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Westminster Hall

Volume 628: debated on Thursday 7 September 2017

Westminster Hall

Thursday 7 September 2017

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

BBC Transparency

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the transparency of the BBC.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Bone. I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight my concerns about the lack of transparency in the BBC’s use of public money in Northern Ireland and, I am sure, more widely. I secured a debate on the subject on a previous occasion but had to withdraw it for a variety of reasons. My concerns are not unique to Northern Ireland, but my speech will focus on BBC NI.

The BBC’s mission is

“to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value.”

It used to be considered a reliable source of news and informative programming. It was the broadcaster to go to in times of crisis or turmoil—the dependable, publicly funded broadcaster. I am sorry to inform the House that as a result of events over the last few years, the BBC’s standing has been diminished.

Correspondence from MPs frequently goes totally unanswered or is met with a reply that avoids the issues. Questions about the use of public money are ignored or have a veil of secrecy pulled over them. I have concluded that the BBC fat cats in Belfast are either incredibly arrogant or incredibly shifty. What they are not is open and transparent. I have written to the BBC, but have had to come to this Chamber to raise these serious issues. I use the term “fat cats” because some of the best people in the BBC are the lowest-paid: the foot soldier producers and editors who work long shifts and arrange all the programmes.

I have long argued for maximum transparency from the BBC. I have several concerns. The first relates to pay transparency. The BBC nationally has long resisted the public demand for pay transparency, but it eventually agreed to publish the salaries of 96 stars, as they are called. Their combined salaries were almost £30 million. The public are now somewhat better informed about how their money has been used; we now know that the BBC believes that men should get more money than women for doing the same task. There was an outrageous gender pay disparity. It took a decade for the BBC to be dragged to the point of publishing all salaries of more than £150,000 per year.

In recent months, the BBC has indicated that more staff will be moved off the direct payroll and will therefore not feature in any published list next year, even though they are paid in excess of the £150,000 benchmark. So much for greater transparency. Whether that is motivated by the desire to reduce BBC staff’s personal tax liabilities, to avoid public scrutiny, or both, it is a shameful insight into the BBC top brass’s complete disregard for transparency.

An outrageous double standard is at play. While BBC presenters question elected representatives and others paid by the public purse about their salary and office costs, they hide behind a veil of secrecy about their own publicly funded annual salaries of £200,000, £300,000, £400,000 or more. I am glad that the salaries, overheads and so on of those in this Parliament are accessible to the taxpayer for scrutiny; that is how it should be. Why should the public money funding the BBC be treated any differently? I do not agree with BBC staff avoiding tax by channelling money through obscure personal service companies. This House should consider the ethics of that practice with respect to public money.

My second concern about transparency relates to complaints. A constituent of mine made a very simple freedom of information request:

“I request the number of complaints recorded against matters carried by BBC Northern Ireland for the following outlets: BBC Good Morning Ulster, BBC Nolan (radio), BBC Nolan Live (TV), BBC TalkBack, BBC Evening Extra, BBC Newsline, BBC NI website”.

That was not an unreasonable request. How many complaints have been launched? My constituent received the following reply:

“The information that you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ The BBC is therefore not obliged to provide this information to you and will not be doing so on this occasion.”

So much for transparency. That reply was sent by Mr Mark Adair, BBC Northern Ireland’s head of corporate and community affairs. He told my constituent that he holds the information but needs it

“for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’”

That is clearly nonsense. Why would a publicly funded media organisation not be prepared to make public the number of complaints about its programmes from members of the public?

My third concern relates to the commissioning of programmes. Across the UK—though I will deal with Northern Ireland—the BBC commissions independent companies to produce programmes. However, independent production companies, editing companies and camera and lighting specialists are concerned that they are not getting a fair deal. I have heard stories of slow or reduced payments and a culture of fear. Those stories are fresh in my mind, because I heard them at first hand from those affected when I began to probe the commissioning process.

I wanted to establish what auditing mechanism exists for programmes, both when the contract is awarded and after the finished product has been delivered and broadcast. I also wanted to know how the BBC, as the main contractor, could be sure that subcontractors such as camera operators, lighting operators and editors were paid for their work under the contract. I asked some simple questions of Susan Lovell, the head of multi-platform commissioning for BBC Northern Ireland. I have yet to receive satisfactory answers to those 18 numbered questions, but I was offered a private briefing. The links in her response were so numerous that my printer ran out of ink and paper before I could print them all. The briefing is a nice offer, and I am sure I will take it up, but I would prefer answers.

On Tuesday I emailed Susan Lovell again, knowing that this debate had been tabled. I made my email even more succinct. I asked three straight questions:

“1. When programmes are commissioned and public money granted, how is the use of this money audited?

2. Is an external auditor employed to ensure this public money is appropriated in an ethical manner?

3. If a Commission is granted, can the contracted production company then seek additional monies for travel and other unforeseen production costs?”

Setting aside the fact that I am an MP, I would have assumed as a viewer that that was a perfectly reasonable set of queries.

I received a reply yesterday. It is funny how quickly minds can be exercised when a debate is about to be held; it takes weeks and months otherwise. The reply said:

“Expenditure profiles are a routine feature of programme proposals and allow us to make an informed assessment”.

I always get fearful when I hear answers from large companies that talk about informed assessments, but this was an informed assessment of

“value for money; and we routinely audit our work and output against a range of metrics.”

The key words there are “we routinely audit”; one of my questions was whether an external auditor was employed—I think I have got an answer to that question, even if indirectly. When a programme is commissioned, delivered and broadcast, invoices relating to that contract should then be published online. That happens in many other areas of public service.

I turn to a specific example. In October 2014, a BBC Northern Ireland series, entitled “Story of a Lifetime”, was broadcast. According to the credits, it was produced for BBC NI by a company called Third Street Studios. However, according to Companies House,

“Third Street Studios was incorporated on 2 December 2014, after the series was delivered”.

Almost one year ago, I cited this example and asked the BBC some questions:

“1. To whom and when did BBC NI award the contract for the 2014 series ‘Story of a Lifetime’?

2. What address did BBC NI use to communicate the commission to ‘Third Street Studios’?

3. Did BBC NI check if ‘Third Street Studios’ was incorporated before the programme was commissioned?”

To date, neither the company involved nor the BBC have been able to tell me where the Third Street Studios office is, how much the contract was for and to whom the contract was awarded.

I understand that a director of Third Street Studios is a BBC presenter. Indeed, according to the map on the Third Street Studios website, its office is at Belfast city hall. The “about us” section of the website declares:

“We pride ourselves in understanding mass market television. We don’t do ‘niche’. We do ‘massive’”.

This production company is so massive that I cannot find its office in Belfast. In fact, when I went online, according to the Google map provided, the company’s location is fairly prestigious: in front of Belfast city hall—at a taxi rank. Again, we have some questions that need answering.

When I emailed the company and its director, he said:

“I don’t think that it would be helpful, or appropriate”

to answer my questions. For clarity, I asked about the procurement process, the contract value, the date the contract was awarded and the tendering process for appointing subcontractors. Remember, this is about a series that has already been broadcast on BBC television. The company director said that

“my work…could only properly be understood if equivalent information about all other production companies and their contracts with the BBC were to be placed in the public domain.”

So “I’ll go if you get everyone else to go”—that is effectively what he was saying.

That is further evidence of straightforward and simple questions being ignored. We need full transparency in BBC commissioning, and we need evidence that BBC commission contracts are externally audited.

My hon. Friend is making a very sound case about the BBC, but does he agree that it was this Government who called for increased transparency—maybe not in the areas that he is covering, but certainly on pay rates? They have actually unlocked many of the things that we will debate today, so this Government are definitely holding the BBC to account. Perhaps they should do more, but they are definitely working in this area.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree with her: the campaign over the past years to get further transparency is a work in progress, and we are much more advanced than we were 10 or 12 years ago. However, as I am outlining, there is much more work to do.

The fourth area that I want to cover is BBC accuracy and honesty. The BBC prides itself on posing questions, and all of us here are subject to those questions, but it is not very good at providing answers. In two instances during the past year, there have been very serious questions for the corporation in Northern Ireland to answer.

A green energy scheme with an initial potential overspend of public money is currently subject to a public inquiry; I do not intend to trespass on issues that are best dealt with in that inquiry. However, the Executive in Northern Ireland were collapsed by Sinn Féin under the pretext of what they claimed was the mishandling of that scheme. Early this year, a BBC Radio Ulster programme carried this topic for 56 consecutive days. The presenter of that programme, who just happens to be the director of Third Street Studios, used inaccurate and outrageous commentary. I will briefly give two quotes. He said:

“One of the biggest financial scandals to have ever happened in Northern Ireland: under the government’s watch, £400million of your money has been allowed to go up in smoke”.

He also said:

“What it means is that hundreds of millions of pounds of your money cannot go into schools, education, other departments in our country because the money has been squandered, the money has been wasted.”

This situation continued for a prolonged period until I appeared on the programme and confronted this deliberate misrepresentation. As the scheme had only just begun and was scheduled to last for 20 years, I asked why the presenter kept saying that the public’s money had been “wasted” and gone “up in smoke”. Only after my appearance, which was accompanied by strong letters of protest from my party to the BBC hierarchy, was the use of this reprehensible language stopped.

The hon. Gentleman is making a surprisingly compelling argument, but did not the scandal that he is referring to bring down the Northern Ireland Government? As such, was it not entirely newsworthy for 56 days—or more?

I have no objection whatsoever to any media organisation concentrating on events, particularly events of such import, but when it scandalously misrepresents things, as those comments and the comments of others did, and then the comments are changed after I and others confront the presenter about his misrepresentation, it proves that the BBC knows that it overstepped the mark in its initial comments. Nevertheless, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. I have no quibble or argument with the BBC deliberating at length on the subject, but the issue was compounded by the presenter’s gross misrepresentation of the facts.

A substantial complaint about those inaccuracies was lodged with the BBC, and that is ongoing; the BBC has not yet comprehensively responded to the complaints, which are from eight months ago. The complaints process is obviously laborious and bureaucratic; for those who have not yet embarked on it, I can attest to that.

I will give another, very insidious example. “Spotlight” is an investigative programme in Northern Ireland that has won awards through the years. In October last year, BBC NI television broadcast an edition looking at people who had been victims of alleged shooting by police officers in the early stages of the troubles. It was critical of the police, and both serving and former officers were concerned about the one-sided picture that it portrayed.

Shortly after the broadcast, I was contacted by someone who informed me that the reporter who had conducted the interviews and carried out the broadcast on the BBC had been a serving police officer, so I wrote to the reporter in the following terms:

“I write to confirm some details regarding a recent BBC Spotlight programme. I would be grateful if you could answer the following questions.

1. Have you ever served as a police officer in Northern Ireland? If yes, please outline the circumstances that led to you leaving the police?

2. Have you ever been known by any other name than—”

And I named her. I continued: “If so, what?” My understanding was that she had married and that her surname had changed since the programme was broadcast. I continued:

“3. As the presenter of an investigative programme which was critical of the police, do you believe that you had a conflict of interest?

4. Did BBC NI ask you to complete the declaration of interest prior to this programme?

5. How much public money was paid to you for your services in that programme?”

The sixth question was the most critical:

“Does the below BBC News story from 10 years previously relate to you?”

That news story was about a serving police officer who was in court and faced a charge—not a terrorist charge. In his concluding remarks, the judge said to that police officer that she should have known better than to give her sister’s name instead of her name. He bound her over to be of good behaviour for a year on her own bond of £500, and warned her that she could forfeit some or all of that money if she breached the order. I am informed that the person who was in court subsequently left the police, joined the BBC and did a programme that was critical of the police. No explanation has been given as to why it is critical, or why that reporter did what she did. Did she state on a declaration of interest that she was a former police officer? Did the BBC know that and then allow her to do a programme that was critical of the police?

I leave you to guesstimate, Mr Bone, what would happen in the public arena if it was discovered, after I or anyone else in this House raised an issue, that we had an interest in it that we did not declare. That is why we, and the BBC, have declarations of interest.

I did not receive an answer to any of those questions. I did not even receive an acknowledgment. I submitted a request for this debate in March, but it did not go ahead at that stage. I asked the same questions, but did not receive a response then either.

Strange to say, this week, after I had applied for the debate a third time, I received a reply from the aforementioned Mr Mark Adair, who said:

“We have been made aware of your emails to a named BBC journalist”.

Nine months after I began this process, and 24 hours before a debate, I receive a response saying that the BBC has become “aware” of my emails! The reply continued:

“the BBC has robust arrangements in place to avoid any potential conflicts of interest…we would be grateful if you direct any future correspondence about BBC staff and/or policy to me or to our Directors Office.”

That avoided the question again.

The fifth and final area I wish to cover is declarations of interest. In Parliament, MPs, Ministers and civil servants are very aware of the need to declare interests and, as I said, the BBC also has a process for its journalists to declare any interests. When a constituent, using freedom of information powers, asked to see the declarations of interests of some BBC presenters and senior staff, the reply said:

“All staff are required to complete a Declaration of Personal Interests upon joining the BBC”.

That is good as far as it goes, but it went on to say:

“We will not be disclosing...because the information that you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of”—

guess what?—

“‘journalism, art or literature.’”

