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Commons Chamber

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020

House of Commons

Thursday 3 December 2020

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Publicly Owned Rail Operators

Whether he plans to allow publicly owned rail operators to bid for future rail contracts under the proposed concession model. (909722)

Even prior to this pandemic, disabled people reported that work opportunities were out of reach due to the lack of accessibility on transport. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that disabled people are not prevented from accessing and staying in employment because of the really pressing accessibility issues on our rail network?

The hon. Lady asks a very sensible question on a very important day, the United Nations-sponsored International Day of Persons with Disabilities. There is some good news, because 75% of all journeys—on what is a Victorian network that we are trying to upgrade—are now through step-free stations, compared with 50% only a few years ago.

At the end of September, the Government put in place the second set of emergency contracts with the train operators to continue with train operations. It has now been two months and the Transport Committee has been trying desperately to get hold of copies of those contracts, but we still have not. May I urge the Minister to please ask his officials to get a shifty on? Will he also tell us when he will be able to give us an update from the Dispatch Box as to how the termination payment process is going, so that train operators that would have had to pay under the franchise system will have to pay back to the taxpayer?

I am not sure that my officials would ever do anything shifty whatever. I completely understand and appreciate that my hon. Friend’s Committee wishes to see the redacted emergency recovery measures agreements as soon as practicable, but in the second part of his question he outlined the reason why the redaction of the documents is so important: there are extremely sensitive commercial negotiations ongoing at this point. He has my commitment that as soon as practicable, as we did with the emergency measures agreements before them, we will publish these documents and give them to his Committee.

Transport Decarbonisation

What recent assessment his Department has made of the implications for his policies of (a) opportunities and (b) requirements for transport decarbonisation to achieve the Government’s net zero carbon emissions target. (909705)

What recent assessment his Department has made of the implications for his policies of (a) opportunities and (b) requirements for transport decarbonisation to achieve the Government’s net zero carbon emissions target. (909707)

Our forthcoming transport decarbonisation plan will set out a credible pathway to achieving net zero emissions across transport by 2050.

One of the most effective and impactful ways of helping the UK to achieve its decarbonisation goal of net zero is the electrification of transport. Against a backdrop of austerity and a global pandemic, the Scottish Government have a proud record on delivering rail electrification across Scotland. The majority of such works in Scotland’s central belt are now complete, with work beginning on extending this programme both north and south. Does the Minister agree that the Department for Transport should be following the Scottish Government’s lead in this area if the UK’s long-term goal of net zero is to be realised?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is probably worth the House reflecting that in the 13 years of the previous Labour Government, 63 miles of electrification took place, compared with 1,110 miles during our tenure.

The energy from major offshore wind farms will flow ashore into my constituency, but few jobs will currently be created. Hydrogen schemes offer opportunities not just for transport, but for tackling global warming and creating employment in East Lothian. What resources will the Minister commit to ensuring that hydrogen schemes are part of Britain going forward, and that East Lothian gets its fair share of onshore employment?

The Government are committed to hydrogen as a technology. I recently announced the Tees valley as a hydrogen hub. We have invested £121 million into hydrogen innovation, including the hydrogen buses that are currently running in Glasgow.

The pandemic has understandably dominated the headlines, but we cannot forget that we are still in a climate emergency and that green, efficient transport must be the future. Transport is now the largest contributing sector to UK emissions, and air pollution contributes to upwards of 36,000 deaths a year. How we move goods in and around the country—from international incoming freight moving around our national network, to local deliveries—is important, particularly as last mile deliveries have boomed during the pandemic. But even before the pandemic hit, the number of diesel vans had doubled over two decades. What is the Government’s plan, above what has already been announced, to get air pollution down and to address the growing impact of last mile deliveries?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which is that 28% of all CO2 now comes from transport, and it is critical that we get it down. I thought he was going to go on to mention that since we last stood at these Dispatch Boxes, we have said that we are going to have a 2030 target for the end of sale of petrol and diesel cars, which will obviously help tremendously. That also includes diesel vans, which will be a very big contributor to assist in this, alongside the £2.8 billion we are putting in to help that switch take place.

With respect, that is just not ambitious enough. There are organisations that have really boomed in the pandemic. Online retailers—the big giants—are part of that, and they should be required to do far more to make sure that they bring down air pollution.

In a written parliamentary question to me, the Government admitted that the comprehensive spending review cut Network Rail’s enhancement budget by £1 billion—10%. At the same time, the order books for new greener aircraft have stalled. This all adds up to a very dismal approach as we get towards COP26 in Glasgow next year. Before that embarrassment comes, will the Secretary of State come forward with a comprehensive plan to decarbonise freight, which starts with reversing the cuts to Network Rail?

Right at the beginning of the pandemic—I can understand if the hon. Gentleman missed it—we published the document “Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge”, which will lead into a transport decarbonisation plan that we will publish by the spring. In that, we will describe the many measures that we are taking to make the UK a global leader in cutting carbonisation and decarbonising the economy, not just through the 2030 pledge but through, for example, introducing 4,000 zero-emission buses, and much else besides.

The Transport Secretary was right to reference COP26.

Last year, sales of ultra-low emission vehicles grew by 46% in Scotland—40% faster than in England—in large part due to the enhanced home charging point grant and the interest-free loans, both provided by the Scottish Government and unavailable in England. Does the Secretary of State agree that he too should adopt the success of Scotland’s electric vehicle strategy and learn the lessons that are needed to ensure that England is not being left behind?

The hon. Gentleman and I share a very keen interest in these matters. I remember that when I got my electric car, 1% of cars sold were electric. The figure now across the UK is 6.5%. There have been tremendous advances in the number of electric charging points available. The £2.8 billion that we pledged at the spending review will help that to happen, with more money going into charge points and into the infrastructure investment as well. I am pleased that Barnett consequentials are being sensibly spent to increase charging in Scotland.

I am grateful for that response. I should say, for the record, that my household has come down from a two-car household to one car, and we are hoping to switch to an electric car in the new year as well. [Interruption.] It is a bit too far out for an e-bike.

The Prime Minister announced in February that £5 billion was being made available for 4,000 zero-emission buses, which the Secretary of State mentioned, but to date we have not seen much evidence of that money being spent, and jobs continue to haemorrhage in the bus production sector. So how many of the promised 4,000 zero-emission buses have actually been delivered thus far?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point that out, but he will recall that the pandemic in between has created problems not just for the bus sector but for the entire economy, which has, by necessity, meant that a huge amount of money—hundreds of millions of pounds—has gone into supporting buses operating at all. The pledge for 4,000 buses remains, and £120 million was announced at the spending review to get on with the first several hundred of them.

Maritime Industry: Decarbonisation

The Government have recently committed £20 million to support clean maritime technology, and further plans will be set out in the forthcoming transport decarbonisation plan.

The inclusion of clean maritime in the 10-point plan and the announcement of the £20 million demonstration project are extremely welcome. Can the Minister confirm that he is working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to produce a comprehensive strategy for investment in new green port infrastructure so that ports such as Lowestoft can make the most of the exciting opportunities emerging in renewable energy and sustainable fishing?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there can be no clean maritime without clean ports. He is absolutely right to raise the opportunities that exist for our ports, and I thank him for his tireless, passionate advocacy for Lowestoft. I can confirm that my Department, DEFRA and BEIS meet regularly to ensure that our work is aligned and, in particular, that our work on renewable energy and maritime decarbonisation is complementary in approach, because providing the former is a big part of providing the latter.

My beautiful coastal constituency of Eastbourne and Willingdon is susceptible to particulate matter emanating from the very busy channel shipping lanes. The maritime strategy and the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan are hugely important domestic policies, but this problem obviously demands an international response and international change. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government are equally committed to working at the international level to see the improvements we need in air quality in my home town?

I am glad to confirm that the Government are committed to international efforts to reduce pollution from ships, including through the London-based International Maritime Organisation. I am pleased to be able to inform my hon. Friend that from 1 January 2021, the channel and North sea, including the East Sussex coast, will be designated a nitrogen oxide emissions control area under international law. I thank her for her continued outstanding advocacy for clean air in her constituency and across the UK.

Rail Connections: North of England

Last week was the dawn of a new era for transport in the north of England. Loved by some, but hated by most, it was the end of the line for the much-hated Pacer trains—the final call as this rusty and knackered rolling stock is consigned to history, allowing passengers to enjoy a brand-new fleet of trains, creating a more reliable network across the north.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The north-west of England is massively important to north-east Wales in terms of cross-border trade and employment. I am as keen as anyone to see improvements to rail infrastructure in the north. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital we keep up the strong links through improvements at the main connecting stations of Chester and Crewe and, crucially, electrification of the north Wales coast line?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Earlier this year, we approved funding for the progression of a line speed enhancement scheme for the north Wales coast line. In addition to ongoing work to develop the Crewe hub, my officials are working closely with Cheshire West and Chester Council on developing the business case for improvements at Chester station.

