Expanding on the currently protected areas and implementing these regulations will offer a sanctuary for marine species to thrive in. It will serve as a haven for breeding populations of penguins, seals and albatrosses, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon has said. Indeed, a well-managed MPA can act as a natural laboratory, providing scientists with valuable insights into marine ecosystems and their responses to environmental changes. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon that this is not about getting into the subject of no-take zones—I am not here to please some of the organisations that are desperate to have no-take everywhere. This is a shared resource, but I know that if we do not act, the environment and biodiversity will be challenged.

This is important for several reasons. We have talked about the different sorts of marine life—penguins, seals, whales—and enhancing that MPA would help to maintain the region’s biodiversity. A well-managed MPA can serve as a refuge for marine species and ecosystems, aiding their adaptation to the effects of climate change. The overall health and functionality of the ecosystem can benefit fisheries outside the MPA by supporting healthy populations of fish and other marine species. Strengthening the MPA can provide valuable opportunities for scientific research—not the kind that, dare I say it, the Norwegians and the Japanese do on whales, but that genuinely allows scientists to study the effects of conservation measures, monitor ecosystem changes and better understand the marine environment. There is also the opportunity for sustainable tourism and economic benefits.

But I turn to krill. Krill is probably one of the least understood things in Parliament and perhaps in the wider world. It plays a crucial role in marine ecosystems and is often considered a keystone species, meaning that it holds a significant and unique ecological importance. It is the foundation of the food web and a vital source of food for many marine animals, and its abundance supports entire ecosystems and sustains populations. Through its feeding habits, krill contributes to nutrient cycling in the ocean by consuming phytoplankton and converting it into a form that is consumed by larger predators. Indeed, krill also plays a role in carbon sequestration.

The challenges facing our oceans are immense, but the resolve to address them can be greater. Strengthening the MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is of absolute importance. We need to stand united in our commitment to protect this remote yet invaluable ecosystem that will safeguard the very lifeblood of our planet.

It is an honour to serve under your chairpersonship, Dr Huq. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment, I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for the opportunity to speak, and I thank him for securing this debate.

The future marine protection of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands has been a long-standing campaign for the APPG and our associate members, including the Pew Trusts, and featured in our recent “Keeping 1.5 alive” report, which sets out nine priorities for the forthcoming COP28 summit, which begins next week.

The UK Government count all SGSSI waters—over 1 million sq km—as a marine protected area. However, only 23% of the SGSSI waters are currently off limits to commercial extraction. In the remaining waters, industrialised krill fishing is legal, which undermines protections according to international standards. The SGSSI Government will be reviewing the MPA with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office at the end of 2023, meaning that there is one chance, ahead of the next general election, to significantly increase the protection of marine species found on the islands. To demonstrate its protection of overseas territories, the UK must use that review as an opportunity to enhance the environmental protection of SGSSI.

In my view, there are three major changes relating to the Antarctic and the Southern ocean that should be taken into account when reviewing whether to enhance protection of this biologically unique UK overseas territory, the first of which is climate change. Climate change is increasingly being recognised as a major ecological threat. Today, we are seeing projections that we are heading towards global temperatures beyond 1.5°, the safeguard agreed in Paris. We will potentially pass that guardrail in the next decade, and the Antarctic will be no exception. In the past year, we have seen the lowest sea ice extent ever recorded, major failures of Emperor penguin breeding and impacts on Antarctic fur seals breeding on South Georgia, linked to variable food resources. Business as usual may not be an option, as we learn to manage the consequences of our past actions. Management will not be easy; it will require tough decisions. Humans, above all, rely on ecosystem support—I understand this. Therefore, we need to fully protect functioning ecosystems across the planet, including within the world’s oceans.

The second change concerns the great whales. Baleen whales are finally beginning to return in greater numbers to their feeding grounds in the Southern ocean. Approximately 1.5 million whales were killed in the 20th century: 90% of all catches were taken by just four nations, which sadly include the UK. A crucible for southern whaling was South Georgia. So far, the humpback whale is the species recovering the best. The stock that breeds off Brazil and migrates to feeding grounds around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is now close to a full recovery, which is a fantastic example of what is possible. However, fin whales are only beginning to show early signs of recovery, while blue whales are still depleted.