That seems to cover everything. When someone does not want to answer questions, they use the cloak of “journalism, art or literature”.

Many people have contacted my hon. Friend and me with concerns about so-called news programmes. The issue is that programmes often now straddle news and entertainment. Many members of the public have contacted me with the concern that a narrative and agenda is set, and then programmes set about getting participants who support that narrative, which is emphasised with key messages throughout the programmes. My hon. Friend makes a particularly important point about declarations of interests, because unless the public know what those interests are, we cannot scrutinise properly whether a public service broadcaster is carrying out its public duties appropriately—regardless of whether the producers are contracted in or not—being fair and balanced, and presenting the facts and all perspectives so that the public have the best opportunity to come to their own conclusions on these important matters.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is right, and we have noticed that the BBC—particularly in the last three or four years, for some reason—has become much more sensationalist.

I ask a straightforward question, which most people—even the BBC—should be able to answer: what is the point of having a declaration of interests, if no one knows what is in it? What is the point of that? Why would the BBC do that? Why would it ask people to declare any interests, but if anyone wants to find out whether somebody making a programme has an interest, say: “We’re not going to tell you, under”—the great catch-all—“the auspices of journalism, art or literature”? It is an entirely reasonable request that all BBC presenters’ declarations of interests be published.

I do not expect the Minister to be able to respond definitively today to every avenue that I have taken the debate down, but these matters need to be aired, so that the hierarchy in the BBC, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Minister are aware of what has happened and the lengths to which some of us have gone to try to get answers to straightforward questions. The bottom line here is that the BBC needs to radically alter the way it carries out its business—using our money. That is the point: it is using public money. Its procedures need overhauling, its lack of transparency is appalling, and the case for change was never more apparent.

It might be helpful for Members to know that I think five Back-Bench Members who wish to speak. I do not intend to impose a time limit, but the wind-ups will have to start at 2.30 pm.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) on securing this important debate.

First, I welcome the fact that the BBC has this week announced an equal pay review. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for women in Parliament, and as a former member of the Women and Equalities Committee, I am profoundly passionate about ensuring that women are properly recognised for their abilities. I was therefore deeply disappointed that the BBC felt it appropriate to have such a large pay gap between its male and female employees, and frankly that it took them so long to notice it—we do have equal pay legislation.

I was, for a short time, the very proud owner of a BBC pass. I must put on record how much I enjoyed my time working in BBC local radio and how hardworking and committed all my colleagues were and, in the case of some of them, still are, particularly across local radio. It really was a wonderful time in my career. The hon. Member for East Londonderry mentioned the value of BBC employees and I was one of those foot soldiers—early starts, late hours, juggling work around young children, diverse and difficult shifts. We should remember that that is the backbone of the BBC and its staff. We hear about the fat cats, but there are a lot of people making sure that the BBC is true to its core values. I was honoured to work for this revered organisation.

One of the issues that I became aware of in my brief time at the BBC was how the diverse and wide-ranging nature of the broadcaster makes it difficult to know what the left hand and right hand are doing. In Government, I think we can all recognise that sometimes that is difficult, but there is a growing perception of a lack of transparency. That transparency is undermined by the way the organisation has grown and, in some ways, has had to reflect the internet and our changing media consumption and frankly, as we heard, fake news. The BBC, as we well know, has its challenges.

Let us turn to top talent; I do not think I could put myself in that category, but I always hoped someone would say that. Having previously worked in the broader media industry, I fully understand the importance for any broadcaster of attracting and retaining the very best talent—in particular, the pressure on the BBC—and pay packets should be able to reflect that. However, although I am an avid supporter of many of our media outlets, including the BBC, I am also aware that many talented women at the top of the industry are regrettably not properly recognised or rewarded by that institution. I trust that, through this process, that is going to change. In the broader industry, too many continue to work for free or for peanuts in the hope of a big break and of being the next big thing. We have to challenge our notions of how we get people into the media industry, what we expect of them and how we retain them.

Most surprisingly in this day and age, there is a huge disparity between the pay of men and women at the BBC, which has finally been highlighted by the senior leadership. We now have the chance to correct that, but one has to ask whether the BBC would have uncovered that scandal if it had not been for the Government’s transparency drive and the agreement reached through the BBC charter process. I am delighted that my party and the Government are not shirking the challenges ahead.

As I said earlier, I was delighted to sit on the Women and Equalities Committee; I would like the BBC to ensure that the review looks at diversity more widely, not just equal pay. DCMS is looking to do that across the media sector. We must also look at the support we give to older women in the industry. Channel 4 and other broadcasters have done incredible work on diversity, but can the BBC really look itself in the eye and say that it has stepped up on that issue across the board? This is the chance for it to do that.

For too long, even our most talented public figures have been deemed to have a sell-by date. However—let us be honest—that could not be further from the truth when it comes to the BBC’s Mary Berry. She is a prime example of the amazing talent—not least her cooking—that the BBC has at its disposal. I hope this is an opportunity to look at women with equal levels of talent. I have been listening to and admiring women broadcasters—they are broadcasters; the fact that they happen to be women is irrelevant—from afar on the radio. Gender has no relevance to how we remunerate people. We all admire Jane Garvey from afar, and she should be remunerated accordingly.

It is also important that older women in regional positions have a chance to shine. I worked in regional radio, and some people have committed a lifetime to it. We should recognise those people and support them through our national broadcaster. We should use the talent within the BBC to bring them to a wider audience. I have seen some progress. Some time ago, I worked with a wonderful mature lady who is now training as a continuity announcer. That gives me hope, because for broadcasters the fear of wrinkles and the looming feeling of being past it is scary. When I worked in the media industry, I was getting quite old for local radio, but here I am the youngest—well, not really, but in comparison. [Laughter.] I was an ageing commercial radio presenter, but I am a very young MP—how has that happened?

Once again, I congratulate the Government on the transparency drive that they introduced through the BBC charter process, which led to the BBC’s recognising and acting on the unjustifiable inequality at its heart. I believe that colleagues will agree that, if the BBC does that, it will continue to be a truly great British institution. We all have our failings, and the BBC must step up to address its. I will continue to be there to support it through that process. If it does that, it will continue to be in the hearts of the public across the land. What work are the Government carrying out to ensure that even greater transparency across the BBC and the whole of the media industry? Specifically, how can this debate and the Department’s work encourage the retention and promotion of older women across the media industry and promote a broader diversity agenda?

I am delighted to take part in this debate. In fact, given my majority of 249, I am delighted to be anywhere. It is a great pleasure to follow the very passionate and informative contribution of the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies). I want to talk about three issues relating to the transparency of the BBC: the transparency of the regulation of the BBC, its finances and Northern Ireland.

The transparency of the regulator is absolutely important. Parliament and the Government took a really big step when they set up an independent regulator of the BBC—Ofcom. I was surprised over the summer to see that the Secretary of State had written to the regulator to say that she is rather in favour of more quotas for TV and radio content. A DCMS spokesman or spokeswoman said that a number of stakeholders had made representations —I do not know whether that was at Wimbledon or some other event over the summer. Perhaps the permanent secretary was away when that letter was sent, because that seems bad practice. The regulation of the BBC has just become independent in its totality, and we must have confidence in it. I hope the Government will exercise more restraint and will respect the regulator’s independence in the future, now that we have set that up.

On the issue of the BBC’s finances, pay gaps and so on, I welcome the fact that the BBC publishes an extensive annual report. It is now subject to the National Audit Office in its entirety, and there are many value for money surveys. The BBC is absolutely right to recognise that it has to press down on top pay—whether executive pay or talent pay. My scrutiny of the BBC’s accounts leads me to think that pay for the top talent is down by about 10% over the past year, and for the very top talent it is down by about 40%. Clearly, the revelations over the past few months have shown a completely indefensible gap between the pay of men and women.

Incidentally, which other broadcaster in the world would lead day after day on that issue, as the BBC did? There are only so many “Today” programmes about Jeremy Vine’s pay that someone can wake up to and take an interest in, but the BBC did that day after day. I do not think News International would focus on the pay of Sky presenters in quite the same way.

Or its owners.

It is now the responsibility of Tony Hall, who said—he will be held to this—that by 2020, which is not very far away, the pay gap has to go. That is on screen and off, as I understand it.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the BBC pay gap is 10%, but nationally it is 18%? The BBC has commissioned an audit of pay to resolve issues relating to pay. It has offered to deal with any issues that arise in the long term.

No, I was not aware of that. My hon. Friend has informed and educated me with that contribution.

In bearing down on top talent pay, the BBC has got to be aware of its own strengths. I take a great interest in sports rights. I think the BBC has got better at dealing with rights holders and saying, “We’ll give you lots of exposure, even if we can’t pay you as much.” It is the same with top talent. Gary Lineker, for example, gets an awful lot of money—perhaps a little too much money—and an awful lot of exposure. He is a cultural icon—a national treasure, some people would say. Compare him with poor old Jake Humphrey, who was on the BBC and has now disappeared to BT Sport. His Wikipedia entry says he was best known for presenting Formula 1 on the BBC seven or eight years ago. The point is that top BBC presenters get a lot of offers to host events, endorse products and so on, and the BBC must take that into account when negotiating top talent.

I just want to make a couple of other points under the general heading of finance. We have to recognise that BBC Studios has now been asked to compete for every TV programme. The whole of BBC output is open to competition, so BBC Studios will be just like lots of its commercial competitors in trying to get slots on BBC television. It should be subject to exactly the same rules as its commercial competitors. I hope that it retains an awful lot of the output, because if the BBC is to continue its training function for the industry and its creativity, it needs a big in-house broadcast capacity.

My last point about BBC finances is that I hope Tony Hall and the other BBC management will look closely—as the hon. Member for Eastleigh mentioned—at giving commitments to some of the foot soldiers in broadcasting about setting targets for bringing up pay at the bottom, as well as bringing down pay at the top. It is a sign of the times that the people at the bottom need to be considered—that is the zeitgeist among the political parties across the House.

I am obviously not as knowledgeable as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) about BBC Northern Ireland. In fact, I like to sit behind the Democratic Unionist party in the main Chamber, because that is where the power really lies in this Parliament, and I like to know what is going on. I did once sit on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, but I do not have the hon. Gentleman’s level of expertise. I have noticed all sorts of rows about BBC impartiality, including in Yorkshire. Last year I think he or one of his hon. Friends advocated the case for Carl Frampton, the Northern Ireland boxer who was excluded from the sports personality of the year shortlist. I feel the same about Joe Root, the great Yorkshire cricketer: that he should one day be BBC sports personality of the year—we all have such concerns.

Seriously, however—I will end on this—we should recognise that BBC Northern Ireland journalists have had a very difficult wicket over 30 or 40 years. They came under a lot of pressure during the time of the troubles, from Government, terrorists on occasion, political parties and so on, but they still produced—as I think they do now—high-quality journalism to inform the people not only of Northern Ireland, but of the wider United Kingdom and of the world beyond.

To conclude, it is very fashionable to decry the mainstream media, but I agree with the hon. Member for Eastleigh that the BBC is a cultural institution to be proud of: it inspires many people to take an interest in things that they would never otherwise know about; and it unites the nation and gives access to information in ways that would not otherwise happen. I have limited personal ambitions in this Parliament, but if it lasts for five years, we will then have reached 2022 and the centenary of the BBC, which should be a proud day for every Member of this House.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), with his passionate speech, and I thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) for bringing this subject to the Chamber.

The BBC, as almost everyone would agree, is a unique and much-loved organisation, revered for so many programmes, such as news, gardening—I do not know whether that is sad—and, in particular, “The Archers”. I simply could not live without “The Archers” and, sometimes, I catch the same episode three times a week, because I hear the programme in the evening, again at lunchtime and then on the Sunday catch-up. That is how sad I am, but I love it.

The BBC, however, has to be held to account and to the highest standards because of the unique way in which it is funded, and we must do something when it is found wanting, so I am delighted that this Government are insisting on high standards, including of transparency and high quality. Part of reporting and programming is what the public expect and what they deserve. Clearly, the Government’s new insistence is giving the BBC a bit of a shake-up, which I think we would all agree is a good thing. The BBC charter implemented at the start of this year goes further than ever before in promoting fairness and transparency, and in ensuring the value for money that we deserve.

I wanted to touch on one of the points made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry on the commissioning of programmes. I had a crack at getting commissioned when I ran a production company. Frankly, I gave up. I wasted so much time going to the constant round of briefings on what the BBC wanted, might like or did not want—mostly what it did not want was the kind of thing I wanted to make—and logging in online. It all took up so much time that I gave up and devoted my money-making activities to other areas of the media, and many other independent companies did likewise.

Indeed, many I met when on the round of consultations and briefings turned out to be no more than hobby producers: they said they could not earn enough money simply from commissions to make life viable. I do not know if there is any way to address that, unless it is through more bidding for programmes—so perhaps it will be addressed now—but it is certainly something I noticed. I would like to think that the BBC charter and the Government will hold the BBC to account for such things, if we are to get more people into this very important creative industry.