Since being elected, I have been working with Ministers on the reopening of the Skipton to Colne railway line and the potential for a freight terminal in Huncoat. It is an essential line, well worth the investment, that will connect east Lancashire to Yorkshire. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the progression of the railway line and freight terminal, and will he look again at supporting an engineering study for the project?

Indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for her continued and tireless campaigning on this matter. Given that my constituency of Pendle will, as you have identified, Mr Speaker, be one of those that most benefit from the reopening of the Colne-Skipton line, I will recuse myself from commenting directly on the scheme, but I know she has met my hon. Friend the rail Minister, who continues to consider the proposals carefully.

Transport for the North has recently made recommendations to the Government to include Warrington on a new high-speed rail line between Manchester and Liverpool. Will my hon. Friend confirm that any route decisions will include an interchange at Warrington Bank Quay station, creating a hub site between Northern Powerhouse Rail and the west coast main line?

We are currently considering the formal advice from Transport for the North on its preferred way to proceed with Northern Powerhouse Rail following the board meeting last week, and we will respond shortly. We are also awaiting advice from the National Infrastructure Commission on rail investment across the north of England.

The east coast main line has upgrades scheduled over Christmas to help improve connectivity to the north, but many of those long-planned works now clash with the Government’s new Christmas guidance, which will clearly lead to many more people wanting to travel by train. The Government do not seem to have a plan, so perhaps I can help the Minister. Let us scrap peak rail fares, increase testing for our transport staff and delay non-essential works by a few days to help people to travel home. Can the Minister reassure the House that there will be no Christmas chaos on our railways?

This is something we are acutely aware of. We have already taken swift and decisive action to ensure that any disruption is kept to a minimum, and I and my fellow Ministers continue to work to ensure as smooth as possible a rail system during the festive period.

Level Crossings: Accidents

What steps his Department is taking to close level crossings that have a high risk of accidents. (909709)

Network Rail is responsible for the operational safety of level crossings on the network and for deciding whether they need to be closed.

I think the Minister knows what I am going to ask him. I thank him for his engagement in trying to find a holistic solution to the Pencoed level crossing in my constituency. Could he update me on what work he has been doing with his officials to ensure a long-term multi-funded solution, including with Bridgend County Borough Council and the Welsh Government?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his engagement in such a positive way on an issue that I know is very important to him and his constituents. Since our meeting on 8 October, officials from my Department have readily engaged with the Pencoed steering group that he chairs. I am encouraged to hear that they have agreed how Network Rail would be involved in the development of a business case for closure of the crossing, including potential benefits and the costs that would apply to the relevant parties. The work is ongoing, and I will happily continue to engage with the hon. Gentleman to drive this forward.

Walking and Cycling

What support his Department is providing to local authorities to increase levels of cycling and walking. (909715)

What support his Department is providing to local authorities to increase levels of cycling and walking. (909726)

The Government are investing £2 billion in active travel over the next five years, which is the biggest ever boost for cycling and walking.

In the Government’s document “Gear change: a bold vision for cycling and walking”, they promised a trial scheme for boosting the use of electric bikes, yet they have only found £1 million for that so far. When will more funds be forthcoming, and may I urge the Minister to consider Warwick and Leamington as the perfect place to undertake trials?

Warwick and Leamington is a truly beautiful constituency, and I agree that it is almost perfect for an e-bike trial. We have £257 million of funding in 2021-22, which will enable key actions from the long-term plan, and we can look forward to more announcements on this shortly.

Will the Minister join me in praising Denbighshire and Wrexham councils and the Canal and River Trust for their work in encouraging walking and cycling by the Llangollen canal and for promoting those activities in the newly announced master plan for the Trevor basin and surrounding area, in our world heritage site in Clwyd South?

Cycling and walking policy is a devolved matter for the Welsh Government, but I am happy to congratulate those councils and the Canal and River Trust on their work in and around this globally significant site and the canal world heritage site. We will follow in the steps of Thomas Telford, who designed the beautiful aqueduct there, to deliver high-quality cycling and walking infrastructure for future generations with the £2 billion that I just mentioned.

Active travel funding is one side of the equation, and a lot is starting to be achieved from that, but authorities in Greater Manchester also need to obtain powers to ensure that this new infrastructure and the roads generally can function well. One example is around moving traffic offences, giving Greater Manchester London-style enforcement powers to keep roads moving efficiently for all users. When will the Government commence the remaining elements of part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004, as set out in the Department’s “Gear change” publication in July?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is passionate about all things active travel. He will doubtless be pleased that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has been allocated over £18 million in the two tranches of the active travel fund this year, and 143 “Fix Your Bike” vouchers have been given to his constituents, but the answer to his question is: shortly.

In my constituency, the Derwent Valley Trust is trying to create a traffic-free cycleway along the beautiful Derwent valley, increasing tourism and enabling people to cycle to work safely. Will the Minister join me in commending their efforts and consider visiting the site with me to see the work that has been completed so far and how he can help to fund its continuation?

I commend the efforts of the Derwent Valley Trust and encourage it to work in partnership with Derbyshire County Council through the local cycling and walking infrastructure plan. As my hon. Friend knows well, Derbyshire has received more than £1.6 million in tranche two of the active travel fund, and decisions for the allocation of that are made locally, but I would be more than happy to meet her. I know that neck of the woods very well, and I know that her husband is a keen MAMIL—middle-aged man in Lycra—who uses the cycleways around there. I suppose I could don a bit of Lycra and join him and her on a ride.

I did not know MAMILs were a thing, but I have now been enlightened by my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane).

As part of support for active travel, we ought to be supporting our UK bicycle manufacturers and retailers, but they have been hit by tariffs imposed as a result of the Boeing-Airbus dispute. I think the Minister will agree it is somewhat ironic that an aviation dispute leads to bicycle manufacturers being penalised. They are also facing the threat of anti-dumping duties being lifted and a flood of cheap Chinese imports. I know the Minister has written to his counterpart in the Department for International Trade about this. Was he as unhappy as I was with the reply, and can he release the figures showing that anti-dumping duties should not be lifted because they do represent more than 1% of the UK market?

As the hon. Lady knows, I am very concerned about this particular matter and have been engaged with it for quite some time. Fortunately, we are in a position in the United Kingdom—with the funding that the Government are putting in and, indeed, the actions that people themselves took during the first and second lockdowns—where the cycle market has never been as buoyant as it is. However, we can never be complacent, and I follow this very carefully indeed.

Electric Vehicles

What steps his Department is taking to (a) support people to switch to and (b) install the necessary infrastructure for electric vehicles by 2030. (909711)

What steps his Department is taking to (a) support people to switch to and (b) install the necessary infrastructure for electric vehicles by 2030. (909714)

We are investing over £2.8 billion‎ to help people buy zero emission vehicles and accelerate the roll-out of charging infrastructure.

My constituents in Kensington are largely very supportive of electric cars, but they are concerned about the lack of charging infrastructure. Would my hon. Friend consider mandating all new builds to have charging points, and encouraging all petrol stations and car parks to have them too?

I am delighted to hear the support of my hon. Friend’s constituents in Kensington, which is shared of course by people across the UK. As ever, my hon. Friend is actually one step ahead of the Government. We are launching a consultation to improve drivers’ experience of using public charge points, and we will soon respond to the consultation on requiring new homes and non-residential properties to be fitted with charging infrastructure.

I am delighted to hear that Stoke-on-Trent’s £29 million transforming cities fund proposal has now been approved, and I want to thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for all the hard work they have done to help me, other local MPs and the city council to get this across the line. As I have said on many occasions, this will be a real game changer for public transport in our city. As we look to revolutionise the way we move around our city, does the Minister agree that it is right to look for investment from the active travel fund to complement bus and train travel with an e-bike hire system and to build a sustainable local network for charging electric vehicles?

I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for e-bikes. I got one in the lockdown, and it is absolutely brilliant for the hills of Redditch. She will be pleased to hear that the Prime Minister’s cycling and walking plan includes a commitment to create a national e-cycle support programme. As part of this, we have launched a £1 million e-bike extension fund to enable the increased use of e-bikes, with a particular focus on those hard-to-reach groups, so I would encourage Stoke-on-Trent to consider making an application. As well as this, we are investing £1.3 billion across the country to accelerate the roll-out of charging infrastructure for her constituents.

