Tuesday 6 September 2016
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Local Government Reform
I beg to move,
That this House has considered local government reform.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. This morning I hope to start a meaningful conversation about the future of local government and its reform. Over the past year, I have prepared a report into a bunch of radical ideas about where to take local government. Some people will agree with some aspects of my report, and others will totally disagree with other aspects, but I hope that from that process a certain consensus can be formed, and that the Minister will get some idea of direction from the debate. For the record, I state my thanks to Mr Joshua Harvey, who has done a lot of research for me while putting the report together. That has led us to where we are today.
I will give a brief history of local government, which I am sure many people understand, but I want to make a couple of points in context. The 1832 Reform Act gave the franchise to a lot of people, but it was 1835 that saw the first decentralisation of government with the creation of municipal corporations. Only in 1888 was there the creation of 66 county councils, which for the first time had increased powers—over financial and political administration, roads, bridges and council buildings. County boroughs were then created, so that areas with more than 50,000 people could self-administrate, and that was the first multi-tier approach to local government. What struck me was that at the time the telephone was in its infancy and there was certainly no computer power, so how things were administered relied on that—a 19th-century approach to slimming down authorities in order to cope with the municipal areas.
In 1894, the massive introduction of parish and district councils gave that direct link between the parishes and the county councils, because they covered both urban and rural areas. Mainly, they replaced the sanitary districts. So the two tiers really started to come in about 1894, although another result was the shrinking of several other bodies, which had grown up piecemeal in local communities.
The Local Government Act 1933 was an attempt to consolidate the mass of legislation from the 1800s through into the 1900s into a single Act. As we moved on, however, a lot of the consolidated powers started to be spread out again—perhaps to corporations or central Government, with social housing, education policy, the welfare state and the NHS.
The Local Government Act 1963 enacted a major restructuring in London—London City Council powers going to the Greater London Council and the boroughs. I will not dwell too much on that, because in my paper—as I intend in the debate today—I talk not about London, but about the rest of England. The situation in London is very different and is not something I want to bring in at this stage.
The Redcliffe-Maud report of 1969 recommended the introduction of unitary authorities—this is where things start to get interesting. In the 1970 manifesto the Conservative party stated that it would adopt the Redcliffe-Maud report but in the end, basically, it did not. The Conservative Government did not feel that unitary authorities would work because they might reduce the connection between communities and local government —I will argue that that is not working today and will propose a way in which a better link between communities and local government may be formed; instead, the Conservative Government brought in six metropolitan councils and 41 non-metropolitan councils, with 333 districts.
In 1985, the metropolitan counties were abolished, most becoming unitary authorities, because the existing system was deemed wasteful and to have an unnecessary tier, and that is something that keeps coming back in consideration of local government reform—that some tiers replicate work by other tiers. The 1992 Conservative manifesto wanted to implement single tiers for all non-metropolitan councils.
The Banham commission recommended the creation of 99 unitary authorities, but only 46 were created, given the need to get the legislation through the House. Again, as with all Governments that have attempted to reform local government, the ambition of the Government came up against a barrier, so they only achieved some of it. Likewise, in 2006 the Government advocated unitary authorities throughout local government, arguing that two tiers did not accurately reflect communities’ lines and that unitary authorities would improve accountability and leadership, but by 2009 only 10 had been created. Moreover, in 2010, under the coalition Government, some of those were reversed.
In 2011, obviously, significant powers were passed down to local authorities, and I argue that those should be increased. Police and crime commissioners have also been created, and now there are Mayors on top.
In the process of preparing my report, I looked at other systems around the world. Interestingly, where there are other tiers of local government in Europe and elsewhere, often they do not sit under each other, but next to each other.
Sweden has unitary authorities with four-year terms. Germany is interesting, with the Federal Government and regional government, which then splits down into counties and municipalities—they are divided and split down to reduce the power that any one area can hold. In some areas, however, a six-year term is served, which is an interesting approach. Belgium is really interesting because it has federal, regional and community governments, all of which sit at the same level; all have independent powers that do not cross over, and have well defined areas of responsibility. They sit for six-year terms. The USA has federal and state government, and then the counties—a lot of that is due to size.
The proposal in my paper involves first looking at whether we have proper accountability between councils and their people—are councillors accountable as representatives, and do the public have the ability to make a definite change? In that process, I looked at my unitary authority in Leeds, which has three councillors per ward and the council elected in thirds. It is therefore hard for the public in any one election to say, “We want to change the council.” In fact, it is notable that the last time there was a huge change was during an all-out election in 2004. Gradual chipping away was then followed by the high-turnout elections in 2010, held at the same time as the general election, and the council changed colour again. Can the public get any change when they are only electing a third of the council? Consider which wards are safe, which are likely to change and which parties might split across, and the public probably cannot change the council.
Probably the most controversial area in my report is the proposed abolition of the two-tier system of district and borough councils. We should keep the town and parish councils because they are in the heart of the community and have the absolute, direct link to villages and towns. They can play an important role in discussing with county councils future planning policy, parks and countryside. With that I would still include the provision and maintenance of facilities, including arts and crafts, allotments, car and bicycle parking, cemeteries and crematoria, parks, village greens, playing fields, public rights of way, public toilets, signage, village halls, war memorials and so on.
An enhancement of contribution would be a better description than more powers. My constituency includes several parish councils and a town council—I would encourage two of my towns, Rothwell and Garforth, that they need a town council. Where the contribution is not taking place is between Leeds City Council and the areas that do not have a town or parish council, on the future direction of planning policy. It is not a question of passing more powers down, but of enhancing the ability of areas to take part in sensible negotiations and conversations, and reflecting that in council policies.
My hon. Friend is providing an interesting overview of local government. I served as a councillor for 12 years. On the point about parish and town councils, the direction of travel through reorganisation and changes of financing arrangements is clearly to give more responsibilities—to passport them down—to lower, possibly more accountable tiers. Does he agree that whereas district, county and borough councils now know that there is a capping regime, the occasional uncertainty from the Department about the precept and capping makes long-term financial planning not as easy as it could be for town and parish councils?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about some of what I see as the disconnect in long-term planning among different levels of council, from those at the top—the county or unitary authorities—down to the parish councils. One of the ways in which I hope to simplify local government is to give clear delineation and planning for a fixed period.
The key change that I am talking about is effectively to have unitary county councils, with one member per ward of 15,000 people. I have chosen that figure, but I am not wedded to it; it is simply the case that in my city of Leeds, we have three councillors representing wards of 15,000 to 18,000 people. One councillor representing those wards would have more of a direct link to those people, rather than the link’s being diluted among three councillors. That is by no means to disparage any councillor. My experience has been that the local councillors in my constituency all work hard and make a contribution to the community, but I have reached the conclusion that it is time for councillors’ hard work and the fact that new powers have been passed down to them to be recognised by paying them a much larger salary. That would allow people to take up the role of councillor and give it their full attention on a full-time basis. I proposed in my paper that that salary should be £37,481, which is half of a Back-Bench MP’s salary.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks and his report, which, as he said, stimulate discussion and debate about the future. I have one issue about councillors. The Communities and Local Government Committee held an inquiry in the last Parliament in which we looked at the role of councillors. We recognised that many still work, and they lose out financially when they become a councillor. That is perhaps okay until they get a family, but then it all becomes too difficult. My concern about his proposal is not that it is intended to elevate councillors’ income to some degree, but that it will almost exclude people who have careers and want to continue with council work.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, and I have tried to tackle that issue in what I have put forward. One of the reasons why I thought that it was time to move to paying councillors a considerable salary was that a lot of people are currently excluded from council work because they have a career in another area and find it hard to be a councillor alongside that. That issue is certainly evident in the make-up of some councils. I fully accept that the conundrum here is how we set a professional salary and allow people to come in from the outside world to contribute to council work, while allowing people to do that who may not necessarily be able to get the time off work. Whatever the law may state, there comes a point when people make that consideration for themselves.
It is great that we are exploring these issues. With greater devolution comes greater responsibility. We need to attract captains of industry, who are talented yet short of time. Rather than offering them £37,000 a year, we could perhaps have shorter meetings and ensure that meetings are in the evenings, so that they do not clash with daytime work.
That is a sensible suggestion, and we need to assess it in considering how best to make local councils work. I am in no way suggesting that people would be councillors and that is it. MPs do not do that. Many MPs have business interests outside the House, and that is to be encouraged, because it brings in a diverse range of people: those earning six or seven-figure salaries; those with experience in all walks of life; perhaps those who have come up through the trade union route or just from a blue-collar background; white-collar workers; business owners, and so on. That brings diversity to Parliament, and that shows through in many debates. There is a conundrum, and this area can be debated more, but the solution that I have looked at is attacking that in one way by paying a rather large salary.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the word diversity, yet he is trying to impose a new blueprint. Does he not think that one of the great strengths of local government in England is diversity? There is strength through diversity. Why does he not believe in allowing each council to decide the best structure for itself—whether it wants to meet in the evenings, what it wants to pay its councillors, and so on?
My hon. Friend makes a point about how we can run local government, and he is right that councils have been able to make many of those decisions for themselves, but our Government have forced many extras on local councils as part of the devolution deals and so on. There has been multifarious tinkering, with people saying, “This is what must be done,” and I rather worry that the system is becoming over-complicated. That creates an issue: where does the responsibility actually lie? The aim of my proposal is to clean up the system, allow people to have real power and make real decisions, and at the same time allow the public to know exactly who is responsible for issues and make more casting verdicts.
When I did my research, I looked at some of the ways in which responsibilities operate throughout Europe, but my proposal fits the state governor and state senate model of the United States. Above the council—with one elected member per ward, a cabinet system, and a leader from the largest party—there would be a county Mayor, whose day-to-day job would be to deal specifically with all transport issues, from the running of buses and rail stations, and anything that might fit under Metro in West Yorkshire, to major infrastructure projects. As prescribed, the county Mayors would regularly meet the Secretary of State, and one of their roles would be to work on linking up national infrastructure projects among counties to ensure that we really moved forward with those projects.
I would have multiples of salaries for different roles. There is one thing that I looked at but then thought, “I’m not sure this can work.” I was looking at checks and balances. I thought, “Should the opposition parties chair the scrutiny committees?” I thought, “That’s not a bad idea—but hang on a minute: there are plenty of councils around the country where there simply aren’t enough opposition councillors to chair enough of the scrutiny committees.” As I thought through some of these things, I came to the conclusion, “That might sound okay, but it’s not going to work.” That is one area that needs to be looked at.
In his consideration of there not being enough opposition parties in councils in many parts of the country, has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to introducing an electoral system such as single transferable vote, which would bring in a diversity of candidates and parties?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I did look at that, and I concluded that I am trying to achieve direct accountability between elected officials and the public, and the public must have a clear and simple view when deciding whether to change things.
I have two examples. The first is the Mayor of London. Let us be honest: when the Mayor of London was established, it was generally thought that it would be almost impossible for there to be anything other than a Labour Mayor. However, for various reasons—I do not want to go into that debate now—the mayoralty changed colour, and it has changed colour again. The second example is the 1997 general election, when there was a clear mood among the public that they wanted to change the Government. They knew what they had to do, and they went to the ballot box and voted in their millions in specific constituencies to kick out 18 years of Tory Government. The Tory party went from a majority Government to 165 seats, losing seats that it never thought possible to lose. The public knew, “It’s first past the post, so we can go in there and change things.”
That is why I have always shied away from changing first past the post, because it gives ultimate power to the public, who can say, “I haven’t got to think about alternative votes; I haven’t got to think tactically. I’m just going to go in and vote for Tony Blair and that’s it. I’m not interested in any other party.” That is what happened in 1997, when we had that massive, seismic change in British politics, and what happened from that period still reverberates today. I appreciate the long-held policy of the hon. Lady’s party and where she is coming from. I hope she recognises that I am trying not just to pass down bigger powers and make one person responsible, but to say to the public, “It will be really easy for you to change who is governing you at a local level if you want that.”
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Part of my proposal is for a five-year term, and I would have that as a mid-term between general elections. That is for two reasons. First: all out. In the space of five years, the public would go to the ballot box twice—for a general election and for all local elections—and they would be able to change a council wholesale if they wanted. One of the weaknesses in my council is that we elect by thirds. Mathematically we really cannot make a real change when electing by thirds, yet when we have had all-out elections councils have changed colours. I therefore entirely agree with his point, which is a key plank.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful speech. The basis of representation is taxation, and what has bedevilled local government since it was set up is the nature of the rates changing to poll tax and then council tax and the relationship of that with business rates. One of the reasons for electing by thirds is that when the rates, poll tax or council tax are put up, people have an immediate ability to make a judgment on that taxation. I would be interested in the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts on the future of taxation in local democracy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Perhaps controversially—this is a policy put forward in the past not by my party but by the Liberal Democrats—as much as possible I would move money-raising powers down to the local authorities. Certainly we are seeing the passing down of business rates and although I do not know the exact proportions, so I would not like to put on the record what the change is, more and more of the local government settlement is coming from within local government rather than from central Government grant.
That opens up a much wider debate than time will allow—I know several people want to speak—but the point of the drive I am making is that significant powers would be passed down to councillors with the increased salary and accountability. For example, I would give the chair of the clinical commissioning group—one CCG for the county—a cabinet position in the local authority. I was commenting earlier that Nicola Sturgeon was a very well known MSP across the UK before she was leader because she was in charge of healthcare. She made a real name for herself there. People knew exactly who was responsible for what happened, and that could work in local councils. A lot of healthcare could be passed down to the local authority, and it could have people there.
I thought about putting police and crime commissioners in the cabinet, but I did not do so. As I have said on the record several times, I favour merging West and South Yorkshire police—the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) totally disagrees with me on that—so I would keep PCCs separate from the county councils because otherwise we would remove that option. That is one area that I would not bring into the county council set-up.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way once again and I apologise to him and to you, Mr Howarth, because I probably cannot stay to the end of the debate as I have an appointment at 11 o’clock. I very much agree with his comments about moving tax-raising powers down and about bringing health and social care together. However, he proposes that a model be forced on authorities. Combined authorities work because counties come together to pool their powers. The met councils come not work because they were an imposition from the top, which districts really resented, and that created a lot of conflict. I wonder whether he has thought through that concern.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is a controversial proposal and I am effectively saying, “I’m going to tear up everything that exists and the Government will enforce a new pattern, which I believe is better.” That is a totally controversial policy and many people may disagree with it. However, to promote working together I propose a new model under which, instead of just having the leader of the council, there would be a county Mayor—a separate, elected person who would work together strategically with the other authorities and feed that in as a joint partnership.
I do not shy away from the fact that I am putting forward some really radical ideas and radical reform, and that there will be people who strongly disagree with them. I welcome that, because I genuinely want to start a conversation about how to move forward. I do not expect that a great many of my ideas will ever be adopted, but I think there are aspects that a lot of people can agree on, and local authorities around the country, who I am sure are listening today, may look at those aspects and think, “Actually, I don’t agree with imposition from Government on these issues, but perhaps there is an argument for having just one all-out election.”
To take the City of Leeds, it costs £1 million to run an election. If we had one all-out election, we would save £2 million—half a million pounds a year—which in tight local government budgets is a considerable sum of money.
I want to crack on, so if people will forgive me I will not take any more interventions. The Mayor would not just deal with transport issues but have the ability to declare a state of emergency. To take the example of West Yorkshire and the tragic flooding we had last boxing day, that flooding occurred across five authorities, all of which command areas of the services differently. The Mayor would be able to take control of a command post for emergency services and fundamentally, having declared a state of emergency, that could be funded through central Government. That is an important aspect to ensure that the best job can be done.
I have a couple of points to raise on costs. Funnily enough, moving to single members for each ward representing 15,000 people and paying them almost £38,000 in salary would save £30 million a year. That is a basic calculation on back-bench salaries and we would need to look at allowances paid on top, but that does show that it is possible to reward councillors more and more. I would like to give a lot more powers to local councils. I would like to give them direct accountability from an all-out election, with one member per ward, and direct, named responsibilities on areas that really affect people’s lives. I honestly think that would improve turnout at local elections.
The time has come, effectively at the start of the 21st century, to look at how we take what happened in the 19th and 20th centuries to make a system that can last for the next 100 to 150 years and give real accountability and a direct approach to the electors. I will be very interested to hear people’s contributions. Fundamentally, this is a debate for the Minister. I would like him to hear what I have said and what other people say, and see if there are aspects that can be taken forward.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on setting the scene. I have spoken to the Minister, and I want to give a perspective that may be helpful in the debate—because we have made some changes in local government in Northern Ireland—and add some thoughts on the way forward. The issue is close to my heart, because I was a councillor for some 26 years, on Ards Borough Council. I resigned that position when I became the Member of Parliament for Strangford. That was one of my election commitments. I also stepped down from the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the few years since I left there have been massive changes in local government in Northern Ireland, and I believe that there are lessons of merit there for the reform proposed for England and Wales, which the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell has set out today. On 22 November 2005 Peter Hain, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced proposals to reduce the number of councils in Northern Ireland from 26 to seven. As I discussed with the Minister before the debate, change is by its very nature unpalatable to some, but carried out correctly it can be constructive in finding a better way forward. That was what we found when we made the changes in Northern Ireland.
The super-councils, as they were named, were to have a number of new powers in such areas as planning, local roads, regeneration—the preparation of my council area’s regeneration plans has concluded, and they are awaiting endorsement and a way forward—and the fostering of community relations. Those things are to be transferred from the existing joint boards and other bodies, which are much closer in size to the proposed local authorities. The changes were made with a purpose. A lot of thinking and ideas went into them. Legislation was to be introduced to prevent serving councillors from also being Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I stepped down, as indeed did my parliamentary colleagues. I found it very hard to say farewell to my job as a councillor, which I enjoyed, and to the Assembly. Of all the jobs I have ever done, I enjoyed that of councillor, because the council dealt with bread-and-butter issues, which kept us in touch with our local people.
The Local Government (Boundaries) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 was made on 9 May 2006 and provided for the appointment of a local government boundaries commissioner to recommend the boundaries and names of the seven districts, and to divide the districts into wards. An eight-week public consultation on the proposals, during which members of the public could make written submissions, ended on 5 January 2007. Public hearings conducted by assistant commissioners were held in January and February 2007.
To be fair, the old councils really just lifted the rubbish and buried the dead. The changes that came in gave the new councils extra powers, and with that came the necessity for knowledge and time to make things happen. The hearings were essential to ensure that the end result would be workable. It was found that the reduction from 26 councils to seven would mean a loss of local feelings of identity and co-operation; it was therefore announced that there would be 11 councils. That was the balance of the agreement. I love the Ards council area, and those who represented North Down love that area. Sometimes debates on small things such as names are important for us all. The end result was the name Ards and North Down Borough Council. After much deliberation by the councillors, we found a way. It was almost a shotgun wedding; maybe there was not a lot of love at the beginning, but certainly that relationship came together. Even now, two years into the process, the local councils are starting to gel and work together. It is about time and change and state of mind. That is the first lesson that needs to be learned in local government reform from the review of public administration. It is essential that there is consultation, as the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell mentioned. I urge the Minister to ensure that there will not simply be a check-box exercise, but consultation is seen as an integral part of the process.
The legal framework for the creation of the 11 new councils was put in place by the Local Government (Boundaries) Act (Northern Ireland) 2008, passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. In England and Wales there are nearly 500 fewer councillors than there were in 2010, according to Local Government Chronicle analysis of data shared exclusively by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. The 111 boundary reviews completed in the past six years have resulted in the number of members being cut at 69 councils, and a net fall of 491 councillors. There will be more to come if the changes happen at the same level as in Northern Ireland, where what the media called a golden handshake was offered to long-serving councillors with more than 12 years’ service. Those were up to an amount of £35,000, amounting to £1.8 million.
There may also be something to be learned there. It is good to have fresh blood in a council, but experience should not be overlooked and forgotten. Having spoken with experienced or older councillors in the new council, I think it is clear that experience is often what is needed. I urge the Minister not to throw out the grey-haired babies with the bathwater. Their experience is crucial and critical alongside the new developments and the new way forward, and we sometimes need those with experience to continue to be involved. There must always be an adequate number of councillors for each aspect of council work, and there must be accountability to the public. My fear is that in allowing a reduction in some areas, we may find ourselves with a healthier short-term bank balance and a not-so-healthy council chamber. I know that the Minister and the shadow Minister will talk about that.
I could continue to draw comparisons between the Northern Ireland perspective and the plans for England and Wales, but time does not allow me to do so at any length, so I have made just a few comments. However, I want to underline the fact that a council is not a business; it is a service provider. The hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell and other hon. Members are right to say that there must be a wage that encourages people to be councillors. In Northern Ireland the wage for a councillor is a minimum wage, which is more than there was before, but along with that comes a mileage allowance for going to meetings. Meetings are held with the agreement of councillors, whether during the day or at night. Most are probably at night, because most of the councillors on the Ards and North Down Borough Council have other jobs to keep, and they have to fit meetings into their employment. That issue cannot be ignored.
A council is legally obliged to provide a service for the constituents it serves. Financial responsibility is one of the greatest issues that a council faces—how do we keep costs down while preserving the quality of service? Any reform must be based on that question, and any successful reform will involve consultation and adaptability to change. A councillor’s responsibilities may go far beyond their remuneration, which is something that should be dealt with. As a former long-serving councillor I am often bemused by the way our new council runs things, and I wonder why changes have to happen in the way they do. However, as a ratepayer living in the Ards and North Down Borough Council area, my interest is to ensure that my rate bill, and that of my constituents, is acceptable, and that the quality of the service is of an appropriate standard. That is all that people throughout England and Wales want as well. I urge the Minister to take the time to hear about and take on board the changes that we have made in Northern Ireland and the sensible proposals made here and in other forums. The changes involved much deliberation, thought and discussion, and I think they can help in the debate that the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell has initiated. They can help us ensure that the people get what they want and, more importantly, what they need from their local government body.
I apologise, Mr Howarth, to you, the Minister and the shadow Minister, that I must leave at a quarter to 11, because I have a meeting of the Select Committee on Defence.
Order. Three more Members have indicated a wish to speak, and I propose to call the Front-Bench speakers at 10.30 am. I do not propose to impose a time limit on speeches, but I ask hon. Members to be mindful of the fact that if all three of them are to get in they will need to be relatively brief.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I apologise for not having turned my mobile phone to silent earlier in the debate. It was actually the leader of the council on the phone, who was no doubt going to tell me. “Don’t say that, under any circumstances.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on initiating the debate. I was going to say that it is timely, but it is one of those subjects that we debate about every six months, coming to similar conclusions and perhaps not advancing as much as we would like. We ought to congratulate the Minister, and both the present Government and the coalition that preceded them, on advancing the localism and decentralisation that those of us who have served on councils have encouraged. In my 26 years as a councillor, whatever Government were in power, there was more and more centralisation, and we railed against it to no effect. We have now got a reversal of that, and we should congratulate the Secretary of State and his predecessor for the work they have done on that.