My hon. Friend made a point about one thing that is close to my heart and that we have to careful about. I agree, totally, that we have to look at the BBC, but we must preserve its independence. That is what everyone appreciates about the BBC, so we have to be very careful when we bring the might of Government to bear, although I am pleased that we are getting involved. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) rightly said, programme makers sometimes come along with a narrative, and we very much noticed that in Jaywick in my constituency. The Channel 4 team—not the BBC—arrived with a preconceived idea of what they wanted to shoot. They wanted me to get involved in the programme, but they shot not what was there on the ground but only what reflected their preconceived narrative. The programme makers—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we are pressed for time. I was pulled up for this when I first started; interventions have to be short, especially when we have such strict time limits. I am sorry.

Only this week I have faced the issue of preconceived ideas; I will mention this example. I launched my new environmental pamphlet from the Conservative Environment Network, which I thought would make an interesting and wide story. I encouraged my local BBC people to come to the launch, but they rang up to ask, “Will this be Rebecca Pow saying that the Government do not do enough for the environment?” That is what they wanted their headline to be—they had not even read what the pamphlet was about. I said, “Absolutely 100% not; it is the opposite of that”, so they did not come. That was a preconceived idea, but had they come, they would have discovered an interesting groundswell of an idea going on, which would have made a good and informative story for the public.

That is a matter for the Chair. Is there not some difficulty with what the hon. Lady is saying? She is putting the emphasis on the Government holding the BBC to account, but by doing so is she not undermining the proper role of Parliament and its Select Committee? Indeed, the Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), her hon. Friend, and that is his job, not that of Government.

All I will say is that public money is funding the BBC, so we need to ensure that it is run in an effective way, with value for money and transparency, so that we get what the BBC was set up for in the first place.

I will move on and focus on the pay discrepancies that have been revealed, which have received a lot of media attention, and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) referred. I am pleased that they are being highlighted in the debate. It is right that the BBC has taken action, but the proof will be in the pudding. I am pleased that the assessment and consultation on the issue have been launched this week, although it has got to be said that across the whole of the BBC there is a good balance of male and female—52% men and 48% women, which is pretty good compared with lots of other organisations.

Many years ago, I remember going to produce and present “Farming Today” on Radio 4, and I was only the second ever woman to do so. I will not tell the Chamber how long ago it was, because people might work out how old I am—

I will not respond to that. Now “Farming Today” has an all-female team—what a turnaround that is. When I went to the programme, farming and all that were considered very much part of a male world, so I applaud the BBC for a good thing.

Let us not be completely hijacked by the gender pay gap among those at the top of the BBC. I think most of us would agree that the high-profile women at the top actually are pretty well paid. It is wrong and scandalous that, on the whole, the men receive more, but in truth those women are quite fortunate. Let us not forget the many women all over the country whose unequal pay deserves just as much attention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh mentioned. I commend the Government, who are doing more than ever to sort this out and make sure that we even up pay, which is still not equal enough across the board. That goes to the heart of the issue of publicly funded bodies. For example, in 2016, only 20% of permanent secretaries in the civil service were women. Perhaps we should look at the issue in a much wider context. We are holding the BBC to account; surely the same standards must be applied across the public sector.

I want to return, just for a minute, to the BBC and the gender pay gap. I venture to suggest—I mentioned this to the Minister earlier in the week—that all the attention on women and the gender pay gap has slightly clouded how much these high-profile presenters are paid overall, which I know many members of the public are questioning. Some are paid huge sums, and some people on the list do not put in that many hours for their pay. I will not name them, but one or two really make the blood boil. Some work very hard for their money, but the way the money is spread seems completely unequal.

The total budget for all BBC local radio stations—the hon. Member for East Londonderry raised this subject—is £152 million. That is not a huge sum of money for the phenomenal work they do and what we get back. That needs to be looked at, too. Some people at those stations—particularly the presenters who get up every morning to do breakfast shows—really are not paid very much. I have BBC Somerset right on my patch and I am a great fan; the people there work very hard. Obviously, they always try to hold me to account and catch me out, but that is their job. We get very good value from that. Local radio stations are constantly having to tighten their belts. That needs to be considered as well, because they provide an excellent service.

In conclusion, it remains for the BBC to address the problems we have highlighted, and the public expect that. I reiterate that I am pleased that the BBC announced its review this week. Let us not forget that the Government unleashed all this debate; they must be praised for that. I would like assurances from the Minister that the Government will still hold the BBC’s feet to the fire, because we expect fairness, equality and transparency, but above all good service and value for money for the taxpayer.

I thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) for initiating this debate.

Much has been said about transparency. It is astonishing that the BBC got away with—I use that term advisedly—not publishing the salaries that it pays to its highest-paid stars. As we have heard, even the salaries that are published are not the full and true picture, as many salaries are paid via production companies. Quite understandably, the public see that as a deliberate way of avoiding full transparency, and it is simply not good enough. Indeed, some people have said how suspicious it is that the BBC chose to publish those salaries at the point of a parliamentary recess to try, again, to avoid scrutiny and questions on the Floor of the House.

Surely the BBC—that liberal, trusted organisation—would not go to such lengths to avoid scrutiny. Surely that organisation can explain why it pays its male stars significantly more than its female stars. We are all waiting to hear why. Some people would say that the BBC could well explain those matters, but I contend that there is a crisis of public confidence in the BBC.

The problem is that people must pay the licence fee regardless of whether they view BBC programmes at all; there is no opt-out. That on its own should breed humility and respect for the licence fee payer, but for too many people it has instead bred arrogance and complacency—the same arrogance and complacency, many would argue, that allowed Jimmy Savile to stalk the BBC corridors uninterrupted despite the numerous complaints and opportunities to stop that serial abuser. A report that the BBC itself commissioned found that it actively shielded Savile, if not facilitated his abuse. Sadly, the organisation was also guilty of pulling a report that was to be broadcast on “Newsnight”, even though it knew all about Savile’s activities and the allegations against him. Journalist Meirion Jones alleges that he and the late journalist Liz MacKean were told that they would

“never work for the BBC again”

if they co-operated with a “Panorama” investigation into the scandal, and he says that lots of efforts were made to block the “Panorama” programme, “What the BBC knew”.

The BBC is supposed to report independently, without fear or favour, but in the light of what I have just said, does it really sound like it does? Many people in Scotland are of the view that the BBC’s political coverage is significantly partisan. The BBC has repeatedly denied that, as we would expect, but it does not really matter whether it is true; what matters is that the people who pay the licence fee believe it to be true. That means that there is a problem. Even the newly appointed director of BBC Scotland, Donalda MacKinnon, has conceded that that perception exists, but without a detailed plan for rebuilding trust, I do not know what the way forward is for BBC Scotland’s political coverage.

There is no doubt that there is a deficit of trust in the BBC, which is seen across the United Kingdom as being resentful of public scrutiny, secretive, politically partial and complacent. The trust that has been lost absolutely has to be rebuilt. I suggest to the Minister that one way forward is for more of the licence fee money that is collected in Scotland to be spent in Scotland. Indeed, even Ofcom has said that that should be the case. Additional funding for delivering quality TV and radio output in Scotland would support the growth of our creative industries and be a real step forward. For every £100 million of production in Scotland, around 1,500 jobs are supported and £60 million is generated in the Scottish economy. That is quite significant. The BBC really has a job of work to build trust with people, and spending in Scotland more of the licence fee money that is collected in Scotland would be one way forward.

The BBC has a lot of sins in its past and there are a lot of things that it has to work through, but the future is not yet written; it can be different. It can be better, and the BBC can make it better. The BBC is a public service, and the public want a more transparent service.

I will call Justin Madders, who has been waiting patiently, in a moment. In view of the time, I want to let the Front Benchers know that the wind-up speeches will probably now start no later than 2.34 pm.

Thank you, Mr Bone. I will endeavour to stick to your timetable. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

The BBC is one of those institutions for which there is widespread affection and support across the country, and it is highly respected worldwide. As a public service broadcaster, it plays an important role in our country. As our society has changed and moved with the times, so has the BBC—certainly in terms of its output. But we are not here to discuss its output, much of which is of course a matter of personal taste, although I must say that I consider its political content far too London-centric. What we are here to consider, though, is transparency. As we have moved to a less deferential and more open society, I believe the BBC also needs to move with the times. It should be more representative of and more accountable to the taxpayers who fund it, regardless of how much or little they use its service. With that in mind, a couple of specific areas need further examination.

The first, which has been touched on today and has been the subject of much media scrutiny in recent weeks, is the pay of top talent at the BBC, which revealed a huge gender disparity. What was also of interest to me, particularly in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on social mobility, was the background of those BBC top earners. The data released by the BBC on its top earners have been analysed, and for those in that category who are on screen, it is estimated that 45% were privately educated—a figure that rises to a staggering 60% when looking at news presenters and journalists.

That prompted me to write to the director-general to inquire about the educational background of the top earners off-screen. I received an impressive reply, telling me about all the things the BBC is doing to increase social mobility, but I did not get an answer to the question. The data that it did show me show that of what the BBC class as its senior leadership team, about a quarter were privately educated. That figure is not as high as for those on screen, but it is still well over three times what it should be, were the BBC to reflect the population as a whole.

It is also clear from the data that the senior leadership team is actually a much bigger pool of people than those earning more than £150,000, so the suspicion remains that those at the very top of the BBC—those on more than £150,000—are even less representative of the nation. It is clear the BBC is doing an awful lot at the entry level to improve social mobility, but that commitment has to go right to the top. I want to see transparency about the educational background of the top earners who are off-screen and a clear strategy to make sure that that section of its staff is more representative.

The other area of interest to me is more on the output side—but it is equally important. It stems from inquiries I made as a result of representations from a constituent who happens to be a professional musician who is concerned about the business relationship between the BBC and the arm’s length administrator of its music assets: a foreign-owned music publisher and supplier of music for broadcast and commercial outlets. He believes that the publisher not only makes considerable profit from administration of BBC assets but controls the supply of music to the BBC from its own resources. Now, I have no idea whether that assertion is correct—I very much hope that it is not—but the obvious, incontestable way in which the assertion could be tested is by the BBC setting out what its musical output has been. Sadly, I have not been able to get any answers on that. The BBC tells me that of course it does not operate in such a way, but it will not publish the breakdown that I have requested.

The BBC has put forward various reasons for that, with the most common one being the sheer scale of the exercise. I am, though, sceptical of that. How can it be that the BBC has no record of the music it transmits? Surely the confident assertion made to me by the director-general that it does not favour music from major companies ahead of smaller independent labels cannot possibly be left unchallenged unless he has assured himself with reference to the facts. I am sure that once he would have claimed that the BBC does not discriminate against women, but as we know the recently revealed figures on senior pay highlight a significant gender pay gap.

When the Minister responds, I would be grateful if he indicated whether he has any particular powers to compel the BBC to provide the information needed to establish beyond doubt whether its output is indeed as broad as is claimed. If he does not have such powers, does he agree that as the BBC is a taxpayer-funded organisation, it is in the public interest that it can demonstrate an even hand in its output? Does he agree that it is in fact in its interest to set out its output clearly and unambiguously?

In conclusion, again I reiterate my support for the concept and output of the BBC, but, like every other publicly funded organisation, it has a wider responsibility than simply the service it provides. Accountability and transparency must be at the heart of that responsibility.

In the interests of transparency, like the hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), I, too, am a product of the BBC, having spent almost a decade of my career as a television producer there. I have many great memories from there, and indeed made good friends during an interesting career. The BBC has many faults, and I have never stepped back from calling it out on those, but I am a critical friend of the BBC who will defend absolutely its editorial independence.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) on securing this debate. He raised important issues relating to complaints, commissioning, accuracy and honesty, and the gender pay gap. Although those issues mainly related to Northern Ireland, they do have a resonance across the UK, as we heard in contributions from the hon. Members for Eastleigh, for Keighley (John Grogan) and for Taunton Deane, and from my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson).

The hon. Member for Eastleigh spoke about the gender pay gap and working in BBC local radio. It says something if she is too old for radio, although I do not believe it for a minute. The hon. Member for Keighley talked about looking after those workers at the bottom of the pay scale.

I feel the pain of the hon. Member for Taunton Deane. Like her, I have experience as a struggling independent producer trying to get commissions. We have missed out on many excellent ideas from Oh! Television.

Order. I have been made aware that there is a sound failure, so Hansard cannot report. I can hear you and we can hear each other, and I do not want to lose the debate, so we will continue.

Slightly in jest, if one did reach that stage, one might put in some proposals to make programmes about one’s life here. Perhaps the BBC might find that entertaining.

I think it would have to be broadcast after the watershed.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran made an important point about how the BBC managed to get away with what it was doing in terms of the gender pay gap for so long. Transparency is absolutely essential. She also mentioned the discrepancy between what is raised in Scotland and what is spent in Scotland, and I agree that that is unacceptable and must be addressed as soon as possible.

We are living in an age in which society quite rightly expects—indeed it increasingly demands—transparency and openness as the hallmarks of our society. Anything and any organisation that benefits from the public purse has to be open and accepting of that scrutiny. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry said, we in this place, above all, are open to scrutiny and transparency. Going forward, the BBC has to expect those standards as well. At a time when it was emerging from a series of damaging historical scandals, with accusations of it being complicit and numerous attempts at cover-up, it was something of a surprise to many of us that the BBC should be so vehemently opposed to having to publish how much its top presenters earn. Indeed the then chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, said that it was “disappointed” that it would have to change and that the decision on the disclosure of presenters’ pay was not, in her opinion,

“in the long-term interests of licence fee payers”.