Hauliers: End of Transition Period

What support his Department is providing to hauliers in preparation for the end of the transition period. (909712)

The Department is running a haulier readiness communications campaign and outreach programme, launching 45 information and advice sites, and producing a detailed haulier handbook, which has been translated into 13 languages.

The application for the free port of Heysham seems to be shrouded in mystery. Could the Department for Transport give me some indication on its progress at this moment in time?

I thank my hon. Friend for his consistent advocacy for this free port programme, which will be of great benefit, I have no doubt, to his constituents. Ports and local authorities are welcome to submit their bids for free ports, including for Heysham, until 5 February 2021, and specific locations will then be chosen according to a process, as set out in the bidding proposals, but I am sure that Ministers will be delighted to meet him to discuss this further.

Aviation Sector Employment: Covid-19

What steps he has taken to support the aviation sector to maintain employment levels during the covid-19 pandemic. (909713)

What steps he has taken to support the aviation sector to maintain employment levels during the covid-19 pandemic. (909720)

What steps he has taken to support the aviation sector to maintain employment levels during the covid-19 pandemic. (909730)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on employment protections for people working in the aviation industry during the covid-19 outbreak. (909747)

The Government’s comprehensive support package includes the coronavirus job retention scheme, which will now run until the end of March 2021.

Many hundreds of my constituents are reliant on jobs related to the aviation sector, so the Government’s financial support for businesses in this industry has been welcome. However, there are valid concerns surrounding the conditionality of that support, particularly among workers at Rolls-Royce, with their jobs at risk of being offshored. Will the Minister work to ensure that any financial support is translated into the protection of jobs here in the UK?

The Government, of course, are acutely aware of the importance of the highly skilled, dedicated employees in aerospace in the hon. Lady’s constituency and across the UK. We are very much working to ensure that as many jobs as possible can be protected and, particularly through the release of the global travel taskforce, we are looking to see that demand increases and we get people flying as soon as is safely possible. It is in that way that we will most protect the industry, which means so much to all of us.

This year, I have watched close friends and constituents lose their jobs as the aviation industry and its supply chain have collapsed, yet it took the Government until October to launch a taskforce. There is still no sector-specific support deal, and the Secretary of State sat silent while BA engaged in fire and rehire tactics, and is silent now as Heathrow is doing exactly the same. When are the Government going to start taking a real stand to save people’s jobs?

In announcing the global travel taskforce and working at pace to deliver this complicated bit of policy, going live on 15 December, the Government have acted extremely fast in ensuring that we introduce a world-leading test and release system, which is what will support our aviation industry going forward.

British Airways is a flagship airline; it is recognised across the world for its quality mark, and that is largely down to the professionalism of its staff, many of whom live in my Vauxhall constituency. Yet its actions during this pandemic, including firing and rehiring so many staff on reduced wages and incredibly bad terms, have been utterly disgraceful. Why have the Government not stepped in, done a sectoral deal and protected these jobs? What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that there are no more job losses in the aviation sector?

I pay tribute to the dedicated employees in the hon. Lady’s constituency who work in the airline industry and the airports industry. Any redundancy that happens is a commercial decision, but none the less one that we regret. I would encourage all employers to engage with their employees sensitively and to sit down and talk to the unions in order to come to compromises wherever possible. The Government’s action has involved a great deal of cross-economy support, and the aviation sector itself will have received between £2.5 billion and £3 billion of support from the coronavirus job retention scheme and the covid corporate financing facility by the end of March 2021.

The aviation sector, particularly the airline industry, is a major employer in my constituency, and there has been concern over employment practices. I recently supported the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), but in a Westminster Hall debate the Minister said that the absence of strict regulations about fire and rehire provided necessary flexibility. In those circumstances, what are the Government proposing to bring forward to protect workers in the aviation industries from the possibility of fire and rehire?

As I say, these are matters that are profoundly regretted by the Government, but they remain commercial matters. We engage closely with all sector representatives, including the unions, to find a way forward if at all possible.

It is 50 years since my predecessor, Alf Morris, introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It is why I came into politics. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), mentioned it, as it is World Disability Day today.

Minister, the global travel taskforce has hardly met at all and nobody in the aviation industry has recommended the test-to-release scheme, which he announced this week. The industry is shedding jobs at a rate of knots. The furlough announcement was too late for too many in the aviation industry—the jobs were already gone. We have to stop lurching from one announcement to the next. Will the Minister commit to setting a critical path, so we can restore confidence in our world-class aviation industry?

I am slightly confused about the hon. Gentleman’s reference, because the global travel taskforce most certainly has met. I think there is an element of confusion there. There has been extensive engagement in workshops with the industry. That has led to the release of a substantial, detailed report with 14 recommendations, of which the test-to-release scheme is only one. That work continues, as he rightly urges. I agree with him that it absolutely should continue to bring on many of the other schemes we have in the GTT. That work very much continues.

Air Passengers: Covid-19 Testing

I very much welcome the Secretary of State introducing covid-19 air passenger testing from 15 December. What discussions has he had with our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary about updating foreign travel advice?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue. It is important to distinguish between the testing regime which seeks to address incoming passengers who may be carrying the virus, and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advice which deals with advising British nationals on the risks in other countries. From 5 November, FCDO stopped advising against all travel worldwide and reverted to country-based advice, which remains under constant review and considers both epidemiological and other risks in each destination. Where the FCDO no longer assesses the risks to British nationals to be unacceptably high, travel advice is updated accordingly.

Railway Stations: Access for Disabled People

The Government recently made £350 million available to make accessibility improvements at a further 209 stations through the Access for All programme. We also require the industry to comply with current accessibility standards whenever they install, replace or renew station infrastructure.

According to the London Assembly transport committee, only one third of stations in London provide step-free access. What pressure can my hon. Friend bring to bear on the Mayor of London to ensure that this is improved and that stations like West Ruislip in my constituency, which the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), had the opportunity to visit recently, are brought up to standard?

As my hon. Friend rightly highlights, transport policy in London is devolved to the Mayor of London and delivered by Transport for London. It is therefore a matter for the Mayor to determine his accessibility policy. However, Ministers and officials in the Department for Transport hold regular discussions with the Mayor on a range of transport issues, including this issue, and I will make sure it is highlighted at the next one.

Maritime Freight Capacity: Covid-19

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of UK maritime freight capacity during the covid-19 outbreak. (909724)

First, may I put on record my thanks to all transport workers? They have done an incredible job throughout the pandemic. The UK maritime sector has worked tirelessly to keep freight moving and provide sufficient capacity throughout.

The loss of a critical element of UK freight capacity in P&O’s Hull to Zeebrugge route will not only be a devastating blow to jobs and trade in my constituency, but as it is one of the most direct routes between Pfizer’s Belgian factory and hard-hit areas in the north of England, that could have a severe impact on the rapid roll-out of the covid vaccine, which I am delighted to see has been approved for use this week. I wrote to the Secretary of State recently on this issue. What action are Ministers taking to ensure that P&O honours its commitments and that this vital route is maintained?

The hon. Gentleman is a powerful advocate for jobs and his local economy, and rightly so. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), the maritime Minister, has recently written to P&O on this matter, reminding it of its responsibilities, but decisions on the long-term viability of any route are a commercial decision. The vaccine strategy is led by the Department of Health and Social Care, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that alternative routes are available for the relatively limited volumes of traffic that will be required to bring in this much needed and life-saving vaccine.

Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Drivers: Covid-19

What assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on taxi and private hire vehicle drivers. (909727)

The Government continue to engage with the sector to understand the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. Several support measures are available to support them through this challenging time, such as the self-employment income support scheme.

With over 350,000 licensed taxi and private hire drivers, this is the biggest employment group in the transport sector. As we speak, in London, electric cabs, which we all welcome, are being handed back because of inflexible finance deals. In every constituency, there will be hundreds of drivers laying up their vehicles. There are private tragedies going on here. What impact assessment have the Government actually done and when are they going to act?

I acknowledge that this is an exceptionally challenging time for the industry, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to continue to raise that point. We continue to engage with the sector to understand how there may be some assistance. I particularly draw his attention to the fact that there is an online support finder tool that will assist those in the difficulty that he refers to.

Hydrogen Fuel in Transport

The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan included ambitious new policies and investment in hydrogen, including in transport projects. This includes £20 million for freight trials to pioneer hydrogen and other zero-emission lorries, and £3 million for the groundbreaking and unique Tees Valley hydrogen transport hub.

The nation’s bus fleet, coaches and double-decker buses are mostly operating on Euro 4 and Euro 5 standards before converting to Euro 6, but Euro 6 is still diesel. Will my hon. Friend look at ways, perhaps working with the Treasury, to achieve an economy of scale that allows us to cut out Euro 6 and move directly from diesel buses to hydrogen-powered buses?