If the Government believe, as they clearly do, in the process of devolution—and to some extent in elected mayors, though they do wobble on that occasionally—they have to grasp the nettle and move forward. I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell said when he spoke about having a county mayor. The problem, of course, is that counties such as Yorkshire and my own county of Lincolnshire are somewhat large. Lincolnshire is 75 miles from north to south, and the connection between, say, Gainsborough in the north and Spalding in the south is somewhat tenuous, both in their local economy and in the fact that, in all honesty, people in Gainsborough rarely, if ever, go to Spalding, and vice versa, nice though those towns are.
My preference is for unitary authorities across the board. Personally, I would have them headed by elected mayors. We should not be frightened of the elected mayor process, as other Members have said. It is a form of direct election in which, as with the referendum and so on, the voters give a clear answer; it is black and white. I think that is to be encouraged. I know people will draw comparisons with the police commissioners and say that we should look at the terrible turnouts, and that nobody really knows who the commissioners are and so on, but it is early days yet. I genuinely think that the police commissioners have a role to play, though I would not be opposed to transferring their powers to an elected mayor.
There are problems with that, of course. My own county of Lincolnshire is actually served by two police forces. Unfortunately, those of us in the north of the county still have the relics of the County Humberside scheme—we have Humberside fire and Humberside police and so on, but that could be corrected relatively easily. I think we should move forward on that. We are moving forward in the sense that we have the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal, which the local authorities have signed up to, although there are reservations about the role of an elected mayor. As I said, I am personally very much in favour of an elected mayor, and I hope the Government do not wobble on that. One or two of the authorities are wobbling, mainly because the consultation came out with more or less a 50:50 decision.
The reality, of course, is that such consultations are pretty meaningless. How many real voters actually took part in the consultations? Yes, there was the chamber of commerce and the institute of this, that and the other, but the reality is that they do not engage the average voter. Why should they? The man and woman in the street want the bins emptying, the streetlights going on and the potholes filling. They want an efficient local authority. The structure of the authorities is completely irrelevant to them, though of course they want to be able to influence the outcome, particularly in relation to the setting of council tax.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made a point about having more regular elections. Personally, I have always been in favour of election by thirds. I recognise that does mean that there cannot be a clean sweep and people cannot make a sudden change, but in the past one of my arguments has always been that having elections every year is actually good for local political parties. Across the political spectrum, we struggle to maintain interest in local elections and local parties. The local parties are a vital part of the structure of our democracy, and I do not think we should lose sight of that.
Is that not a party political argument rather than a local government argument? Is the problem of electing on thirds not that, a couple of months after an election, people are immediately looking to the next election, and long-term strategic decisions that may be controversial at the start but have a long-term effect do not get taken?
That is certainly true, but the opposite of that is that local authorities are constantly looking over their shoulders at the electorate—and so they should. That is the whole point of accountability. The one thing that perhaps weakens the argument about the importance of keeping local parties involved is that we now have more elections, because we have police commissioners, and under my system we would also have elected mayors, so there is a constant move toward elections. Personally, I think we should give local authorities the option of having elections not by thirds but by halves every year or two years. That might be a sensible way forward.
Mindful of your comments of wanting to get other speakers in, Mr Howarth, I will not dwell on the matter too much further. I like the idea that my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell put forward of having the chairman or chief executive of a clinical commissioning group as some part of the structure. I also draw attention to the role of local enterprise partnerships. Yes, they have grown and are playing an important part, but they suffer from a lack of accountability. If we had cross-border unitary authorities, it would be useful to transfer some if not all powers from the LEP to the unitary authority.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on securing the debate and on his paper.
I believe we need reform, and I welcome this debate, but there are a couple of proposals with which I disagree. First, I do not believe that the role of councillor should be a full-time position with a full-time wage. On the Isle of Wight there is an all-purpose council. There are currently 40 seats, and the council is led by an independent group with a small majority. The basic allowance for a councillor on the Isle of Wight is £7,700 a year. Last year, the average received by 39 councillors—not the leader—was £10,800. Under my hon. Friend’s proposal a council leader would earn £74,000 and the basic salary would be £37,000. I fear that would create a purely economic incentive to stand for the council, and in my view we should not lose the long tradition of the incentive to become a councillor being someone’s dedication to the community they serve.
Secondly, I disagree that one councillor should represent 15,000 residents. That reform would bring down the number of councillors on the island from 40 to seven. One person would represent the entire western area of the island and a ward in the south. For those unfamiliar with our geography, that is a physically large area for one councillor to cover. Having one councillor who represents 15,000 people might be appropriate for an urban situation, but I do not believe it would work well in rural areas. The benefit of having smaller wards is that constituents feel closer to their representative. Many know him or her personally, so their councillor is better positioned to represent them. That is especially important for under-represented groups. An example of that is a ward that is generally one of two represented by the Labour party. I believe that reducing the number of councillors and paying higher wages would disconnect councillors from constituents, and I fear that the effect of my hon. Friend’s proposal would be to turn well-known, devoted, grassroots politicians into more remote and distant figures.
Thirdly, in difficult economic times some proposals that would never be considered in other circumstances might seem tempting, but when looking at reform we must look beyond the short term and find sensible plans that will work long into the future. We are, in fact, already facing local government reforms through the devolution agenda. The Isle of Wight Council—a small local authority with unique challenges—is in a very difficult financial position. Unsurprisingly, a proposal for a mayoral combined authority, with promises of more funding, has tempted the ruling group on the Isle of Wight, but the council leader has told me that he feels we are being pushed into the Solent deal by the Government.
The Isle of Wight now faces the possibility of being combined with Southampton and Portsmouth in a Solent authority. The line being peddled is that the Solent authority would join the councils together, when in fact it would separate them. The situation and needs of the two cities and the island are disparate. The suggestion is that spending plans for the new authority would require unanimity, but what would happen if they could not reach unanimity? I fear that the views of the island council would be overruled and the island would lose out.
Well, so they say, but the council has been advised that if unanimity fails, two out of three will do. That is what I am told on the Isle of Wight.
I would welcome clarification from the Minister on stories that have been circulated over the summer about the change in Government thinking on directly elected mayors, which may make other, more suitable options possible. I also ask for a commitment to sit down with the Isle of Wight Council to look at how the underlying problems might be resolved until a fairer funding formula is in place, together with an assurance that it will not be pushed hell for leather into a structure that will not suit the long-term interests of the Isle of Wight.
Many cities that decided they did not want a Mayor in 2012 now face one being imposed. There is no single clearcut answer to what form local government should take, but I am sure of one thing: we should not rationalise by making local government bigger, but we should deliver what the people want.
May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on securing this important debate? I applaud him for the serious work he has done on this issue.
In my brief remarks, I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate my call for Warwickshire County Council to become a unitary authority. I know that the Minister is quite familiar with Warwickshire. I have taken the opportunity to write to all the county councillors, district councillors and town and parish councillors who are elected representatives in my constituency. I have not stepped over to other constituencies, but I wanted to test the view of local representatives in Warwick and Leamington. To my great delight, the response I received was very favourable indeed, which I think is based on two factors.
The first is the financial factor. Early estimates are that something in the region of £17 million a year could be saved if there was a unitary authority. By unitary, I mean not abolishing the districts, the boroughs or the county, but merging the two tiers, because £17 million is money that we well need. At the moment we have something in the region of 240 councillors across Warwickshire. That could be reduced to 100. We have a number of chief executives across the county and a number of assets for both our districts and our county. Those could be reduced, and the money could be either saved or used elsewhere.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) spoke very well about the practical considerations, such as the efficiencies, the doubling up of work, the number of CCGs we have, the different procurement officers and the different commissioning officers. My view is that when my highly educated and engaged population think of their local representation, they think they have one council already. That should continue. To have a single point of contact could be nothing but favourable to our local residents’ ears. It would make it much easier for people to relate to their local representatives when wondering who to speak to about housing or if they want double yellow lines.
My concern is when I see on the front page of my local paper, The Courier, the headline, “Grave concern over potential cuts to disabled services in county” and read underneath in the article that “difficult decisions” need to be made. I appreciate that difficult decisions need to be made, but perhaps the most straightforward decision of all would be for our counties and districts to work together to pursue the unitary agenda, not least because in Warwickshire we have local county elections coming towards us in 2017. I hope that across the different authorities, a great deal more work will be put into fleshing out the proposals. I am sure they will be looking eagerly at the paper written by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell.
I want to ask the Minister the following questions. Does he agree with the proposals to create efficiencies and savings? Does he agree that it is better to first cut the cost of politics, rather than cut what I consider to be vital services? Thirdly, and perhaps slightly bravely, will he follow my lead in Warwick and Leamington and discuss with his councillors, as a constituency MP, the value, savings and next steps forward for his local representatives in Nuneaton?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I have found the debate very interesting, and I am glad that the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) secured it. I commend him for producing this report, because it makes a useful contribution. He made an interesting presentation about the background of local government in England, which I find particularly fascinating because it is so complex. In Scotland, we have 32 unitary local authorities, which is pretty simple. It is not perfect by any manner of means, and there is a lot of diversity. We have huge city councils such as Glasgow, with a population of 600,000, and very small councils such as Clackmannanshire, with a population of around 50,000. Glasgow has 79 councillors and Clackmannanshire has 18. There is a great deal of diversity.
When considering local government, we cannot make one size fit all, because we have to be aware of the local circumstances and what local communities need. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) made that point very well when he talked about having one council ward per 15,000 residents and the impact that would have in his area. We need to be very careful as to how that works. The most stark example in Scotland is the Western Isles, which has a total population of around 25,000—the size of some council wards in Glasgow. They have looked at those circumstances and said, “Well, that would be impractical for the Western Isles and needs to be looked at more carefully.”
I do not want to misrepresent this at all. When looking at different island communities or very rural communities, we need to consider exactly how we set the limits, and there needs to be flexibility around that and the size of council wards.
As I alluded to in the intervention I made earlier, in Scotland we have the single transferable vote and multi-member wards of three or four councillors. That has opened up democracy in Scotland hugely, and it ought to considered when looking at a review. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts as to whether he wants to do that. The Electoral Reform Society has done a great deal of work on this and has said that moving to a system such as STV would start to challenge rotten boroughs, where we have one-party states in many parts of the country and very little scrutiny. As the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell mentioned, there are not enough councillors to chair scrutiny committees because there is not enough opposition, but we need that diversity of voices in local councils. That will make them truly representative of the communities they serve.
After STV was brought in in Scotland in 2007, the Electoral Reform Society did some work on that. It spoke to all the different local authorities in Scotland and said, “What has been the change here?” There was a telling quote from Glasgow City Council, which said, “It felt like we got our council back.” That was from one of the council officers. Previously, decisions would be taken by councillors behind the scenes and there was never that public debate or public scrutiny. That change has been extremely healthy for councils in Scotland.
STV does not mean that there has not been change in local authorities. We can come to an election and still see change under STV. There were changes in 2007 and 2012. We hope in Glasgow that there will be changes in the elections next year. It has been a Labour council for many years, but under STV we have chipped away at that. That has been quite good for the Scottish National party, too, because we have not taken over the council dramatically, suddenly, with very little experience, but have been able to build up experience over the past two council terms. We hope to be in a position next year to take the council in Glasgow. That has been about engaging with the public, building up trust and letting people get to know their local representatives. We have had to work very hard in Glasgow. I was a Glasgow city councillor for eight years before coming here. That has actually been quite good and quite interesting.
STV has also given local communities a choice of councillors. In a one-member ward, even if people think that their local councillor is lousy, they are stuck with that councillor; there is nothing they can do. A three or four-member ward gives people options and means that they can go to different councillors. If people have a local campaign, they can get their three or four local councillors behind it. It can be a very powerful thing in a council to allow for lobbying—it allows communities to have their voice. Three or four councillors working together, as happens in many council wards, on a cross-party basis can be very powerful and useful in those communities.
I agree with some of the things that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. He mentioned that he was a councillor for 26 years and he referred to councils lifting the rubbish and burying the dead. I think that we also need to have a debate about the diversity of services that councils now provide. Councils provide a huge range of services, which people do not always see. As long as their rubbish gets lifted on the right day, they do not really care about the rest of it. In the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, whose Chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), is present, we are currently conducting an inquiry into public parks and the impact of austerity on park services. Those services are very valued, but we do not really talk about them when we talk about local government. We need to think about the huge diversity in local government and the services that it provides.
I want to say a little about salaries and the impact that there might be in that respect. It is fair that local councillors are paid a wage. In Scotland, when we moved to STV, we moved from an allowance-based system to basic annual pay, which currently stands at £16,893. That is not a huge salary, and some people in councils in Scotland do still work. Depending on what the council looks like, it may meet in the evening; it may meet during the day. Glasgow and, I think, Edinburgh—the bigger councils—generally meet during the day. We have to think about the kind of people that we want to come into our council and the impact that the wages have on them. If someone is a parent or carer and would have difficulty in coming to meetings in the evenings, they will not stand for council. If they look at the council and see all those meetings in the evening, they will say, “I need to be at home; I have responsibilities at home to attend to,” and will not stand for council.
The phrase “captains of industry” was mentioned. At the moment, captains of industry are largely male. Councils in this country are hugely male. We need to think about exactly how we bring women in and encourage women into councils. That may have to do with wages, but it also has to do with how councils run their business and the practices that they have. That is also an important debate.
There was a lot of talk by various hon. Members about the different complexities of local government and the understanding of local government. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) mentioned the need for simplification and efficiencies. Looking at the local government structures in England, I, as a Scottish MP, would not want to impose these structures on anyone, either. There needs to be a sensible look in the round at local government in England. Which responsibilities are held where? Are they in the right place? I am not certain that bringing in things such as mayors on top of already complex structures will help that. If people want to know who is responsible for this service or that service and they do not know who to go to, that will be very disempowering for those individuals.
This morning’s debate perhaps has not concentrated enough on what people want to see from their local authorities. Things absolutely must be done in consultation with local people. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) questioned how many people would want to talk about the structure of local government—how many people would want to engage in that debate—but it is actually quite important. People need to know who their local councillor is. They need to have a person they can go to and they need to know what they do and why they do it. That is vital. Keeping a local link is also important, as the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. He talked about the importance of local identity. Some of that is getting a bit lost in local authorities in England. I hear again and again in debates in the main Chamber and here that the local authority does not really fit with what people understand to be their local area. Perhaps it would be useful to start with that issue.
There was some debate about the cost of politics generally. I will just reiterate the point that is often made in these debates: politics and democracy do not come cheap. We need to think about that, whatever the structures are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am standing in for my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who is very disappointed that he cannot be here today. I thank the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for initiating this important debate and for his thought-provoking report—I would expect nothing less than thought provocation from the hon. Gentleman.
With the recent unprecedented cuts to local authority funding, reform and the new wave of devolution, the future of local government is a matter that we now need to look at, and all hon. Members and their constituents share an interest in it. I would welcome any changes to local government that bring about a greater accountability and connection between local people and those who are elected to represent them. The decisions made on their behalf affect them every day—they affect their town, their village, their street—and quite often local people do not know how those decisions are made or who is making them. Often they will ring our offices, thinking that it was us, when in fact it was not us at all. We need to make that connection.
This has been a measured and very well informed conversation. It is interesting that we have heard contributions from many different constituencies, such as Strangford, Cleethorpes, the Isle of Wight, North Warwickshire and Glasgow. That shows that one size does not fit all and that decisions should be made locally, because across our country communities are very different.
The hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell spoke about his report, in which he made a number of recommendations. He said that many of them are radical, and they are, but a radical shake-up is needed. We needed to start this conversation, and I am very glad that we are doing so. Any report on the future of local government is welcome, but there are many questions, and I hope that the Minister will be able to share his thoughts on some of the concerns that have been raised and some of my concerns.
On council structures, the report makes a recommendation that a uniform system of unitary councils be introduced. I would be interested to know the Minister’s estimate of the sort of impact that that would have on local services. Does he agree that local government should be invited to determine local structures, rather than something being imposed from the centre? If reforms such as that were pursued, how would our cities and elected mayors fit into that model?
The proposal features a separately elected mayor who would sit above the council and have powers including approval of the budget. Would that not simply reintroduce a second tier? Does the Minister agree that vesting powers in an executive county mayor would add another layer of government, which would be expensive and sometimes prolong decision making? Should not local people be in the driving seat in terms of determining localised policy, rather than a potentially remote county mayor?
On council funding, the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell recommends powers to generate income through council tax, income tax and business levies. I hope that the Minister accepts that council services have been decimated in some areas as a consequence of cuts. We need to look at new ways of funding, but I fear that if the proposed model were pursued, it would create a greater imbalance between local authorities and there could be a postcode lottery. What effect would that model have on individual residents’ finances if they were asked to pay income tax both nationally and locally? Does the Minister agree that devolving powers without a clear way to increase finance would simply be to devolve cuts, and the blame for those cuts, to local government?
The final question I would like to ask came to mind after the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), raised the issue of salaries. One of the things that concerns me, and I would be grateful if the Minister looked at it again, is pensions for local councillors. Many local councillors give years of service. Sometimes that means they have to forgo career progression; sometimes it means they have to give their careers up altogether for a period of time.
A colleague of mine was a headmaster of a local school and he could not possibly do that while running a local council, so he had to give to give up that career and consequently about 15 years of his pension, I think. If we are going to encourage people with ability into local government, we need to understand that they are giving a lot of themselves. Where we are trying to encourage the whole nation into auto-enrolment, we should really look at what is a fair return for the years that local councillors give.
I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell for bringing forward this important debate. Any debate on the future of local government is welcome, particularly in this period of uncertainty, when the old ways of doing things do not work any more and we need to look at new ways. In the wake of the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, we have seen calls for a readjustment of our constitution, from reform of the House of Lords to reform of local government, and I am sure that this debate will be just the start of a coming conversation on local government reform. Local government faces new and varied challenges and requires new, and maybe radical, solutions. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for securing this important debate and note his report on local government reform. I certainly welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter. My hon. Friend said that he wanted to trigger a debate on how local authorities are governed, and he certainly has triggered debate in this Chamber. There have been many, varied views from hon. Members and colleagues who have considerable experience in local government, including my hon. Friend.
Local authorities play a vital part in all our lives. They deliver local services, from collecting our bins to caring for some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society. At a time of wider public sector fiscal constraint, and as demand for many of the services increases, the best of local government has shown itself to be agile and enterprising. Government too are focused on ensuring that wherever people may live, they benefit from effective and efficient services. We committed to that in our manifesto and we will continue to set the right conditions for that to happen. We have committed to giving councils greater flexibility and control over their budgets, introducing the ability to retain 100% of business rates in their areas, giving them greater certainty through offering guaranteed funding across this Parliament, rather than annual budgets, and offering the ability to use capital receipts from sales to fund innovation and reform of local authority services.
I share my hon. Friend’s desire for local government to be efficient, effective and accountable. As I know many councils believe, more can be done to improve local government and service delivery, and to provide accountable and stronger local leadership. However, I do not believe that change should be centrally mandated. The right approach is bottom-up, where the initiative is taken locally. When I come to mention my hon. Friend’s comments in more detail, I will elaborate on that.
That is the approach underpinning the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. It is the approach that we are following for devolution and bringing about governance changes, whether as part of a devolution package, in anticipation of a devolution package, or free-standing to give local people and taxpayers a better deal. Government enacted the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act to enable us to take proposals forward and to implement them where we, and Parliament, are satisfied that they will deliver the better local governance that an area is seeking. There must be a good deal of local consensus. Any new structures must be sustainable and facilitate public service delivery, including effective partnerships with other public agencies, and they must also avoid any unnecessary fragmentation of local services.
Our manifesto set out the need to
“devolve far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors.”
We have already achieved significant success with 10 devolution deals agreed, nine of which either have established or will establish mayoral combined authorities, covering 30% of England’s population. We remain open to discussing credible proposals from other areas. I will go on to clarify some of the points raised, in particular by my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers).
The deals that we are talking about are to give local leaders the power to drive growth in their areas, but I would reiterate a comment that I have made many times before: there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Devolution is not just about our largest cities; it is for the whole country—cities, towns and rural areas of all sizes. I have also said many times before that each deal will be negotiated to meet the needs of the area in question. However, devolution must include effective, efficient and accountable governance arrangements commensurate with the size and scope of the powers to be exercised. In some areas, that might mean that local areas may wish to look again at their governance structures.
The report by hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell also recommends changes to local election arrangements, including moving to whole council elections and single member wards. This is generally for the Local Government Boundary Commission to consider, but that does not mean councils cannot approach the commission to request a review of their electoral arrangements, should they wish to. My hon. Friend’s comments today may well stimulate significant debate in that regard.
The role of a councillor has been discussed, but I would certainly say that a councillor is a community champion, and that the role is a vocation and not necessarily a profession. That is not to say that councillors do not bring significant professionalism to their roles; they make complex decisions that impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people in their areas. They do that repeatedly and successfully and, in my experience, the vast majority of councillors do it in an extremely professional way. In keeping with that vocational role, councillors receive not a salary but an allowance to ensure that they are not left out of pocket as a result of performing their public duty. Standardising a scheme of allowances, as my hon. Friend mentioned, would go against the principles of localism and devolving power to local authorities. We should trust councillors to ensure that the scheme of allowances they set is fair and proportionate.
Certainly, having a full-time job and being a councillor can be a challenge. I know that a number of hon. Members in this room have experienced the challenge of juggling different roles. My experience is that I was the leader of a district council, I had a full-time job and, latterly in that role, I was also the parliamentary candidate. I did feel as though I was spinning lots of plates and trying to run from one end to the other to keep those plates in the air. I do think there are benefits, as one or two hon. Members have mentioned, in having councillors that can bring their employment experiences to the council chamber. There are also benefits to people being able to take their experiences of the council chamber and the council back to their workplaces. That can benefit businesses and the roles that they undertake in their private capacity.
At this stage, let me pick up a few points that have been made. My hon. Friend gave us a very eloquent run-down of the history of local government. This Government have used that history to learn significantly from what has happened, which is why we have gone for a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach.
My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of parish councils and town councils, and the Government recognise that. He said that one or two areas in his constituency may benefit from having a town council, and I would direct him to have a look at Sutton Coldfield Town Council, one of the latest town councils to come into being. It is in a district of Birmingham, which is the largest local authority in the country, so he may want to look at that example.
My hon. Friend made an important point about how we conduct local government elections. He and I are absolutely on the same page, as are the Government, on retaining first-past-the-post elections as the best way to hold elected representatives to account.
The Minister mentioned town and parish councils. Clearly, with devolution there is a flow down to a more granular level, and we all welcome that. May I invite him to give some departmental thinking time to the codes of conduct and standards? They are very clear on the lines of communication at a county, district or borough level, but are less so at lower levels of local government. As they are going to be handling more money and be more involved in the delivery of often complex local infrastructure and facilities, we need to have a little think about that, because there is a lot of confusion about which rules cover town and parish councils and which do not.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Parish and town councils are there to serve local people; they should have transparent arrangements and be accountable to local people. That can obviously be done through the ballot box and through parish polls. Generally, when there is an issue of standards, the person with that issue can seek redress through the monitoring officer of that local authority, which is usually the principal council for that area. That said, my hon. Friend makes an important point and the arrangements in that regard are something that we constantly look at. We will continue to do so.