All those animals depend on dense aggregations of krill. Preserving adequate krill for the natural ecosystem rather than for commercial fisheries must be a priority. Recent estimates suggest that there is insufficient krill in the Southern ocean to support the historical populations of baleen whales, from before they were hunted to near extinction.

The third important change is—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon mentioned —politicisation in CCAMLR, which is the multilateral management authority responsible for overseeing krill fisheries. There are major disputes about the development of marine protected areas, how best to manage them in the context of climate change and how the UK should be able to manage its own waters surrounding South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

A perfect storm of uncertainty is ahead. The Southern ocean marine ecosystem is changing both physically and biologically, yet the organisation that is meant to manage it is unable to do so. The UK is already a leading proponent of 30 by 30, a worldwide initiative for Governments to designate 30% of the Earth’s land, ocean and sea as protected areas by 2030. Where better to set an example than at South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands? They are the breeding location of almost 15% of all penguins worldwide, with the largest penguin colony in the world on the South Sandwich Islands, where there are more than a million chinstrap penguins. The islands and surrounding waters are also home to the last 6,000 South Georgia pipits and 95% of the global population of Antarctic fur seals.

There is a unique opportunity for the UK to increase protection in the waters surrounding these islands. Given the UK’s past involvement in whaling, it has a particular responsibility to implement appropriately scaled protection measures. Increasing the level of full protection through legal measures should now be a priority for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands MPA review.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend, and next-door neighbour, the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for calling this extremely important debate. It is a very important moment in the consideration of these matters as they are being considered by the Foreign Office and by DEFRA. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on her four magnificent years in DEFRA. It has been a superb operation. We are sorry she is no longer there, but we are glad to see how active she has been on the Back Benches in the week or so since she was—dethroned, I nearly said.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) made some extremely important points from a position of great knowledge. I will just pick him up slightly on one point: all those things he described and on which we violently agree—about the vital importance of preserving biodiversity in both South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands—are largely unconnected, with a question of a no-take zone around the South Sandwich Islands. The two things are not necessarily cause and effect,

I would like to declare an interest. I had the good fortune to visit South Georgia as a guest of the commissioner about four or five years ago, after which we had a debate in Westminster Hall on 19 December 2017. Many of these matters were discussed, and those keenly interested might like to consult Hansard. I am also taking a team from the Environmental Audit Committee to Antarctica over the Christmas recess. It is obviously being paid for, as it is Select Committee activity. I have some interest in these matters as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions.

I think we were in danger of violently agreeing. No one would disagree that biodiversity is supremely important as are these creatures—including penguins, which I have had the very good fortune to mix with four or five years ago, magnificent elephant seals and the fur seals. It is superb—a heaven on Earth. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon was virtually poetic in describing it. He is absolutely right in his description—it is the most superb and wonderful place in the world.

I therefore strongly support the notion of the establishment of marine protect areas across the whole of the Southern ocean. There are two so far that are acknowledged by CCAMLR: one on the South Orkney Islands, and the other at Ross sea. Both were established under CCAMLR some years ago. CCAMLR is currently considering two or three others—east Antarctica, the Weddell sea and the Antarctic peninsula. We would like to see MPAs established there, but as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon correctly said, political influences in CCAMLR are making that impossible. The Russians and the Chinese in particular will not allow MPAs to be established around Antarctica. We think that is a great shame, and that they should be, but they are not.

By contrast, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands have an extremely active and very well-monitored MPA, and has done for now for some 10 or so years. Fishing around the South Sandwich Islands is very carefully monitored by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. As I mentioned to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon a moment ago, there is very little fishing. Two vessels go there for one month a year and catch between 50 and 60 tonnes of krill. I think I am right in saying that the valuable Patagonian toothfish are not caught at all, or only in very small quantities. The waters around South Georgia are carefully monitored by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. They have a very good, sustainable MPA that allows us to catch fish, thereby supporting local communities, particularly in the Falklands, and at the same time preserve these wonderful wild creatures.