When we leave the transition period, EU vehicle emissions regulators will become part of our retained law in the UK and that does mean that only new vehicles meeting the latest standards can be placed on the market for cars, vans, buses and trucks. This is the Euro 6 standard, but I can reassure my right hon. Friend that this Government are committed to hydrogen production. The Prime Minister set out that we are going to be producing 5 gigawatts of low-carbon hydrogen by 2030, creating 8,000 jobs, and I very much hope some of them will be in Thanet.

Rail Workers’ Pay

It was the Transport Secretary himself who recently hailed the rail workers as “true heroes”—key workers who have done a phenomenal job during this pandemic. I think we all agree on that, but the private train companies that employ our rail workers are set to be paid a fee from the Government—taxpayers’ money—which will provide profit and shareholder dividends. If these taxpayer handouts are indeed acceptable, do the Minister and the Secretary of State not simply agree that these rail workers—true heroes, key workers—should be receiving a decent pay rise? And Minister, who makes these decisions? Who says whether they can have a pay rise or not? Is it the Government or the companies themselves?

I agree with what the Secretary of State said about rail workers, who, up and down the country, will no doubt have noticed how much support the Government have given the industry since the pandemic struck and how little revenue the passenger sector is generating. They would have noticed the public sector pay policy announced by the Chancellor in the spending review. The figures are simple. The average national earnings growth rate since 2011 for the average UK worker is 2.2%; for train and tram drivers, it is 3.4%; for rail transport operatives, 4.4%; and for rail and rolling stock builders and repairers, 4.6%. We truly value our rail workers.

Topical Questions

With permission, I will set out briefly to the House the plans for Christmas travel. A lot of families will be getting together for the first time, with a maximum of three households mixing. Christmas journeys are likely to be more difficult than usual this year as a result, and passengers will want to plan their journeys carefully.

To help passengers prepare for travel, we are putting in place a number of different plans, including clearing 778 miles-worth of roadworks; ensuring that 95% of the rail network will be unaffected by engineering works, either by postponing or altering them; lengthening trains and adding additional rail services; trebling the number of coach services available; ensuring that lateral flow testing is available at six different sites for transport workers to ensure that they are available and healthy to work; and many rail companies, including Avanti, LNER, CrossCountry, EMR and others, relaxing their peak fares. I have also appointed Sir Peter Hendy to look after this period of time, to ensure that people can travel as smoothly as possible while it will be exceptionally busy.

The funding announced in the spending review for a feasibility study on improving the South Fylde line was warmly welcomed by commuters in Blackpool. Creating a passing loop on the line will double the number of trains per hour into my constituency, helping to boost tourism and to deliver jobs and growth. Following the outcome of the next stage of the process, will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss taking the project forward to completion?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his relentless campaigning for things like the South Fylde loop. I, or my hon. Friend the Rail Minister, will be delighted to meet him to assist. We are putting in a lot of investment, including £10 million to tackle the Manchester bottleneck and, as the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse, I intend to go much further.

We face a climate emergency and urgent action is clearly needed to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. That is why the Prime Minister promised to invest in 4,000 zero-emission buses. Given the seriousness of the issue and, indeed, the Prime Minister’s promise, why has the Government’s own spending review reduced the number of buses to which they are committed to just 500?

We are absolutely committed to introducing those 4,000 green buses. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that, because of the pandemic, a large part of the industry has had to come to a standstill while the passenger numbers have not been there. The money in the spending review is a welcome start on that programme. It does not in any way remove the intention to produce all 4,000 buses. To expand, we have to start somewhere, and that is what the new money will do.

Coventry’s plans to run a battery-powered very light rail transit system in the city are progressing well, thanks to the world-beating local skills and expertise. Will the Minister tell me what more the Government can do to support projects like that to ensure our future public transport systems are efficient, affordable and environmentally friendly? (909676)

We are investing record amounts in better battery technology, including the Faraday Centre research, for example, and money to build a gigafactory in this country—£1 billion, including cash to go towards that. I have met recently with all the manufacturers as well, and they are very much signed up to the Government’s new 10-point plan.

I thank my right hon. Friend and his Department for work they have done to date on the localised A595 improvements, which together will improve the lives of constituents in five Cumbrian constituencies. Will he meet the five Cumbrian A595 MPs to discuss a wider Cumbrian transport strategy? (909679)

This Department is always happy to support development in Cumbria and was pleased last month to announce £12 million of funding for the A595 Grizebeck scheme. This is in addition to the £146 million announced at the spending review to accelerate vital dualling work on the A66, slashing construction time from 10 to five years, and I understand that a further business case is in development for the A595. I know that my ministerial colleagues in road and rail would be glad to meet Members to discuss a broader Cumbrian strategy.

Even when we have all had the covid vaccine, the country will still need an economic shot in the arm, and the Bakerloo line extension delivers just that, providing tens of thousands of new jobs and thousands of new homes, on top of all the amazing transport benefits, which is why it is so strongly supported by the public and by businesses and councils. The Prime Minister has said that we are firmly on track to get construction under way by 2024 and have it up and running by 2030, so can the Transport Secretary say what he is doing to ensure that construction begins on time? (909678)

I certainly can. I have just approved the safeguarding of the land to ensure that it can happen.

Over the summer, I carried out a survey in Ravenswood, and by far the No. 1 issue was access. In fact, there is only one access point, at the Thrasher’s roundabout on Nacton Road. Suffolk County Council has put in a bid to the pinch point fund and is currently awaiting an outcome. Would the Secretary of State look favourably upon this application, which could be a game changer with regard to this issue? Will he also meet me to discuss a solution to this, to make life better for Ravenswood residents who currently have to put up with unacceptable levels of congestion every day when they leave their community to go to work, drop off their kids at school or whatever else it is? (909680)

I know just how difficult the traffic is at the Thrasher’s roundabout on Nacton Road and how hard my hon. Friend has campaigned on this. The pinch point fund or, more likely, the levelling-up fund, would be the way to proceed with this. That is the new £4 billion fund to resolve problems exactly like the Thrasher’s roundabout.

Three months ago, the Secretary of State said that he would take control of the repairs to Hammersmith bridge, and he set up a taskforce chaired by the Roads Minister. Yesterday, she boasted that the Government would commit £4 million, which is less than 3% of the total cost and a fifth of what Transport for London and Hammersmith and Fulham Council have already spent. The Secretary of State knows that only the Government can fund the reopening of what he calls this “key artery”, and anywhere else in the country they would have already done so. Why not in London? (909681)

This bridge belongs to Hammersmith and Fulham Council. It is the council’s responsibility. Secondly, it is TfL’s responsibility. But the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: I had become fed up waiting for something to happen between the council and TfL, and when nothing was happening I wrote into the agreement with TfL for funding the other week that it must spend money both getting the ferry service going and starting the actual work. I am pleased to say that, despite the inactivity of his local authority, something is now happening thanks to our taskforce.

Redcar train station has a fantastic old grade II listed station building that sits empty and in a dilapidated state. Alongside the council, I am working to see its renovation as a key gateway to our town centre. Will the Secretary of State meet me and council representatives to unlock the necessary funding for its renovation and help us to gain the access required to revive Redcar station? (909683)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the case of Redcar train station. Stations such as Redcar are often at the heart of communities, and I encourage him to keep working, as he is, with the council and with industry to develop this idea. I would direct him to the new stations fund. We hope to open a new round of this within the next few months, and I am sure that the rail Minister would be pleased to meet him to discuss possibilities.

2002 Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s forthcoming consumer experience of public electric vehicle charging consultation will propose full roaming across public EV charging networks, to ensure that consumers can readily access these charge points anywhere across the UK? (909682)

Yes, absolutely. It is crazy, the number of different cards people have to carry around and the membership schemes they have to join. It makes it very difficult. We have more charging locations than petrol stations, as I often say at this Dispatch Box, but people have to be able to drive up to any of them and use them. Contactless will be the way to do that, and we are acting on exactly that proposal.

My right hon. Friend will be familiar with the benefits, both environmental and economic, of warm mix asphalt. What are the Government doing to ensure that the use of such asphalt on our roads is the norm rather than the exception? It is the norm in north America and increasingly in parts of Europe, but not here. The reason it is not the norm here yet is bureaucratic red tape. Will he take action to cut that red tape? (909684)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important point. The Department recognises that warm mix asphalt may provide environmental benefits, through energy saving, lowered emissions and providing increased durability. Authorities should use what they think is best to ensure that their roads are maintained and safe, while also addressing climate commitments.