Let me mention an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, who welcomed the devolution agenda and having a strong and accountable elected mayor. I reassure him that there is no change in policy in that regard. The choice about whether a local area wants an elected mayor is very much one for that area, but when significant and ambitious powers are to be devolved from Whitehall and from Secretaries of State, who are currently accountable in the Chamber to Members of this House as the local representatives, we— understandably, in my view—require a strong figure who would be locally elected and locally accountable.
I welcome the Minister’s comments. Does he agree that if a combined authority for a county is created without an elected mayor, the meetings of the combined authority will lack the necessary coherence? Individual council leaders go to those meetings with a mandate to look after their area; supporting a road improvement scheme 50 miles down the road rather than one of their own is very difficult, unless somebody is overseeing the whole project.
Consideration needs to be given to that role, as it does to adequate scrutiny arrangements in that regard. Any combined authority consists of constituent members who will be there not only to provide advice and support to the mayor, but to scrutinise their work. Ultimately, however, the mayor would be accountable to the people, which is the most direct form of democracy.
I turn to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight; we have had many discussions about the situation on the island, which is unique compared with many of the places elsewhere in England. I certainly undertake to have another meeting with my hon. Friend’s councillors. It is important that we retain a dialogue about what happens going forward on the island, but I reassure him that this Government do not mandate devolution deals for areas. We listen to what local areas put forward and then consider whether that is an acceptable proposition for the Government to undertake. I say to my hon. Friend that we should keep that dialogue going. I know that the Isle of Wight is speaking to the other local authorities in the Solent area, but it is a choice for the Isle of Wight whether they want to—
Thank you, Mr Howarth; I will conclude my comments in a moment or two.
I will pick up on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), who tempted me to go down a path that, as a Minister, it may not be too wise to go down, but I understand what he said. I say to him that we agree that unitary authorities can bring many benefits, but this has to be done with local consensus. A number of tests need to be met and I will write to him in that regard.
Given what you said, Mr Howarth, I will give my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell the floor for the last three minutes of the debate.
I am delighted with the way the debate has gone today, because we have had a range of opinions from different parts of the country, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), among other Members. I thank the SNP and Labour Front Benchers for their contributions, and, of course, the Minister.
I said from the outset that I wanted to start a debate. I am sure that people will look at this debate with interest—some will look at it with anger, some feeling that this is the way forward and some with incredulity. However, one thing for certain is that we have started a discussion about where local government needs to look over the next century, compared with where it has come from over the last 150 years.
The Minister made an important point about history showing that many Governments have introduced the idea of a top-down organisation to unitary authorities. I do not hide away from the fact that that is exactly what my report says should happen. He is right, but as history shows, the conclusion is always that Governments do not get there, and it does not happen. However, I think councils around the country will take a closer look at some things that have been said today.
If I had a priority starting point, I would hope that many councils really take a look at going for an all-out election, because I believe that it gives people a real opportunity to change their council in one hit. I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes said and I see his argument, but as I said when intervening on him, I am not sure that having an election every year allows councils to take the real decisions they need to take. In terms of savings, in Leeds I think it costs £1 million to run an election, so that would be £0.5 million a year over a four-year period. That could be invested back into police community support officers and would not actually change the organisation of the council.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for chairing the debate, and for the responses from everybody who took part. I hope that this really will spark a conversation that leads to some reform brought up from the bottom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered local government reform.
Transport Infrastructure: York
I beg to move,
That this House has considered transport infrastructure in York.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
Appropriate and effective transport infrastructure is a fundamental requirement for the economic growth and success of every village, town and city across the country. However, York’s historical setting presents a unique challenge for transport infrastructure in the city. Its Roman foundations and medieval layout would certainly not be approved by today’s planning authorities, and traffic congestion in the centre will always be a difficult issue for the city to tackle.
In some ways, York is a victim of its own success. It is an attractive place to live and do business, sitting in the heart of Yorkshire just outside the A1(M) corridor with good links to London, Newcastle and Leeds. As York’s population has grown, its transport network has come under increasing strain. Sitting in my constituency is the A1237, which is known locally as York’s northern outer ring road. Some might call it other names, but I probably could not divulge them in this setting.
The road is in desperate need of dualling. It was built by North Yorkshire County Council back in the 1980s, and the single carriageway is now greatly over capacity, causing serious consequences not just for York but for Yorkshire and the north. The number of vehicles using the road has increased substantially over the past decade, and there has been a 10% increase in journeys on the road since 2012. There is no longer a peak period, as severe congestion persists throughout the entire day. The current average journey time from Hopgrove roundabout to Askham Bryan is more than 30 minutes, meaning that the A1237, which is a national speed limit road, has an average speed of less than 20 mph.
As an infrastructure development that was designed to reduce journey times and make villages to the north of York safer, the A1237 is no longer fit for purpose. Many drivers now choose to divert their journeys away from the road via the city centre or through outlying villages such as Haxby, Skelton and Strensall, and then on to the A64. Back in 2013, our then Prime Minister came to York Outer to visit Portakabin’s headquarters in Huntington, and experienced at first hand the “car park” on the A1237—those were his words, not mine.
Some might say that the congestion is just an inconvenience, but that would be to overlook the terrible impact that overloaded roads have on businesses and the wider economy. As journey and delivery times increase, so do costs, and there are knock-on effects when goods vehicles are persistently late. The impact of traffic on the A1237 on York is most evident at Clifton Moor business park, where many buildings are now sadly sitting vacant as businesses no longer see it as an attractive place to relocate to and shoppers are choosing to go elsewhere.
Simply put, the congestion on York’s outer ring road is acting as a noose on the city. It is choking growth and disincentivising inward investment. Having said that, York is still a great place to do business, and it is in a prime position to lead a regional economic surge at the heart of Yorkshire, but we cannot let poor infrastructure stand in the way of that great opportunity.
It must not be lost on anyone that the congestion issue on the A1237 has a wide-ranging regional impact beyond York. The road is a major east-west road for Yorkshire and serves journeys from the wider area, including the districts of Harrogate, Ryedale, Hambleton, Scarborough and East Yorkshire. There is also a significant amount of heavy goods traffic between Teesside and Teesport in the north and Hull and the wider Humberside area to the south. Much of that traffic comes along the A19 and bypasses York via the A1237. If we are to rebalance our economy to make it work for everyone, it must also work for Yorkshire and the north, and infrastructure investment in projects such as upgrading the A1237 is key to achieving that goal.
I have painted a rather grim picture of the current situation, and things will only get worse without future investment. City of York Council is currently consulting residents on York’s latest local plan, which allocates a considerable amount of land to housing developments to the north of the city and will only increase traffic pressure. York needs more housing, but it is vital that it has adequate transport infrastructure to accommodate those increases. The York Central teardrop site—one of Europe’s largest city centre brownfield sites at 72 hectares—will put further strain on the northern section of the ring road. In addition, the British Sugar site, which is a mere stone’s throw away from the A1237, will include more than 1,000 residential units. Failure to upgrade that key section of the road will burden our fantastic city centre with even more traffic congestion.
Back in the 2014 autumn statement, there was welcome news as the Government announced an investment of up to £250 million in upgrades to the A64 and the Hopgrove roundabout. The A64 loops around the southern side of York and is dualled, with grade separated junctions. The new investment will allow for works hopefully as far as Whitwell-on-the-Hill on the A64. That road is under the authority of Highways England, but surely we must take a wider and more strategic approach to infrastructure investment and examine where taxpayers’ money can be best spent.
Some 44,000 vehicles use the dualled section of the A64 south of York on a daily basis, compared with 35,000 vehicles using the York northern ring road. The average speed on the A64 is just over 50 mph, dwarfing the less than 20 mph that is achieved on the A1237. Many drivers now use the A64 as a way to simply avoid the northern ring road and save time. Upgrading the northern ring road would undoubtedly reduce the amount of traffic on the A64 and therefore cut the distances that motorists are travelling and the unnecessary extra emissions produced.
On the topic of emissions, the City of York Council has a robust programme to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate economic growth by influencing travel behaviour. That includes promoting walking, cycling and the use of public transport in the city, incentivising hybrid electric taxis and a growing number of electric charging points for vehicles in the city centre. York has one of the best and most successful park and ride facilities in the country. The four park and ride routes include a number of electric buses and have significantly reduced the total number of vehicles travelling into the city centre. However, although sustainable transport initiatives must continue, there is a limit to their effectiveness when the core transport network is insufficient. Sadly, the A1237 is the weak link that is causing a host of problems elsewhere in the city.
As I am sure the Minister is aware, the City of York Council has submitted a bid to the local major transport fund announced by the previous Chancellor in the 2016 comprehensive spending review. That investment allows local authorities to bid for funding for projects that sit beyond the reach of the local growth funding pots. Upgrading the A1237 is a great example of a transformative infrastructure project that has been an aspiration for far too long. The bid to the local majors fund has been listed as the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding local enterprise partnership’s No. 1 transport priority and has the full support of the Leeds City Region local enterprise partnership.
Funding is being sought to develop the business case for increasing capacity on the northern ring road. As I have outlined, the northern ring road is critical to York’s future success. Along with Clifton Moor Business Association, York and North Yorkshire chamber of commerce, Make it York and Transport for the North, I have submitted a letter of support to the bid.
Developing the business case for upgrading the A1237 to a dualled carriageway would complement the roundabout upgrades that have already been delivered, as well as the further upgrades planned to be completed by 2021 through the West Yorkshire transport fund. The initial upgrade will help to resolve some of the pinch point issues at the roundabouts, but it is effectively a sticking plaster over a much more serious problem that will only get worse.
Delivering a scheme of such magnitude clearly comes with significant cost. Dualling the A1237 between Copmanthorpe and the Hopgrove roundabout will have an estimated £142 million capital cost. Naturally, that is the scheme’s major hurdle, but the benefits of that work should not be underestimated. This is not just about making travel more convenient for local residents; it is about delivering the well-connected economy outlined as a key priority in the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding strategic economic plan.
Fast and reliable journey times between key centres are crucial to the region’s economic development and its attractiveness to UK and international markets. Tourism is incredibly important to York’s economy. The city hosted nearly 7 million visitors last year alone. In order to continue to attract visitors from across the UK and further afield to experience all that York has to offer, we must ensure that our transport network functions properly.
Of course, there are key transport infrastructure projects other than the dualling of the A1237 that are important to the city. Our north-south rail connection is strong, with journey times to King’s Cross being as little as one hour and 50 minutes. However, it is not acceptable that travelling from York to Manchester, a journey of just 70 miles, takes an hour and 25 minutes at best. Electrifying the TransPennine Express route will be incredibly important, with reduced journey times and increased overall capacity playing an integral part in that upgrade, which I welcome. We all know that the north-south divide provides a major challenge that we have to overcome. To ensure that we get economic growth right across the north, the Government must ensure that key infrastructure projects are delivered and that more budgets are devolved to regional decision makers. The arrival of High Speed 2 will make a difference to rail capacity, as well as reducing journey times. When the Government come to look more seriously at extending HS2 beyond Manchester and Leeds, as I fully expect they will and should do, as a local MP I will be shouting from the hilltops to ensure that York is not bypassed.
Finally, I ask the Minister for an update on the new stations fund. Haxby and Wigginton, with a population of more than 14,000 people, sits to the north of York in my constituency. The York to Scarborough line runs through Haxby, but its station has been disused for more than 80 years. The economic case for reopening the station is compelling, and a station would help to take cars off the York outer ring road, which is the primary subject of this debate. Is there still a fixed cost for local authorities to submit bids to the new stations fund, which is non-refundable if the bid is not successful? If so, does the Minister think the fixed cost might deter bids?
I hope that I have outlined to the Minister the real need for transport infrastructure upgrades in York and the north of England. I welcome him to his position. Will he look closely at the local majors bid made by City of York Council as a crucial step towards the dualling of the A1237? Dualling would allow the fantastic, historic city of York to thrive long into the future.
Benjamin Disraeli said:
“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.”
During my brief speech I hope to reveal to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) the riches that he has brought to this debate and, indeed, to all his work in advancing the interests of the people of York, particularly on the need for infrastructural investment to improve their wellbeing and their social and economic prospects. He is right that we need to think about such things strategically and, indeed, the Government’s infrastructural investments are founded on exactly that principle. I commend and congratulate him on securing this debate, which gives me the chance to say a word or two about that.
My hon. Friend is right that York is a wonderful ornament to our country and its history and, more than that, is a vibrant living place that does much not only for its inhabitants but for its area. My wife did her master’s degree at York University, and I have visited York many times. Indeed, I often holiday in East Yorkshire and North Yorkshire, particularly at Whitby, so I understand my hon. Friend’s point about the wider impact of transport around York and its effect on East Yorkshire and other parts of that important county.
The Government agree with my hon. Friend’s core assertion that work between local partners and national Government in delivering infrastructural investment—the kind that he recommended to us today—is critical. We are investing significantly in transport infrastructure, as he said, and we have brought forward major investment programmes for road, rail and local transport. To that end, we created Transport for the North precisely for the reason he highlighted—the necessity of a strategic approach. The aim of Transport for the North is to provide plans that support economic growth in the north, and I will return to that in my closing remarks.
I will dedicate a good part of my short, pithy but, I hope, none the less impressive speech to my hon. Friend’s particular concerns about the York outer ring road, which he described as a “noose” around the neck of the city. He is right that there are ongoing challenges in respect of that ring road. I support his desire for the roads around York to work effectively in order to minimise traffic disruption in the centre of the city, to ensure that people can get to where they need to go quickly and reliably, and to support the city’s continued growth.
My hon. Friend made an important point about housing development. Bluntly, the Government need to do more to co-ordinate policy across a range of elements of growth. The important relationship between infrastructural investment and population growth must be part of our thinking, as he has powerfully described in respect of his constituency. I acknowledge his point that we need to think laterally and strategically in those terms.
My hon. Friend acknowledged that York Council has already made improvements to the route by improving a number of roundabouts. He will know that the council also has plans in train to access funding from the West Yorkshire Plus transport fund to improve the remaining seven junctions on that outer ring road. It is a good example of central and local government combining, as I described a moment ago. As he made clear, the West Yorkshire Plus transport fund programme, which is worth up to £783 million over 30 years, is being funded from the Government’s local growth fund awards in July 2014.
City of York Council is currently developing the business case for its next plan of work and schemes, and will be taking it forward through the West Yorkshire approval process. Once funding is confirmed, York will start a programme of works to improve seven roundabouts in 2017, which the council expects to be completed in 2021-22. In addition, York Council has also made a bid to the Department’s large local majors scheme for development funding to build the case for dualling the route. That is a separate and significant piece of work.
We set up the scheme for exceptionally large and potentially transformative projects that, because they are too big to be taken forward through the normal local growth fund allocations, would otherwise not be funded. We have allocated £475 million in local growth fund money to a competitive scheme that will enable local enterprise partnerships to implement the best of those large schemes. It is a two-stage approach, as my hon. Friend will know. Recognising that transformative schemes can take significant time and resources to develop, we are enabling sponsors to apply for development costs for their business case and then, later, to apply for full scheme costs.
The criteria for the development funding are clear; I hope that this will be helpful to my hon. Friend. We are considering schemes that will help deliver area growth objectives, which were at the heart of his speech, and clear value for money, and that can produce an outline business case quickly but with robust and plausible time scales. The schemes must be deliverable and have strategic impact that can be delivered cost-effectively. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already announced funding for four schemes in the fast-track round of the competition.
The Department is now considering bids under the main round, including the bid from York. The winners will be announced around the time of the autumn statement later this year. I must say to my hon. Friend that the process is very competitive; I am sure that he imagined so anyway, but it is important for me to put it on record. The Department has received a significant number of bids, and of course we want to back the strongest proposals. As I am sure he will appreciate, I cannot comment further on York’s bid. None the less, he has highlighted the significance of the challenges associated with York and its infrastructure needs. In that respect, he has done a service to the House, his constituents and the city of which he is so proud.
We are investing record amounts in the strategic roads network. My hon. Friend will know that when I was in the Department for Transport previously, I took through the House the Infrastructure Act 2015, which gave life to the road investment strategy. We are committed as a Government to creating a better road network that works for drivers and the people who live in and around cities and communities such as York. In Yorkshire and the north-east, we are investing £1.4 billion in the strategic road network, delivering the biggest increase in capacity in the region since 1971. That includes an upgrade to the strategic roads serving York and North Yorkshire.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the road investment strategy also announced a scheme to improve the A64 Hopgrove junction by upgrading the Hopgrove roundabout east of York. That scheme is set for delivery by the end of the second road investment strategy period of 2020 to 2025, and Highways England is currently conducting a feasibility study to identify options for upgrading the roundabout.
My hon. Friend referred to wider transport issues for the north. He will know that the Government remain committed to creating a northern powerhouse to rebalance our economy, which is why we created Transport for the North. We have given £200 million to resource that effort, providing both a long-term financial commitment and the leadership required to deliver that kind of vision. The north now has a single joined-up body to shape the investment that will transform transport across the north of England.
It would be remiss of me not to mention in the time available the significant investment that we are making in railways. The north of England rail infrastructure upgrade programme will transform rail travel in the region, delivering faster and more frequent rail services with benefits and better connections for many cities across the north by 2019. Our £1 billion investment programme includes a substantial electrification programme and other track, station and signalling improvements to improve capacity and the number of services, making journeys quicker and more reliable.
Between Manchester and York, for example, options are being developed to deliver an improvement in journey times of up to 15 minutes by the end of 2022. Passengers will benefit from additional infrastructure and other franchising investments. York travellers are already benefiting from the extra seats and services provided by the Virgin Trains east coast franchise awarded in 2014. I point out that I often travel on trains that originate in York, getting on the train at Peterborough and travelling to King’s Cross, so I know that service well and how important it is for the many who travel from York to London. Further proposed investment in that line will add benefits to travellers like my hon. Friend and me.
I am pleased to say that the Government and our agencies are working with York Council to develop the potential of York station as a major gateway to York, Yorkshire and the north. Successful developments at stations such as Birmingham New Street, Manchester Victoria and London King’s Cross have delivered transformational improvements to the communities that they serve. As I have responsibility across the Department for the built environment, I am determined to ensure that all station improvements are as good as the development at King’s Cross. We must ensure that they are not only ergonomically satisfactory but aesthetically of the highest order. As he will know, York station was announced to be part of the station regeneration vanguard in April this year.
My hon. Friend said a word or two about Haxby station, so it would also be remiss of me not to mention it briefly. He will know that the new round of the new stations fund was launched on 26 August, making £20 million available to promoters. Haxby bid in an earlier round of the fund, and I understand that it is likely to bid again. As he will also know, the criteria have been altered. Although I cannot comment on the outcome, I am keen—although I am not the Rail Minister as a rule, I take the opportunity to say this now, because for the purposes of this debate, I am—to open new stations. We should be ambitious about reopening stations where there is a strong business case for doing so. My hon. Friend has done a service in highlighting the case of Haxby station in this short debate.
As I say, my hon. Friend has done a service to the House, and in doing so, has given me the opportunity to restate this Government’s commitment to the kind of transformative investment and strategic approach that he has recommended to us. It is vital that this House and these debates inform Government thinking. It is not good enough for Ministers simply to parrot what was going to happen anyway; we must also think carefully about the arguments made by Members across this House and, where necessary, recalibrate and rethink policy approaches accordingly. That is precisely the approach that I have taken as Minister, and I shall continue to do so as a result of this useful contribution to our thinking.
I spoke earlier of Disraeli, and I will end with him too. He said:
“Man is not the creature of circumstances, circumstances are the creatures of men. We are free agents, and man is more powerful than matter.”
Let us gauge circumstances and create a better future with the power that men can bring to alter those circumstances where necessary.
Question put and agreed to.
Claim of Right for Scotland
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Before I call Patrick Grady to move the motion, may I say that I have not yet had any written requests to speak in this debate? Mr Speaker has asked the Panel of Chairs to remind Members that it is the convention of the House that they should submit in writing to the Speaker’s Office if they want to speak in a debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Claim of Right for Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I know that you are a great champion of grassroots democracy, so I hope that a lot of what I have to say will strike a chord with you. This has not been the most straightforward debate to bring to Westminster Hall. Members who pay close attention to the Order Paper will have noticed that before the recess, it originally appeared in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). He has the same initials as me, but I clearly have considerably worse handwriting than him—bad enough for even the stellar cryptographers in the Table Office to be stumped.
After sorting that out, the Clerks and Library specialists wanted to know which Claim of Right for Scotland I wanted to debate: the ancient claim dating to 1689, which asserts the right of appeal against perceived judicial injustice; the more modern claim, signed in 1989 as the founding document of the Scottish Constitutional Convention; or the claim adopted by the Scottish Parliament in 2012, in the context of the independence referendum. The answer is not one of those, but all of them—or, more accurately, their central assertion, endorsed in 1989 and 2012, which acknowledges the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and the obligation on elected representatives that in all our actions and deliberations, the interests of the people of Scotland shall be paramount.
My argument is that the Claim of Right is not, or is no longer, an historical document. It is a concept, and indeed a fundamental principle, that underpins the democracy and constitutional framework of Scotland. It is as relevant today as it has ever been. The economy on the brink of recession; the Government hopelessly divided on Europe; the Labour party in turmoil; a woman Prime Minister in Downing Street; and Scotland living under yet another Conservative Government it did not vote for, pushing through damaging social policies against the will of the vast majority of people and parliamentarians—yes, that was the situation in 1989, when parliamentarians, councillors and church and civil society leaders gathered on the Mound in Edinburgh to sign the claim of right and begin the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
It is an historical fact that Scottish National party members were not present for the signing and did not take part in the convention. The SNP took part in early discussions, but withdrew when it became clear that the convention would not countenance independence. We argued at the time, and might still argue today, that to rule out such an option was to deny a key principle of the claim: the right to choose the best form of government. However, the claim signed in 1989 represented something of a consensus in the country that the democratic deficit experienced throughout the Thatcher years was becoming intolerable, and the convention paved the way for the Parliament that now meets in Holyrood. Today, the First Minister is outlining her programme for government, implementing as best she can with the powers available to that Parliament our vision of a more progressive and socially just Scotland.
The excellent briefing produced by the House of Commons Library for this debate contains an appendix showing the 1989 claim and its list of signatories. Some of the names are familiar: Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, John McFall, David Steel, Jim Wallace, Archy Kirkwood. Some of those individuals can still be found at Westminster, although they go by slightly different styles and titles and work in another place with little in the way of a democratic mandate.
Another signatory is a constituent of mine, Elspeth Attwooll, a former Liberal Democrat MEP whom I credit for inspiring this debate. Before the European referendum, we both took part in a hustings where she reflected on what it meant to her to have been a signatory to the Claim of Right. It made me think about how far Scotland has come over the nearly 30 years since the claim was signed, and indeed over the years since the referendum on devolution, the 19th anniversary of which we will mark this coming Sunday. We have come far, but we still have much further to go.