I can understand why from a PR standpoint it sounds good to say, “Let’s ban all fishing! Isn’t that great? Aren’t we great? Britain is leading the world in banning all fishing.” There are two problems with that. The first is that there is no fishing there anyhow. Banning something that does not exist does not have any great moral standing. The only boats that fish in the South Sandwich Islands every year are two scientific vessels that look into the krill around there. They pick out 50 or 60 tonnes purely for scientific reasons, and that is entirely licensed by the Falkland Islands. Bringing in a no-take zone would not prevent any fishing that happens there at the moment. I do not believe there are illegal fisheries there at the moment, but if the Chinese or Russians were fishing there, they would still do so even if there were an MPA recognised by the world. Someone cannot be stopped from breaking the law simply by our changing the designation of the waters.

If we were to turn the very well-managed SGSSI MPA into a no-take zone, it would have two very significant consequences that we should be very careful about. First, we would no longer control the waters. At the moment, they are controlled by the Falkland Islands and SGSSI. Therefore, they are effectively British waters. If we were not licensing the very small number of vessels that do go there, we would no longer control those waters. They would become part of CCAMLR and would be subject to the Russians, Chinese and, in particular the Argentinians, who are members of CCAMLR. It might well be that the scientific research vessels that are allowed to go there very occasionally would suddenly become Argentinian vessels or Russian vessels or Chinese vessels. We do not know what the consequences would be, so there is quite a big geopolitical problem that would come with that.

Under CCAMLR, the South Sandwich Islands have some 15% of the allowable krill. If we were to say, “No, there must be no krill fished off the South Sandwich Islands”—none is fished, but we are none the less allowed to catch 15%—that would mean that the 85% that is around Antarctica would become 100%. In other words, we would be taking more krill from the Southern ocean by banning it from SGSSI. The consequence of our bringing in this ban would not be saving krill but catching more of it. We would be increasing the catch by 15%. To those environmentalists who are very concerned about the krill—quite right too, they should be—I would simply say that if we bring in a no-take zone around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, we will increase the Russian and Chinese take by some 15% and will further damage the krill population.

We must be very careful about how we approach these things. Of course, we are all determined to find a way of preserving the environment and the very delicate biodiversity—the superb biodiversity—that exists down there, but the relatively easy “Let’s ban everything” line, which I am afraid my right hon. Friends have all rather easily adopted, ignores some of the very significant geopolitical difficulties that would arise from that. In particular, the long-term battle between the Falklands and the Argentine would rear its ugly head again, because Argentina would say that it has a right to fish those waters.

I am so sorry, I have run out of time. We must therefore be extremely careful what we wish for. The consequences may well be worse than what is happening at the moment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for bringing this debate to the Chamber. When I looked at South Swindon, I did not consider it to be a coastal community—in fact, I am sure it is not—but the right hon. and learned Member could well have been from a coastal community, such was his understanding, commitment and enthusiasm for the topic.

It is a real relief to hear some good news about climate change with the recovery of the ecosystem in South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands. A once-exploited whaling hub has now been transformed into what might be called a wildlife haven, as one of the world’s largest marine protected areas. Densities of fish—and, as we heard earlier, krill—are back in the food chain, leading to a resurgence in numbers of whales and penguins in the area, especially the king penguins that feed off the fish. Maybe we could have renamed them the Great British penguin—I almost feel that Boris Johnson is back with us—but never mind, we will move on.

This is a good news story, because the local government took action to protect some of the most fertile seas on Earth by enforcing tight fishing quotas and forbidding oil and gas exploration. This MPA is now going through its second five-year review, in consultation with experts and stakeholders, to ensure that the evidence-based management plans are working to their full capacity, and to assess new dangers and opportunities to make further progress.

It is this kind of local stewardship in rebuilding and supporting a once vibrant ecosystem that is key to the success of the area’s recovery. I will give a few examples of impressive stewardship programmes in Scotland, led by local communities and those who are heavily invested in their coastal waters and lochs. The Restoration Forth project in my constituency is a superb example. It is a partnership between local community groups managed by the WWF, with Project Seagrass, academics such as Dr Richard Lilley, and other organisations and charities working together to restore vital seagrass meadows and oyster beds in the firth of Forth—once an area rich in marine diversity, but one that has been sadly depleted over a long period of time. In fact, I was delighted to don some wellies and warm clothing one Thursday morning earlier this year, to be part of the project’s seagrass planting session. I was even more pleased to hear that recently, the roots have taken hold and the first seagrass meadow has been re-established in the firth of Forth. That is excellent news.