With the mothballing of Crossrail 2, the four-tracking of routes out of London, through the innovation corridor, up to Stansted and Cambridge is at risk. Will the Minister look at separating out some of those schemes to ensure that we get the kind of reliability we need on those lines? (909685)

We are happy to look at any scheme in detail in order to be assured that it is delivered in the safest, speediest and most practical way possible.

The county all- jparty group is shortly to a publish a report on rural bus services, which will highlight both the vital importance of buses for those living and working in rural areas, and the fact that real-terms funding has fallen by 30% in the 10 years to 2019. Will the Minister assure the House that the needs of rural communities will be prioritised in the forthcoming national bus strategy? (909686)

This issue is of enormous importance to all rural communities. I represent a rural area, so I understand the points my hon. Friend makes. The Government entirely understand the importance of sustainability of rural transport for communities across the UK. The national bus strategy we are developing will set out how national and local government, and the private sector, together, will meet the needs of these communities.

Following criticism from the Office for Budget Responsibility of Treasury calculations and assumptions, and at a time when the aviation sector is on its knees, what concerns does the Secretary of State have about the scrapping of the airside extra-statutory concession and VAT retail export scheme, given that it supports hundreds of jobs at Scottish airports and helps smaller airports maintain and attract new routes, through cross-subsidy? (909691)

Taxation matters are, of course, a matter for the Treasury. We have encouraged the sector to keep feeding in the data and its experiences, because all taxation matters are always kept under review.

The Secretary of State may know that last month, unfortunately, the bridge in Hinckley won the accolade of the most bashed bridge in Britain, having been hit 25 times in a year. This causes a huge problem, with delays of more than six hours, on average. Colleagues and I have raised this issue, and we are pleased to have received £20 million in road investment strategy 2—RIS2—funding in March. What can he do to expedite the improvements on the A5, solve problems such as the bridge and make sure that we jolly well do not win that accolade next year?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend has the most bashed bridge in Britain, and the Government want to take that accolade away from him. That bridge at Hinckley has benefited from the £20 million that he mentions. The office of the traffic commissioner has also written to all goods vehicle and public service vehicle operators warning them of regulatory action that will be taken if they fail to stop bashing into the bridge. I can also assure him that Highways England is working on measures to reduce the number of strikes to the most bashed bridge in Britain.

The Clockfields estate in my constituency has long suffered from poorly maintained roads, owing to a complicated legal situation. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging all parties involved to work harder and faster to bring a conclusion to this matter, which has caused my constituents to live with such poor road surfaces for so many years?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. I am not sure whether this is one of those situations where the road has not yet been adopted and that is part of the problem.

My hon. Friend is nodding her head. I have had a similar constituency experience of that, where roads for estates built 15 years ago still have not been adopted. I do think that it is an issue, and I undertake to work on this complex legal issue with my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary, because it is a joint transport and housing problem, and I have seen how much difficulty it can create for all of our constituents.

Aylesbury has recently begun a trial of e-scooters, and I have been lucky enough to try one myself. However, at the same time that I was sticking to my cycle lane, others were trying to pull wheelies in the middle of the road, which is quite a feat, let me tell you. Will the Secretary of State consider requiring registration plates on all scooters, if legislation is introduced to permit them, so that irresponsible riders can be identified and punished?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; while we are very keen to see the roll-out of e-scooters, and about 20 communities are already enjoying the benefits, it is also the case that we want to ensure that the regulation is right and that every single e-scooter is properly insured and built to the proper standards. That is why we are carrying out a very careful and cautious programme to roll them out, thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), and we will be reporting back to the House what we learn from those trials and ensuring that the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) raises are not experienced elsewhere.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have had—not for the first time—a statement being offered during topical questions on a matter that should have been brought forward as a statement to allow proper scrutiny, in particular on the plan for Christmas. Although it nods to many proposals that Labour has put forward, we have not seen the detail and we have not been given the opportunity to scrutinise. May I have your advice, Mr Speaker? Is it not more appropriate for the Government to bring forward a statement that we can have a proper debate around?

On a point of order, Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) will be pleased to hear that I am writing in considerable detail to all Members of the House. The letter should be released, but I did not want to release until I had made comments about it at the Dispatch Box.

We will leave it at that for today. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Exams and Accountability 2021

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding testing and examinations in schools and colleges next year.

The pandemic continues to cause disruption throughout our education communities and, once again, I pay tribute to all our teachers, school leaders and support staff for the enormous efforts that they are making to keep young people of all ages learning. I also pay tribute to the global teacher of the year award winner, which recognises the most outstanding teacher from around the world. Our very own Dr Jamie Frost, maths lead at Tiffin School in Kingston-upon-Thames, has been shortlisted for this after his tuition website went viral during lockdown, helping millions of pupils in the United Kingdom and around the world to continue their studies at home. He has already won the covid hero award, and I am sure that the whole House joins me in wishing him luck with the overall prize. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

We will not let covid damage the life chances of an entire year of students by cancelling next year’s exams. Exams are the best form of assessment that we have, and we are therefore taking steps to ensure that any student preparing to sit them in 2021 has every chance possible to do their very, very best.

We support Ofqual’s decision that, in awarding next year’s GCSEs, AS and A-levels, grading will be as generous and will maintain a similar profile as those grades awarded this year. This is to recognise the exceptional circumstances under which students and teachers continue to work and to make sure that students are not at a disadvantage compared with previous years.

Ofqual is also working with the exam boards to make sure that students studying for vocational and technical qualifications and other general qualifications benefit from the same generous approach. I know that students and teachers are making enormous efforts to catch up with any lost learning. To support those most affected by the continuing disruption, at the end of January, students will be given advance notice of some of the topic areas that will be assessed in their GCSEs and A-levels. That means that they will be able to focus on these areas in more depth and target their revision accordingly. Students will also be given exam aids, such as formula sheets, in recognition of the time lost in the classroom and to give them more confidence and reduce the amount of information that they need to memorise in preparation for exams.

All these measures have been drawn up with the most affected in mind and we will be sharing the advance notice about what exactly the measures will entail with schools and colleges at the end of January. Students taking vocational and technical qualifications or other general qualifications can also expect a number of concessions, including a reduced number of units to be assessed. We want as many students as possible to be able to sit their exams and for that reason we have a contingency package to make sure that they can do so, including spacing exams more widely, as well as enabling vulnerable students to sit exams at home if they need to.

In the minority of cases where students cannot sit all their papers or where a very small number of pupils miss all of them, there will be means by which they can still be awarded a grade, including additional papers available after the main exam series.

The fundamental problem with this year’s exams is that we tried to award grades without actually holding exams. We will not be repeating that same mistake again. With the measures that I have outlined, we are confident that every student who is preparing to sit exams this summer will be awarded a qualification.[Official Report, 6 January 2021, Vol. 686, c. 4MC.] As the virus continues to be a fact of life for all of us, schools and colleges are making impressive efforts to ensure that education can continue for those students who must remain at home. We have reviewed and updated the guidance for remote education so that schools, parents and pupils all know exactly what to expect from it. Primary schools need to provide an absolute bare minimum of three hours a day on average of remote education, and secondary schools, an absolute minimum of at least four. Schools will also be expected to check and provide feedback on pupils’ work at least weekly as well as informing parents immediately where engagement is a concern. The Department will also ask schools to set out details of their remote provision on their websites so that parents can better understand their schools’ remote education offer.

As levels of covid infection continue to fluctuate, we know that different areas will experience varying levels of disruption to learning. We will therefore commission an expert group to assess any local variations and the impact the virus is having on students’ education.

I turn to the measures we are taking in respect of the school and college accountability framework for 2021. We need to ensure that the arrangements for inspection and performance measures are fair and reflect the current public health situation. They need to take into account the enormous challenges that schools and colleges have been facing, but, equally, we must continue to provide the information and reassurance that parents need about their children’s education. We will not be publishing the normal performance tables based on test, exam and assessment data next year. Instead, my Department will publish data on the subjects that students have taken, how well schools and colleges support their students to their next destination and attendance data, taking account of the impact of covid-19. We will also publish national and regional data on 2021 exams, tests and assessments. Importantly, we will make the exam data available to Ofsted and to schools, but we will not publish it in performance tables.

I will now let the House know how our plans for schools and colleges are affected by inspections. It is our intention that Ofsted’s routine graded inspections will remain suspended for the spring term but will resume in a carefully considered way from the summer term. In the meantime, Ofsted will carry out monitoring inspections in those schools and colleges most in need of support. That will include those currently judged inadequate and some in the “requires improvement” category. Inspectors will focus on areas that are particularly relevant at this time such as curriculum delivery, remote education and, importantly, attendance. There will also be a focus on those pupils who are particularly vulnerable. However, I stress that they will not make graded judgments and any inspection activity will be sensitive to be additional pressures that schools are working under at this time.