The Brexit result is only the most glaring and recent example. Despite all the powers that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, Westminster still holds the purse strings. After three Scotland Acts since 1997, 70% of taxes and 85% of welfare spending, two of the most crucial levers of social and economic policy, remain reserved to Westminster. The Scottish Parliament, 58 out of 59 of Scotland’s MPs and local authorities across the country have all voted against the renewal of Trident, but it will still go ahead, less than 40 miles from our biggest population centre. The bedroom tax, welfare cuts, the undermining of energy and climate change policy, the threatened withdrawal from the European convention on human rights and even the removal of a tugboat from the west coast of Scotland are all directly against the will of the people of Scotland, as expressed democratically at the ballot box, yet all of them have been foisted on us by Westminster Governments.
It will undoubtedly be argued that the people of Scotland exercised their sovereignty on 18 September 2014. Some have argued that during those 15 hours when the polls were open, Scotland was truly an independent country: the future of our governance was in the hands of our people and nobody else. Disappointed though many of us were by the result of the referendum, we accept that Scotland voted to remain in the Union. However, voters were told repeatedly during the referendum that a no vote was not a vote for the status quo, and that choosing to stay in the Union would bring about a new relationship in which Scotland would lead the UK, not leave it. A vow was made to deliver something as near to federalism as possible, and a guarantee was given that Scotland would remain a member of the European Union.
As we approach the second anniversary of the referendum, none of those promises have been kept. There might have been a new status quo on the morning of 19 September 2014, but there was also one on the morning of 24 June 2016, when the Union for which people in Scotland voted came to an end. That United Kingdom—a United Kingdom that would remain part of the European Union, guaranteeing people in Scotland freedom of movement for themselves and their goods, capital and services across a continent to which we have always looked and of which we have always seen ourselves as a part—no longer exists. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union said as much yesterday: Brexit means that the UK will leave the European Union. That is not what people in Scotland voted for, either in 2014 or in 2016. In choosing the form of government best suited to their needs, people in Scotland, on both occasions, chose a form of government that involved continuing membership of the European Union.
That is why the Scottish Government have pledged to work as constructively as possible to protect and defend Scotland’s interests within the Brexit process. I hope that the UK Government will work constructively with the new Scottish Government Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe as they prepare for the article 50 process. The First Minister has appointed a standing council of expert advisers to help explore different options to maintain a relationship between Scotland and Europe that reflects the choice made by people in Scotland in the European referendum.
That is also why the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament must ultimately reserve the right to hold another referendum on independence for Scotland. If it becomes clear that the best or only way for Scotland to remain in the EU is to become an independent member of the EU, we must have the right to make that decision for ourselves.
On the advantages of the EU, the hon. Gentleman will know that my party agrees with his—we voted in the Scottish Parliament to support the First Minister in taking every possible avenue to keep the advantages of the EU—but is he honestly telling the House that the solution is for Scotland to turn away from its much bigger trading partner, the UK?
I am saying that all the different options must be explored. The Scottish Government have committed on a cross-party basis to explore all those options as constructively as possible, but we must retain the right to revisit the question of our independent membership of the European Union if that becomes the best or only way to protect the benefits that we get from that membership. That is the crux of the Claim of Right: it is for the people of Scotland to choose the form of governance best suited to their needs. If our democratically elected Parliament decides on a cross- party basis—it will have to be on a cross-party basis, as we have a minority Government—to call for another independence referendum, will the UK Government seriously stand in the way?
The Edinburgh agreement may have been signed to pave the way for the 2014 referendum, but it is a de facto acknowledgment of both the general principle of the Claim of Right and the more specific question of whether Scotland has the right to become an independent country in a referendum. So when the former Prime Minister said in the Chamber that his county of Oxfordshire had voted to remain but that no one was calling for it to have an exemption from the UK-wide vote, he demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the constitutional framework in Scotland. Indeed, it was the same kind of misunderstanding that led one of his predecessors to describe the Scots Parliament as a “parish council”. There has never been a claim of right for Oxfordshire, as far as I am aware, nor has there been an Edinburgh agreement recognising Oxfordshire’s right to become an independent country, but such principles are now firmly established in Scotland—indeed, they always have been.
Historically, the monarchs in Scotland were Kings and Queens of Scots. They ruled at the sufferance of the people, rather than ruling over the land or exercising a sovereignty vested in their own person or in the Crown in Parliament, as the tradition has it here in Westminster—although, as I said in this Chamber yesterday, I was interested to hear how many converts to the idea of participatory democracy there were on the Government Benches, and how keen some of them had become to cede some of their hallowed parliamentary sovereignty to popular opinion expressed in a referendum.
One reason why I bid for this debate was that I heard a number of colleagues both in the Government and in the official Opposition say informally that there would not be another independence referendum because the Prime Minister would not allow it. That reminds me of the famous words of the convenor of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, Canon Kenyon Wright, who said at the opening of the convention:
“What if that other voice we all know so well responds by saying, ‘We say no, and we are the state’? Well, we say yes—and we are the people.”
So I ask the Government—I note that the Minister here today is the Deputy Leader of the House, not a Minister from the Scotland Office, because of course it has no junior Ministers—whether they accept the principle of the Claim of Right for Scotland. The Conservatives, uniquely among political parties in Scotland, refused both to sign the declaration in 1989 and to back it in the 2012 Scottish Parliament vote. Given the promises made during the independence referendum, the respect agenda and the partnership of nations we are supposed to belong to, will they reconsider?
If the Minister cannot bring himself to commit to something so momentous today, will he at least recognise that the differential result in the Brexit referendum means that there must be a differential response from the Government? Will they consider seriously any proposals that come forward from Scotland, whether they are about participation in Erasmus, the Horizon 2020 programme or, more fundamentally, efforts to build a coalition that protects the UK’s membership of the European single market? Will the Minister and the Government consider how effectively the voices of Scotland’s MPs of all parties are heard in this House? Surely it is time for a review of the English votes for English laws procedures, which are wasting parliamentary time and continue to undermine our supposedly equal status in this House.
There may be parallels with the prevailing political and economic situation in 1989, but this is 2016. Scotland’s voice is articulated not only by Members of Parliament here at Westminster, but in a modern, vibrant and diverse Parliament at Holyrood. Those of us who have been elected to the House of Commons come from a very different tradition from our predecessors. We have not come here to settle down, bide our time and hope for a seat in the House of Lords one day. When I leave this place, as I am well aware I will, it will be because I have decided not to put myself forward, because the voters have decided they want someone else, or because at last there will be no need for Scotland to send MPs to Westminster.
In the SNP, we make no secret of the fact that we think the form of government best suited to the needs of people in Scotland is an independent one. In the words of our party constitution, it is
“the restoration of Scottish national sovereignty by restoration of full powers to the Scottish Parliament, so that its authority is limited only by the sovereign power of the Scottish People to bind it with a written constitution and by such agreements as it may freely enter into with other nations or states or international organisations for the purpose of furthering international cooperation, world peace and the protection of the environment.”
But we also recognise that we have a job to do in persuading a majority of our fellow citizens of that case, which is why the second clause of our constitution is simply
“the furtherance of all Scottish interests.”
We make no special claim to the Claim of Right; it belongs, by definition, to everyone in Scotland, regardless of which political party they support or which constitutional option they prefer. But it encapsulates the right to decide and keep deciding the best form of government for their needs and for the time we live in.
When the Scottish Parliament debated and adopted the Claim of Right in 2012, it did not endorse the principle of independence, but it acknowledged the principle of deciding on independence, so the Claim of Right is not just an historical document or a scholarly debating point; it is a fundamental principle on which our democracy rests. If the UK Government are serious about maintaining the present Union as a partnership of equals, they need to understand that.
I hope that, 27 years since the declaration was signed, 19 years since the devolution referendum, 17 years since the Scottish Parliament was established, nine years since the first SNP Government were elected, two years since the independence referendum, 18 months since the UK general election, four months since the Scottish Parliament elections and three months since the European referendum, the Government might finally start to get the message.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Bone.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on the lucid, passionate and effective way in which he laid out the case for independence, and on using the constitutional history behind the Claim of Right as a legitimising factor for independence. However, as he was gracious enough to acknowledge, when the Claim of Right was re-established in 1989 by cross-party consensus, the Scottish National party stood aside from that consensus. That was because the SNP position towards our constitution has always been what Henry Ford’s was towards the Model T. Henry Ford said, “You can have your car in any colour you like, as long as it’s black,” and the SNP says, “The Scottish people can decide on any constitutional future they like, provided they choose independence.” So when at that time there was a consensus—I will admit that the Conservatives were outside it—in favour of devolution, the SNP said, “This assertion of popular sovereignty is wrong because it doesn’t agree with me.” In that sense, the SNP was a bit like the proud mother who notices her son marching out of step with everyone else in the regiment and says, “Everybody is out of step, apart from my Willie.”
What the SNP has in consistency, which is admirable, it lacks in honesty about where the true centre of Scottish public opinion lies, and that is in favour of devolution. From 1989 to the present day, there has been support for a Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom, and when the arithmetic in the constitutional convention did not suit the SNP in 1989, it stood aside, proud in its solitary conventicle. And now, even though it has a majority of representation for Scotland in this House, it regards the fact that a majority of people in Scotland voted against independence in the referendum as a mere temporary interruption and inconvenience.
Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify exactly what is being suggested? Is it being said that, because a political party—in this case, the SNP—has a desired and preferential constitutional outcome, somehow its adherence to that negates any genuine commitment to allowing people to choose between a number of options? If that is the case, would it not also apply to the Conservative party or any other political party that has a preferential outcome? Surely the whole point of having a choice is that different parties can put different perspectives before the people and allow them to choose.
I absolutely agree. It is to the credit of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that, as I said earlier, they put the case for independence with fluency, with authority, with passion, with commitment. I take nothing away from the power of the case that they make. But the Scottish people have rejected that case: in a referendum, the Scottish people clearly—by 55% to 45%—said no to independence.
But now the SNP is claiming in this debate that the long-held constitutional principle that the Scottish people are sovereign means that the Scottish people should be independent. But either the Scottish people decide their own constitutional fate, in which case we should respect the decision taken in that referendum, or they are perpetually wrong because they do not agree with the SNP. I also point out that since that referendum we have seen the SNP move from being a majority Government in Holyrood to a minority Government, and we have seen that support for Scotland’s position within the Union has remained resolutely at the same level as in the referendum. We have also seen Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, become the single most impressive and popular politician in Scotland. The latest statistics and opinion polling reinforce what everyone knows, which is that she is the single most formidable politician in Scotland. Those are the facts and, as Robert Burns once pointed out, we all know that,
“facts are chiels that winna ding”.
Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that that most formidable and respected politician in Scotland should categorically denounce the xenophobic comments made by one of her party spokespersons against Christian Allard, who has given massive service to the Scottish Parliament and to the Scottish people?
I am unaware of that eventuality. All I would say is that xenophobia has no place in political discourse and that, throughout her leadership of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth has been consistent in making it clear that Scotland should be a warm and welcoming home for people from every background and every community.
The right hon. Gentleman is one of the architects of Brexit, which has brought about this debate and is the reason behind some of the other debates in this House about Scottish independence. Will he reflect on the fact that the very person he just spoke about promised the Scottish people that if they voted Scottish Conservative they would protect the Union? How is that going?
The Union is in robust good health, as is shown by the support for the continuity of the United Kingdom, which is maintained at the same level as it was during the heat of the referendum campaign.
It is important to acknowledge something more. The hon. Member for Glasgow North pointed out that, in the run-up to the referendum campaign, my party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats issued a commitment to increase the level of devolution given to the Scottish Parliament—the vow, published on the front page of the Daily Record. The keeper of the vow—the independent figure who was responsible for ensuring that that promise was kept—was Lord Smith of Kelvin, and he stated unambiguously that the vow had been maintained.
More than that, powers that existed before the vow and the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, and powers that are now conferred on Holyrood, have not been used by the Scottish Government. Why is it that there has been such timorousness about the exercise of the powers that the Scottish Government already have? Why is it that the tax-varying powers that have been conferred on Nicola Sturgeon and the Executive have not been exercised? Why is it that a party that claims that the answer to all Scotland’s problems is more power in Edinburgh has not even exercised the powers that it has? I can only conclude that the SNP wants a perpetual state of irritation and grievance with our current constitutional arrangements, rather than a determination to make them work. That is one reason why the SNP, having achieved unprecedented electoral popularity under Alex Salmond, is on a slow, gentle but irreversible slide in public opinion.
There is more. It is not just that the powers that we, as a United Kingdom Parliament, conferred on Holyrood, and that the Scottish people voted for, have not been exercised; it is also the case that in those policy areas that have been devolved to Scotland since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the SNP-led Administration have signally failed to deliver for the Scottish people.
Let us look particularly at education. When I was growing up and a student in Scotland’s schools, Scotland boasted, to good effect, that its education system was superior to that of England and any other part of the United Kingdom. The principle of the democratic intellect; the character of the lad o’ pairts; the principle, established at the time of John Knox, that there should be a school for every child in every parish—all stand testament to the fact that the Scottish people have valued education, historically, more highly than anyone else within these islands.
However, if we look at the reality of Scottish education now, we can see that children from poor backgrounds in Scotland are less likely to go on to higher education than children from poor backgrounds in England. The gap between educational outcomes for rich and poor has grown under the SNP Government. As was pointed out by Brian Wilson, formerly a Member of this House and still a distinguished journalist, one has to look very hard to find a single effective redistributive measure that has been introduced by the SNP whereby power or resources have been taken from the rich to the poor in Scotland, or whereby the opportunities available to poor children in Scotland have increased. Once again, the question has to be asked: why is it that the SNP, having had a majority Government and now having a minority Government with the support of the Greens, has been able to do so little to improve educational outcomes for Scottish children? The answer to which I am again inevitably drawn is: because the SNP is more interested in manufacturing grievance than it is in governing Scotland well.
Another example is the aftermath of the vote for Britain to leave the European Union. I remind the House that yes, of course a majority in Scotland did not vote to leave the European Union, but a significant minority did, and they did so in the teeth of a political establishment united in opposition to that proposition. Many of the people who did vote to leave come from backgrounds that I know well, in farming and fisheries. They recognised that an independent United Kingdom, with Scotland exercising power through its own Parliament, would have new powers over fisheries and farming when Britain left the European Union. But so far we have seen no effort to deploy any imagination, energy or passion in pointing out the ways in which Scotland’s agriculture and fisheries economic backbone can be strengthened by our departure from the European Union. As we saw with the start of the national conversation, there has been an attempt to use the vote to manufacture grievance rather than to ask the question, what is in the best interests of all the Scottish people?
Just to clarify, after the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union yesterday outlined what Brexit would mean by not outlining anything, is the right hon. Gentleman saying that Scotland is going to get full control of its fisheries policy?
My point is that when we were making the case for Britain to leave the European Union, it was perfectly clear that fisheries and agricultural policy would come back. Had a Scottish Parliament existed prior to our entry into the European Union, those policies would have been administered by the Scottish Parliament. There is the potential for the Scottish Parliament, already supercharged by the vow, to become even stronger. But, instead of exploring those opportunities—rather than regarding the glass as half full or even looking optimistically at the situation and thinking, “Well, I may not have voted for it, but I am determined to make it work for the people of Scotland”—the vote is being used to fuel a narrative of grievance and separation.
My principal charge against the SNP is this: there is no shortage of talent on the SNP Benches in Westminster and there is no shortage of passion or brainpower in the Scottish Government. Some of the most impressive men and women in Scottish public life staff the Scottish Government. This is a golden opportunity for them to show what devolution can deliver, but that opportunity is not being taken because, as this debate shows, a focus on the constitution, the generation of grievance and the creation of division trumps the cause of good government.
There are so many ways in which the devolution settlement could help the Scottish people to flourish within the United Kingdom. It is only within the United Kingdom that Scotland can, in the short to medium and, I would argue, long term, be absolutely certain that its people will have all the opportunities they deserve. Over the past month, it was remarkable when we discovered the impact of a diminution in global oil prices on Scotland’s economic position. It was remarkable the extent to which the commodity that had been relied on throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to underwrite independence had moved from being a well-stuffed piggy bank into an arid emptiness. I speak as someone whose family live in Aberdeen and for whom that fall in the oil price is, of course, a source of sadness, because individuals have lost their jobs.
More important than that being a source of sadness for the people of Aberdeen, though, is the stark fact for the people of all of Scotland that, as the author of the Scottish Government’s own White Paper on independence has admitted, the economic case for independence has been blown out of the water. I ask the SNP: now that oil is no longer the well-stuffed piggy bank that it used to be, what is being done to ensure that Scotland thrives economically? Yes, the First Minister has set up a growth commission, but what about the devastation that has been wrought on the further education sector? What about the lack of investment in skills in Scotland? What about the long-term decisions that could have put Scotland on a stronger economic course, but have not been taken? They have not been taken in order to manufacture grievance, create irritation and reinforce division.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way once again and I am fascinated by this assumption that a set of figures that demonstrate how poorly the Scottish economy is performing under Conservative UK Government control is somehow an indication that Scotland cannot survive independently.
However, I go back to a comment the right hon. Gentleman made a minute ago about the impact of the fall in the price of oil, because any economic indicator that I have seen suggests that the economy of Norway is far more dependent on oil than the economy of Scotland ever has been or ever will be. Can he explain why the Norwegian economy has managed to ride out the storm? Are the Norwegians selling their oil to somebody paying a higher price? Have they got special gold-plated oil that is worth more than other oil? Or is it perhaps that they had the chance to put their oil aside when there was plenty of it because they had control of their own resources? How does he explain the continuing success of the Norwegian economy, which is more dependent on the falling oil price than we are?
I am tempted to remind the hon. Gentleman that of course Norway is outside the European Union and has been since it voted to stay outside the European Union, and as a result it has been able to invest not just its oil wealth but its fishing wealth, and indeed to capitalise on its other advantages, to create a sovereign wealth fund and to take the decisions to enable it to be a country that many of us envy.
Of course, there are some nationalists who follow through on the logic of that. The former Member for Govan, Jim Sillars, has been consistent throughout in saying that sovereignty, if properly interpreted, would mean that Scotland would not only be outside the United Kingdom but outside the European Union. Although I do not agree with Mr Sillars on everything, one thing I have to say is that it is remarkable that Scots would want to give up the pound—they would have to do so if they left the United Kingdom—in order to embrace the euro, which they would have to do if they entered the European Union.
Of course, there is another alternative to that, which was outlined by the First Minister’s economic adviser, Mr Joseph Stiglitz, the other day. It is that we should have a new independent Scottish currency—a Scottish pound. It will be interesting to see if that is SNP policy and if it is, all I can say is, “If you want to go into the next independence referendum saying, ‘We’re ditching sterling and it’s a choice between the euro and our new Scottish pound’, good luck with that!”
That is because Scots voters, who were given the chance to vote in the last referendum campaign, absolutely wanted to ensure that there were more powers for the Scottish Parliament but they also wanted—even more—to ensure that Scotland remained within the United Kingdom. It was a decisive vote, providing an unprecedented mandate for the United Kingdom. The timing of the vote, the nature of the vote and the extent of the franchise were all dictated or chosen by the Scottish Government. So the Scottish Government chose the pitch, chose the rules and chose the referee, but it was still victory for the United Kingdom.
Therefore, the question that arises and that was dodged in the admittedly eloquent and fluent opening speech by the hon. Member for Glasgow North is, “Given the powers that the Scottish Government currently have that they have not exercised, why haven’t they been exercised?” The question for all SNP MPs here in Westminster is, “Why haven’t you chosen to make a success of the current arrangements in order to argue that that is the case for more devolution, more power and perhaps ultimately independence? Why instead have you allowed those powers to remain unused, in order to be able to point the finger at current arrangements and say that they are unsatisfactory?” That is the paradox at the heart of the SNP position. The SNP is afraid to exercise the powers that it has, because it is determined that the current situation should never be seen to work.
My argument is that that position is a betrayal of what the Scottish people voted for; it undermines the principle of the Claim of Right; it is an attempt to weaken the United Kingdom; if there ever was another referendum on Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, people would see through the SNP’s manipulation of the politics of now for the politics of never-never; and on that basis the Scottish people would vote, as they always have done when they have been given the chance to do so, to remain in a strong, robust Union that works, which is the United Kingdom.
Thank you very much, Mr Bone, for calling me to speak; it is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair.
It is also a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), whose great passion for Brexit—I re-emphasise—has brought us to this particular position. We would not be having debates again about rerunning the independence referendum if the former Prime Minister had not gambled the UK farm and lost. Indeed, there was no apology in the 17 minutes of the right hon. Gentleman’s oratory for the campaign bus or for getting us into this constitutional quagmire.
I emphasise that the leader of the Scottish Conservative party, who had no other policies whatever, made it her one policy at the Scottish elections back in May to say to the Scottish people, “Vote Conservative and we will protect the Union.” Everything that has happened since then has risked the very United Kingdom that I and many people in this Chamber have voted for and worked very hard to protect.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate. There is one thing that I agree with the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath about: the fact that we never have debates in Westminster Hall on how to eradicate poverty in Scotland, on how to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to make sure we can provide finances for public services, on how to close the attainment gap or on how to ensure that Scotland is outward-looking to the world. Instead, it is all grievance, it is all constitution, and it is all taking the debate and the agenda away from the issues that really matter in Scotland about public services and how the Scottish Parliament, by using its powers—or in this case, not using them—would be a good place to lie.
I point out again to both Members who have followed me, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), that the First Minister is at this moment addressing the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament to announce, among other things, £750 million to help to close the educational attainment gap, a guarantee that the health budget of Scotland will increase by at least £500 million more than inflation every year, and a doubling of the amount of free care available to all three and four-year-olds, and the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, across Scotland. The idea that the Scottish Government are not using the powers of the Scottish Parliament and are not delivering for the people of Scotland is simply false.
I am delighted to hear that, because after 10 years it is about time that the Scottish Parliament started to invest in closing the educational attainment gap and in public services. That intervention by the hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that the Scottish Parliament has powers to make a difference in people’s lives, but in his speech to begin this debate he said that the Scottish Parliament has no powers whatever. Indeed, he even mentioned the tugboat that was taken away, as if the Scottish Parliament meets to discuss what it cannot do rather than trying to change the lives of people in the ways that it can.
Let us get back to this debate about the Claim of Right. It is worth just reading out the start of the declaration of the 1989 Claim of Right, which was indeed re-emphasised in the Scottish Parliament and voted on in 2012. It says:
“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.”
We have heard much from the hon. Gentleman, who is the mover of the particular motion that we are debating today, about the importance of respecting Scottish sovereignty. Respecting the popular will is important, not only in Scotland but across the United Kingdom. Let us not forget that, as the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath mentioned, the Scottish National party, along with many Scottish Tories, did not participate in the constitutional convention; the SNP did not participate in that conversation with civic Scotland, politicians, groups, universities and business about what the future of devolution should look like. Moreover, the SNP did not accept the wording of the Claim of Right that that convention was founded upon. Indeed, it is only the Labour party and the Scottish Labour party that have been entirely consistent in upholding the words of the Claim of Right, because it pledged:
“To agree a scheme for an Assembly or Parliament for Scotland; To mobilise Scottish opinion and ensure the approval of the Scottish people for that scheme”.