Even the director-general, Tony Hall, questioned the merit of the Government’s decision, saying,

“this will not make it easier for the BBC to retain the talent the public love”.

He continued:

“The BBC is already incredibly transparent.”

The much-fabled BBC insider fed to the press that it would be a “massive headache” for the BBC if it were forced to publish presenters’ pay. Indeed. Those were prophetic words, because that did give it a massive headache—but for very different reasons from those it first imagined. It must have thought that there would be a day of voyeuristic tittle-tattle in the office when it came out. It did not realise that that frenzy of indignation, which it thought would pass in 24 hours, would take on arms and legs in the way it has.

By forcing the BBC to reveal its salaries, it revealed its gender pay gap. It must have been living in some kind of time warp not to have realised what it was doing. The disparity between top-earning men and top-earning women is and was shocking. It is something that the BBC, as a publicly funded broadcaster, had no right to hide from the very people who finance the corporation. The BBC, as we have heard, is in a privileged and unique situation, and therefore it has to undergo a level of scrutiny far beyond those in the commercial sector. The gender pay gap, the scandal and the attempt to cover it up, at a time when the BBC’s popularity, particularly in Scotland, was on the wane, are mind-boggling. The decision to force the BBC to disclose its top salaries has been vindicated, because had it not, the gender equality issue would have remained hidden and unrecognised, and therefore unchallenged.

I realise that I am running short of time; I conclude by saying that the gender pay gap is not the only problem. I urge the BBC to look, as a matter of urgency, at the pay gap that exists within its own structures. What also emerged during this scandal was the massive pay gap that exists between the top and bottom earners within the BBC, with the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union reporting that 400 BBC employees earn less than 1% of its top-earning presenter. That is a scandal, and it should be addressed immediately. I look forward to the BBC taking it on and making a better job of that than it did of the gender pay gap.

At times this afternoon, the debate has felt like a reunion of former BBC employees. There have been certain complaints about BBC journalism, and at one point I thought we were going to hear the accusation that it was responsible for turning off the sound system and stopping our comments being broadcast to the nation—or the dozens of people following us on the BBC Parliament channel as we speak. Perhaps it is not dozens of people.

As many hon. Members have said, transparency is extremely important. Since I know the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) is digging deep on this issue, I should reveal my interest in the matter, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have received payments over the last year or so for my work as a musician from the TV channel Dave, which is owned by UKTV, which in turn is 50% owned by the BBC as part of its attempts to raise money from sources other than the licence fee, which of course it does in considerably greater amounts than it originally did. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He raised a lot of issues that I know he feels strongly about in relation to BBC journalism, and in particular the coverage of the issue that, as he pointed out, brought down the Administration in Northern Ireland, which we all hope will be up and running again soon. He raised points about transparency and salary, declarations of interest and other matters, including the vague answers he got to his questions from the BBC.

I will go on to make some positive remarks about the BBC as well, but I think it is better to give clear answers to Members of Parliament—they should be directed to the management, by the way—rather than the sort of vague answers that the Government routinely give to parliamentary questions. I would much rather the BBC answered questions directly, because a lot of the answers the hon. Gentleman gave from the BBC sounded like the sorts of answers I get when I table parliamentary questions. I do not know whether other hon. Members have had that experience when tabling questions to the Government, but I certainly have, and it necessitates further questions, freedom of information inquiries and so on.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) spoke very well, as always, and said that—rather like the Government—the BBC’s left hand sometimes did not know what the right hand was doing. She rightly explained the importance of the BBC ensuring pay equality. One thing that came out in the recent publication of BBC staff’s salaries was the issue of gender inequality, and indeed other forms of inequality. It is absolutely right that that information should be published and made transparent, and that the BBC should take urgent steps to address the issue—as should other broadcasters that are not subject to freedom of information requests, and do not have to make an annual report to Parliament in the way that the BBC does. All those in the private sector should also be looking to ensure gender equality, and other forms of equality, when it comes to pay and personnel.

I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) for 37 years, and he has been top talent himself all that time. He made a good point about the exposure that high-profile BBC presenters get, and the fact that that has huge value, beyond the salary that they are paid. I completely agree. He also rightly pointed out the difficult job that journalists have had to do in Northern Ireland, and that we should remember that at all times.

The hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) told us that she could not reveal her age to us, despite this being a debate about transparency. I intervened on her, because we should be careful about the language we use when we talk about Government “holding to account” the BBC. It is worth reminding ourselves that the BBC is an independent organisation, established by royal charter. If we think for a moment, it is vital that it is not ultimately the Government’s role to hold the BBC to account for its journalism and impartiality, for example, because the Government are extremely partial themselves.

It is a dangerous thing in those countries where the state broadcaster is in effect controlled by the Government. We know the implications of that in countries such as Russia. We want a publicly funded, transparent BBC that is accountable. The proper ways for it to be accountable are: to us as politicians via Parliament and the Select Committee, which is ably chaired by a member of the hon. Lady’s party and has a number of my hon. Friends as members; and through, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley pointed out, an independent regulator, whose job is to make sure that the BBC fulfils its role under the charter, which is negotiated and in partnership with Government, and sets out that broad scope. That is the point I was making: it is a fundamental principle that we should not lose sight of.

Perhaps I did not express it well, but my point was that clearly that system was not working well enough, hence the Government had to step in to require more transparency, which is now having an effect.

We do not have time to rehearse exactly what happened and how all this came about, but I wanted to make that point with force.

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said something that caused me concern; it was about whether the BBC’s reporting was perceived to be biased. She said—I think I quote her accurately; I am sure she will tell me if I do not—that it does not really matter whether it is true that the BBC’s reporting is fair and unbiased; all that matters is the perception. In other words, if she is saying that it is not about fake news but false perception, that is fine, but she seemed to imply that the perception is right, and that the BBC does not report impartially on politics in Scotland.

For clarification, my point is that it is a problem if the BBC’s paying customers do not have any faith in the way that it reflects their reality.

I do not have time to give way. Surveys of the public perception of BBC impartiality over time suggest the exact opposite. It is important that we stand up to the Donald Trump-like approach to media when it comes to the reporting of the news.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) made some fair and responsible points about the importance of transparency and accountability. Time is short, and there is so much more that one could say; I am sure that the Minister will say some of it. On this occasion, we might even agree on a few things relating to the BBC, much though it would pain him to admit it.

I make a general point about the BBC. We all have our criticisms of it, and we have all been victims of its vigorous journalism from time to time. It once named me on “Panorama” for accepting hospitality at an event that it had invited me to. When I pointed out to the BBC that its right hand literally did not know what its left hand was doing, I felt the pain that other hon. Members have in being taken to task in their role from time to time.

The BBC will make mistakes, but it is important that we remember that it is still genuinely envied and admired, and has a huge reputation across the world. In the words of Joni Mitchell, from “Big Yellow Taxi”:

“you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

In our quite appropriate debate about the transparency that is absolutely necessary for the BBC and the accountability it should have as a publicly funded organisation, let us not lose sight of the fact that it is an extraordinary British institution.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am so sorry to have kept you away from the debate on the withdrawal from the European Union—a subject that I know is very close to your heart.

I would like to thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) for securing this important and over-subscribed debate about transparency in and of the BBC. He gave a number of examples of concerns with the BBC, many of which relate to specific accusations within BBC Northern Ireland. I am sure that the BBC has heard his concerns loud and clear; he was certainly transparent about his frustration. I understand that the BBC has offered to meet him, and I encourage him to take up that offer, but I also encourage the BBC to respond in substance to his concerns.

As many Members have said, the BBC is one of our most treasured institutions. I declare no financial interest, but I do declare that I love the BBC and think it is a very important British institution. It is an engine for creativity and growth, and I am proud of its role here and around the world.

The BBC receives £4 billion of public funding every year through the TV licence fee, which is a tax. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said, the BBC, as a public service broadcaster funded by the public, must be as open and transparent as possible. The public rightly expect the BBC to be scrutinised effectively and to know how it spends our money—and I say “our” not as a Minister, but as a licence fee payer.

I strongly support the transparency that has been brought to the BBC through the charter settlement. It will improve the BBC and bring it into line with other public services, other parts of Government and, indeed, our politics, which has got radically more transparent in recent years. Improving efficiency and transparency was central to the charter review, and we have insisted on a whole series of changes in the charter to address these issues.

I agree with those who said we were right to introduce that transparency. Alongside it was effective, modern governance. It will be the responsibility of the new BBC board to deliver further transparency and greater efficiencies across overheads, including what needs to be done to lower the pay bill, where appropriate. The National Audit Office has become the BBC’s financial auditor for the very first time, as it is for the rest of the public sector. It will be able to do value-for-money studies on the BBC’s commercial subsidiaries, which return profits to the BBC, thereby generating public money. Of course, Ofcom is now independently regulating the BBC. A point that was brought up and has strong cross-party agreement is that it is important that an independent regulator regulates the BBC.

I was surprised at the comments of the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), and by the Labour Front Bench’s opposition to seeing more diversity and distinctiveness at the BBC: we have had complaints by the Labour party about our calls for more diversity in the BBC. Of course I have a view on the level of diversity in the BBC, and I just wish the Labour party would join in. Where I do agree is that the BBC needs to look at pay across the piece, at all levels. I had much more sympathy with the point made powerfully by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) about the powers to insist on transparency for the BBC in other areas of diversity.

On a point of order, Mr Bone. I think the Minister might have inadvertently misled the House by saying that the Labour Front Bench, during the course of the debate, had opposed levels of diversity within the BBC.

I did not say that it did so during the debate. It did when the deputy leader of the Labour party, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, wrote to us attacking our insistence on more diversity at the BBC. Maybe the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) needs to have a word with his colleague and try to bring him into line. We are in favour of more diversity. At the moment, the Labour party is not, and I suggest it does something about that.

I think the hon. Gentleman needs to go and sort that out with his colleague. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston made—

Just to correct the Minister, the deputy leader of the Labour party is the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson). I am the Member for West Bromwich West, and I would like no confusion.

I said West Bromwich because when I got to the end of saying it, I could not remember which I was referring to, but I was indeed referring to West Bromwich East.

Anyway, Ofcom has powers to insist that the BBC be transparent, and the charter gives Ofcom specific powers to consider the distinctiveness of music output on Radio 1 and Radio 2—not just the number of plays, but the size of the playlist and whether it is a peak or off-peak time. I suggest that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston takes his point, which has a lot of merit, up with Ofcom, because it has those powers; the Government do not, for the reasons discussed during the debate.

The Government also require the BBC to disclose details on staff and talent where salaries are over £150,000. That was the meat of the debate today. The latest pay disclosure really shines a light on some practices that have been going on for a long time in the BBC, and not least on the gender pay gap, as discussed. I am very proud that we have introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting for organisations with more than 250 employees, because that will help the organisations. I have an awful lot of sympathy with the statement put out by BBC women yesterday, which said:

“The Director General must be in no doubt about how serious an issue equal and fair pay is for women across the organisation. The BBC should be the standard-bearer for this.”

That is incredibly important. In fact, I think that on issues of diversity and gender equality, we should hold the BBC to a higher standard, if anything, than other organisations, because it literally reflects the nation and broadcasts to the nation.

All of us who cherish and support the BBC must strive to make it more transparent and hold it to account. That does not weaken the organisation; it improves an organisation, because where there is a problem, sunlight is the best disinfectant. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) asked powerfully what further will happen on transparency. Mandatory gender pay gap reporting for the BBC, as well as for other organisations, is due by April next year, and we expect the BBC to take action to close that gap, which it says is 10%.

Of course, it is not just about the gender pay gap. As my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton Deane and for Clacton (Giles Watling) said, it is about the level of pay. It is also about equal opportunities—people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are under-represented among the BBC’s top earners—and transparency on social mobility, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston set out.

The BBC should be leading the way. I welcome the director-general’s commitment to closing the gender pay gap by 2020. I was pleased to hear yesterday about his plans for an independent equal pay audit of all BBC staff in the UK and a separate report on the gender pay gap. I look forward to seeing those reports in the coming months and expect to see an improvement on the gender pay gap and diversity in the next set of BBC accounts.

Transparency is the order of the day in this debate, so I am delighted that we heard of the music talent on the Labour Front Bench. I am sure that the hon. Member for Cardiff West is regarded by viewers of the Dave channel as top talent, and maybe one day we will see his name in the transparency returns. I agree with him on the importance of impartiality at the BBC and with his robust defence of the BBC against the accusations from some Scottish National party Members. I conclude today’s debate by thanking all Members for their lively contributions. I am sure that the BBC will be listening, and I am sure also that we will return to these important topics many times.

I am delighted that so many Members were able to take part in the debate. I thank the Minister for his response. I trust, as he indicated, that the BBC, at hierarchy level, will respond definitively to not only my questions, letters and emails but those of all other public representatives. We want to see a BBC of which we can be rightly proud—one that is independent, fearless and questions and pursues issues, but that is also transparent and accountable—so that people can defend the BBC locally, nationally and internationally.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the transparency of the BBC.