As in the autumn, Ofsted will also be able to inspect a school in response to any significant concerns about safeguarding but also about the delivery of remote education by that school. In both the early years sector and the independent schools sector, the intention is also that standard inspections will remain suspended for the spring, with assurance inspections in the early years and non-routine inspections in independent schools taking place in the meantime. I trust that provides the House with reassurance that we are providing the right balance in our accountability and inspection arrangements.

I will finish by outlining our proposal for the curriculum and testing in primary schools, recognising the particular challenges they face. Assessments in primary schools next summer will focus on phonics, mathematics and English reading and writing. That means that for 2021 only, we will remove all tests at key stage 1, the English grammar, punctuation and spelling tests at key stage 2, and science teacher assessments at both key stages. The introduction of a multiplication tables check will be postponed for a further year, but schools may use it if they want to. It is a resource available to all schools, and we encourage them to do so if they can.

We will also add more flexibility to the timetable, so if there is any disruption due to coronavirus in a school, pupils will be able to take the test when they return to the school. These measures will help us to address lost learning time and will give us a chance to support pupils in schools who need help. They will also provide vital information for parents and better help for pupils to make a successful step into the next stage of education—going to secondary school.

Everyone in all of our schools and colleges is working as hard as they can to make sure that no pupils lose out because of covid and that the future they are dreaming of is still very much within their reach. I am determined that the coronavirus will not jeopardise the life chances of this year’s pupils, and I am confident that the plan is the fairest way of doing this. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance copy of it. I also thank the Minister for School Standards for briefing my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and me yesterday. I also join the Secretary of State in congratulating Dr Frost and wishing him well for the finals of the global teacher of the year awards.

I am glad that the Government have finally responded to the pleas of students, their parents and teachers who have been asking for months how next summer’s exams will be conducted fairly. While I welcome measures to help pupils be assessed on what they have learned and ensure that reserve papers will be in place for pupils who might miss out, that performance tables will be suspended and that routine Ofsted inspections will not resume in January—many of them measures that Labour called for —today’s announcement still bakes in fundamental inequities between students who have suffered different levels of disruption to their learning. The Government have known since September that an ongoing pandemic would create huge challenges in schools, and for months they will have heard school leaders, parents and Labour Members calling for a credible plan to address them. It has taken until December to provide one, so can the Secretary of State tell us what took him so long? Why did he leave students in a horrible and uncertain limbo?

The truth is that the delay has limited the Department’s options. Had it acted sooner, it could have done more to make the system fairer. I welcome the decision to make the distribution of grades similar to last year’s to ensure that pupils sitting their exams this year do not feel unfairly disadvantaged, but we know that last year while grades rose across the board, some pupils—particularly those in private schools—were more likely to see a sharp rise. How will the Secretary of State ensure this year that the distribution of grades is spread evenly across schools and postcodes to ensure that the most disadvantaged pupils are treated fairly? Is he not concerned that providing information in advance about subject content will at best benefit pupils at random, with those who happen to have already covered the assessed material benefiting at the expense of those who did not, and at worst in fact mean that pupils who faced the greatest disruption to their learning lose the most?

There is significant support for greater optionality in exams. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s Department has taken exactly that approach with some exams already. It allows pupils to be assessed on what they have learned, with fewer pupils losing out at random. If it works for some subjects, can the Secretary of State explain clearly why it is not part of today’s announcement?

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to address the fact that over a million pupils were out of school this week? He talked about regional disparity, and we know that exam classes in some regions have faced disproportionate levels of disruption. Can he tell us when the expert group will report, why it has been established so late—I understand just last week—and will it include representatives of school leaders and teachers?

On remote learning, I note the Secretary of State’s requirements, but how many laptops have been delivered to students who need them? Why are we continuing to hear reports of schools receiving laptops only after students isolate, wasting valuable time getting them set up and delivered? Why has the national tutoring programme now been stretched more thinly across two years? Can he even guarantee that all students on free school meals will have access to tutoring?

Many students sitting exams next summer want to go on to university or college. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with colleges and universities to ensure that any additional support these students may need will be in place for them next September? Does he believe that any changes will be needed to the timing of university admissions? Can he tell us when pupils taking vocational and technical qualifications will receive further clarity, and what steps is he taking to clear the logjam in the testing of apprentices’ functional skills in maths and English?

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there are likely to be more appeals than in a normal year? How will he ensure that all students can access a fair appeals process? Will he also ensure that there are the markers with the time and resources needed to grade papers in time, particularly in the second exam window?

I want students to have the chance to show what they have achieved in the most challenging of circumstances, but after months of silence these proposals fall short of the fair exams that the Secretary of State promised. At best, this is a “requires improvement”.

I am glad that the hon. Member could bring herself to welcome the measures, albeit slightly grudgingly, at the start. It is no thanks to the Labour party that schools are back and children are in schools. It is no thanks to the Labour party that we were getting over 1.6 million children back into school before—

I know that you always love Secretaries of State to look adoringly at you, Mr Speaker. I have been dutifully rebuked.

The Labour party has never championed pupils, because it has not fought to get students back into schools. It was actually the Mayor of Greater Manchester who wanted to send children out of school and back home. But the Conservative party stands for getting children back into school.

The shadow Secretary of State highlighted a number of issues. It is disappointing that the official Opposition have not engaged in a positive debate. They could not even be bothered to respond to the Ofqual consultation about exams. They seem to have missed the opportunity. Maybe it got lost in the post—or maybe, quite simply, they just could not be bothered. We do recognise that there are significant challenges in delivering education at this time, which is why we have put together a package of truly unprecedented measures to assist schools, teachers, and, most importantly, pupils themselves.

I am sure that the hon. Lady would grudgingly acknowledge that all academic studies have continuously highlighted that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, including children from black and ethnic minority communities, are the ones who always outperform predicted grades when they sit exams.

It is good to see that we have a common view—I note the chuntering from the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), who is sat in the Opposition Chief Whip’s seat—on the importance of exams. We recognise that children will have missed out elements of the curriculum, but giving advance notice will give them and their teachers the opportunity to use that time to focus on the areas of the curriculum that they know they will be tested on. We are also recognising the importance of technical and vocational qualifications, and we will be looking at ensuring that information on those is shared at a similar time to information on GCSEs and A-levels.

The shadow Secretary of State highlighted some important issues, including the potential for extra appeals and ensuring that there are proper extra resources in place for that process; we will certainly be doing that. We recognise that there are challenges from giving extra learning time and moving most exams back by three weeks. For example, this will put added pressure on the exam boards. We are working closely with the exam boards to support them to get the right resources in place, and to deliver the grades as and when we would expect them—at the end of August.

It is right that we have exams in some form next year, because that at least gives pupils much-needed structure. I thank the Secretary of State, because there is no easy or perfect option, but I have two questions that I would like to ask him. First, are we possibly baking grade inflation into the system, as we saw in 2020? Could we not ensure that grade boundaries are in line with 2019 results, or at least between 2019 and 2020 results, so that we can revert to the standards of 2019, while no one loses out, and start transitioning back to normality? From a social justice perspective, does inflating all the grades just move the goalposts, in that the difference between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers remains the same?

Secondly, we know from the DFE’s own data that 798,000 pupils in state-funded schools were not in school for covid-19-related reasons on Thursday 26 November. Is there a way that we could track every single child to assess the learning that he or she is getting from the school? Will my right hon. Friend give Ofsted a much stronger role to ensure that children are learning, and will he use the £143 million allocated to the catch-up programme to ensure that every pupil is prepared for this year’s exams, rather than rolling over that funding into next year?

We have commissioned an Education Policy Institute study on the individual learning loss, and we are getting data into the Department on that. We will be asking the expert group to look at that and how best to address it. I take my right hon. Friend’s point: he would have preferred more of a middle ground in the grading between 2019 and 2020. I firmly believe that, for those children who have had to deal with so much in terms of the pandemic, it is really important that their exam grading is reflective of their work but recognises the fact that they have been through a tremendous amount this year. It would be unjust for them to have grades, having sat exams, that were substantially lower than the ones received in 2020.

Let us head up to Birmingham to see Jack Dromey. [Interruption.] He looks a lot younger! That was not Jack Dromey; we have not arrived in Birmingham yet, so we will head to North Thanet, to see Sir Roger Gale.

The work that my right hon. Friend does in connection with exams is likely to be considered wrong by some people, but I congratulate him on coming up with what is probably the least worst option available to him. He will remember that at Education questions a couple of weeks ago I raised the issue of SATs, which is of particular concern to primary schools this year. He touched on the testing regimes for primary school children and secondary school children. Could he expand on that and indicate precisely what he expects of teaching staff and whether he believes that, for this year only, assessment might be the way forward?