In a recent important paper, Alan Munro from the Coastal Communities Network and Fauna and Flora International spent some time examining a shared vision for marine restoration in Scotland. He highlighted the fact that Scotland’s inshore seas supported vast seagrass meadows in days gone by, but those habitats have now disappeared due to pollution, bottom-contact fishing and coastal development. He pointed out that the restoration of those habitats has enormous potential to deliver valuable services for humans, including protecting our coasts from flooding and erosion, improving water quality, fisheries production, and capturing and storing carbon for climate mitigation and adaptation. Alan’s paper examines how best to scale up successful community-led initiatives in marine restoration. We could bring success to Scottish waters if we keep the same energy and commitment shown by these amazing groups around our coast.

It is this kind of shared vision—community-led, bottom-up and in consultation with a wide range of experts and stakeholders—that leads to success in restoring our vital marine habitats. We can see it in faraway overseas territories such as South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands with their incredible and unique marine ecosystems, and we can see it led by those living next to our beautiful waters in Scotland. However, in finding the solutions, we need to talk to our fishing communities and those who make their living from energy production off our coasts. It is not beyond the wit of people in this country to arrive at win-win solutions. For example, I have been speaking to the Scottish inshore fishing association, which has real concerns about some of these issues. These are hot topics in local communities. Again, it is not beyond us to actually come to solutions that meet our environmental objectives and aims, while maintaining a fishing industry that is sustainable in the longer term. In fact, one could argue that this actually makes the fishing industry much more sustainable, by having a better marine environment.

The overall message here is that this is based on local, local, local. It is amazing what can be done when we let local communities rise to the challenge of climate change. As one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment, I said in a recent contribution to our COP28 publication “Keeping 1.5 alive”,

“the public is way ahead of the politicians in their thinking on ocean protection and environmental wellbeing.”

I believe that that is still true today. It is local communities’ enthusiasm and dedication that leads to real change. We need to invest in the community capacity to meet our climate change targets and ambitions. That is how we can replicate the success that we have heard put so eloquently by other speakers today, and try and match their ambitions here in the UK.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dr Huq. I thank the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for securing this very important debate. This area has long been of interest to me. Of course, my constituency has connections with the South Atlantic, with the Terra Nova expedition having left in 1910 from Cardiff bay, where it is commemorated. There was also the Welsh involvement in the Falklands conflict; the first I heard of South Georgia was in relation to the terrible events in 1982. I am a fan of Shackleton—as I am sure many others in the room are—and have read his diaries, “South”, and “The Voyage of the James Caird”. The arrival at South Georgia and his incredible efforts along with Crean and Worsley has never left my mind.

I take a deep interest in the overseas territories, large and small. I was delighted to meet the previous chief Ministers and representatives of the overseas territories last week as they visited London for the Joint Ministerial Council. On my visit to the Falklands in November last year—I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests relating to that, as a shadow Minister—I had the pleasure of meeting Laura Sinclair Willis, the chief executive officer of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and Alison Blake, who, as well as being the Governor of the Falkland Islands, serves as His Majesty’s Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. We discussed these issues in great detail. Indeed, at Mount Pleasant in the Falklands, I was privileged to meet RAF pilots who had conducted some of the patrol missions over South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and they showed me the incredible footage they had taken from their A400M the week before. That was a truly special occasion.

Before I go into some of the detail, I reiterate Labour’s unwavering commitment to the UK’s overseas territories in the South Atlantic and across the world. In particular, I want to make clear our cast-iron commitment to the economic, physical and environmental security of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and indeed every territory that makes up the global British family. We will defend their sovereignty. It is non-negotiable—end of—particularly given some comments that we have heard in the media in recent weeks.

My visit to the region underscored to me not only the relevance of the South Atlantic as a crucial area for global environmental diversity, but the competing geopolitical and economic interests in the region, which are growing only more prominent. That is why I am thankful for this debate. I am also familiar with the wildlife in the South Atlantic and, indeed, the very, very cold waters. I had the pleasure of swimming at Yorke bay with the noble Lord Hannan as the gulls watched on, and I swam with penguins at Bluff cove. I have had some very direct experiences of the incredible environment in the South Atlantic.