16-to-19 Education Funding

[David Hanson in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered 16 to 19 education funding.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I am pleased to move this debate and to see so many hon. and right hon. Members here on a Thursday afternoon to show their interest in this important subject. Let me start by declaring my interest in and passion for 16-to-19 learning.

I have worked in post-16 education most of my life and seen a multitude of times how high-quality learning transforms the life chances of young people. When elected to serve as Scunthorpe’s MP, leaving my job as principal of John Leggott College, post-16 education was in a pretty good place with a relevant, dynamic, personalised curriculum and relatively decent funding to support a broad and balanced education with appropriate extra-curricular activities, guidance and support. Education maintenance allowance acted as a significant driver of ever-improving student achievement and social mobility.

Sadly, in the seven years I have been in Parliament, the challenge for post-16 leadership has become significantly greater, driven by huge, ongoing and accelerating financial pressures. The cuts to 16-to-19 education funding introduced in 2011, 2013 and 2014 have proved particularly damaging. The average sixth-form college lost 17% of its funding before inflation. If John Leggott College, which celebrates 50 years of providing outstanding education to the young people of north Lincolnshire this year, was funded at 2010 levels today, it would have £1.2 million more in this year’s budget. That is astounding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that not only has 16-to-19 education been affected by cuts in funding for that particular cohort but past and current Government cuts in adult learning and English for speakers of other languages impact on further education colleges and other education institutions in providing the sort of curriculum and resources necessary to teach 16 to 19-year-olds as well?

My hon. Friend is completely right. Cuts elsewhere in further education budgets make life even more difficult and challenging for people leading those institutions and delivering not only for adults but for 16 to19-year old learners.

Alongside these funding cuts, inflationary pressures have continued to bite and costs have continued to rise. Employer contributions to the teachers’ pension scheme increased from 14.1% to 16.4% in 2015, employer national insurance contributions rose from 10.4% to 13.8% in 2016, and business rates increased in 2017.

I was contacted about this debate by the principal of Sutton Community Academy in my constituency, who tells me that the budget is over £1 million less than it was three years ago and that the only way to balance the books would be to shut the sixth form, but it is desperate not to do that. My constituents need a leg up. They cannot afford to see a ladder that enables them to move on and up being pulled down.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Giving people a leg up and supporting them, and generating social mobility is exactly what good post-16 education does. She is absolutely right to remind us of the challenges in her constituency, which are reflected across the English education system.

Labour has shown real leadership in arguing for improved technical education to stand alongside the growth in apprenticeships begun under a Labour Government. T-levels have the potential to represent a step change forward, but those of us working in post-16 education have been here many times. The devil is always in the detail of delivery, but one thing is certain. Putting money into T-levels, as the Government are rightly doing, is no substitute for addressing the shortfall in funding the 85% of young people in general post-16 education. I hope that the new Minister, for whom I have enormous respect, will not fall into the trap of reading out a civil service brief that goes on at length about T-levels to avoid the central question that we are considering today—the underfunding of mainstream post-16 education, A-levels and applied general qualifications such as BTEC.

Colleges such as Kirklees College had over 3,000 16 to 19-year olds on full-time programmes last year, but the funding available covered only 15 hours a week per student. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is wrong and that we need fair funding for all 16 to 19-year olds, regardless of where they choose to study?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I want the Minister to focus on getting good value for the vast majority of students and to address the funding inequality that my hon. Friend highlights so well.

In its offer to the British people this year, the Conservative party promised fair funding for schools, but its current proposals wholly ignore post-16 education. This made complete sense when compulsory education ended at 16, but it is nonsense now that the raising of the participation age means that everyone remains in education and training up to 18. It is not being honest with the electorate, who expect the fair funding promise to cover all sixth-formers.

Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the biggest problems is special needs in further education? Further education has a proud record of taking people who have not been in mainstream education and looking after them from 16 to 19. Unless there is additional funding for those students, they will always be disproportionately affected.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The reality is that the squeeze on funding for education for 16 to 19-year-olds puts pressure on special needs support not only in colleges but in school sixth forms. This issue covers sixth-formers wherever they end up in the system.

Recent research from the Institute of Education describes sixth form education in England as “uniquely narrow and short” compared with the high-performing education systems elsewhere in the world in places such as Shanghai, Singapore and Canada. Our sixth-formers are now funded to receive only half the tuition time of sixth- formers in other leading economies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) pointed out, as little as 15 to 17 hours of weekly tuition and support has become the norm for students in England, compared with 30-plus hours in Shanghai. Students in other leading education systems receive more tuition time, study more subjects and in some cases benefit from a three-year programme of study rather than two.

My hon. Friend is making some incredible points. Students are rightly now staying at school until 18 and those extra two years are important in tackling the country’s skills challenges. Does he agree that we need to invest properly because otherwise we will be reduced to a core curriculum rather than the expansive experience that young people need to prepare them for life beyond school?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The tragedy is that already the post-16 curriculum has shrunk so we are already in danger of getting to where my hon. Friend describes, and there is concern about where we might be going in future.

The funding that schools and colleges now receive to educate sixth-formers covers the cost of delivering just three A-level or equivalent qualifications, and little more. As a result, the wider support offer to students has been greatly diminished. That means it is increasingly difficult to address properly the concerns expressed by employers that young people lack the skills to flourish in the workplace. The CBI’s 2016 education and skills survey, for example, expressed concern about the current education system, with its emphasis on grades and league tables

“at the expense of wider personal development”.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to continue to commit and invest more in the sector to ensure that it does not shrink further.

I think everybody would agree that programmes of study in which students have too much free time are not effective at getting the best out of them. The students are in transition from a fairly directed pre-16 learning environment to the independent learning of HE and the world of work. That transition needs to be properly and appropriately supported.

On a recent visit to Scunthorpe’s brilliant North Lindsey College, the excellent principal, Anne Tyrrell, remarked on how the demands from students with mental health problems had grown exponentially in recent years. Many schools and colleges lack the resources to address the sharp increase in students reporting mental health problems. That is a real issue that has been compounded by cuts to NHS and local authority budgets. The charity Mind recently found that local authorities now spend less than 1% of their public health budget on mental health. We know that students with better health and well-being are likely to achieve much better academically and that participation in extra-curricular activities has a positive effect on attainment. Such things are interlinked and related.

It is clear that the student experience in schools and colleges is deteriorating as a result of the funding pressures that hon. Members have drawn attention to in their own constituencies across England. For example, two thirds of sixth-form colleges have already shrunk their curriculum offer; over a third have dropped modern foreign languages courses; and the majority have reduced or removed the extracurricular activities available to students, including music, drama and sport.

Even more concerning, almost two out of three colleges do not believe that the funding they receive next year will be sufficient to support students that are educationally or economically disadvantaged. So the underfunding of 16-to-19 education is fast becoming a real obstacle to improving social mobility.

As costs continue to rise, the underfunding of sixth- form education is becoming a major challenge for all providers. Schools increasingly find themselves having to use the funding intended for 11 to 16-year-olds to subsidise their sixth forms, which risks damaging the education of younger students. Small sixth forms in rural areas are increasingly unviable, lacking the economies of scale to provide students with the rounded education that we all believe in.

Grammar schools are increasingly raising their voices in serious concern about the underfunding of 16-to-19 education.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that sixth-form colleges such as St Brendan’s in my constituency are particularly hard hit because they do not even have the 11 to 16-year-old funding that might better enable them to support 16 to 19-year-olds?

Sixth-form colleges are particularly affected, as my hon. Friend describes, and they cannot claim back VAT in the way that schools do, so that puts them at a significant disadvantage overall.

The treatment of 16-to-19 funding is in stark contrast to the pre-16 funding that was protected in real terms under the coalition Government and protected in cash terms during the previous Parliament. The Secretary of State’s recent announcement of an additional £1.3 billion for schools does not apply to students aged 16 to 19; nor does the minimum funding guarantee for students in secondary schools. That puts them at a disadvantage, with 16-to-19 education being very much the poor relation.

Yet the average funding of £4,530 per student received by colleges and school sixth forms is already 21% less than the £5,750 per student that is received to educate 11 to 16-year-olds in secondary schools. That compares with average spending on students, once they go into higher education at 18, of £8,780 per student. Perhaps we can learn from the private sector. In private schools the funding of students actually increases post-16 to £15,300 per student to reflect the additional cost of teaching 16 to 19-year olds. As we approach the autumn budget, now is the time for the Government to focus on this very real problem and resist the temptation to hide behind the glib arguments they have used in the past. After all, the new Minister is well grounded, practical and sensible: the very antithesis of glib. We look forward to her response.

It is welcome that there is now a single national funding formula for 16-to-19, but that does not compensate for its inadequacy. There is still inequality, as I have mentioned, between schools that can claim back VAT and colleges that cannot, leaving the average sixth-form college with £385,914 less to spend on their students. There is no evidence base for the Government’s assertion that the funds provided are sufficient. That is why I support the joint call from the Association of School and College Leaders, the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges Association for the Government to conduct a proper review of sixth-form funding to ensure it is linked to the realistic costs of delivering the rounded full-time education that we all want our young people to have.

The Government’s other assertion that success in school is the best predictor of outcomes in 16-to-19 education has not been supported by any evidence either. I know from my own experience how students who have struggled pre-16 can make spectacular progress with the proper support post-16. Bluntly, the Government have provided no evidence to justify reducing education funding by 21% at age 16. The chronic underinvestment in academic sixth-form education is bad for students, for our international competitiveness and for social mobility.

It is the students that matter. We are at real risk of letting them down. That is why I am calling on everyone to get behind the ASCL, AoC and SFCA’s excellent Support Our Sixth-formers campaign, and I ask the Government to respond positively to their two clear, simple asks: first, to introduce an immediate £200 uplift in funding to improve the support offered to sixth-form students; and secondly, to conduct a review of sixth- form funding to ensure it is linked to the realistic costs of delivering a rounded, high-quality curriculum. A modest annual increase in funding of £200 per student would help schools and colleges to begin reassembling the range of support activities required to meet the needs of young people.

The uplift is affordable. It would cost £244 million per year to implement, and it could be largely funded by the underspend in the Department for Education’s budget for 16-to-19 education, amounting to £135 million in 2014 and £132 million in 2015. At a time when 16-to-19 education is in dire need of additional investment, schools and colleges should at least receive all the funding that the Government put aside for 16 to 19-year-olds. As funding rates for sixth-formers have been fixed since 2013, such a modest uplift would also help schools and colleges to deal with the inflationary pressures and cost increases that they have faced during that time.

It is time for all of us, including the Government, to support our sixth-formers and give them a fair deal. In her response, the Minister can make a good start by saying that she is determined to champion high-quality general sixth-form education as well as T-levels and apprenticeships. She could also commit to ensuring that both the £200 funding uplift and the fundamental review are carefully and properly looked at as part of the autumn Budget process. She is tenacious and determined. She is capable of ensuring that the Government stop letting sixth-formers down and start investing in them properly for the future of all of us.

Order. Self-evidently Mr Dakin’s debate has given me a challenge. At least 13 Members want to speak; I must call the Scottish National party spokesperson at 4 pm, and there are the Labour party spokesperson and the Minister to get in, so there is a limited time. Given the enormous Opposition interest, I think that Opposition Members in particular will have to restrain their comments severely.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing the debate. He is the right person to lead it, because of his distinguished career before he entered this place as the principal of a further education college.

The years from 16 to 19 are of critical importance in everyone’s life; they are the transition years between school and the workplace. If we get things right in this place, young people go on to have successful and fulfilling lives from which they and their families benefit directly—as well as society and the economy. If we do not put down the right framework, lives can be unfulfilled, society can become fractured, and the economic productivity gap widens. Proper, stable funding is the cornerstone of a good, enduring 16-to-19 education system. In Waveney, 16-to-19 education is provided at Bungay High School, Sir John Leman High School in Lowestoft, East Coast College—the former Lowestoft College, which recently merged with Great Yarmouth College—and Lowestoft Sixth Form College. Students in the area also go to East Norfolk Sixth Form College in Gorleston, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). All those colleges and schools produce good results, often in challenging circumstances, and staff all go the extra mile in support of their students.

I will concentrate my comments on Lowestoft Sixth Form College and East Coast College. Lowestoft Sixth Form College opened in 2011. In a short time it has been an outstanding success, owing to the great work of the principal, Yolanda Botham, and her staff. This year, maths and physics A-level outcomes have been in the top 1% nationally. East Coast College was formed earlier this year, following an area review and, under the new principal, Stuart Rimmer, some exciting plans are emerging. Those include a new energy skills centre, for which the Government have provided £10 million capital funding through the New Anglia local enterprise partnership. There are some outstanding successes. Some good initiatives are taking place and some exciting projects are planned. That said, for them to be sustainable and successful in the long term, a secure and adequate revenue-funding framework must be put in place.