My right hon. Friend is right that there is not an easy pathway, which I think the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) also recognises. Any route taken presents quite significant challenges in delivering assessments and examinations, but I believe that this is the fairest and most robust way of doing it. We have removed SATs from performance tables. That is an important measure, but SATs do present a really important way of measuring a child’s attainment and position, and they will be vital for schools in making that assessment and supporting children to catch up on lost learning. We hope that removing them from performance tables will remove a lot of the pressure that teachers sometimes feel and help with the delivery of SATs.

Securing fairness for all students will be absolutely key, so while I welcome some of the measures that have been announced today that go in the right direction, I am worried that the creation of an expert group is simply kicking the fairness can down the road. Given the huge variations in learning between individuals, schools and local education authorities, when, specifically, will the expert group report on its proposals, and when will the House be able to scrutinise them?

The whole set of measures that we have put in place, whether in extra learning time, changes to assessment, advance notice or giving exam aids, is to support children who have suffered from lost learning. The expert group, which will report to me in the spring, will make a proper and thorough assessment of some of the challenges that students have faced.

This year’s students, such as those at Petroc College in North Devon, have faced unprecedented disruption to their studies as a result of the pandemic. Those who are due to sit some of the most important exams of their lives so far have perhaps felt this disruption most acutely. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the measures that his Department is taking will ensure that these students are treated as fairly as possible in both academic and vocational subjects?

I assure my hon. Friend that the measures we are taking are truly exceptional—they are not measures that we would ever have expected to take in any normal year. The only reason we are taking them is to support students in her constituency to ensure that they achieve the very best grades that they possibly can and unlock their future life chances.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Will he outline the steps taken to ensure that devolved Administrations whose students carry out English board exams have all the relevant information to enable schools to truly lay out the pathway to exam attainment? Will this messaging be going to parents and children soon to ensure less stress for these young ones, who have more uncertainty on their shoulders than children have had for many, many generations?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The measures that we are taking are very much to reduce stress and pressure on students. Many pupils in Northern Ireland sit papers from English exam boards, and the measures that we are taking will obviously be replicated in Northern Ireland for them. Only yesterday, I spoke to Peter Weir, the Education Minister for Northern Ireland. At every stage, we are considering implications that may arise for Northern Irish students as a result of these changes. We are doing everything we can to accommodate any concerns that Peter Weir may have on behalf of pupils in Northern Ireland, and we hope that we can balance that off.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which will end the uncertainty that I am sure is experienced right across the country. Will he join me in thanking teachers and students across Harrow, who have been desperately trying to catch up with the learning that they have missed, and congratulating them on their hard work? Will he use the opportunity—now—of a revision to the process to ensure that exams are not just a test of knowledge, but far more a test of how that knowledge is applied, in assessing how students have performed across their time in school?

We will always look at different options to improve our examination system and how we work with exam boards, and I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that in greater detail. In terms of catch-up, I pay tribute to the teachers and support staff not just in Harrow, but right across the country, who have done so much. They have been assisted by the £1 billion covid catch-up fund to give extra resources, so that extra teaching can take place at weekends and in the evenings, and children have the opportunity to catch up on work that they have missed.

Research from the Education Policy Institute, among others, on the performance of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities suggests that they can be particularly vulnerable to being underestimated in assessments. Given that some of those pupils might also, for health reasons and owing to shielding, have had more disruption to their education, how can we be confident that any new system introduced for next year will take their needs into account?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point on which there is a lot of shared concern on both sides of the House. This was one reason that we particularly weighted the covid catch-up fund to deliver extra money for those schools supporting children with special educational needs. We recognise there are some acute and difficult challenges, and certainly I know that the Minister for School Standards would be happy to sit down with the hon. Lady, along with the children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), to discuss any extra support or intervention she thinks would be of use and benefit.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on achieving a compromise that enables students in Aylesbury to sit exams that they have long worked towards and actually want to take, while ensuring that they have the best possible chance of receiving a fair result? Can he assure me that this strategy will be able to withstand any future shocks that might arise due to covid-19, so that teachers and pupils in Buckinghamshire can plan the next two terms with certainty?

This is why we have taken the decision to make the announcement at this stage. I think the four nations in the United Kingdom believe this is the most comprehensive and detailed plan for how we are going to proceed with assessment, examinations and the awarding of grades. I hope this gives every school leader and every teacher, but most importantly children, a clear sense of what they are going to be assessed against, so that they can achieve the very best grade that they are capable of getting.

The Secretary of State rightly says that he wants to boost fairness and support students, but he will be aware that just last week a million students were not able to be in school. In one school in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, only 63% were present, which is a massive disparity. On 21 October, he said he would deliver 500,000 laptops, but only 200,000 have so far been delivered. Does he accept that there is a massive gap in delivering the fairness he promises? Should priority be given to teachers to be vaccinated to ensure they can stay in school?

I very much share the hon. Gentleman’s view on the important role that teachers, and also support staff, have been playing in the delivery of education. Obviously, right through this pandemic, there has been a national priority of putting education at the centre of the Government’s response, which is why schools have remained open, even during a national lockdown. There will be specific clinical needs that have to be met as part of a vaccination programme, but there has always been a priority put on education, and for teachers to be able to get into school and teach and for support staff to support them. We will obviously be looking at this in the next wave and the announcement on vaccinations.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the position regarding exams today, as someone who was keen to see them go ahead. More importantly, all the young people I have spoken to want to see them go ahead as well, so that they are in control of their own futures. Does he agree that, given the learning loss, particularly for disadvantaged young people, it will still be important for schools to have an effective system for young people to learn during the holidays between now and summer to give these exams their best shot?

My hon. Friend raises an important point and identifies a great opportunity for many schools to take advantage of. I know so many schools have been putting on extra lessons after the school day has concluded, and so many schools have been looking at how they can use the holidays to deliver extra education and catch-up for those critical year 11 and year 13 pupils. That is a great idea and certainly something we very much encourage.

I welcome this announcement, but let us talk about regional disparities, because I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western). More than 12% of children in Greater Manchester were impacted by covid-19, meaning that they could not attend school. That compares with 5% nationally. Information technology poverty affects up to 18% of the student population, and the learning conditions at home affect many more. How will this announcement help mitigate the impact on those pupils? How do we make it fair for them?

As I touched on in an earlier answer, obviously we expect schools to deliver a full curriculum, but some schools will have been impacted in such a way that they cannot deliver every aspect of it. However, giving advance notice of the topic areas means that over the coming months those schools and students can focus on those areas that need to be covered for exams, in the run-up to them.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I know that he has considered very carefully how to make things fair, and students and staff will welcome the certainty. Students and teachers in Sleaford and North Hykeham are working really hard to catch up with any lost learning, but it is clear that some students, through no fault of their own, will have missed more days of school than others. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how the £1 billion catch-up fund will be targeted towards those students who need it the most?

There is not only the general pot of the catch-up fund, but the specific national tutoring programme, targeting children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We have always believed that schools, with their intimate knowledge of their pupils and understanding of their learning needs, are best able to target how that money is spent, so that pupils are best able to catch up.

I have heard from teachers, school leaders and young people across Luton North, all saying that we need alternatives to standard exams next year. Students from Luton sixth forms and the Luton youth council wrote to me with a comprehensive list of options last month, and I urge the Secretary of State to hear their concerns. The headteacher of the fantastic Lealands High School summed it up perfectly when he wrote to me sharing concerns not just for children’s future, but for their mental health:

“It has become apparent that the disparity in experience of Year 11 students across the country is vast and those who are suffering the most have not control over this... There are many ways to assess what young people know, understand and can do.”

Will the Secretary of State listen to teachers, parents and students and avoid any unnecessary unfairness of exams, or does he just think he knows better?

We have spent a great deal of time working with stakeholders and listening to children, teachers and professional academics on how best we do this. That is why we have pulled together the proposal that we have, putting the interests of children very much at the heart of everything we do.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his entire departmental team on today’s statement, which gives certainty and clarity to teachers, pupils and parents for exams in the summer. We know that schools, including those in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, have been hit hard financially this year due to covid-19. That will only be added to by the need to advertise for, train and hire additional exam invigilators, which is a challenge at the best of times, so will my right hon. Friend back my call for an army of volunteers, made up of former and retired teachers—please add my name to the list—to help the national effort and deliver exams next summer?

I would be delighted to add my hon. Friend’s name to the list of that army of volunteers who will go out there and help in schools. However, we do not just need invigilators; we also need markers—people who have experience as teachers, who are maybe retired—to come forward and assist us in this significant effort to ensure that papers are marked punctually. This is a great opportunity for people to give something back to the next generation and to schools in their community by either volunteering as an invigilator or coming forward as a marker.