Very important points have been raised by right hon. and hon. Members today about a range of issues, from avian flu to the importance of krill. We have also heard about the situation facing other overseas territories in relation to their marine resources, including from the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon. I refer to my comments about the Chagos islands and the importance of the environmental and marine sustainability in the debate we had in this place a few months ago.

Of course, the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands marine protected area is one of the world’s largest MPAs. The full protection now covers 283,000 km and is supported by the Government there, with the aim of conserving the rich marine biodiversity while allowing sustainable fisheries. Indeed, as we have heard, the MPA harbours a quarter of the world’s penguins and breeding colonies of several species of albatross, along with Antarctic fur seals and southern elephant seals.

The UK overseas territories’ marine environments are of global significance, from Antarctica to the Caribbean, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic. They contain 94% of the unique species that the UK is responsible for and have marine areas that extend over 2% of the world’s ocean surface. Although they are negligible contributors to climate change and global warming, their unique environments are particularly vulnerable to the effects of not only rising sea levels, but climate change, rising temperatures in waters and the loss of biodiversity that comes with that. They must also be integral to the solutions we find going forward.

However, we also see the clear focus on the region by many global powers; China and Russia have been mentioned. I saw evidence of that in the presence of Chinese fishing vessels off the economic exclusion zones of the Falkland Islands—I am talking about the jiggers that pull up squid from the ocean. There were 300 Chinese vessels stationed there, operating on an industrial scale with little data sharing or other co-operation because of the wider disputes in the region, despite the very important efforts made by fisheries scientists, many of whom are based in the Falklands, and of course the excellent work of organisations such as the British Antarctic Survey.

Just to clarify, the fishing vessels that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are outside the marine protected area, within which they cannot fish.

Yes, absolutely, but the point that I am making is that the ambitions of, and indeed, the attempts by global powers to operate in these environments are increasing. We have seen that with the Chinese application for—

Order. The Clerk is telling me that the shadow Minister should be reaching a conclusion, in order to allow the actual Minister to speak and the response at the end by the Member who secured the debate.

I will be very quick. However, I note that the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), took about seven and a half minutes and I should have an equivalent length of time, if that is okay. I will be as quick as I can, because I do want the Minister to answer.

I come on to my questions for the Minister. Concerns have obviously been expressed about sustainability by Great Blue Ocean and many other organisations. Can she explain to what extent the UK’s interests and the aims and operations of CCAMLR align, and will she say how we will work to protect the region and make sure that, crucially, we make data-based decisions about the measures that are brought in?

Can the Minister explain what our ambitions in terms of climate change are and what the evidence is about how the changes in the marine environment, in particular, are affecting fishing stocks and krill stocks? There has been a mean temperature increase in South Georgia of between 0.9% and 2.3% between January and August, and 97% of glaciers have retreated. Those are really serious issues.

Can the Minister explain how we are consulting environmental and scientific experts in the region? In particular, given the nature of the governance of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, can she explain how that operates and say whether we have any plans to ensure that there is full accountability? There are obviously a lot of concerns in the Falkland Islands about how decisions are taken, a little distance away across the oceans.

The blue belt programme and all the global initiatives are absolutely critical. They enjoy our full support, but we need to make sure that we are ready and aware of the challenges to come—geopolitical, environmental and otherwise—so that we make the very best decisions to protect our crucial oceanic biodiversity and resources.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) on securing this debate and I appreciate the work that he and the many environment networks are doing to help to protect some of the world’s most precious places. On the point made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), I believe that we are all connected to our great oceans and nature protection these days; my children certainly keep me very connected. Whether or not our constituencies are bounded by the sea, as mine and the hon. Member’s are, that view is strongly held by everyone.

I am conscious both of time and that I am not the Minister formally overseeing the polar regions—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) is away. I will therefore ensure that officials write to answer some of the more detailed questions.

This debate provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase the partnership between the FCDO and the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. As we have heard, that overseas territory is renowned for its near-pristine environment. It is a true haven for wildlife, with globally important populations of seals and penguins. Those waters host a vast array of marine life, including, as colleagues have set out eloquently, migrating whales and the incredibly important Antarctic krill.