As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe has shown, 16-to-19 funding is at present seriously under-resourced. When a student reaches 16, their funding drops by 20%. At current funding levels, students in England receive, on average, 15 hours of teaching and support a week. That compares with 26 hours in Canada, 27 in Singapore and 30 in Shanghai. The House of Commons Library has identified seven challenges that 16 to 19-year-olds face. They are, in effect, being squeezed on all sides. The VAT iniquity means that an average sixth-form college loses £385,000 per annum of vital income. The ability to become an academy helps to address that problem, to a degree, but it is not practical for all sixth-form colleges.

STEM subjects are vital at Lowestoft Sixth Form College, but, worryingly, research shows that 15% of sixth-form colleges across the country have dropped STEM subjects. At the present time, when the nation should be producing more engineers and scientists, that trend must be reversed. The Government’s T-education proposals are welcome, but are likely to cover only 25% of those in education. The solution to the problem, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, is to adopt the four recommendations of the Association of Colleges, the Sixth Form Colleges Association, and the Association of School and College Leaders. I shall not go through them in detail, as he has already set them out.

Colleges are a great British success story. They deliver great results and are an important—vital—lever for social mobility, which is relevant in Lowestoft in my constituency, where there are significant pockets of deprivation. However, colleges cannot continue to perform their role if they are not properly funded. In Lowestoft there are exciting regeneration plans, with the two colleges playing lead roles. If the full potential of the plans is to be realised, 16-to-19 education funding must be put on a sustainable long-term footing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing this important debate, and on his powerful speech. It is a pleasure to follow the speech that the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) has just made. I, too, urge the Government to adopt the recommendations of the Support Our Sixth-formers campaign.

Enfield is one of the top-performing local authorities for education in the country, with 97% of our schools rated either good or outstanding by Ofsted. This year the borough’s A-level pass rate of 98.2% exceeded the London and national pass rate average, and 96% of students who took a level 3 vocational qualification in Enfield achieved a merit or better. Students, staff, schools and colleges are and should be proud of those outstanding achievements, especially when under the present Government they have faced the largest real-terms cuts to their budgets in a generation. However, as the Support Our Sixth-formers campaign has said,

“the development and progress of young people cannot simply be measured through annual performance tables.”

Extra-curricular activities and non-qualification support are crucial in delivering a well-rounded, high quality education. Careers advice, study skills training and mental health support, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe referred, are important for the wellbeing and personal development of students.

Enfield is the 12th most deprived borough in London and we have the highest number of children—almost exactly a third of our children—living in poverty. That is not a race that we were hoping to win. Additional help and educational support is invaluable for all students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Before the recess, I had the pleasure of attending a careers fair at Enfield County School in my constituency, which reinforced my sense that schools and colleges offering such extracurricular activities are uniquely placed to provide the essential knowledge and skills required by students, so that they can make confident and responsible choices for their future.

However, I know from having visited almost every school and college in my constituency that many head teachers and principals are being forced into taking drastic measures to balance their books. Extra-curricular activities on offer to 16 to 19-year-olds are being cut, the range of subjects on offer for A-levels and vocational training curriculums is being reduced, and the retention and recruitment of teachers and support staff is proving ever more difficult, as pay is held down.

It is students in Enfield and elsewhere who are paying the price for the Government’s misguided funding policy. Sixth-formers have also suffered from a sustained period of under-investment in comparison with other students in full-time education. Given the importance of extra-curricular activities and non-qualification support to that age group, many head teachers and principals I have spoken to cannot understand the justification for an arbitrary reduction in per pupil funding—currently 21%—when students reach the age of 16. I agree. They are being short-changed. As recommended by the Support Our Sixth-formers campaign, the Government must conduct an urgent review of 16-to-19 education funding.

The future success of our country relies on our young people getting the best education and the highest-quality curriculum that we can give them—especially with Brexit looming large in front of us. I know that the second recommendation from the Support Our Sixth-formers campaign—to introduce a £200-per-student uplift to improve the education and support available—would be put to very good use by schools and colleges in Enfield. The Government should take heed of that advice, because those students—indeed, all students—deserve a fair funding deal. A Government decision not to review funding and not to increase investment in sixth-form education will be bad for our young people and our country, at a time when we need to build the best skilled workforce possible.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing this important debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I was part of a previous Adjournment debate on this matter and have looked forward to this broader debate, which is very welcome.

First, I welcome the huge progress made under this Government on 16-to-19 education as a whole. This year, the percentage of entries awarded the top A* or A grade is 26.3%—an increase on the 2016 results—with an overall UK pass rate of 97.9%. I am particularly pleased that the proportion of entries in STEM subjects has increased and that there are more female than male entries in chemistry for the first time since 2004. Having hosted an event in Parliament in June to promote women in engineering, alongside the Women’s Engineering Society, I am absolutely delighted that we are doing something about that at sixth-form level. Alongside industry, we roundly looked at the challenges in relation to STEM for students of both sexes, with a view to ensuring that they have a chance to have the career that they need post 16-to-19 education. This Government, and certainly my colleagues and I, do not take the challenge post-16 at all lightly.

On top of the excellent secondary schools that offer A-level courses in my constituency, we are fortunate to have the stand-alone colleges. I think the importance of that will come out in the conversation and debate today; they are themselves definitive success stories in many constituencies across the UK. Eighty-seven per cent. are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted—that includes Eastleigh College, with which I have strong links—and 55% of disadvantaged students progress to university, compared with 42% from state schools or colleges. Even better, 90% of students attending sixth-form colleges go on to study for a second year at university, if that is right for them.

Let me take this chance to thank my two local post-16 colleges for the great visits that have allowed me the opportunity to see the work that they do, and their principals: Jan Edrich at Eastleigh College and Jonathan Prest at Barton Peveril College.

Students in my constituency have a great choice. Eastleigh College is packed full of apprenticeship opportunities and is strongly linked to business. It is a leader in air conditioning and gas engineering training. All of that is very much needed. Business leaders in my constituency want work-ready post 16-to-19 students. As a Conservative and a believer in choice, I know it is vital that we give our students such opportunities, so I must ask my right hon. Friend the new Minister to take her opportunity to balance the skills agenda alongside the need for traditional colleges in order that all our students have the right opportunities. I believe that there will be continued strong lobbying from the Sixth Form Colleges Association; it is certainly beating down my door, and I am sure it is beating down hers.

While the hon. Lady is talking about the importance of such education to employers, will she recognise that education in a sixth-form college is not just about the three A-levels, but is often about the wider experience, including work placements, that colleges give their students, and that that requires resources for the colleges to be able to administer it effectively and properly? That is why the £200 uplift is so important.

I absolutely agree that a well rounded education is very important; I will come to that shortly. Both academic and pastoral excellence is vital in all our education institutions.

During the summer recess, I was delighted to carry out another visit to Barton Peveril College in Eastleigh and meet the principal, Jonathan Prest. This is a thriving sixth-form college in my Hampshire constituency. With more than 3,000 full-time students, it is one of the 12 largest sixth-form colleges in the country and therefore has a huge responsibility when it comes to preparing our young people for the world of work. It seems that colleges of that size and scale can just about manage when it comes to the finances, but we want to ensure that the opportunities in traditional colleges are maintained, alongside the skills agenda.

I was concerned to hear about the current funding arrangements. The situation was not new to me. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about post-16 finances and raised the matter with her directly in the main Chamber, and I am grateful to her for spending time with me. Currently, sixth-form colleges and school or academy sixth forms receive £4,531 per student. That is less than we provide for younger students in secondary schools. It is 48% less than the average university tuition fee and about 70% less than the average sixth-form fee in the independent sector. Unlike schools and academies, traditional sixth-form colleges struggle to cross-subsidise—that is probably the best way of putting it. We have also heard about the inability to get VAT costs reimbursed. The issue has therefore been raised today, and I know that the Minister will look at it, because it does affect the learning of our sixth formers.

More broadly on 16-to-19 education and colleges, I absolutely agree about the opportunity to give our kids the cultural capital that they need when they come out of 16-to-19 education. Are we giving them the right opportunities? For example, are they being allowed to study for the Duke of Edinburgh’s awards? Are they going out to see plays? Are they spending time with local businesses? The first thing that business people say to me is, “I can’t get students who are work ready.” Those extracurricular activities are really important; indeed, they are vital. We do not want bored 16 to 19-year-olds; we want work-ready 16 to 19-year-olds. I therefore join colleagues in supporting the benefits of that broader education.

I congratulate the Government on the excellent work being done to support the education of all our young people, but we must ensure that we look at the traditional 16-to-19 stand-alone college. I must personally thank all the colleges and their staff and everyone across the country who is doing this work. I also thank the governors, who are doing so much work as well. They are often forgotten.

I will finish by asking the Minister to consider carefully the concerns raised about funding arrangements for stand-alone sixth-form colleges. I look forward to working further with her on these issues as we go forward.

Order. I am going to call Norman Lamb next, but self-evidently a number of hon. Members wish to speak. To get them in, I will have to impose a time limit, which I will announce after Norman Lamb has spoken. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) has graciously said that she will cut short her remarks, so I intend the Front-Bench speeches to start at five past 4, and I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind. I will set the time limit once Norman Lamb has finished his hopefully reasonably brief remarks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I will try to follow that guidance.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). I agreed with pretty much everything he said and I very strongly support the campaign for our sixth formers. With that clear, I want to use this opportunity to speak on behalf of the brilliant Paston Sixth Form College in my constituency. This year, it secured an A-level pass rate of 99.3%, with 80% at grades A* to C. It is an institution achieving very high academic standards, yet as a result of a completely flawed area review, it is being forced to merge with City College Norwich. That is a good institution, but it serves a different market and has a different purpose from a sixth-form college with a very strong academic standard. It is a sixth-form college in an area that has a low-wage economy and where there is traditionally a low rate of students going on to university, yet we are forcing it to merge and losing it as an independent, stand-alone institution. That is a crying shame.

I am disgusted, frankly, by the area review, which I think is completely flawed. Why is that? The area review combines further education colleges and sixth-form colleges—two types of organisation that often do very different work—and leaves out school sixth-forms, which are doing the same job as sixth-form colleges. It is totally flawed. An institution that is currently funded for 688 students is deemed to be unsustainable, when there are two new free schools in Norwich—one of which is funded for 201 students and the other for 80 students —which are deemed to be viable. How can anybody justify that uneven playing field, which has forced a brilliant institution to merge and lose its independent status?

The right hon. Gentleman touches on a subject that also affects me very much. Two local colleges are being talked about in terms of a forced merger. I have written to Ministers and to the educational establishment to try and make sure that it does not happen. I hope that the Minister takes note that we do not want forced mergers, which damage our local systems.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I do not mind diversity. I absolutely advocate diversity of provision, but I want a level playing field. I want every institution to live or die on the basis of the same rules, yet special favours are being given to free schools. There is an uneven playing field between school sixth-forms, which can cross-subsidise from the higher funding for early years education, and sixth-form colleges, which cannot do that. That is unjust. The Government are responsible for the loss of an independent institution that performs brilliantly. I would like to meet the Minister to discuss my very real concern. I have written about it previously, but my plea was ignored and the flawed area review carried on. At some point, if we want to retain these brilliant institutions, we have to be willing to reflect on a flawed system, and decide to look at all institutions on a level playing field.

I am conscious that the restrictions from the Chair dictate that other people need to get in, so I will resist the temptation there.

Let us recognise that sixth-form colleges across the country have a very good record of delivering high academic standards. For some reason, it appears that the Government have a negative view of them, and are prepared to see them wither and die in some cases. That is a big mistake. Let us recognise the fantastic performance of sixth-form colleges across the country. Paston is not unique in that regard. Let us make sure we preserve them and give them a bright future.

I am going to have to impose a limit of three minutes for the moment, which should just about get everybody in before the Front-Bench spokespeople begin their deliberations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing this debate. It is massively important that we focus on the opportunities for our young people, and on giving them the skills they need to take those opportunities and make the most of their lives. In Somerset we have some great opportunities, but delivering the skills required to take advantage of them is a major challenge in some areas.

I want to thank the Government for their attention to secondary schools within the adjustment of the funding formula that has been proposed. That goes some way towards outlining and improving some of the opportunities, but I think it is absolutely right that this debate has highlighted some of the anomalies in the education system for 16 to 19-year-olds. Secondary schools find some aspects very challenging. For example, in rural areas such as mine, where there is not a major university close by, it is quite hard to recruit staff, and that all has an impact on what can be delivered.

In Yeovil we have a great sixth-form college, which provides terrific opportunities and has done a great job of improving its standards over recent years, but I just want to highlight one or two of the challenges it is facing. We have heard about the VAT anomaly, and I would like to reiterate that. I would also like to say that, in general, applying for funding to renovate existing buildings and capital stock, to keep the experience as we would want it to be, is actually very hard. That is because applications now go from the LEP pot, and unless a particular building has a LEP-approved priority as its basis, it will not get the funding. The sixth-form college in Yeovil is struggling with that.

I would also like to highlight the new regulations that have come into the Insolvency Act 1986, which essentially allow colleges to go bust. That puts pressure on their financing. They are unable to refinance their existing loans without having to pay very large redemption fees, and that limits what they are able to do. I think Barclays and Lloyds are the main players in that business. If the Minister looked at that in particular, I would be grateful.