It went on to say that it also pledged:
“To assert the right of the Scottish people to secure implementation of that scheme.”
When the Labour party was elected to Government in 1997, one of its first Bills delivered the referendum on devolution, mobilised popular support for its approval, asserted the sovereign right of the Scottish people, delivered on the result of the referendum and created the Scottish Parliament that we have today. There was no mention of all that from the hon. Member for Glasgow North; there was no mention of how we said to the Scottish people that we would deliver something, got into power and then delivered it, on the basis of what the Scottish people were telling us they wanted to happen.
To be fair, when the SNP was elected in 2011 on a manifesto that pledged an independence referendum, we respected the mandate for that referendum, too, because the Scottish people had voted for it. Consequently, in 2014 we had that referendum and that time the Scottish people voted to stay in the UK. So, taking the word of the Claim of Right as our guide, if we can, we acknowledged
“the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”.
The Scottish people voted for a powerful Scottish Parliament, but with Scotland being an integral part of the United Kingdom. The Claim of Right was put into practice: it was voted on in 2012 in the Scottish Parliament; the referendum happened in 2014; the Scottish people spoke; and
“the sovereign right of the Scottish people”
is to stay within the United Kingdom, but with a much more powerful Scottish Parliament. That was the spirit and the substance of the Claim of Right that we are discussing today.
I want to go back to the intervention from the hon. Member for Glasgow North. The Scottish Parliament is one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. It is about time that the politicians elected by the people looked back at that Claim of Right and said, “We were elected to deliver for the Scottish people with a powerful Scottish Parliament” and got on with the day job that they were elected to do. But every single day since the polls closed on 19 September 2014, the SNP has looked for any single trigger to get a different result in the referendum. That is surely the complete antithesis of the Claim of Right.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that during the independence referendum campaign, it was made very clear that one of the major benefits of being in the UK was remaining part of the EU? That is now simply not the case.
The evidence shows that people did not vote on that particular basis. What the SNP is now telling us is that because the UK has turned away from a market worth £12 billion and 250,000 jobs to the Scottish economy—I was on the same side as the hon. Lady in wanting to stay in the European Union—the solution is for Scotland to turn away from another Union that has 1 million jobs and £50 billion worth of trading. That is surely not in the best interests of the Scottish people.
We have supported the SNP and the First Minister to make sure that the UK and Scotland can get the best deal from Brexit, but if the solution to Brexit is to turn away from an even bigger partner, to mount on top of one disaster—this constitutional decision at UK level—another disastrous constitutional solution, we are surely in the wrong place. That goes to the hub of the argument.
We are back to rerunning the 2014 independence referendum. The key thing is—the hon. Lady and her party admit this—that the best solution in terms of currency is for Scotland and the UK to stay in the currency union. That was the SNP argument in 2014, so it has conceded that argument, unless it wants to go down the route of the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) and go for a separate currency, which he says would involve many years of fiscal consolidation and require the selling of assets. Is the SNP talking about the euro? No, so it has already conceded that a currency union with the rest of the UK is the most important thing.
Let us consider the figures from the recent GERS report, with the £15 billion fiscal deficit, and how SNP Members fought for the fiscal framework to make sure the Barnett formula was maintained: that is an admission that the economic and fiscal framework is in Scotland’s best interest. Let us take as a starting point that it is in Scotland’s best interest to stay in the UK with a fiscal and economic union and a currency union. Is the SNP honestly saying that it will turn away from all that to be a part of the European Union when it does not know what the access requirements will be? The party does not know whether Scotland would get in. We had all these arguments in 2014. Indeed, it could be argued that entering the EU today would be much more difficult than in 2014, because there will be no grandfather rights when we leave as the UK. All of these issues have muddied the waters much more.
On the Claim of Right of the Scottish people in terms of this debate, they have voted clearly for Scotland to stay within the United Kingdom, but they also see the benefits and advantages of staying in the EU. It cannot be right to have two polarised camps in Scotland. We have the Scottish National party camp that says, “Independence at all costs” and a Scottish Conservative party that says it wants Scotland to be in the UK, but not in the EU, given the result of the EU referendum.
Both those polarised camps are completely wrong, because what Scotland wants, and what the UK and what I am sure the Prime Minister want, is for Scotland to stay within the United Kingdom, but for the United Kingdom to maintain the benefits of and its relationship with the European Union. That is what people voted for. That is what the Claim of Right would tell us they voted for.
The Claim of Right does not address the myriad problems in Scotland: the underfunded NHS, the growing attainment gap, the shambles that is Police Scotland and undervalued and overworked public servants. It does not deal with any of those issues. We know that the best way to deal with the eradication of poverty and the reduction in inequality—all the things we want to see in a much more socially just Scotland—is to maintain the fiscal, economic and currency union with the UK, but to ensure that Scotland’s position and advantages in the EU are maintained.
The right hon. Member for Surrey Heath is absolutely right. There is no discussion about agriculture, fisheries, regional policy or the environment. Those are all issues that should go straight back to the Scottish Parliament, which has responsibility, working in close partnership with the rest of the UK. But a fiscal transfer would have to happen. It is the same fiscal transfer that the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath had on the side of the bus. His fiscal transfer wants £350 million a week for the NHS. I want £750 million a year more for Scotland, along with these powers, so they can deal with the issues that would be repatriated to Scotland. Those are the big issues with regard to the Claim of Right.
If it is the case that every political party in Scotland now abides by the words, principles and substance of the Claim of Right, then the Scottish people have spoken. They have said they want to stay because they know it is in their economic, financial, political and cultural interests to be part of the UK, but they want to maintain the advantages of being in the EU. That is a challenge for the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the entire political, social, cultural and civil class in Scotland: to try to make sure we get the best possible deal for the people whom we seek to represent.
I am grateful that the hon. Member for Glasgow North secured this debate. I hope that, when he stands up in the Westminster Parliament, the SNP conference or in front of his constituency party in Glasgow North and talks about the Claim of Right, he will admit that Scotland voted to stay part of the United Kingdom and moves on to the great opportunities of using the powers of one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. My two amendments to the Scotland Bill that transfer welfare powers to Scotland were accepted by the Government, but nobody is talking about that, because the obsession with the constitution is destabilising Scotland and making the uncertainty around Scottish business and Scottish civic society polarised in terms of what the Scottish people want.
Let us get rid of all the constitutional arguments. Let us repaint buses and take all the lies off the sides of buses. Let us concentrate on what people want: the eradication of poverty; a reduction in inequality; making sure public services are properly financed; opportunities for our young people; making sure the next generation does better than the current one; and making sure we have adequate housing. Those are all the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament. That is why we need to protect the fiscal, economic and cultural union with the UK and why we need to leave no stone unturned in making sure that Scotland’s position in the EU and the advantages that Scotland gets from the EU are protected. That is what the Scottish people have asked for. It would be a dereliction of duty if we did not try to deliver it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I should advise you that I did write to the Speaker’s Office and spoke to someone there today about giving a short speech. I promise to be brief, because we have already heard an eloquent speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) encapsulating all the points that I wished to make.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing the debate here today at Westminster. The debate is not so much about a Claim of Right of the people of Scotland; it is more a claim by the SNP to have a right to determine the will of the Scottish people. There is nothing new in that position. I have heard it for almost 30 years. As has already been mentioned, we had a thorough, full debate during the Scottish referendum in the two years leading up to the September 2014 referendum.
All the issues were extensively discussed round the family kitchen tables, in schools, in businesses and at the highest political arena. Even during those debates the SNP repeatedly said through their senior politicians that the exercise of the sovereign will of the Scottish people would be a once in a lifetime, once in a generation matter. Implicit in that statement is that once in a lifetime, once in a generation must be about 40 or 50 years.
During that time, sovereign countries can enter and exit from international groupings, as, indeed, the United Kingdom is about to do by exiting from the international grouping of nations in the EU. At no point in the lead-up to the referendum did the SNP suggest that the exercise of the sovereign will of the Scottish people would be called into question, and that the SNP would have to assist the Scottish people once again—to help them think again and come to the answer that the SNP wants by having yet another referendum.
The SNP, rather shamelessly, has been doing nothing but grievance and gripe in the past two years, in this Chamber and in the House, and across the United Kingdom. All of us on the side of the United Kingdom are clear about why it is doing that; it is because it has one overriding objective, which is not to help the people of Scotland by furthering public services, reducing educational inequality and ensuring the quality of the Police Service of Scotland. Its objective is about none of those things: it is about ending the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Thus the Scottish nationalists will never agree to any ambitious proposal for the United Kingdom, particularly with the challenges and opportunities that we now face with Brexit. They have no interest in agreeing on a path that will benefit the sovereign will of the Scottish people. The only path they want to adopt in the months and years to come is that of gripe and grievance. Today’s debate is an example of that.
I am hearing a lot of grievance, and I do not think it is coming from the SNP speakers. The hon. Gentleman has used that phrase several times. Do he and his colleague the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath accept in principle the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine their form of government? The Conservatives, uniquely in Scotland, have never endorsed that language, which is contained in the Claim of Right.
I am merely reiterating the claim made by the hon. Gentleman and saying that if he accepts the key principle of that claim, which is that sovereignty lies with the Scottish people, surely he agrees that two years ago that sovereignty was exercised when they said they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
By the way, the Claim of Right does not define Scottish people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath confirmed this afternoon that the SNP determined the rules for the 2014 referendum, which excluded thousands of Scots men and women—Scottish people like me—from determining the future of Scotland. I and many hundreds of people in my position had to accept those rules. The view proffered by the Scottish National party that it somehow represents the sovereign will of the Scottish people is entirely dishonest because of its refusal time and again to accept that sovereign will, which is to stay part of the United Kingdom.
We have heard about powers. The Scottish Parliament has had unique powers since its creation in the late 1990s. We have seen little exercise by the SNP majority Government—and now minority Government—of those real and tangible powers for the benefit of the Scottish people because they simply do not want to improve matters. My right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath used the word “paradox”; I would say that it is clear that the exercise of powers that would benefit the people of Scotland might lead to their telling the SNP, “Everything is working fine under the United Kingdom.” That would go against the SNP argument, so the paradox might go both ways.
The truth is that the SNP exists for one reason alone—to end Great Britain. There is nothing that hon. Members on both sides of the House who believe in the United Kingdom can do that will satisfy that constitutional thirst for the destruction of our great and sovereign United Kingdom.
Today’s debate is yet more smoke and mirrors—another excuse to get a headline in the Scottish media, saying that SNP politicians are somehow the only ones who have the people of Scotland in mind. That is wrong. All of us who love the United Kingdom have the intentions and wishes of the Scottish, Northern Irish, Welsh and English people at heart, to work together for the betterment of all our peoples throughout the United Kingdom. If there is any Claim of Right to be had, it is the Claim of Right to live a peaceful, tolerant, successful, stable life in a stable and successful country—the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.
I wanted to start with a sentence about respect, but I am sad to say that I have heard precious little respect today, from the Members who have spoken, towards Scotland or its elected representatives. I am very sorry about that. There has been a lot of mention of the independence referendum, and I have wondered about the promises made by the people who galloped up over the border in the closing weeks before the referendum. There has been a lot of talk about grievance and gripe, but I wonder what Members make of the many people in Scotland—not simply the SNP, although that makes up a considerable part of the population—who are annoyed and upset about the promises made to them in the run-up to the independence referendum. They included the protection of jobs at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs; staying in the EU, as I mentioned earlier; the protection of shipbuilding jobs; and a vow that falls far short of what is commonly meant by home rule. Those promises were sold to the people of Scotland, and I urge Members to bear that in mind when they are addressing SNP Members.
There were certainly members of the commission who were unhappy. None of the SNP amendments to the Scotland Bill were accepted for consideration until it went through to the unelected House of Lords, which is laughable.
To get back to the issue of respect, politicians, monarchs and bureaucrats need to understand and accept that powers lie with the people we serve, not with us. It is about knowing that the colossus that bestrides the world stage is people power and that those who lead are servants of the people, not masters. That is what the Claim of Right is. It is a declaration that the people are sovereign, as has been mentioned, and that it is in their gift to decide how that sovereignty should be used. Governments and Parliaments rule only with the consent of the people, and they exist only because the people allow them to. That is a reality that politicians forget at their peril.
It is important to note a clear difference between the attitudes struck towards Parliament in Scotland and in England. I understand that that point of difference is also noted in the legal concept of sovereignty in each nation. In England there is a belief in, tradition of, and historical precedent for the absolute sovereignty of Parliament, but there is no such belief in Scotland. The Scots’ attitude, and our constitutional law—which perhaps my learned friends will confirm—is that sovereignty rests with the people. That principle is embedded in the 1320 declaration of Arbroath, in which the King and future kings were warned that if they displeased the people, the people would elect another king—more like a president than a king, I suppose. That principle is embedded in the Claim of Right.
It is not quite right to say that no Conservative has ever acknowledged that principle, because it was acknowledged by the current Chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), when he said in a debate in the House on 22 May 1997:
“The ultimate sovereignty of the Scottish and Welsh peoples is a fact. Whatever the niceties of international law, Scotland and Wales can claim the right of self-determination if that is what they want”.—[Official Report, 22 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 872.]
It took a bit of time from the publication of the Claim of Right to the interim solution—the creation of a devolved Administration—but 10 years is nothing in the great scheme of things, and in the march of nations it is but a blink of an eye. I have to say, though, that the Conservatives have a lot to thank the Claim of Right and Scottish devolution for—they saved their party. In fact, the current Scottish Secretary owes his political career to the Scottish Parliament. There had been few opportunities for Tory politicians in Scotland, even those who had previously been Social Democratic party councillors. The proportional representational element of the Scottish electoral system revived a party that was frankly dying, and which had ironically opposed its creation in the first place. Democracy, properly energised, gives some strange, interesting and unexpected results.
The Claim of Right was democracy in action. It emerged from civic Scotland, the Churches, the trade unions, small business and organisations the length and breadth of the country as a demand to address the democratic deficit that arose from being governed by a Government who could not command support in Scotland. It is interesting to note that John Major’s Government had 14% of the Members representing Scottish seats while the current Government have a bit less than 2%, so there is work still to be done in removing that democratic deficit from Scotland and rendering those of us who are Scots MPs redundant.
You are very kind, Mr Bone.
Independence, in our view, is the logical end point for the journey that the Scottish Constitutional Convention set out on, and it is interesting that the original convention refused to countenance that possibility—there has been some mention of that. I am told that that is why the Scottish National party stepped away from the convention. It was some years before my time in the party, but I am told that the prospect of devolution caused great debate about whether it was good for Scotland, and that the refusal even to discuss independence in the convention was the final straw. My much older and more grizzled colleagues will be able to correct the record if I have misspoken in that respect—they have long and detailed memories.
The Claim of Right, resting on the principle that the people are sovereign and imbued with a notion of changing the form of government to address a democratic deficit, has an increased resonance now. In June, the UK voted to leave the EU. Scotland did not. Some 52% of UK voters voted leave, and 62% of Scottish voters voted remain—untimely ripped from the European Union were we. The democratic deficit remains stark, real and unrelenting. The conditions that necessitated the Claim of Right and the creation of the devolved Administration and Parliament in Edinburgh remain.
There is but one answer that will address that deficit and Scotland’s needs; one simple, elegant solution—the dissolution of the UK, Scottish independence and the creation of good neighbours as separate nations. No one has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No one can tell a country, “This far and no further”. The ultimate sovereignty of the Scottish and Welsh peoples is a fact. Scotland’s march goes on, and independence beckons.
I remind the Front-Bench speakers that they will now have a maximum of eight minutes each, and I remind the Minister that under the new procedure he should allow at least two minutes for the proposer of the motion to sum up. I call Patrick Grady—I am sorry, Peter Grant.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I think that means we are quits for the time my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) became me on the list when the debate was originally tabled.
I have perhaps misunderstood something from the reading I have done to refresh my mind about the various Claims of Right for Scotland and from listening to someone who presumably knows about the matter, because he led the debate. I thought that the Claim of Right for Scotland was about the people, but all we have heard from the Better Together Benches has been about political parties, Governments and political leaders. There has been precious little about the people. I still do not know whether either of the Conservative Members who spoke agree with the sacrosanct fact that sovereignty in Scotland resides with the people and that the people have the right to decide.
Well, there we have it. Given an explicit opportunity, one of the few Conservatives who could be bothered to turn up to the debate has refused point blank to accept what has been established in our nation since 1320—that sovereignty resides with the people. I cannot help wondering how much less of a constitutional boorach England would be in right now if it had a fundamental acceptance of the sovereignty of the people.
We spent three hours in this room yesterday talking about a misguided, I think, but understandable demand from more than 4 million people to have some kind of rerun of the European Union referendum and set a threshold, because they were so bitterly disappointed with the result. A lot of the argument was constitutional nicety about whether Parliament has the right to ignore that result and hold referendums until it gets the right result, or just to say, “We’re staying in the European Union anyway.” Fundamentally, the answer is that no one really knows, because England does not have the benefit of a clear statement about where constitutional sovereignty ultimately lies. If sovereignty lies with Parliament, the European Union referendum was advisory only. Wisely, very few people have had the temerity to suggest that, either before the vote or since.
I want to go back to some of the documents that constitute the Claim of Right for Scotland. The Better Together parties, through their determination to carry on with the #snpbad hashtag, have turned the issue into an attack on the SNP despite the fact that the 1689 Act was a wee bit before the SNP had even been thought of. They have missed a chance to celebrate a collection of documents that show the way forward for democracies even to this day.
The hon. Gentleman keeps referring to the Better Together parties celebrating those documents, but his party did not agree or sign up to them, so we need to get on to the substance of the SNP’s position on the Claim of Right. I have made my position clear, which is that the Scottish people have voted to stay part of the United Kingdom—that is the substance and the spirit of the Claim of Right.
As I have just said, one of the documents I am talking about is the Claim of Right Act 1689. Guilty: the SNP did not sign up to that. We did not vote for it. We did not exist—neither did the Labour party for that matter.
In the preamble to the 1689 Act—I apologise, the language is kind of 1689, but I will not try to say it in an Edinburgh accent—the Scottish Parliament denounced its sovereign king, who did:
“Invade the fundamentall Constitution of this Kingdome And altered it from a legall limited monarchy to ane Arbitrary Despotick power and in a publick proclamation asserted ane absolute power”.
As long ago as 1689, the Scottish Parliament, which at that time was not the most democratic or egalitarian bunch of people, regarded that statement as a long-established fact—that the king had to be answerable to the Parliament and thereby to the people, and that the concept of an absolute monarchy was utterly alien.
The concept goes back even further, to 1320, to a document some parts of which many people will be familiar with to the detriment of others: the declaration of Arbroath. It is usually recognised as a declaration of Scottish independence, but it is also a declaration of the sovereignty of the people. In describing how Robert the Bruce came to be King of Scots—not King of Scotland—the Scots nobles at that time credited his accession to the throne to
“divine providence, his succession to his right according to our laws and customs…and the due consent and assent of us all”.
Even in 1320, someone who had contributed so greatly to the wellbeing of the nation as Robert the Bruce had no right to call himself King of Scots unless the Scots were prepared to accept him.
A lot of the 1689 Act’s anti-Catholic rhetoric would not go down too well today, just as the anti-Semitism of parts of Magna Carta is perhaps better left in the 13th century. Long before there was talk of any of the political parties in existence just now, and long before the grievance politics we are seeing just now, the documents I am talking about established a principle that can be held up as a beacon, as it has been for centuries in Scotland. It can be held up as an example of how to sort out the mess that the Government have got England, and to an extent Wales, into. It is being held up as a beacon elsewhere, because the declaration of 1320 became the framework on which the American declaration of independence and constitution were founded. I noticed that the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) suggested that an independent Scotland would have no trade ties with England. I have not checked the recent figures for trade between Britain and its former colony across the Atlantic, but I do not think anyone would argue that there has been no trade between Britain and the United States of America since independence.
Talking about the Claim of Right for Scotland does not mean that we are arguing about whether Scotland should be independent, or about who should form the Government of Scotland and what promises they should be implementing. We are arguing about something much more important than that, and I am frankly appalled that there is any disagreement with it. We are talking about the fact that in the nation of Scotland, the people of Scotland are sovereign. There is no doubt in the hearts and minds of the people of Scotland as to who we mean by that. We mean those who have chosen to come and live among us. That is why I am enormously proud that my Polish constituents, my French constituents, my Slovakian constituents, my English constituents and my Scots-born constituents are regarded as democratically equal in every election and every electoral test that the Scottish Parliament has the right to legislate over. It was shocking that so many of them were not allowed to decide whether we would be taken out of the European Union.
While we are talking about the Claim of Right for Scotland, just for an hour or two could we not have forgotten about this ingrained hatred of the SNP and everything we stand for? People can disagree with what we want—that is a democratic right—but they should not use that as an excuse to usurp the absolute right of the people of Scotland to take decisions for ourselves. Incidentally, yesterday we were challenged by one of the Tories in the European debate to have faith in our country. We have faith in our country. As Hugh MacDiarmid said:
“For we have faith in Scotland’s hidden powers
The present’s theirs, but all the past and future’s ours”.
It is a privilege to be here before you today, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate.
I am proud that the Labour party is the party of devolution. The Labour party pushed for devolution while in opposition and supported the constitutional convention in every way. We made sure it worked and saw it embraced by the Scottish people. We have consistently supported more powers for Scotland, even when we have not been in a position to implement those additional powers in the devolved Administration. We were supportive of the in/out referendum in 2014 and we were the ones who drove the vow that the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) spoke about. The people of Scotland overwhelmingly supported that vow less than two years ago. That led to the Smith commission, which has delivered to Scotland the most complete and powerful devolved Administration on Earth.
On a personal note, I have been an ardent supporter of devolution for many years. I was the chair of the policy committee of Unison in the late 1990s. During that time, we committed funds, practical and political support and physical resources to London, Wales and Northern Ireland and in particular to Scotland, where we were an integral part of the civil society voice that drove forward the constitutional convention. Things have changed in recent days. We know that the British public’s decision to vote for Brexit, whether we agree or disagree with that outcome, has left the United Kingdom fractured. That is the nature of politics. We make decisions—in this case the electorate made the decision for us—knowing that there will be others who disagree with the outcome. While we are in such a fragile economic state, we have a duty to the people to ensure that we do not exacerbate the situation.
Everyone in the Chamber knows the end goal for the Scottish National party. The clue is in the name; it is written on the tin. The question we must ask ourselves, though, is whether now is the time to be pushing that agenda. I take on board what the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said. I respect the Scottish people. Let me set the record straight: unlike some, I would never say that the Scottish people are unable to choose a Government who represent their best interests. Nor would I say that were Scotland to remove itself from the UK, the country would become destitute and cease to be. What I would say, however, is that there have been two referendums in two years. That is a matter of fact. There was one for the people of Scotland and one for the people of the United Kingdom as a whole. In both, the people of Scotland voted to remain as members of those Unions. Is it therefore right to remove them from those Unions against their democratic will?