Conservation of that environment is at the heart of our collaboration with the Government of the territory, which was designated as an MPA in 2012 to conserve its rich biodiversity and to establish a framework for management and research. Those provisions were strengthened in 2019, following an independent five-year review.

The zone covers more than 1 million sq km and provides for highly regulated fishing in a way that protects the unique marine ecosystem. The UK’s flagship blue belt programme supports both its management and enforcement there. The destructive practice of bottom trawling is prohibited throughout, and long-line fishing is limited to depths of between 700 metres and 2,250 metres and is restricted to just 6% of the whole protected area. Toothfish and krill fishing is permitted only in four winter months to reduce the impact on seabirds, penguins, seals and whales, and nearly a quarter of the territory’s most vulnerable marine areas are completely closed to fishing.

It is entirely legitimate to ask why fishing should be allowed at all in such a remote and pristine environment. However, introducing strict regulation ended the illegal practices that had decimated stocks and driven species such as the marbled rockcod to near-extinction. The sale of licences not only underpins British sovereignty and control of those waters, but—as colleagues set out—provides funding for the territory’s Government to operate a patrol vessel. Importantly, the fishing vessels also provide valuable scientific data, along with watchful eyes to report any illegal activity, should there be any.

The most complex reason to maintain well-regulated fishing lies in the UK’s membership of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which I will refer to as “the commission” for short. Since 1982, that has provided for fishing in the Southern ocean, where consistent with conservation. It has tackled unregulated operations and heralded a new era of international co-operation on marine science and research.

Despite Argentina’s counterclaim to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, it also signed up as a member, on the basis of the commission’s framework for international co-operation. Careful negotiations struck a fine line for the UK and Argentina in providing an international role for the commission to determine the levels of catch to be taken across the Southern ocean. In respect of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the UK determines who receives licences to enter and fish in the territory’s waters.

Meanwhile, the UK’s regulation of toothfish across SGSSI underpins our sovereign rights and prevents others from seeking to fish our waters. Relinquishing control of the fishery would leave the territory’s waters at risk of incursion by others. Sadly, that is topical, because Russia has blocked consensus in the commission on the catch limit for South Georgia’s toothfish for the past two years. That limit is scientifically derived, and there is no basis to Russia’s assertions. To protect our sovereign rights, the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands have continued to operate the fishery. We will carry on working with our allies and partners to address Russia’s destructive intransigence.

On krill, identified and spoken of by colleagues, the fishery spans the sea from Antarctica to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and the consistent scientific advice of the commission is that vessels targeting krill should be widely spread out. That agreement has been rolled over for the past three years pending a new agreement that some hope will provide for a greater catch limit. Scientific research to support a redistribution over the full area of the fishery is ongoing. In the meantime, the territorial Government control the distribution of vessels licensed to fish for krill around South Georgia. No licences have been granted to fish around the South Sandwich Islands for more than three decades.

I am conscious of the time. On a couple of issues raised by colleagues, the second five-year review of the MPA, including a symposium in June and an internal evaluation, is ongoing. Experts and stakeholders have been invited to a workshop in December to consider whether the MPA is meeting its objectives and whether further measures are required. Great British Oceans has submitted its proposals for further no-take zones to be declared. It will participate in the workshop, and its expertise and input will be most welcome.

To conclude, the UK is proud of our blue belt programme, which protects more than 4 million square miles of ocean, and I look forward to continuing this discussion with colleagues.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for her comprehensive answer, and to all spokespeople from all parties. I will make a few points before we end.

With regard to the argument about not extending the no-fish zone, the precautionary principle is important, bearing in mind climate change. With China seeking to have another half-a-million allocation of krill to be fished in the Antarctic region, we need to acknowledge the pressure. The precautionary principle is therefore right. Any idea that by doing that we transfer an allocation or the pressure to other areas is not right, because they are not transferable.

Finally, the last time Argentina commented on this issue was in 2018, when it wrote a letter to the Foreign Office after we extended the no-fish area. I therefore suggest that those concerns are unfounded and that the Government should act. I am very grateful—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).