I am also very grateful for the Minister’s attention to the Somerset Skills and Learning business, and thank her for arranging the meeting on Monday. That has serious challenges, but I thank her for her intervention on it.

I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing this important debate. I want to highlight some particular points that apply to my own college, East Durham College. I thank the excellent principal there, Suzanne Duncan, and all the staff, for their hard work and dedication to the students in my constituency, and for giving me an insight into the funding issues facing it and other FE colleges.

I agree with the points that many hon. Members have made about the unfair nature of funding, which has been acknowledged by the Government. Given the Government’s commitment to look again at the schools funding formula, which they described as being out of date, it is a glaring omission not to look at post-16 provision.

As my hon. Friend knows, Hartlepool has excellent sixth-form and FE college provision. Hartlepool College of Further Education, which also provides an education for his constituents in Easington and east Durham, offers a diverse range of apprenticeships providing bespoke skills for the future jobs market, and is the second highest performing college in England. Yet it is struggling with debt due to underfunding; several mergers have failed due to the lack of adequate funding. Does my hon. Friend agree with my question—what guarantee can my constituents be given that proper financial resources will be put into the future education of young people in our area?

I completely agree. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), are really concerned about the impact on their facilities.

There are common threads in the nature of the unfair funding formula. These are questions that the Minister must address, and we are hopeful on this side of the House that she will do that in a fair and open manner. There have been significant cost rises over the last four years and the funding rates within the formula have been fixed. That has led to real-term funding cuts in further education. In particular, in east Durham, an area of high deprivation that I represent, the formula significantly affects resources. By an anomaly referred to as the college age penalty, for each student between 16 and 18-years-old East Durham College receives £4,000, but that is reduced to £3,300 for a student aged 19, even when such students are undertaking exactly the same college courses. East Durham College estimates that this college age penalty costs it over £100,000 a year—the equivalent of three teachers. It would be helpful if the Minister could, in her concluding remarks, explain why educating and training a student aged 19 is seen as less important or valuable than educating an 18-year-old student.

The Government’s funding cuts and rising costs mean that post-16 education is becoming a part-time experience. Other hon. Members have referred to students receiving only 15 hours a week of teaching and support, which is inadequate, and compares poorly with our European competitors. We are failing to fund education. That is short-sighted and detrimental to our young people and our economy.

Subject choices are being reduced and courses cut, particularly those run by colleges with smaller intakes and those that provide services to rural areas, as Members from all parties have mentioned. The current funding crisis will lead to larger class sizes, unavailability of subjects such as music and drama, reduced teaching hours, fewer extracurricular activities and less student support. There will be further sixth-form closures and reductions in A-level courses—although the Government are demanding greater rigour—and more college mergers.

I support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe. I ask the Minister to invest in our young people. She should not be the Minister responsible for kicking away the ladders of opportunity that many of us in this House took for granted when we were students. Education is an investment. I hope that she will commit to ensuring that every student can receive a high-quality and comprehensive education.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on obtaining this important debate. Given the statistics that we have heard, it is no surprise that the two exceptional sixth-form colleges in my constituency have both contacted me to express their concerns.

Winstanley College has a stellar reputation as a high-performing academic institution, but it has now cut German from its curriculum, meaning that that language is now lacking in my borough. St John Rigby College, judged outstanding in every aspect by Ofsted in February 2017, is rightly proud of its inclusivity—85% of its students reside in Wigan—whereas Winstanley is well-known across the north-west, and many students travel for hours to get there.

The Ofsted report particularly praised the extent to which St John Rigby provides extra support to enable students to achieve. That is vital in order for them to excel, but it is unfunded, and as teachers are being asked to teach larger groups for more hours, the capacity to provide such support is diminishing. In my constituency, raising aspirations and building confidence are crucial, but the college principal, Peter McGhee, believes that the funding cuts are having the biggest impact on marginally qualified students. To him, it is an issue of social justice and social cohesion.

To ensure that students who need support and are less independent in their studies receive that support, the college has decided to keep teaching groups at the right size for students, meaning that it cannot invest in the estate or new technology. As funding continues to fall in real terms, its only option is to remove some of the unfunded aspects of provision, but whether it is additional study groups, one-to-one support sessions or supported revision sessions, they are all vital to those students in my constituency. The students who need extra support are the marginally qualified, who just about managed in school. Perhaps they failed a bit or did not get on with the environment, or they have higher anxiety or mental health needs. Often, their only support is provided by the college, due to cuts to NHS and local authority provision.

Unfunded programmes that develop skills and values are also under threat. The Values for Living programme has been praised by Ofsted for changing students’ lifestyles and developing their personal, moral, social and employability skills exceptionally well. Is that not what we want for our young people—to be the best that they can be in all aspects and to have the groundwork laid for a happy, healthy, productive adult life? To do so, students in Wigan need to spend more time in college, not less, as they achieve best when they are busy and engaged in a structured programme. However, that is now unaffordable, and large numbers of my constituents will be deprived of the education and opportunities to which they are entitled. The colleges in Makerfield and I are ambitious for every student, but we need the Government not only to share that ambition but to take practical steps so that it can be achieved.

I shall try to stay within three minutes. I speak as a governor for 24 years of Luton Sixth Form College, a superb college with great achievements. Indeed, we have a great success on my immediate left: my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) was a star pupil at Luton Sixth Form College many years ago, which proves my point. I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group for sixth-form colleges, so I will focus particularly on those.

In my second ever debate in this Chamber, some 20 years ago, I called for better funding for sixth-form colleges. Since then, funding has been squeezed, cut and cut again despite constant campaigning against such cuts. In that earlier debate, I described sixth-form colleges as geese that lay golden eggs: in my view, they are the most successful institutions in our entire state educational system in educational achievement, teaching and learning and value for money.

All of that is increasingly at risk from funding cuts. We should restore and increase funding for sixth-form colleges, not cut it. Indeed, I have called on numerous occasions for the creation of many more sixth-form colleges. The arguments for such a programme are overwhelming. I ask the Government to consider that possibility again and take steps to expand the sixth-form college sector.

Of the final two points that I emphasise, the first is the need for greater contact teaching hours. It is a disgrace that our sixth-form students have half as many contact hours with teaching staff as their counterparts in Shanghai. As a former student as well as a former lecturer on A-level and other courses in further education, I know that there is no substitute for classroom teaching, tutorial time, pedagogic teaching and endless explanations so that all our students can succeed and achieve to the maximum of their abilities.

Secondly, we live in a competitive economic world. It is vital that our students have the best education possible on all fronts, but particularly in mathematics. Luton Sixth Form College runs intensive mathematics courses for GCSE retakes, with great success, but they must be properly resourced. College funding is crucial. Britain still has a national mathematics problem; many students leave higher education with poor maths skills. Funding colleges of all kinds to raise maths standards for all students is vital in today’s world. I ask the Minister to take those messages back to her Department.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), I wish to shine a spotlight specifically on sixth-form colleges. Many hon. Members have discussed them in this debate; some have one in their constituency, while others do not, due to the distribution of colleges around the country. I have one in my constituency; there about 90 unequally distributed around the country, but in Hampshire they are an integral part of sixth-form education, with nine colleges in the county.

I often think that sixth-form colleges are the poor relations of the poor relation, because they are classed neither as technical education nor as continuing education in the more traditional sense. They will not get much assistance, for example, from the proposals to increase investments in technical courses, because most students there are studying for academic qualifications such as A-levels, and their distribution means that it is easy for Whitehall to forget about them entirely.

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who criticised the failings of the 16-to-19 education system generally and its funding gaps and discussed the need for review. I fully support the campaign being mounted to close those gaps, but I think that sixth-form colleges need all that and more.

Let me turn to the problems faced by my local sixth-form college in Southampton. It is a first-class college. It certainly does not seek to lose students who do not match an ideal profile, unlike certain places; on the contrary, it welcomes and nurtures students who need some remedial help to pass their A-levels, and it hosts several hundred students in that position. As my hon. Friends have mentioned, that leads to numerous instances, in a three-year sixth-form, in which the college receives not £4,000 per student, insufficient as that is, but £3,300. Nevertheless, the college achieves outstanding results in more than half the Southern Universities Network’s “widening participation” categories, and gets twice the estimated level of university places.

It is, by any reckoning, a great place to study and a caring, nurturing environment in which to do so, but it battles constantly to maintain its standards and curricular opportunity due not only to the per capita funding formula but to a number of other specific disadvantages. I will briefly mention two. Sixth-form colleges, unlike school sixth forms, cannot claim back VAT, as we have heard. That costs my local college in Southampton £300,000 a year, which is absurd. I have been lobbying for that to change for some time. The other issue is that colleges are funding on a rolling basis. That is not a problem if the school can roll out its funding across the years, but in the case of a two-year intake it can be difficult to sustain.

My view of my sixth-form college and its redoubtable principal is that they are miracle workers who battle on to make a deeply flawed system work for the benefit of the students, but something has to change. They desperately need an uplift in per-capita funding. They desperately need to be seen as having a place in the system and a secure future in it. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to that plea.

I will make just two brief points. On the national situation, I will add one point to the sparkling speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who mentioned the underspending on 16 to 19-year-olds. The latest figure he cited was from 2015-16, but according to a parliamentary answer given in July, the currently projected underspending is even higher, at about £267 million. That would leave some spare change if his suggestion of an immediate uplift in spending per head were introduced.

I take great heart from the tone of Government Members today. There is a real hint of pressure from Government Back Benchers to moderate the worst of austerity, particularly in this area. I hope the confidence of my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe in the Minister and her boss will be fully justified in November.

On the local situation, Keighley College offers hope, aspiration and opportunity to hundreds of 16 to 19-year-olds each year. It innovates, often in association with Bradford Council, and has close associations with the Industrial Centre of Excellence for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering and the Fab Lab, which was set up largely under the inspiration of Mick Milner, a local entrepreneur.

Since 2010, Keighley College has been part of Leeds City College. I urge the Minister to look closely at the local area reviews for West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire, because both have concluded that Keighley College should come out of Leeds City College and join up with Craven College and Shipley College to form a new Airedale College. There is a lot of local support for that—it would give the college a greater identity and diminish competition between the three colleges in the Airedale area—yet Leeds City College seems to be holding out against it. I request a meeting with the Minister about that. Leeds City College is putting a high price—possibly above £20 million—on Keighley College, which I understand was gifted in 2010. Leeds City College is frustrating the process. The proposal is backed by the local area reviews in West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire. I am meeting the principal of Leeds City College, as well as the local enterprise partnerships and the various councils involved soon. I hope that they will respond more positively to the local area reviews, which involved central Government, local government and business, and that they will give Keighley College a fresh start so that it can do even more for 16 to 19-year-olds in the future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing this debate. In Plymouth, the education funding cuts for 16 to 19-year-olds are taking a real toll on many of the most vulnerable and poorest in our community. The excellent work of sixth-form teachers and of the excellent City College Plymouth is being slowly undone by Government decisions to reduce funding. Having spoken to teachers and lecturers in Plymouth, I am concerned that funding is insufficient to give our young people the depth and breadth of study they need, especially those from the poorest backgrounds.

A lot of investment has been put into STEM subjects and training people for the marine jobs that Plymouth excels at, especially at City College Plymouth’s new STEM centre, but overall cuts to education funding for 16 to 19-year-olds are reducing the range of subjects across the city. As the son of a teacher, my starting point is that I want the Government to interfere less and to fund education better, and the latter certainly applies in Plymouth. Plymouth has a diverse tapestry of education, with every type of school, from nurseries and 19 free schools to private schools, FE colleges and academies. They have all shared concerns, privately or publicly, about the impact of education funding cuts on life chances, especially for those from the poorest backgrounds. Curtailing the breadth of study reduces their life opportunities.

The context of our education debate has changed. We need to look carefully at what the post-Brexit environment will mean for education. I would like the Minister to comment not only on the validity of the cases that hon. Members have made, but on how we can make true the rhetoric that I hear from Ministers about how Britain is to be a place of education, aspiration and skills. If the Government continue to cut education funding for 16 to 19-year-olds, we will produce less home-grown talent and will find it harder to attract international students to study from ages 16 to 19, as City College Plymouth does. Nor will we be able to fulfil the potential of the post-Brexit skills environment, which I hear Ministers talk about so positively.

I urge the Minister to look not only at funding schools and FE colleges properly, but at pay rates in the public sector, especially in education. An awful lot of excellent people are going above and beyond—I have seen that at first hand in Plymouth—by doing unpaid hours and working extra to support our young people, especially in areas where funding for special educational needs and expanding horizons has been cut. Will the Minister look at how Brexit will change those environments? Will she make sure that she does not forget about the far south-west, where our education funding is already among the lowest in the country?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing this important debate, in which many hon. Members have championed their local colleges. In Scotland we have a different education system, but I will make some brief remarks.

As a teacher, I know that there are arguably two phases of a young person’s education that have a special significance: the pre-school years and the post-16 years. In the post-16 years, we have a real opportunity to make a difference to young people’s life chances. Scotland does not have the separate sixth-form colleges that several hon. Members mentioned, so we do not have that budgetary shortfall at a particular stage of secondary education. However, I am concerned by the figures that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe quoted, which suggest that large chunks of the budget that the Department for Education has allocated to post-16 education have actually been spent on other areas. The Government should be investing heavily in post-16 education, because it may be the last opportunity to influence the life chances of our young people.