In the EU referendum in June, 62% of the Scottish electorate exercised their right to vote. In the independence referendum in September 2014, 85% of the same electorate exercised that very same right. The Labour party is the party that is willing to explore the possibility of fulfilling the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed in both referendums to see whether we can give them what they have asked for.
The SNP claims there has been a real shift in public opinion since the independence question and the EU referendum. That is not borne out by what has come over very clearly in public opinion polls. The latest YouGov survey had 54% of those polled expressing their desire to remain within the UK, despite the EU referendum result. Only 37% said they would back another referendum. Are we really saying that that shift warrants a second referendum? Time and again, I have sat and listened to SNP Members expressing their discontent at the people of Scotland repeatedly being ignored by a Government not of their choice. This may come as a surprise to the SNP, but that problem is not experienced solely in Scotland. My constituents in Blaydon elected me as their MP. Only 16% of my constituents voted for the Tories, meaning that a party voted for by only 16% of my constituents is now governing them. As much as it may not be particularly palatable, that is democracy, no matter how much we might not like it.
What is contrary to the principles of democracy, however, is attempting to defy the wishes of the electorate by attempting to use their vote in one referendum to supersede the other. The purpose of devolution was to allow the devolved Administrations to govern themselves and deal with issues that are particularly prevalent in their areas. We are increasingly facing scenarios where those powers go unused, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) so eloquently said. I am referring to the refusal by the SNP Government at Holyrood to use their newly devolved additional income tax-raising powers to alleviate the cuts imposed on them by the Tory Government. The plans proposed by Scottish Labour to raise income tax by 1% would have generated an estimated £600 million a year for the Scottish Government. That would be enough to alleviate the cuts affecting the poor and most vulnerable in our society and to support vital public services.
To use one example, NHS Scotland is facing enormous cuts. In Glasgow alone, it is estimated that there will be cuts of £258 million by 2021. The refusal to raise income tax strikes me as odd. After all, we are dealing with a self-proclaimed left-wing party—a party that surely would wish to do its utmost to alleviate the cuts to the poorest in society and to protect their public services. If we had those powers in Blaydon, I would ensure that we used them to protect the poor, the vulnerable, the sick and the disabled so that they would not suffer any more than they already have at the hands of the Tory Government.
If increasing income tax is such a fantastic idea, how does the hon. Gentleman explain the fact that on the back of that promise, his party had the worst electoral disaster in Scotland for more than 100 years and is now even less popular in Scotland than the Conservatives?
The whole debate is about the will of the people. People chose not to go for that, and that is their choice. Scotland, despite the claims made by the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath about Ruth Davidson, still remains historically a socialist heartland. The majority of the electorate are inherently socialist. I therefore argue that to have a Government who would introduce and implement socialist policies, their only option now is to choose Labour.
I turn to the UK Government and express my utter dismay at a piece of correspondence I received recently. The correspondence came in the form of a letter from Citizens Advice Scotland that drew my attention to a report it produced on the poverty premium in Scotland. The report highlights the issues faced by those on the breadline—those who have to choose between electricity and food, as well as those who are forced to go to payday loan companies to make ends meet. The report looks at the impact that has on their mental and physical health and their personal relationships. Those are the daily problems that people face, and they are the issues we should be dealing with. It is what the Labour party would do, and it is what the SNP should be doing. I say to Members from Scotland: please stop talking about constitutional matters and get down to the business of actually helping the people of Scotland. If they did that, they would get more respect.
I am genuinely grateful to hon. Members for the history lesson that I have received today, but I am worried about the problems facing the people in the present and the huge uncertainties we face in the future. That is what we should be spending time talking about in this place and in Holyrood.
I start by saying what a pleasure it is to appear before you, Mr Bone, a fellow Member from Northamptonshire. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate, which is one in a series along similar lines, I think, that have been secured. It has been an important opportunity to discuss the democratic tradition in Scotland, of which both the 1689 and 1989 Claim of Right documents form an important part, and to highlight the significance of that tradition today. It is good to be reminded that the constitutional issues which we grapple with are not new. Of course, it is arguable that the Claim of Right was put into practice in 2014, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) mentioned. The people had a say then—they voted to stay in the United Kingdom and that should be respected.
The United Kingdom shares a democratic tradition, exemplified by the Parliament in which we are gathered today, which works in harmony with and not against the particular traditions of Scotland. That was recognised in the devolution settlement, for which the 1989 Claim of Right, drawn up by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, helped make the case, and which was voted for in the 1997 referendum and reaffirmed in the 2014 referendum. That settlement respects the right of the Scottish people to have a say, in two Parliaments, on a range of important issues affecting their lives while remaining a strong and vital part of the United Kingdom.
Most recently, the Scotland Act 2016 ensures that the Scottish Parliament has a significantly greater say on matters including taxation and welfare support in Scotland, putting into practice the agreement of the Smith commission, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) alluded. That agreement was reached by all the major parties in Scotland. The heads of agreement in the commission’s report recognise the principles of the 1989 Claim of Right by citing
“the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.”
The Act now being implemented, with a number of its new powers having already come in force, provides the right balance to the devolution settlement and will create a more powerful and accountable Scottish Parliament within a strengthened UK. That is what the people of Scotland voted for. It balances the desire for more decisions to be taken in Scotland, closer to those they affect, with retaining the strength and security which come from membership of the larger United Kingdom and for which people voted in the crucial, once-in-a-lifetime referendum in 2014.
The Scottish Parliament at present has extensive powers. Today, it has a budget of around £30 billion, but with little responsibility for raising the funds it spends. The 2016 Act, when implemented, will provide the Scottish Parliament with much greater tax-raising powers. From responsibility for raising around 10% of what it spends today, Holyrood will in future be responsible for raising more than 50% of what it spends. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath mentioned, the Scottish National party is not currently using the powers that it has, and one can draw conclusions from that.
The Scottish Parliament will be given unprecedented flexibilities on income tax to set income tax rates and thresholds for earned income, including the ability to introduce new bands. These crucial powers represent around £12 billion of income tax revenues. In addition, there are extensive new powers over welfare and employment support, which allow the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to support those who need it in a way that reflects Scottish circumstances.
What is important now is how those new powers will be used for the benefit of people in Scotland. We respect the importance of historical traditions and we have heard a great deal this afternoon about the 1689 Claim of Right. Traditions are very important, but the priority should be the future. We have delivered on our commitments in the Smith commission, and the United Kingdom Government will support the Scottish Government using those powers in the interests of the Scottish people.
On the outcome of the EU referendum, the Prime Minister has had constructive discussions with the First Minister and has made her position clear. Hon. Members may have heard that position enunciated frequently: Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it. It was a high priority for the Prime Minister to visit Scotland and meet the First Minister to discuss that matter very soon after she became Prime Minister, but in 2014 the Scottish people decided in a legal, fair and decisive referendum to remain a strong part of the UK. That is a vivid example of the Claim of Right in force, and should be respected. That is how we will now approach our negotiations for leaving the EU—together as one United Kingdom. I say to the SNP that our focus should now be on working together to get the best deal for Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom in the negotiations with the European Union. The people of Scotland will expect the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments to work closely together, as part of team UK, to find a constructive way forward and therefore, as we prepare for a new negotiation with the European Union, we will fully involve the Scottish Government. I say in the strongest terms that our aim should be to unite to ensure the best deal for Scotland and the whole United Kingdom as we take forward the necessary work following the referendum result.
The 1689 Claim of Right and its more recent successor are important documents that reflect a venerable democratic tradition in Scotland, but they should not be invoked now in an attempt to justify another independence referendum. That is not what should happen. Respecting the will of the Scottish people means respecting the result of two referendums by ensuring that we negotiate an exit from the European Union that achieves the best deal for Scotland so that it remains stronger within the United Kingdom. The focus now should be on working together to achieve that aim and, at the same time, on ensuring that the significant new powers that the Scottish Parliament has are implemented and used in such a way that delivers practical benefits for the Scottish people.
I am very grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken time to participate in the debate in a very constructive and good-spirited manner. I was not trying to rerun the arguments of the independence referendum—my point is that the circumstances have changed significantly since then. What I wanted to understand—I am not entirely sure that it has become any clearer—is the Government’s position on the principle of the sovereignty of the people of Scotland. The Conservatives never endorsed the Claim of Right and, by the end of the day, still have not. That is going to be particularly important in the context of decisions that will come to this Parliament on the future of our membership of the European convention on human rights and on the possibility of a British Bill of Rights. It will be important for the decisions that the Scottish Parliament, founded on the back of the Claim of Right and a referendum, will have to make, on a cross-party basis, about the potential for any future independence referendum.
I have heard the accusations that we are navel-gazing and talking about constitutional matters. Well, the constitution is still reserved to Westminster. All the examples I gave of policies that are against the will of the people of Scotland are policies that are reserved to Westminster. While we have been debating this, the Scottish Government have been laying out their programme for government, for progressive reform, for a more socially just Scotland—an ambitious vision—using the powers that we have and that have been endorsed three times in Scottish general elections where the Scottish National party was elected to Government. I would say to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who said that the clue to our purpose is in our name, that our name is the Scottish National party and not the Scottish nationalist party.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Claim of Right for Scotland.
Mindfulness in Schools
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered mindfulness in schools.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is good to be able to highlight the work of those bringing mindfulness training into UK schools. I pay tribute to all those supporting the ongoing work of the all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness. In particular, I pay tribute to the enthusiasm and passion of our former colleague, Chris Ruane, who continues to be an outstanding ambassador for mindfulness.
Childhood is a time for acquiring life skills alongside academic knowledge. Good schools teach young people how to keep their bodies fit, and encourage regular exercise and a healthy diet to promote good physical health throughout life, but mental health is equally important to a child’s long-term wellbeing, academic success, behaviour and eventual life outcomes. The training of attention is a foundation on which the cultivation of good mental health rests. A growing body of scientific evidence shows the benefits of mindfulness to resilience, concentration and the relief of anxiety. An evidence-based approach to mental wellbeing should have a vital part to play in the way we prepare our children for life. It makes sense, therefore, for mindfulness to be taught more widely in our schools.
In my professional and personal life, I am aware of the need to be present, focused and grounded to face all that life and work throws at us—at the moment, that is quite a lot. I am one of about 130 MPs and peers who have taken a mindfulness course in Parliament in the past three and a half years. Like many of my colleagues, I found the course compelling, with personal benefits for everyday life.
Abundant research shows that attention is fundamental to mental functioning. The eight-week mindfulness course undertaken by parliamentarians taught us how to train our attention to remain more focused and engaged in the experience of the present moment. By steadying one’s attention in that way, one can learn to respond in more clear-headed, versatile and creative ways to daily choices and challenges, instead of being driven by habit and impulse. Those simple, accessible mental skills can be taught to everyone, but, as with so many things, the most effective time to learn is during childhood.
Children and young people are under tremendous pressure in today’s society. According to Government figures given to the all-party parliamentary group, 32.3% of 15 to 25-year-olds suffer one or more mental health difficulty, and 11% suffer mild, medium or severe forms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Only last week, the Children’s Society published disturbing evidence in its annual “Good Childhood Report” that levels of unhappiness are rising among 10 to 15-year-olds. It called for more mental health and wellbeing support to be made available in schools to tackle low wellbeing early. Mindfulness has a role there.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He rightly talks about the level of the alarming mental health crisis. Some 10% of children experience mental health issues between the ages of five and 16, and half of those who experience mental health issues as children go on to experience them as adults. Given the scale of the problem, does he agree that there is a real urgency to innovate?
My hon. Friend is absolutely on the money. If this issue can be tackled in childhood, it will be less of a problem in adulthood. At the moment, the picture in adulthood is not very pretty either. The use of antidepressants among adults has increased by 500% in the past 20 years in the UK. The World Health Organisation states that by 2030, the biggest health burden on the planet will be mental ill-health. Many factors have been suggested as explanations of the apparently massive increase in mental ill-health among the young, including family breakdown, school-related stress, bullying, cyber-bullying, information overload, watching too much TV and digital technology rewiring our very brains.
Mind with Heart, which runs teacher-training workshops on mindfulness, has shown that teaching children mindfulness helps to reduce bullying, which is a significant contributor to youth depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. Much of that stress and mental ill-health can be avoided or alleviated. The possibility of prevention or effective management is greatly increased if skills for managing one’s mind through life’s challenges are learned early. That is why it is vital that schools and colleges play their full part, not only in spotting and addressing mental ill-health, but in teaching the basic life skills of good mental health. A growing body of research suggests that mindfulness could have a foundational role to play in providing evidence-based mental training for children and young people.
Following the publication of more than 50 promising pilot studies, the Wellcome Trust is currently funding a £7 million research project into the effects of mindfulness training on pupils aged 11 to 18, led by Oxford University. It is likely to confirm and strengthen the existing scientific evidence base for the adoption of mindfulness education programmes in schools around the world. Staff from the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University have introduced a curriculum for seven to 11-year-olds and are developing a course for three to seven-year-olds. The university is also researching the impact of mindful parenting programmes.
One of the fathers of modern psychology, William James, said in the 1890s that,
“the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No-one is”
master of himself
“if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”
The courses and curriculums I mentioned not only define but deliver that ideal. There is promising evidence that mindfulness training enhances executive control and emotional regulation in children and adolescents, in line with adult research. Those crucial contributors to self-regulation underpin not only emotional wellbeing but effective learning and academic attainment.
Research highlighted by the prominent American psychologist, Daniel Goleman, show those capabilities to be the biggest determinants of life’s outcome. They improve concentration, response to stress and meta-cognition, all of which are crucial skills for learning. They support effective decision making and creativity. In other words, the soft skills are the foundation of the hard skills.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those soft skills also provide a brake between thought and action? In the case of self-harming, which seems to be increasing exponentially, they are an important brake on action and on injuring oneself—particularly for girls. Some of our schools are becoming the biggest procurers of mental health services outside the NHS.
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. The opportunity for reflection, attention, thought and pause is encouraged through mindfulness training.
At the launch of our all-party group, it was wonderful to see 10-year-olds and teenagers showing an impressive understanding of the workings of the brain, demonstrating absolutely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). They knew about the role of the tiny reptilian part of the brain, the amygdala, which hijacks higher psychological functions such as kindness, creativity and compassion; they spoke about practising regular mindfulness meditation in order to remain anchored in the present, rather than being swept away by strong emotion; and they explained the difference that such training made to their lives, with the ability to make considered responses, rather than being the victim of impulsive reaction—in many ways, exactly the point made by my hon. Friend.
To back up my hon. Friends, I should say that many hon. Members, including me, have visited mindfulness programmes in our constituencies. I was struck by how highly the programmes were talked of by people, and by how enthusiastic they were about them and the techniques. Does my hon. Friend agree that we would welcome hearing from the Minister that he is willing to visit some such programmes?
That is a very good idea. I suspect that the Minister will be delighted to seize the opportunity when he responds to the debate. I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention—she is right that seeing such programmes being delivered is inspirational.
Teachers need the training to deliver the courses. This week, one teacher contacted me to say that she had paid for herself to become a qualified mindfulness teacher, and she has seen a remarkable impact on her students from the courses she teaches. As she rightly points out, however, we need courses to be run for the teachers themselves, because they need to embody mindfulness before it can be taught effectively. We then need teachers to be taught how to teach it.
In the context of education, our all-party group on mindfulness is concerned not only with pupils and students, but with those who work in education. Sadly, according to the statistics, the challenges that they face are compelling. According to an NASUWT survey, half the teachers polled had visited their doctor with work-related physical or mental health issues; more than three quarters of them had reported anxiety; and 86% had suffered sleeplessness. Mindfulness has the potential to tackle such issues.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I had a view of some research in a 2014 Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at Montreal University, who looked at 209 studies covering more than 12,000 people, concluded that mindfulness is especially effective to reduce anxiety, depression and stress. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that mindfulness would be extremely beneficial for young people to use as a tool to cope with stress and anxiety, be it social, exam-related or otherwise?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making a powerful point that mindfulness is extremely useful throughout life. For example, it can also help with transition when people have long-term health conditions, which is beneficial for the person and for our public services.
Absolutely—another intervention that was worth taking, although my hon. Friend was a little tardy in arriving.
Before the recess, I chaired a meeting in Parliament at which Professor Craig Hassed of Monash University, Melbourne, informed MPs about work he has been doing for 25 years to introduce trainee doctors and teachers to mindfulness as part of their curriculum. It would be good to see that practice emulated in British professional training.
To conclude, in the past few years we have made real progress in the field of mindfulness in education, but a great deal more can be done. A strategy that considers how best to train the attention of young people from childhood through adolescence and early adulthood would help to stem the tsunami of mental ill-health that is enveloping the youth of the western world, while simultaneously supporting learning and helping to tackle behavioural issues.
Mindfulness training offers preventive strategies to grow resilience in our young people. With mental health issues on the rise in schools and colleges, and CAMHS—child and adolescent mental health services—under pressure throughout the country, it is imperative for us to seize the opportunity to make that resilience training a natural part of our children’s education. I am proud to be working alongside mindfulness advocates, educationalists, academics, scientists and fellow politicians, across party, in taking the issues forward for the benefit of the next generation.
The all-party group has had consistently positive responses from Education Ministers, who have been keen to work with us. For example, in 2014 the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), then an Education Minister, met the group and we had a useful discussion; and last October the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), then the Secretary of State for Education, spoke at the launch of our APG report, “Mindful Nation UK”.
I thank the Minister present for already agreeing to meet a cross-party delegation in the near future to discuss issues further. Meanwhile, I would be interested if he took up the offer so well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden): to visit a school where mindfulness is being taught, so he may see that at first hand. Will the Minister commit to support the growth of mindfulness courses in schools for children and staff? Will he also work with his ministerial colleagues to look at the latest research into, and best practice for, the wellbeing of teachers to ensure that they have the psychological and emotional resources to provide world-class teaching for our children and young people?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) was able to secure the debate, and I thank him for a thorough, informative and thoughtful contribution. Ensuring the wellbeing, happiness and success of our children and young people is a top priority for me, as it is for him. The debate is timely in that, given the change of Government, I have recently taken on departmental responsibility for children’s mental health, which is an area that I feel passionately about and with which I have been involved through my work for children in care.
I am fortunate to have been the Children’s Minister for four years. Throughout, my focus has been on improving the lives of all children in our society, in particular the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Now, I will be working closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) in her new role as the Under-Secretary of State for Health with direct responsibility for child and adolescent mental health, as well as with ministerial colleagues in other Departments, to ensure that we garner knowledge about and growing evidence for the impact that we can have if we work earlier, more collaboratively and with more conviction to tackle such issues.
One of the Government’s main priorities is to prepare all young people, wherever they live and whatever their background, for life in modern Britain, to ensure that they all have the opportunity to develop necessary character and resilience and to grow up to become well-rounded individuals who can make a positive contribution to society. I am in no doubt that positive wellbeing—emotional, as well as physical and mental—the ability to cope with life’s challenges, and good mental health are key aspects in achieving just that. We still have a long way to go, but we are working hard to make real and lasting improvements. We all have to acknowledge that, historically, the importance of good mental health has not been prioritised in the same way as physical health, despite the fact that the impact of poor mental health can be just as profound on young people’s education, overall health and life chances.
That alone will not compensate for all the years in which the area has been underfunded and under-prioritised, but yes, we have committed £1.4 billion in funding to turn around and transform services, asking local areas to identify the needs of their local populations and to look at developing new approaches, in particular those focused on upstream investment in preventive approaches. At the same time, national organisations such as the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which I co-chair, are working to improve all aspects of internet safety, including on cyber-bullying and self-harm.
As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, and as we know from a 2004 study by the Office for National Statistics, about one in 10 children and young people had a diagnosable mental health disorder—the equivalent of three in every classroom—and another four or five in each class had poor mental health. That was 12 years ago, and due to the huge and in some ways unimaginable changes in society since then, young people are growing up in a very different environment from the one in which we grew up and are facing a whole new set of challenges. A ChildLine report published in January suggested that modern-day pressures such as cyber-bullying and social media are affecting children’s confidence and self-esteem. Children cannot unplug from their online world, and that is changing the shape of many of their relationships and the pressures that they come under at a much more tender age. In order to understand much better the impact of that, the Department of Health is undertaking a prevalence survey to look at the state of the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children and young people across the country. When that survey’s findings are reported in 2018, they will give us a comprehensive and far clearer picture of what young people need.
There is still much more for us to learn and do to enable all children to enjoy good mental health and emotional wellbeing, and I completely agree that schools and colleges have a vital role in achieving that. That is where mindfulness—a modern innovation born from the deepest traditions of meditation—comes in. Such approaches, which focus on building skills and resilience to help children and young people to be far more aware of their own mental health and give them the confidence to ask for help when they need it, have the potential to be incredibly useful when used in school and college settings.
I have been interested for a while in how mindfulness can be used to help children and young people to focus their attention and develop their concentration skills—a real problem for many youngsters at a much younger age than ever before. I have also been struck by the testimony of many teachers and pupils—we have heard more of that today—who have adopted this approach and found that they are calmer, more fulfilled and better able to deal with stress and anxiety. I took an interest in mindfulness because my dad was on “Desert Island Discs” earlier this year, and he spoke about some of the moments of acute stress in his life and the debilitating effect that often has, and about the importance of being able to talk to someone about that in the hope that help can be given, coping strategies can be worked out and stress can be pre-empted and prevented from developing in the first place. Again, from what I know, much of that appears to be at the heart of what mindfulness is all about.
Many schools successfully use mindfulness approaches such as those offered by the Mindfulness in Schools project, and some of our teaching schools, including the Alliance for Learning, offer mindfulness training to other schools, both as part of their staff continuing professional development and as a way of supporting their pupils. Anthony Seldon, the former head of Wellington College, is a strong advocate of that approach. I am keen to learn more about the impact of such courses and would welcome the opportunity to hear more about such approaches from members of the all-party parliamentary group—I am grateful to one of its co-chairs, the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for taking part in the debate—and to visit one of the mindfulness programmes in action. I am not sure whether we will necessarily end up in Wales, but I am sure that we will find a school that will give me a really good insight into the positive impact that mindfulness is having on its pupils and staff, and on the wider community.
It is important that schools and colleges are able to choose programmes and interventions that are right for them and their pupils. No single approach will be right in all circumstances, and it can be difficult for schools and colleges to know what is safe and most effective to offer to their pupils. Rightly, our first step is to have a better understanding of what schools and colleges are doing, so we are in the process of conducting a large-scale survey to ask them what approaches and interventions they use and which they find are the most effective. Mindfulness is specifically mentioned in that survey, so when the report is published early next year, we will have a much better idea about what is being provided and what difference it is making. That report will add to the evidence that is already being collected by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre through its mindfulness and resilience in adolescence research project, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, not to mention the APPG’s report, which I have had the opportunity to read.