We have had yet another statement from the Secretary of State that did not mention children in care or children with special educational needs and disability. That is not surprising, since just last week the Court of Appeal found that he acted unlawfully in scrapping critical safeguards for those very children. Will he apologise and outline what support he is providing to them so that they are as exam-ready as every other child?

We have a very proud history, actually; we put the needs of the most vulnerable at the heart of our response, whether it was the covid catch-up funding—making sure that extra funding goes to those children who most need it—or the fact that this country took a global lead in making sure that schools and colleges remained open for children with special needs and those who are most vulnerable. We led the world in that, and we are very proud that we took that lead.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that keeping schools open is a national priority? That is vital for our young people, especially those in my constituency of Great Grimsby, to ensure that the disruption to their education is kept to a minimum as much as possible. However, we cannot deny that, despite best efforts, many young people have had their teaching and learning disrupted more than others. Can he assure me that the measures will allow those students to catch up on their curriculum and make sure they achieve the best they can in their exams?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on when she highlights the importance of keeping schools open and ensuring that as many pupils attend as possible, because school is the best place for children. As the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all highlighted, children are always better off in school. We are so pleased to see schools open and so many children back. She is right to highlight the need for children to be able to catch up, but also to be able to focus their attention and efforts on the key areas that will make a real difference to their grades in exams. That is why we have taken these unprecedented and significant measures to ensure that children in her constituency are able to get the best grade and achieve their absolute maximum potential.

In Manchester, some year 11 pupils are now in their fifth period of isolation. Most have lost at least 10% of class time because of isolation and many of those pupils do not have decent digital access to enable home learning. The deputy head at my local high school told me this morning:

“The system he is putting in place will serve to widen the disadvantage gap. He repeats that exams are the fairest means of assessment and all the studies point to that; however those studies were not undertaken in a global pandemic.”

May I plead with the Secretary of State to think again about what more he can do to help those pupils who have been disproportionately affected by isolation? That does not need to include keeping all examinations, because, on exams, making the playing field slightly smaller for everybody is not creating a level playing field for those disadvantaged pupils.

The measures we have introduced are very much designed to support the pupils the hon. Gentleman talks about. I know from personal experience—my own daughter has had to isolate and is facing her GCSE exams in this academic year—the impact it has on all children. That is why we have put these measures forward to assist all children. That is what we have done, and we believe they will make a significant difference to all children in his constituency and mine.

I appreciate that there are no easy solutions here. I have been discussing these difficult issues with the principals of my local sixth form colleges—New College and Greenhead College. My area in West Yorkshire has had some of the highest covid rates in the country, with hundreds of students off with covid or self-isolating at any one time. How will the Secretary of State make it fair for students in my patch who have been disproportionately impacted by covid, and level up their life chances?

This is what all the measures we are introducing are aimed at doing: making sure that children who have missed out on the opportunity to learn are able to focus their efforts, as they come to the crucial exam period, on the things that will matter most to them as they try to achieve the very best grade. This is on top of the action we have taken with the covid catch-up fund, which has already been initiated and is available to all students in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Last week, I met headteachers from across Gateshead who talked about this very issue of unfairness. Today’s statement covers the issue across the whole cohort, but, as many other colleagues have said, what measures will the Secretary of State take to ensure that those who have been through isolation—there are many of those in the north-east and in my constituency—and do not have access to technology are really able to make up that difference and are able to be tested fairly in that system?

Again, not wishing to repeat myself, we recognise that there are children in that situation. That is why we think it is really important that teachers and pupils alike have a clear sense of where the testing will be applied so that, over the final months as they head to exams in summer 2021, they are able to focus that effort and those resources on ensuring that they cover all those key critical areas.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The excellent teaching staff across Carshalton and Wallington are doing their best to prepare for the 2021 exams, but they have been telling me that when students have to self-isolate, there is obviously disruption. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will put education at the top of the priority list for vaccinations as they begin to roll out, so that we can return to some form of normal teaching before next year’s exams?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about vaccination roll-out. We have also been doing testing pilots around the country to see how we can be in the best possible position so that, if a child does have covid, it does not mean that a large group of children will have to self-isolate. As we complete those pilots, we will look at how we can roll that out, especially into the areas that have been most affected. He makes an important point on vaccination, and we are certainly looking at how we can prioritise that, since teachers and support staff play such an important role in our national endeavour.

The Secretary of State’s statement sadly does little to address the disadvantage that pupils, particularly from northern schools, have faced compared with those in other areas less affected by the virus. Alarmingly, a survey of National Education Union members found that nearly 80% felt that they would not be able, in the time available and with repeated pupil absences, to teach the whole syllabus. At the very least, will he accept that to give pupils a real chance, he must release those topics that will be on exam papers now and not wait until the end of January?

It is very nice to see the hon. Lady again. The reason for this focus and the advance notice for schools is so that, where there has been missed time, they are able to be in a position to focus on the areas that matter. I appreciate that she would want everything yesterday, as against in January, but the work will take a little bit of time for exam boards to pull together. It will be done swiftly—by the end of January—to give schools as much space as possible to focus their attention on those areas.

The stress and anxiety that has been faced by so many pupils, staff and parents due to covid restrictions cannot be denied, so I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. It is the right thing to do. Can he give me an assurance that his Department will also do everything possible to ensure that this message goes out loud and clear to anyone who might seek to stigmatise the class of 2021 as having had some sort of easy pass, rather than these measures’ being rightly about fairness in the face of exceptional circumstances?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. The children who are facing exams this year have done so much, in quite extraordinary circumstances. The grades they will receive will be a real testament to their hard work, their dedication and their commitment to education, either in the 11 years in the run-up to their GCSEs or in the 13 years in the run-up to their A-levels and other vocational qualifications. I hope that employers in the future will recognise the amazing work that has gone into every single grade and every single achievement of all our children.

Around 80% of Ealing schools have had covid cases, leaving gaps in learning and holes in budgets. Some have demolished walls to accommodate distancing, and now they have huge staff absence bills—all at London prices. Can the Secretary of State compensate all those in full and prioritise vaccinating not just teaching staff, but the admin lot, who have worked non-stop throughout all this? The Chancellor seems to have given them all an effective pay cut last week.

We have already set out details to support schools during this covid pandemic, not just in the run-up to summer, but during the current term.

It is always easy to criticise, but does my right hon. Friend agree that while, sadly, it appears that the dog ate Labour’s homework on this one, his statement provides headteachers in my constituency and others with certainty? Does he also share my admiration for the work being done by local authority virtual schools so that children who are in the care system are able to access the wide range of support provided by the Government to ensure that they continue to close the gap with their peers who are not in care?

My hon. Friend highlights a really important area. The virtual school heads programme for local authorities and schools, has been a real success. We have seen a real impact for those children—some of the most vulnerable children in society, with some of the best attendance for them—by getting that tailored support. It is a scheme that I would deeply love to see rolled out more extensively, because the evidence points to the real impact and difference it makes to young people’s lives.

The Secretary of State referred to remote provision in his statement, and yet last half-term school laptop allocations were cut by 80%. That decision affects the most disadvantaged pupils the greatest, so will he reconsider the decision and commit to delivering the laptop provision that schools were originally promised?

We continue to deliver ever more laptops every single week. More than 0.5 million laptops will be going out, and we continue to do everything we can do to support schools with laptop provision.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Christchurch on being given an accolade by The Sunday Times for being one of the best primary schools in the country? Will he tell us what criteria will be available to enable the public to judge primary schools next year, if there are no tests at key stage 1 and very few at key stage 2, bearing in mind that the key stage 1 tests are the test against which future progress is gauged?

I very much join my hon. Friend in congratulating St Joseph’s school in Christchurch on such an accolade. I am sure that he, the teachers, parents and, most importantly, pupils feel incredibly proud at receiving it.

We recognise that we have had to make some changes that we would not normally want to do, in order to facilitate the smooth functioning of schools. We will continue to publish data on schools, including attendance, so that parents are in the best possible position to make the best choice for their children in school.

Some regions of our country, including my constituency, have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Slough schools have faced several outbreaks and huge disruption as a result. There is also the huge issue of the digital divide experienced by many of our more disadvantaged and less well-off communities. So, in addition to the Secretary of State’s announcement today on exam changes, surely he should consider regionally targeted measures to support those areas that have lost out the most.

We believe that this is a comprehensive package. We will ask the expert group to look at some of the challenges that students will face in order to be able to progress to their next stages. We will look very closely at the evidence that is provided on lost learning.