Many hon. Members expressed concern that vital STEM courses have been dropped from sixth-form timetables. That is greatly damaging to our growth and future economic prospects. We need to increase, not reduce, the number of STEM courses and STEM-trained young people.

The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and others mentioned the possibility of mergers. We heard a positive slant and a more worried slant on the issue, with concerns about losing brilliance from an individual institution.

The important thing with mergers, as I hope the hon. Lady agrees, is that they can be directed by local institutions and local people, rather than nationally or by other authorities.

Sometimes local people are interested in preserving a particular institution but may not see the potential for excellence from a merger. For example, City of Glasgow College in the centre of Glasgow was created from a merger of a number of older colleges, many of which were in buildings that were not fit for purpose or had poor facilities. The new college has two sites, the city campus and the riverside campus, both of which are brand new. It sits between Strathclyde University and Glasgow Caledonian University, and its building is the most impressive of them all. The subjects offered include catering, building trades, engineering and nautical studies, to name but a few. It has state-of-the-art simulators —I had a great shot in one last week—and is training ship staff for all over the world. Gary Maclean, the winner of last year’s “MasterChef”, is training future chefs there. It is a world-leading institution with more than 30,000 students and it has the potential for 10,000 more. It really is at the cutting edge of college education, but it has taken massive capital investment—a step that the UK Government could follow if they are serious about investment in the sector.

The UK Government could take other steps. They could follow Scotland’s lead and reinstate the educational maintenance allowance, which allows young people from deprived backgrounds to remain in education. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) mentioned class sizes and the impact of large class sizes on the marginally qualified. Those are the young people who colleges should be reaching out for and making a difference to.

In conclusion, I absolutely support the calls from the Support our Sixth-formers campaign for the £200 per student uplift; that is a drop in the ocean when we are talking about a young person’s educational journey. These young people have our future in their hands. It is important that we give them the tools and the funds for success.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for securing this debate. He has a long track record—it began long before he came to this place —in governing and managing further education institutions. And just look at the turnout that he has got today. It shows the respect in which he is held, particularly on this subject.

I pay tribute to my local college leaders: Lesley Davies at Trafford College and John Thornhill at Manchester College. They run absolutely fantastic colleges, but they face the same pressures as all college leaders up and down the country.

In July, the Local Government Association published a report warning the Government about the failure to address the lack of skills in the UK, which is the fundamental point of this debate. That lack of skills could cost our economy £90 billion a year. The LGA estimates that by 2024 there will be a lack of more than four million highly skilled people to meet the demand for high-skilled jobs. We will have to change.

In Greater Manchester, we are trying to plug the skills gap; I look forward to the discussions that the Department for Education will have about the section 28 designation of the college in the area. Hopefully, the Minister will approve the exciting new plans in the weeks and months ahead.

Those plans need to be approved. With Brexit looming, and frankly a remarkable lack of clarity from the Government on the reciprocal rights of EU workers, there is an urgent need to face up to the skills gap. I normally cover the schools brief. In this country, we have 16,000 school teachers who are EU nationals. We already have a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, which will only be exacerbated in the future, yet although there is an urgent need to upskill our workforce, since 2010 there has been an overall reduction of £1 billion in the funding for 16 to 18-year-olds. As was highlighted in the debate, the funding for a young person drops by 25% when they reach the age of 16.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, education for 16 to 18-year-olds has been the big loser from education spending changes over the last 25 years. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe: the Government did announce £1.3 billion before the rise of the House, but they have not told us how that money will be spent, and it will not even touch the sides of what is required, given the funding cuts hitting schools. For many years after 1990-91, spending per student was nearly 50% higher in further education than in secondary schools, but by 2015-16 it was 10% lower.

According to the IFS,

“spending per student in 16-18 education is set to fall further”.

This funding gap becomes even starker when we consider the impact on teaching hours and make a comparison with other countries, as the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) quite rightly pointed out. The former Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), wanted to compare our education system with that of other countries, as set out in the programme for international student assessment. However, as the hon. Member for Waveney said, pupils in Shanghai receive twice as much teaching and face time as pupils in England. That has to change. How can we expect our children to reach the skills level of Shanghai children when we give such limited time to our young people in college?

Despite the Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget of plans to invest £500 million in technical education, that money will cover only around 25% of those in education and it will not be fully in place until 2021. It does nothing to impact on the cuts that have already been implemented.

Colleges also face confusion over the apprenticeship levy. The levy puts employers in the driving seat when it comes to funding, and we do not know whether moneys will be passed on to colleges in the future.

An issue that has been brought to my notice is that colleges have to make two applications: one for levy work and one for non-levy work. The tendering process is incredibly complex and very difficult for colleges to plan for, and there is also the fear that small and medium-sized enterprises will be put off by it. Does my hon. Friend have any comments to make on that?

I have, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. There is a huge reconfiguration of training going on, and it has not been properly thought out. That puts additional burdens on colleges. He is right to highlight the point.

There is also confusion about students between 16 and 18 who do not hold a GCSE grade A* to C—or 9 to 4 with the changes that have come in this year—in maths or English. In future allocations, these students have to study maths and English as a condition of funding. Therefore, on top of other funding pressures, there is a risk that colleges will fall off a precipice. That is where we are at, and that is why there are so many Members here today. In May 2015, the Skills Funding Agency suggested that there were around 70 financially unstable colleges.

In the few minutes that I have left, I was going to talk about area-based reviews, but the former Minister, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), spoke very eloquently about the issues we have had with them up and down the country. In Greater Manchester, the process was ably led by the Conservative leader of Trafford Council, Sean Anstee, but these area-based reviews really had no teeth, because colleges have gone away and done their own deals with the Department for Education, even though we have gone through a huge area-based review system up and down the country. The Minister really needs to get a grip on this issue and take a good look at it, as well as taking advice about it from fine council leaders and councillors up and down the land who have struggled to do the right thing but found that the review process just did not work out.

In conclusion, post-16 education faces a perfect storm: low levels of funding per pupil; no acknowledgement of inflationary or cost increases by the DFE, as was ably pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe; the unknown impact of the apprenticeship levy; the maths and English funding condition; and a costly and potentially failed review of post-16 education. If we truly want to meet the challenges of Brexit and address the problems it will create for our economy, we must face up to the country’s skills shortage. We cannot do that by undermining our post-16 sector.

I pay tribute to every Member who has contributed today. I am afraid that I have not got round to mentioning them all, but all of them—from all parties in this House—have ably stood up for their colleges; well done to them for that.

Before I call the Minister to respond to the debate, I remind her to leave, if possible, one minute at the end for the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) to sum up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I have been silenced by the Whips Office for five years, so this is quite an exciting moment for me. Thank you for reminding me to allow the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) a minute at the end of the debate to sum up. I congratulate him on securing this debate and for his kind comments about me; I can perhaps reassure him by saying that the feeling is entirely mutual.

I have been inspired by the commitment of leaders and staff throughout the sector, and I am acutely aware of their concerns surrounding funding; I worked in the public sector for 25 years and I am truly conscious of these concerns. I am also aware that today the hon. Member for Scunthorpe has not touched on the issue of underspends, which he has tabled many parliamentary questions about. As a former principal at John Leggott College, he has particular expertise in this area.

The hon. Gentleman sent me a message today via my officials asking me not to go on about all “the guff” on apprenticeships and technical levels, or T-levels. Time probably prevents me from going on too much about those issues, but I will mention them, not least because a number of hon. Members have talked about preparation for work and acquiring life skills. These two opportunities —apprenticeships and T-levels—will provide exactly those things.

Nevertheless, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am tenacious—I am like a dog with a bone—and his words have not fallen on stony ground. I did not go to university; I had the opportunity to do what we would now call an apprenticeship. I will certainly not be anything but a champion for this sector and the further education sector.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that education transforms the lives of young people, but education must start at the beginning of their life—at a young age—to provide the basis for post-16 education. Funding pre-16 education is critical, but it is important to recognise that post-16 education is not just an opportunity for young people to carry on; it can give a second chance to those for whom the formal education sector did not work.

A number of Members spoke about the inequality between pre-16 and post-16 education funding and the issues of young people with special needs. Providers of 16-to-19 education were allocated £300 million, and for students on large study programmes—those containing four or five A-levels—there is additional funding, attracted through the funding uplift. Additional support for disadvantaged students amounted to £540 million in 2016-17.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) spoke about the excellence of his local results and good local initiatives, but rightly pointed out the issues with revenue. He is right that colleges are a great British success. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) mentioned female participation in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects and, as Minister for Women, I particularly join her in welcoming that. As an afterthought, we have had a hugely significant increase in the number of A-level entries in STEM subjects, from slightly more than 225,000 in 2010 to 270,000—an increase of nearly 20%. That is progress. It does not go far enough—particularly with regard to young women—but it is progress. The figures from my hon. Friend’s college on the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university is testament to the hard work of such colleges.

The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) raised the issue of area reviews. I am certainly happy to see him and the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins). I do not want to see good educational establishments wither and die. The area reviews have been important, but it is important that we respond to some of the local anomalies—for want of a better word—that crop up. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) raised financial issues, and I would be happy to discuss them with him.

I am, however, going to include a word about technical education—the hon. Member for Scunthorpe cannot get away without it—because following Lord Sainsbury’s review, the significant changes to the skills system will be very important. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) mentioned breadth and depth, which are extremely important. The changes we are making are intended to grow home-grown talent and fulfil our potential.

Brexit, as we have mentioned, will be critical. A huge amount of work is going on to make sure that we have the skills in this country that we need. That work is not only for the country—we always talk about the country and the economy—but actually for individuals. It is important that they fulfil their potential. Additional funding, rising to more than £500 million per year, has already been announced to enable the delivery of T-levels when they roll out, and the first £50 million will be available to the sector in 2018 to help institutions build their capacity. I should also mention the improved work placements, which are about the breadth and depth of young people’s experience. It is a clear indication of our commitment—it is money going behind policy.

Redesigning the skills system to respond to change and to address the needs of employers and individuals is critical. Many hon. Members referred to gaining work experience, and that will be a key part of the T-levels. The apprenticeship levy is also important. It is amazing to look at some of the apprenticeships that are being put together, and to talk to apprentices. Very often they are young people for whom school did not work, who did not want to go to university or did not get the grades to go. We will be spending double what was spent in 2010-11: £2.5 billion, which is not a small amount of money.

I am terribly sorry; I know the hon. Gentleman spoke, but I do not have time to give way.

The crucial word is quality. Technical education must be a strong alternative to traditional academic routes. I know funding is difficult on the academic side, and I have noted the recommendations in the document in support of our sixth-form colleges, but I was also pleased to see the results in the reformed A-levels last month, which continue to maintain high standards and improve students’ readiness for the demands of higher education. Curriculum and qualifications reforms that decouple AS-levels will allow more time to be spent on teaching and, I hope, learning—teaching is only half the story; pupils have got to learn it, too—as it allows flexibility for schools and colleges.

Education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds is one of my top priorities. The fact that a record number of young people are now participating in education or apprenticeships says much about changing attitudes to education, but I recognise that finances in colleges are significant. We often talk about funding, but possibly more important are the cost pressures in the system. The additional £500 million funding will mean more hours per student, and will provide support to secure those work placements. That will take technical courses to more than 900 hours a year, which is an increase of more than 50% on the current 600 hours.

The additional funding will benefit FE colleges, which provide most of the technical programmes, but many sixth-form colleges and some school sixth forms will also benefit. At a time when public finances are under considerable pressure, that represents a significant commitment to the 16-to-19 age group, in the context of the wider pressures on finances. I will not spill out political rhetoric, but a strong economy is important and we have had some difficult decisions to make. Our commitment to maintain the 16-to-19 base rate for all types of advisers at current levels until 2020 is important. We have done that, but the Government will keep funding under consideration. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, my job will be to be a champion for the sector. Pre-16 school education is crucial in the success of students post-16, which is why pre-16 schooling must be a funding priority, but it does not end there.

The hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) mentioned the contributions from Members on my side, which I noted. I know that although money and results do not always follow each other, money does matter. I got into some trouble at my university hustings for talking about the sector and forgetting to answer the questions that they asked, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as someone who did not go to university, and for whom perhaps the school system did not work terribly well, this will be my opportunity to make sure that every young person in this country gets the opportunity they deserve, and an opening.

I thank the 17 or 18 Members of Parliament who have contributed to the debate—on a Thursday, on a one-line Whip. That demonstrates the strength of feeling across the House and the country on this matter.

I thank the Minister for her response. Despite my attempts to encourage her to focus on the 85% of young people who go to general education, her civil servants managed to pull her back towards apprenticeships and T-levels. I understand that the investment she talked about for technical education is scheduled for 2020. Things need to happen now, to support the young people in the system now, because young people only have one chance to go through the system—although, as the Minister rightly said, post-16 education plays a particular role in second-chance education. Cross-party, we will hold her to account on being tenacious, championing, and making sure that when funding is under review, it can go up as well as down.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered 16 to 19 education funding.

Sitting adjourned.