Because schools need to decide what is best for their pupils, our approach is to support them by providing information, support, advice and guidance about the many options available to them. We have focused on four key areas of support: prevention, identification, early support and access to specialist help. The prevention strand covers a range of activities and programmes that raise awareness of mental health and emotional wellbeing and promote resilience. We want schools to have a whole-school approach that makes talking about feelings, emotions and wellbeing as normal for pupils as talking about their physical bodies. That might include lessons taught as part of the PSHE curriculum, whole-school programmes such as mindfulness that become a normal part of the school day, role play in drama lessons, or offering meditation or yoga sessions, which I know the hon. Gentleman is particularly keen on. I am a pilates man myself, but they both help mind as well as body.
Improving identification of potential problems, including increasing awareness of those who might be vulnerable to such problems, will help everyone to become more aware of the warning signs of a problem and help children and young people to become more confident about asking for help. Often, one of the biggest barriers is that they do not have that confidence.
Our voluntary and community sector grants programme has allowed us to support schools and teachers by working with the likes of the Anna Freud Centre and Place2Be, which develop really good programmes that enrich teachers’ knowledge, promote mental health education throughout the whole school and offer targeted support for those who need it. Teachers’ knowledge of mental health is supported through resources such as the excellent MindEd, which includes a module on mindfulness, and by funding new and existing projects such as MindEd for Families and the YoungMinds helpline for parents, we have been able to help to support identification outside school settings. One of the difficulties is that some problems are trapped away from the school, and that work is about how we manage to bring them to the surface by making children feel confident that even in the family setting, there is help for them should they need it.
When problems occur, early support can help to prevent them from getting worse. Schools and colleges have put in place a range of practices that are effective, such as having a named adult whom young people know they can turn to, or providing access to a school counsellor, as most schools already do. Many young people also want the option of talking safely to their peers about their concerns, so we are looking at what is involved in creating and running a good peer support programme. I was delighted that nearly 2,000 young people responded to our call for evidence, ensuring that their voices will be at the heart of what happens next, and we will publish our findings in the autumn.
However, there are still many circumstances in which despite all our best efforts, children and young people need to access specialist mental health support. To help improve joint working between education and health professionals, we have been part of a £3 million pilot with NHS England over the past year that has provided joint training to staff and tested how having a single point of contact in schools and child and adolescent mental health services can improve referrals to specialist services. The outcomes of that pilot are being independently evaluated, and we are looking at how we can share that learning and best practice so that more children can benefit from similar bespoke support.
Although mindfulness is only one way of addressing the stresses and strains of modern life, it is becoming more widely known and used, and I am sure more widely appreciated. Its definition, which is set out in the APPG report—
“paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness”—
is one that we should all heed when bouncing blindly from one day to the next. That is why I welcome the opportunity to get off the treadmill for a few hours and visit a school so I can perhaps practise some mindfulness myself.
As the evidence base grows and best practice becomes better known, mindfulness has the potential to play an important role in providing children and young people with the mental and emotional resilience that they need to fulfil their potential. That, I think, is what they call optimistic thinking.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered mindfulness in schools.
Educational Performance: Boys
Colleagues, this is a one-hour debate and it is massively over-subscribed. You are not all going to get in. If you keep your comments to three minutes, most of you will get in, but I am afraid that if you do not—with the exception of Mr McCartney, obviously—you are not all going to get in. Minister, you will have 10 minutes at the end. The SNP spokesman and the Labour spokesman will have five minutes each. I call Mr McCartney to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the educational performance of boys.
It is a pleasure to follow my greater Lincolnshire colleague, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who has now left, and to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Walker. I am pleased to see so many Members from both sides of the House here. I hope everyone will have an opportunity to take part in the debate, should they so wish.
I am delighted to lead the debate, because the educational underachievement of boys is a one nation issue. It is an equality and fairness issue and an issue that should be front and centre of the country’s conversation on education and social mobility. The issue of our gender education gap and its impact has not been addressed adequately by this House or by successive Governments of all colours and the education sector seems reluctant to take action on it. That is a shame. This issue is not just about working-class boys or no-income families, albeit those groups do need attention. It is an issue that affects boys across the board, including a group so often missed out—boys from low to low-middle income households.
As Members of this House, we all hold dear the desire to ensure that every young person in our great country has the opportunity to make the most of their life and their skills. We also want a cohesive society, the opportunity for social mobility for all and a successful economy—even more so in a positive post-Brexit economy. We may all have different ideas on how to achieve that, but surely our aims are all the same.
The reason for the debate is to set out what the gaps are, the impact to date, the reasons and what action needs to be taken, for it is such positive action to tackle this inequality that has been lacking, and which needs to be quickly addressed. We cannot afford to keep letting further generations of our boys down by not addressing this glaring gender education gap. Talk, or more talk and no action, will no longer pass muster.
It is also important to set out the framework of the debate, which is about closing the gap between the educational performance of boys and girls, but not at the cost of reducing girls’ performance. That is a socialist creed which I will not countenance. I want levels of attainment for all to be comparable and raised, not lowered. We need the performance of both to keep on improving, but for the gap between them to close.
It has to be recognised that the performance of boys has continued to improve over time. The number of boys going to university each year is 46,000 higher than a decade ago and there has been a steady improvement in GCSE and A-level results. What has stayed the same, though, is the clear gap between boys and girls, and in some areas such as higher education the gap is increasing. At key stage 2—in old money that is 11-year-olds—the pass rate gap is six percentage points and boys are often already behind on entering primary school. For five GCSEs including English and maths in England, the gap is now nine percentage points and in my county of Lincolnshire it is 10 percentage points. The gap at 16 years of age in Wales is 7.5%, in Scotland 7% and in Northern Ireland 7.3%. For the English baccalaureate the gap is just under 10%.
As we move further through the education system, at A-level the average grade for a boy is C and for a girl is C-plus, albeit a higher percentage of boys achieve three A’s or A*s than girls. In terms of higher education, fewer boys go to university, due to lower attainment in earlier school or college years—60,000 fewer in 2015, and there is a gap of more than 460,000 over the last 10 years. Results at university also show that boys will achieve lower grades and are more likely to drop out. Two thirds of all courses now have more women than men on them.
As we all know and see every day in our constituencies, while facts are one thing, it is the actual impact on the lives of individuals and their families that matters. The gap affects our community, our businesses and our ability to compete as a nation. I see its impact when driving around certain areas in the daytime and I see young men hanging around when they should be in work, on an apprenticeship or at university or college.
With reference to the impact on the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and all our constituencies, in some instances—in Northern Ireland, for example—targeted interventions have taken place. In particular, in literacy and numeracy we had a programme over two years that seemed to get to the nub of the problem. Unfortunately it did not go far enough and there was not enough money spent on it, but that was a good targeted intervention and we should look to projects like that for the future to try to address that problem.
I agree with my colleague, who makes a very good point, and it is something that I will cover later on in my speech. I am happy to take as many interventions as possible.
Most males who are not in education, employment or training are unemployed. For those men with no or low skills, that has an impact on their mental health, employment and predilection to commit crime. Those men constitute the largest group in our criminal justice system. When it comes to apprenticeships, there are now 30,000 more female apprentices, a trend and gap that has been in place for at least the past five years. After university, a lower percentage of male graduates will be in full-time work, a higher percentage will be unemployed and far fewer enter the professions. Nowadays, there are more women becoming doctors, vets, dentists, solicitors and teachers than men every year, which reflects the numbers taking related degrees. Twice as many women are now training to be a GP as men.
We can see that all played out when it comes to wages. According to the Office for National Statistics, on average men in full-time or part-time work under 29 years of age are paid less per hour on average than similarly aged women. That remarkable transition flies in the face of the shrill equal pay brigade, who while proclaiming the need for equality seem quietly to gloss over that fact when shouting from the rooftops with regard to equal pay. I want equal pay for those with equivalent experience and qualifications and skill levels regardless of their gender or age.
What is causing the gap—a gap that broadly was not there before the 1980s but which has been increasing since then? That has been an area of some contention, which may partly explain why so little investigation has so far taken place, because it is difficult to agree or find solutions if there is no agreement on what is causing the problem. In essence there are a number of themes.
The first is that boys develop more slowly in their teen years than girls, so boys and girls are not at the same natural development level, even when they are the same age. Many of us long ago accepted that boys and girls are different. The second is around social attitudes and background. There is some evidence that boys have less positive attitudes towards education than girls have, and that they receive less support at home. The role of fathers and/or role models is seen as vital to instilling in their sons the importance of education.
On that note of support at home, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the issues is with parents’ confidence in their own literacy? Reading to their children can be quite intimidating if their own standards of literacy are poor. Is it not therefore necessary for the Government to focus on that area to address the early years?
My colleague from Hazel Grove makes a very good point.
Perhaps longer working hours and one-parent families where the father is not the primary carer are also an issue. The economy has changed, so the value of job opportunities in masculine-type work, such as in heavy industry, has changed, or such jobs are not as available as they once were.
Another theme is whether the education system is boy-friendly. I believe that the educational system, schools and the sector as a whole are not focused enough on supporting boys. That could be because schools lack understanding about boys and what makes them tick. Practical education, a level of freedom to think and act for themselves, clear goal-setting, career and subject choice support, all within a clear disciplinary framework, are needed, as is an environment that nurtures and celebrates, and does not denigrate, masculinity. The situation is exacerbated by a lack of male teachers and role models in schools. If boys see only women in schools, in whatever roles, that reinforces their view that education is just for girls.
I and others have noticed that the majority of pictures in the national papers recently—each year, it seems—were just of girls celebrating their exam success, not boys and girls, which perhaps sends a subliminal message to boys that education and success are a girl issue and not for them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he not agree that one of the key things for young men in particular is motivation and aspiration? I note that a few years ago Ofsted said in a report that,
“a third of the schools failed to provide sufficient opportunities for students to engage directly with local businesses.”
Does he not think that if we get more businesses to provide role models and experiences for young men, they are more likely to get motivated about opportunities and then focus more on their studies to help them to achieve those goals and aspirations?
Indeed, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I point him in the direction of what is now Career Ready—it was formerly Career Academies UK. I helped to set up a Career Ready in my constituency. It is very much a London-and-south-east-centric charity, but I believe it needs to be rolled out across the country.
Perhaps the education sector shies away from any focus on boys because it is not politically correct. Certainly, there is deafening silence from the education trade unions and others. There would be no silence if the genders were reversed—of that I am sure. Also, the move from all-or-nothing exams to continual assessment at GCSE has been seen as favouring a female way of learning, albeit with the recent changes swinging the pendulum slightly back towards a level playing field.
I think this debate is very important and much needed, coming from an area that is still reliant on heavy industry—although there have been setbacks in the last couple of years, whether that be the steel sector or indeed potash mining or the chemical industry. What is of real concern, particularly for young men who seek skills-based training for employment, is the Brexit vote. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, my area of Teesside and east Durham was one of the primary areas of European social fund and European development fund funding for sector-specific training in industry, which primarily benefited young men who needed skills training to enter heavy industrial work.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. It should be remembered that this problem has arisen while we have been in the EU, not as the result of any prospect of leaving. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the initiatives that have been undertaken in the Greater Shankill area in my constituency, which is one of the most deprived areas, suffered a lot during the troubles and has a lot of educational underachievement among young boys? One of the things we have done is to create a children and young people’s zone, which brings together educationalists, school teachers, community activists and agencies of Government to work together with children from the earliest age to try to tackle this particular issue.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I thank him for making a good point, to which we should all pay attention. As I was saying, the pendulum has slightly swung back towards a level playing field and it will be interesting to see whether that makes any difference to the gender educational gap over the next few years.
Lastly, there is something else at play around the 16 to 18 age range regarding the welfare system, especially for low or no-income families: the effect on young men who may be reluctant to take up an apprenticeship because their families will lose their child benefits and it will affect their working tax credit. Some families do not want their sons or daughters to take up apprenticeships. That is an issue encountered by a well-respected and successful training provider in Lincolnshire called Lagat, which has made me aware of examples of opportunities being denied to young people of both genders because their families do not wish to be disadvantaged financially. My colleagues in Government need to take heed and act positively to ensure that this penalty is removed quickly.
Two things strike me about this issue. First, there is not a wholesale body of research or agreement on the causes, and it seems that the educational sector is not focused on the issue at all. That is despite the valuable work by pressure groups, charities and think tanks, and from organisations such as the Higher Education Policy Institute—particularly its “Report 84”, authored by Nick Hillman and Nicholas Robinson, with a foreword by Mary Curnock Cook, which I recommend to anyone who is interested in the issue. Other organisations doing good research on the matter include Save the Children, the boys reading commission, which is part of the National Literacy Trust, the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility Commission and many others.
Secondly, there does not seem to be agreement on what causes the gender educational gap, which makes it far harder to decide what to do to address the problem positively. I have set out the statistics, impacts and the broad debate on the causes, but what are the solutions? We know that the limited number—if there are any—of solutions that have been implemented are not working, because the gap is not closing.
The first theme is to encourage and instil in the minds of parents and sons that a good education is to their benefit, and to reinstil a sense of aspiration, pride and understanding. As Steve Biddulph’s books on parenting show, parents need to step up to the plate too, to ensure that boys are inspired and given opportunities to excel and aspire to do as well as their fellow female pupils at all ages. Using practical examples, case studies, mentors, destination data, inspirational people from the local community, the National Citizen Service and other such methods will surely have a positive effect as quickly as possible. We have to provide clear reasons for boys to go to school and college and to concentrate and work hard while they are there. We need to communicate with parents to ensure that through the interaction they are offered they support boys every step of the way.
The fact that girls from low and no-income families still do better in educational attainment means that parental attitudes are not the only issue at play in this arena. The educational sector at a national and local level has to, and can, do more. There are certainly schemes that form part of university access agreements to persuade more boys to go to university. That is no criticism of universities, which need more boys to achieve the grades to be able to go, stay and not drop out. I believe, as do many others such as Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, that we need more male teachers in schools at every level. Fewer than one in six primary school teachers are male, with fewer than two in five at secondary level. That ratio is not improving on an equality level. That cannot go on, and I am confident it is one of the main causes of boys being behind their female classmates.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I will continue where I left off. We also need schools to rethink everything they do to ensure that it is boy-friendly and not just girl-friendly.
The third theme is to be positive about masculinity in schools. Boys need outlets for their creativity, energy and natural instincts. They need to know it is okay to be masculine, and that masculinity is the equal of femininity. It is a positive thing to like cars, engines, building sites, getting your hands dirty and playing sport. It is also a positive thing to like dancing, painting, sculpture, acting and writing plays, but we must not shy away, at any level, from celebrating what traditional male or masculine roles are; they are what we as males were born to do. It may also surprise some ladies that some males can multitask. Some of us can cook, wash, sew and manipulate a Dyson without instruction and make a damn good job of it.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not going to pick up on those particular points. Those in the room expressed their views on that for themselves. Given what the hon. Gentleman said about masculinity, what would he say to international research on 1.5 million 15-year-olds, across a range of countries around the globe, which shows that girls do better than boys even in those countries where girls’ rights are severely limited and gender equality is appalling, such as Qatar and Jordan?
Those are some of the points that we will discuss today—and might well do in the future, as the Chairman has indicated—so I thank the hon. Lady for her point.
We also like to compete at Scrabble, cards, Jenga, football, rugby, cricket, hockey and whatever else we might have the opportunity to engage in, and there is nothing wrong with that. I fear the over-feminisation of our education system has, and is, turning boys off education. We need to nurture men and play to their strengths. Boys want to be young men, and young men want to be grown men; that should be seen as a positive. Some say grammar schools could be the answer and they may be for some, but we need all schools to be successful.
I just want to put this on the record. In Northern Ireland only 19.7% of young Protestant boys actually achieve five or more GCSEs. That is an indication of the many per cent who do not achieve that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need for vocational courses with on-the-job training, and that they must be available at all large schools to enable those who do not have the academic ability to forge ahead vocationally?
I thank the hon. Gentleman from Northern Ireland, who never fails to make a good point in debates in Westminster Hall.
Bringing back secondary moderns for those who do not go to grammar schools and ensuring they attain the same results would cost a fortune, and may not be attainable in the short, or long, run. So any moves on this policy need to be well thought out. No one, whatever their gender or background, deserves to be left behind.
If I am anything, I am someone who believes in striving for a utopian, completely level playing field in life’s chances; but I am a realist and I know that such a dream can never be. I will do my best to ensure that our young people realise that, as my maternal grandma said to me and my younger brothers on more than one occasion, “No one can ever take your education away from you.” She wanted us to work hard at school and go on to college or university and it is only through the second, and perhaps third, chances that I have been granted, mainly through her sacrifices and those of my grandfather and parents, that I was able to achieve what I have. That is why I am honoured and privileged to stand in this place in front of hon. Members today as one of the 650 Members of Parliament who have been elected to represent their fellow countrywomen and men of all ages and levels of educational attainment.
Additionally, I believe we should also have three-year, five-year or seven-year apprenticeships equivalent to degrees but that are vocational for those who are non-academically minded. Those should of course be available to girls as well as to boys, but we need to think differently; it works in countries like Germany, so why not here? University is not for everyone, and certainly with an increase in participation rates from circa 5% in the early ’80s to 30% in the early ’90s and 47% now, it should not mean it is automatically the primary option for young people. The Labour con of the late 1990s to keep youth unemployment figures low is not a good reason to increase university attendance and participation, although I believe that wanting to win in a global economic race with a well-experienced, well-educated and motivated workforce across the myriad economic sectors is.
I find it odd that although we are all promoting more women to be engineers and scientists, there are no such reciprocal schemes for boys. Given the lack of young men now entering the professions, where are the schemes for young men enticing them to apply themselves and to enter professions where they are now underrepresented, such as teaching, medicine, law, psychology and a raft of other subjects and specialisms?
My final theme is about focus and political leadership. There has been precious little attention and focus from the Department for Education, or anyone else in Government and Whitehall for that matter, in terms of recognition, policy and action on this issue. Given that this pattern has emerged and then become embedded for three decades, it is for Governments of all shades, including the last Labour Government, to hang their heads in shame and hold their hands up in acknowledgment that they missed a trick and seek redemption.
I am almost certain that if the genders were reversed this current situation would not exist. Indeed, for more than 20 years copious amounts of taxpayers’ money have been successfully spent on encouraging female applications for STEM subjects and a plethora of degree subjects, college courses and, in more recent years, apprenticeships. That is all to be welcomed, but where has the focus and investment been for boys? I also looked at what focus there was from the Government Equalities Office, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the educational trade unions; little, if anything, was the result of such fruitless searches.
In conclusion, this subject is not going to go away. We cannot wait any longer for more generations of boys to fall behind girls educationally. That is why I believe the Government need to set up an implementation taskforce, as they have on so many other important policy areas. This is exactly such a policy area. The Government have rightly given much focus, policy and leadership on matters such as the lack of women on boards and the gender pay gap. There is an unarguable case that the Government should give the same level of focus, policy and leadership on the gender education gap as they have on those worthy issues that have received much media and BBC coverage in recent politically correct years.
The Department for Education and Ofsted need to step up to the plate and ensure that schools, whether run through local education authorities or as academies and free schools, are boy-friendly. The gender education gap is a very serious matter affecting boys, their families, communities, businesses and our country as a whole. It is a one nation issue, a fairness issue, an equality issue and an issue that has been ignored for far too long. Our boys’ underperformance at school deserves national attention and action. They, their teachers, parents, we as their Members of Parliament, and our nation should expect nothing less.
I apologise for being brusque. I would like to challenge the assertion made by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) that educational attainment is about gender: it is about social class and it is about the white working-class social class.
To quote the educational warrior Sir Michael Wilshaw from a speech in 2013 on his report “Unseen children: educational access and achievement 20 years on”:
“Let me emphasise, this is not a gender issue. Poor, low-income White British girls do very badly. So we should stop talking about ‘white working class boys’ as if they are the only challenge.”
Indeed, while boys receiving free school meals are consistently in the lowest-performing overall group at GCSE level, white girls receiving free school meals are consistently the next lowest-achieving group of girls. The attainment gap between children receiving free school meals and those who are not is evident even before a child reaches the age of four. The pattern continues throughout a child’s life. Only 32% of white working-class British students receiving free school meals achieved the GCSE benchmark last year. That is compared with 44% of mixed race students, 59% of Bangladeshi students, 42% of black Caribbean students and 47% of Pakistani students—all receiving free school meals. This is because the educational attainment of white working-class students of both genders has improved much more slowly than that of almost any other ethnic group over the past 10 years.
Optimistically, there is a world of difference between the performance of white working-class students in inadequate and in outstanding schools. What works for all, works even more with working-class students. I will just take the Harris Academies in south London. Last year, about 56% of white British students nationwide secured five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths, but at Harris Academy Greenwich 60% of white British students secured those grades. Just five years ago, the school was under special measures—not now. Under the excellent leadership of a strong principal, George McMillan, the school has undertaken an unimaginable transformation. Harris Academy Falconwood, just a mile away, has a staggering 73% of white British students securing those grades. Yet again, the rate of success at that school is incredible. In 2008 only 17% of its students achieved those grades, but under the leadership of the female principal Terrie Askew, the school is now judged “outstanding” by Ofsted.
In the time allowed, my hon. Friend will probably not be able to go into what is making the difference at those academies, but if she is able to, I would really appreciate it.
It is about doing more of what we know works for everybody else: more extra lessons, more tutorship and more assistance.
The two schools are very different and the gender of the head makes no difference; they are both excellent heads achieving excellent results for the white British, and therefore all other, students. It is about social class, and the sooner we recognise that and stand up and do something about it, the sooner we will make it better for everyone.
One million children have no significant contact with their fathers. Research recently cited by the Department for Work and Pensions says that children with highly involved dads do better at school, have higher self-esteem and are less likely to get in trouble in adolescence. If we say that male role models as teachers are important, how much more so for boys are father role models? Addressing family stability is critical and this is a social justice issue too, because in lower-income families there are far greater levels of family breakdown. We need to address that and to support them.
The Institute for Public Policy Research produced a report entitled “A long division”, which found that only about 20% of variability in pupils’ achievements is attributable to school-level factors. About 80% is attributable to pupil-level factors and particularly family influence. The IPPR says:
“Even if every school in the country was outstanding there would still be a substantial difference in performance”.
We need to help families strengthen, so that we can help these children and boys.
Here are some solutions, very quickly. First, the Government need to appoint a fatherhood champion. Secondly, they need to set up a fatherhood taskforce, perhaps mirroring the taskforce that my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) suggested, to develop a distinctive set of policies aimed at encouraging father engagement. Thirdly, all new fathers should be offered and encouraged to attend parenting classes. At present the majority who attend are from affluent families who say that they learn a little. A minority are from low-income families but when they do attend, they say they learn a lot.
We also know that a disproportionately high number of black boys are excluded from school. Does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a much greater understanding of the barriers and hurdles that these boys have to face, both inside and outside school, such as racism and, as she said, the absence of fathers?
I do. There is much evidence to show that parental involvement and support, even for the most disadvantaged children, can translate into good educational outcomes. Children from poor families where there is a strong commitment to learning achieve better results. For example, 69% of Chinese boys from low-income families gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C compared with just 17% of boys from white working-class backgrounds. Interestingly, the number is very similar for those from black Caribbean backgrounds, where again there is a high level of father absence.
To conclude the solutions, fourthly, every community should have a family hub. As chair of the all-party group on children’s centres, I recently published a report on that issue and I ask the Minister to look at it. I am talking about a place where every family can go to get help, to strengthen their family lives before they perhaps become troubled families or before a marriage begins to disintegrate completely, or to get help with a troubled teenager.
Fifthly, any efforts to regenerate the 100 worst sink estates in the UK should put family and relationship support at the heart of those new developments. Regeneration of the estates needs to go far beyond bricks and mortar if lives are to be transformed, and a healthy relationships fund should be properly resourced to ensure that parenting, couple relationship and family support programmes are included in the master planning processes, not just for this, but for the other Government initiatives such as troubled families, children’s mental health and parenting. They need to include a specific focus on the couple relationship and on strengthening the whole family to ensure that the additional benefits of family stability are reaped by these young boys.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. The educational performance of our children is a topic that deservedly occupies considerable time within not only this House but the other place. It is the most potent policy tool in the hands of Government to raise aspiration and improve social mobility, but today we are here to focus on a very specific aspect of this policy debate: the educational performance of boys. In turn, as a Member who represents a predominantly working-class constituency in the city of Bradford, I propose to narrow even further the focus of this debate to the underperformance of working-class boys within our school system.
Let me make it clear at the start that this is not a call for girls to level down but for boys—indeed, for both working-class boys and working-class girls—to level up. What does the desperate underperformance that is endemic across our country mean for the life chances of our working-class boys? Because of that underperformance, they are most likely to find themselves condemned to temporary, low-skilled and disjointed working lives that offer little career progression or job satisfaction. Perhaps more disturbingly, they will, beyond doubt, find themselves increasingly ill-equipped to compete in today’s dauntingly globalised world, where the rules of international commerce mean that my constituents are no longer competing with Leeds, Manchester or Sheffield, as in the last century, but increasingly with regional cities in Taiwan and Brazil and so on.
As ever, painting such bleak pictures must inevitably beg the question: what are this Government going to do? The answer is certainly not to rob Peter to pay Paul. Funding for other disadvantaged cohorts should and must be maintained. The real answer is to end the first real-terms cut in school funding—a policy of this Government—without delay. It is arguably the single most regressive policy of this Government. That is undeniable. I expect the predictable response from the Government to my call for increased funding will be—excuse me if I paraphrase—something about a “magic money tree”. We have all heard it before, but that is simplistic and little more than a diversionary tactic. There are always choices to be made about competing calls on hard-pressed public finances, and this Government without fail choose time and again to back the wrong side.
As a case in point, under this Government, a choice was made to continue the charitable status of private schools. That tax break at a time of the first real-term cuts in schools funding in over a generation is plainly wrong. It favours the privileged few over the disadvantaged many and prefers the entrenched élite over the undervalued majority. The hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenue to the Exchequer could, if that tax break were ended, be easily and swiftly redirected to tackle the unfairly disadvantaged in our school system and, in particular, to help address the desperate underperformance of working-class boys and working-class girls. Perhaps the Minister in his response will kindly offer the Government’s justification for their continuation of this unjust and damaging tax break.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins).
I would like to bring a different view to this debate. Although we have been talking about cities and inner cities, I represent a shire county, a rural area in west Cheshire. First of all, I declare an interest in that I am a white working-class poor boy. I left school at 16 with no qualifications and I was written off for low-paid employment, exactly as the hon. Lady talked about. I am also a governor of a school in my constituency. I feel passionate about helping poor, working-class people of any gender to succeed in life. I also have two boys and a little girl at state school.
The north-west is underperforming compared with the national average—71% of girls achieved five GCSEs at A* to C compared with 59% of boys. That is a gender gap of 12%. In my constituency, it is even worse—it is 15%. The total university applications from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are an equivalent number to the gender gap, so this is a massive issue for those of us in England.
White working-class boys are far less likely to go to university than any other group in the country and I say to the Minister that “coasting” schools in shire counties such as Cheshire have been an absolute scandal over many years. Some progress has been made by previous Governments—Labour Governments—in inner cities, certainly in London, but those of us representing shire counties in the north of England, for example, have been badly let down.
I am keen to allow other people to speak so I just ask the Minister to look at “coasting” local authority schools and schools generally in the northern shire counties to see what can be done to make sure that working-class boys, currently and in future, get the best opportunities available to them in a new globalised economy.
I just want to make a few quick points. I think it is well accepted that working-class children generally do less well in school, in university and later in professions. We have recently learned that boys are performing worse than girls, especially at a young age, which is concerning. It is a well-known fact that if someone’s linguistic skills are good, and if they have started learning those skills from a young age, they will inevitably perform far better at school and go on to university or an apprenticeship and get a good job.
My constituency is very much white working-class. I have particular concerns because only 71% of children under the age of five in my constituency achieve the expected standard of speech and language skills, which is well below the national average of 80%. There is also evidence of a significant gap between boys and girls. In fact, only 65% of boys are achieving the expected level, as opposed to 78% of young girls. That is a major gap, so it is right that we are debating the need to address the concerns about young boys. In Bolton, 290 five-year-old boys were already behind when they started school recently. If they had performed as well as the girls, 109 more would have met the expected standard.
We need to address the problem. I think everybody understands it and is aware of the issues, but what is the way forward? How do we address the inadequacies and problems? One way is to have more intervention in the early years. I am not trying to make a party political point, but Sure Start centres are a great way of helping a lot of young children from working-class backgrounds to get their linguistic skills up and perform better in school. We should have specialist early learning teachers in nurseries to impart skills and help young children. We also need to spend money on working with families to help them to educate their children within the home.
Some of the social issues that accompany this topic are important, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) about the importance of parents in preventing problems. I reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, as I entirely agree with her. In some respects, she could quite easily have been talking about some parts of my constituency.
I ask the Government for extra funding targeted at junior schools, primary schools, nurseries, and the families and parents of young people who have difficulties and issues. If we identify and target all aspects of the issue, young boys and girls should be able to do well and achieve their full potential.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) for raising this extremely important issue. It does exist, and we should not deny that. Many of us here represent white working-class areas, which adds the dimension that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned, but I do not want to dilute my hon. Friend’s strong message. We know that whatever measure we use, boys from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups perform less well at school.
In Telford, only 28% of white boys on free school meals achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C, whereas girls from similar backgrounds perform significantly better. Naturally, the boys who do not achieve that do not go on to higher education. The attainment gap starts early, and as they go through their lives without the tools they need to achieve their potential, the gap widens. As opportunities and options close down to them, the impact is felt in all areas of their life. More boys than girls experience behavioural difficulties, are excluded from school and are admitted to pupil referral units.
Many boys start to see themselves with a bad-boy image, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is so much that goes with that, including anger, frustration and self-harm, and then the life chances are set in stone. A downward spiral and a domino effect begins.
Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a physical dimension to the issue? Research from the University of California suggests that boys take longer to get going in the morning. They tend to need to sleep in later in the mornings and then work later into the evenings, and that may have implications, for example, for the timing of the school day.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which I completely understand because I have a teenage boy.
The same “lost boys” to whom the excellent Save the Children report refers then become lost young men in the criminal justice system—in the prison population, or joining gangs or committing knife crime—and it is harder and harder for them to get back on track and turn their lives around. Although it may be uncomfortable, we need to shine a light on the causes of that. All too often, it is a cycle of underachievement. The men in those boys’ lives may have had a bad experience of school, which they have then passed on to their children.
There is a culture of low aspiration and a pattern of cultural isolation, and young people find it difficult to break out of the world into which they are born or to see the limits beyond the horizons that have been set for them. While we in this place may get distracted by focusing on alternative school structures, curriculum content and mandatory personal, social, health and economic education, we must not forget those boys in Telford, those boys on free school meals or those boys in care.
At the core of what the Government must do is continuing to drive up standards in every school, creating opportunities for every child so that no one is left behind. In calling for the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln has taken the opportunity to make that point loud and clear. On behalf of the boys in my constituency who are struggling to achieve their potential, I thank him.
Unlike the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), to whom I express my thanks for securing the debate, I do not believe that this is a one nation issue. It is a global issue, and we need to broaden the debate so that we can learn lessons from countries as far away as necessary.
From 2000 to 2010, psychologists at the universities of Glasgow and Missouri looked at the educational achievements of 1.5 million 15-year-olds from around the world using the programme for international student assessment. They found that girls do better at school even in countries where women’s liberties are severely restricted. Girls outperform boys in maths and reading in 70% of countries, regardless of gender equality. Even in countries such as Qatar, which is infamous for its lack of gender awareness, the girls still outstrip the boys in educational performance.
There were only three regions in the world where boys outperformed girls. Bizarrely, those places were Colombia, Costa Rica and the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. We should look at those places and see what they are doing that we are not. The better performance of girls than boys happens regardless of high or low levels of social, political and economic inequality, and there is no significant difference between performance in the United Kingdom and the United States. We need to look at such things if we want to address the issue seriously.
In Scotland, we have taken steps to try to address the issue, but clearly the causes are fundamental and deep-rooted. We need to address it on an international basis and learn from one another. No child should be held back by their background or gender. We need a serious debate about what is going on globally, and we need to tackle the issue with a more holistic approach than just looking at counties and constituencies. It is far more deep-rooted than that.
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Walker. I will be as fast as I can. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) for securing this important debate.
It is disappointing that the gender gap starts before children go to school and goes all the way through to university. In 2014-15, 56% of all British students were female, which represents a major reversal over the past three decades and corrects centuries of male domination. I am not saying that female domination is a bad thing. I do not have a problem with women ruling the world for the next few centuries as men have done in the past, but I think we are prepared to be more equal.
What to do? We need to stop the blame culture in which higher education blames secondary schools and secondary schools blame primary schools, which in turn blame early years and the parents. We need to look at education as a whole, which is why I am so pleased that higher education is back in the Department for Education.
In Portsmouth South, 73% of boys met the standard for language development last year, compared with 87% of girls. Falling behind at the early stage puts children at a disadvantage, so interventions need to be put in place early. Language begins as soon as children are born, and I would like to see every pram and pushchair designed with the child facing the parent so that they can be talked to. Good childcare is crucial and needs to be well funded. Get it right at that stage and money will be saved in the future.
Boys and girls have the capacity to learn exactly the same subjects. There should be no difference in what girls and boys learn, but there is a difference in how they learn. According to the OECD report, boys are 8% more likely to regard school as a waste of time. Boys learn in short phases and need more breaks. They need to be able to move around more than girls. Thirty-five minutes has been identified as the best length of lesson for boys, so they need short, specific, focused activities. More sport is needed in schools.
Some very good schools have embraced pedagogy with a range of teaching approaches. Using different intervention strategies is proving effective, and good practice needs to be widespread. Each teacher will have a different style, and I am glad that the Government are encouraging teachers to develop their own style rather than forcing them to teach in a particular way. Literacy strategies should include a holistic approach to reading, writing, speaking and listening as an integrated whole. Children also need to be competitive. Target setting and mentoring are crucial. The Portsmouth education business partnership is proving incredibly effective in working with pupils one to one.
Lastly, children need to be challenged and praised. Many boys appear to be full of confidence but are not. Bad behaviour is often a cover for a fear of failure. Good teachers will adjust their attitude to encourage boys to get more involved in activities. I think this is a temporary blip, but we need to work hard quickly to ensure that no boy is left behind.
I thank the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for his selflessness. Everyone in Westminster Hall owes him a great debt of gratitude. I ask the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople to be brief and to leave the Minister nine minutes at the end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) on securing this important debate. I do not intend to mention every Member who has spoken, but I will mention a few of the good ideas that have come out of this debate. I will do so as quickly as possible to give the Minister plenty of time to respond.
The hon. Member for Lincoln was right when he listed why boys’ attainment is less than that of girls, but he should temper what he is saying. It almost came out as boys versus girls, which should never be the case. As other Members have said, we should be encouraging attainment for all in schools. We need to move this forward.
I specifically commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for her international outlook. I was astonished to hear some of her statistics and research, because there is not only a problem in the UK, in England and Wales or just in Scotland; there is a problem across the world. All education systems should look at what is happening elsewhere to seek improvement and to raise attainment.
I have a focus in this debate because I was the first woman in my family to go to university. I went to university in 1967, when young working-class women just did not do that. I was fortunate. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I said, I was the first in my family to go to university, and I was a white working-class girl. Things have changed, but we should not be considering this a gender-specific issue; as has been said, it is a social justice issue. It affects the whole economy and all of us.
I urge the Minister to consider some of the systems used by the Scottish Government, including a very good one called “Getting it right for every child”, which starts with early intervention and goes all the way through. That is where this debate should lead us. We should be considering how to improve children’s education and life chances, because that is what we all want. We all want everyone to be educated, in the true sense: that is, we want what they have inside to be drawn out and used to the advantage of us all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I will try to be brief. I thank the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) for securing this debate on such an important topic. I will resist going where I was tempted to go with some of the comments that he made. As a white working-class girl, I would not want to stamp down a white working-class boy; we have to show solidarity.
Equality issues affect those from many backgrounds, but I will focus on what I believe to be the elephant in the room, which many Members have raised—class. Class is much more of a determining factor in this debate than gender, and it affects the issue disproportionately. I agree fully with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). All children have the right to a good-quality free education. All of us in this Chamber can agree on that.
I refer back to the comments made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Although I agree that fatherhood is important to the issue, healthy relationships are also important. That is why the Opposition want the Government to do more to equip young people by offering age-appropriate resilience and relationships education in all schools. Although boys from prosperous backgrounds dominate the very top of the attainment scale, there is growing concern about boys performing poorly overall at school compared with girls. I thank the hon. Member for Lincoln for sharing with us his story about his gran. He and I also have that in common: I had a strong gran who pushed me forward.
Boys are more likely to have the worst results, drop out and leave education unskilled and poorly qualified, as the hon. Gentleman eloquently said. Some 38% of boys eligible for free school meals fall behind in early language and communication. That is nearly double the national average of 20%. In our increasingly unequal society, it is not surprising that class is still such a massive barrier to education attainment. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees—other hon. Members alluded to it—that grammar schools are not the answer to the problem. We need to raise standards across the spectrum of schools.
I was moved by what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said as well. I did not know his back story, but I am pleased that he shared with us his own experiences as a white working-class boy. Like him, I fought tooth and nail to get where I am today, and I had key social levers to help me that have now been, sadly, asset-stripped away by this Government.
Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), spoke at length about the importance of early years, which is absolutely right. I focus in my closing remarks on asking what the Government will do to invest in good early years education, because it is not happening at the moment; the funding is being cut. We know that funding from central Government is important in early-years intervention services, and that the cuts will have a massive impact on boys and girls from working-class backgrounds. What steps will the Government take to raise the aspirations and self-belief of students from poorer backgrounds, particularly boys?
Well, let me get on with it, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) on securing this important debate. It has been an excellent and pacy debate, with excellent speeches on both sides of the Chamber, particularly the passionate speech, based on personal experience, of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), the thoughtful speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Telford (Lucy Allan) and for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), and other speeches that I will refer to in a moment.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) have so clearly set out, there are still far too many young people—boys and girls—who are held back by their background and circumstances and who leave school without the basic building blocks for a successful future. The Government are determined to tackle those issues. Tackling educational inequality means raising the bar, setting the highest expectations for all pupils at every stage and raising standards so that every school can deliver a world-class education.
We have already made enormous strides. More than 1.4 million more pupils are now being taught in schools judged good or outstanding by Ofsted than in 2010. Once again, this year’s A-level and GCSE results are testimony to the hard work of thousands of pupils and teachers. But while it is right that we celebrate those achievements, we must also recognise that there are groups of pupils for whom the chances of achieving good GCSEs and A-levels are simply too low.
Tackling the inequality driven by socio-economic background is a key priority for the Government, as is tackling the inequality driven by gender. Whichever way we read the data, they show that girls outperform boys at all educational stages in most areas of the curriculum. In 2015, there was a gap of nearly 16 percentage points between girls and boys judged to be achieving a good level of development at the end of the early years foundation stage: 74.3% for girls and 58.6% for boys. The gap persists at primary school in most, but not all, subjects.
In 2015, while boys’ and girls’ performance in mathematics was consistent—87% of boys and girls achieving level 4 or higher in the key stage 2 maths assessment—a significantly higher percentage of girls than boys achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and grammar, punctuation and spelling. In reading, writing and maths, 83% of all girls achieved at least the expected standard, compared with 77% of boys.
By the time pupils reach the end of key stage 4 at secondary school, the gender gap in attainment has increased. Girls outperform boys across all major curriculum subjects, although the size of the gap varies considerably by subject. For example, in 2015, girls only just outperformed boys in maths and individual sciences, but in English the gap was nearly 15 percentage points, and in the most commonly studied languages—French, German and Spanish—it was around 10 percentage points. Girls remain more likely than boys to be entered for the English baccalaureate: in 2015, more than 43% of girls studied the suite of English baccalaureate qualifying subjects, compared with 34% of boys. More girls than boys achieved it, too: 29% of girls, compared with around 19% of boys.
The cumulative impact of low prior attainment during primary and secondary school is likely to be one of the main factors influencing the slightly lower proportion of boys progressing to a sustained college or sixth form at 16 and the slightly higher likelihood that boys will be not in education, employment or training at the same age. In England, young women are 36% more likely to apply to university than young men; the difference in application rates between them is the highest on record.
It is important to note, however, that gender gaps are a common occurrence internationally, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) pointed out. They are in favour of girls in reading, in favour of boys in mathematics but mixed in science. According to the most recent PISA study—the programme for international student assessment, conducted by the OECD—the reading ability of girls is higher than that of boys in every country.
On average across OECD countries, 15-year-old girls are around a year ahead of boys—38 PISA points. The size of that gap is narrower in England: our girls outperform boys by 24 PISA points. The gender gap in maths is reversed—boys do better—and is not as large: 11 PISA points, or four months of education, across the OECD. In fact, boys only scored significantly better than girls in 27 out of 65 countries, and the gender gap remains in favour of girls in Jordan, Qatar, Thailand, Malaysia and Iceland, as I think the hon. Lady referred to. The size of the gap is similar in England to the average across all OECD countries, which is 13 PISA points.
What are the drivers of boys’ under-achievement? I listened very carefully to the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South. While there is a plethora of data to show where and by how much girls do better than boys in education, there is only limited evidence that explains precisely why boys do not perform as well as girls. There is no shortage of theories, but many of them are not supported by robust research evidence. For example, it has been argued that boys naturally prefer examinations and girls prefer coursework, so boys may have been disadvantaged by the move from exam-based assessments to GCSEs, which place a greater emphasis on coursework. In fact, the attainment of girls at the end of secondary school was already improving before the introduction of GCSEs, and subsequent reductions in the weighting of the coursework component of GCSEs have had little impact on gender attainment patterns.
Another view, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln referred to, is that the performance of boys is held back by the lack of male teachers in schools, particularly during the primary phase. He is right to point out that there is a huge disparity in the numbers of men and women teaching in primary schools, but studies that have looked for correlation between teacher gender and pupil attainment have mostly found no relationship of improved attainment when boys are taught by male teachers—although that does not mean we do not want to address the imbalance in the gender of primary school teachers.
The research evidence does suggest that the behaviour and attitudes of boys and girls towards school and academic study tend to differ in a number of ways—my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South referred to some of those. Pupil-level factors appear to play an important role in the gender attainment gap. We know that there are some schools in which pupil attainment is high and the gap between girls and boys is small or non-existent. Those schools tend to be characterised by a positive attitude to study, high expectations of all pupils, high-quality teaching and classroom management, and close tracking of individual pupils’ achievement.
As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden so passionately and ably pointed out, academies in the Harris Federation in her constituency are improving educational standards for pupils from poorer backgrounds because they adopt those attitudes to education. I have not yet seen evidence of the gap closing, because I do not have the data, but if the hon. Lady has them, or if I can get them from Dan Moynihan, it would be interesting to see the extent to which the Harris Federation’s approach to education is having an impact on the gender gap.
It is important not to generalise. It is simply not true that all boys do badly and that all girls do well. For example, white British girls who are eligible for free school meals generally do much worse than white British boys who are not. Indeed, there is clear evidence that poverty is a much bigger predictor of poor educational attainment than gender, as the shadow Education Secretary pointed out. While gender imposes a relatively consistent educational performance gap across all ethnic groups, the impact is compounded significantly by deprivation. As the Prime Minister noted in her inaugural speech, the chances of going to university are extremely low for white working-class boys. In 2015, fewer than one in four white British boys eligible for free school meals achieved five A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and maths, compared with more than 56% of non-disadvantaged white British boys.
The question is: how are we tackling educational underachievement? The Government’s approach is to set high expectations for what all pupils will achieve by introducing an ambitious and stretching national curriculum and world-class qualifications. To deliver such reforms, we are building a school-led, self-improving education system, characterised by high levels of autonomy and strong accountability arrangements, through which the characteristics of high-performing schools, such as those referred to by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, can be shared and embedded across the whole system.
We want all pupils to secure the basics in literacy and numeracy by the end of primary school, and we have set higher standards in those areas of the curriculum. We have embedded the teaching of phonics in key stage 1, which we know is the most effective way of teaching reading for all children, and we are providing catch-up funding to secondary schools to support those pupils who do not achieve the expected standard at 11. As a result, 120,000 more six-year-olds are on track to become fluent readers. Our introduction of the English baccalaureate sets a strong expectation that all pupils will receive a rigorous academic education that prepares them for adult life and success in our modern economy. We have made clear our aim that, by 2020, the vast majority of pupils, boys and girls alike, will take those facilitating subjects as part of a well-rounded education that opens the door to education and employment.
Our new performance accountability measures are also intended to drive up attainment across the board. Secondary school performance tables now report on pupils’ progress from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school, as well as their GCSE attainment. The new measures, known as progress 8 and attainment 8, will encourage schools to focus their attention on the progress and attainment of every pupil, not just those at or near the borderline of a particular performance threshold.
Looking beyond the curriculum, our commitment to character education seeks to ensure that all pupils develop the essential qualities of resilience, perseverance and self-control, all of which are critical for success in both education and adult life.
The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have been clear that we need to build a country that works for everyone. We are looking at a range of options to allow more children to go to a school that helps them to rise as far as their talents will take them. We will, of course, say more in due course, as policy is developed under the new Secretary of State.
Our vision for a self-improving school system is fast becoming a reality. Our growing network of teaching schools and multi-academy trusts is ensuring that institutions can collaborate and receive the support they need to raise standards. We are working hard to create a sustainable and diverse succession plan of high-quality school leaders and headteachers, and our expansion of the highly successful Teach First programme—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).