Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 May 2022

House of Commons

Monday 23 May 2022

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

Before we start today’s proceedings, I have a short statement to make. Members will recall that, in response to the House’s order for production of documents relating to the appointment of Lord Lebedev to the House of Lords, the Government made a ministerial statement and published an accompanying document. That statement made certain assertions about the House’s powers to call for papers which were not correct. In order to ensure that there is a clear and shared understanding of those powers, I have today written to the Paymaster General to explain the position. That letter has been placed in the Library and copies are available in the Vote Office. I now consider that matter closed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Low-Performing Areas: Education Funding

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our well wishes to the Minister for Higher and Further Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), as she is fighting covid and, I am sure, will defeat it.

To help all pupils to achieve their potential, I have increased core schools funding by £4 billion, which is a 7% increase in cash terms per pupil this year, in 2022-23; and I have directed—flexed—£2.6 billion of that funding towards low prior attainment children through the national funding formula.

The additional funding that schools in Blackpool receive through our status as an opportunity area and an education investment area will make a real difference on the ground. However, headteachers often raise with me the problem of digital exclusion when pupils are at home due to a lack of IT equipment, which obviously puts pupils from lower-income families at a comparative disadvantage. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that pupils from low-income backgrounds do not lose out due to digital exclusion?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his excellent question. I am working to ensure that every school has access to high-speed broadband connectivity by 2025. Priority schools in education improvement areas will be able to access our £150 million programme to upgrade their internal network infrastructure. During the pandemic, as my hon. Friend highlighted from his teachers’ point of view, many children did not have access to technology for learning at home, so we provided devices, wi-fi and data to disadvantaged students to support digital inclusion at home.

I am supporting my Bishop’s Stortford constituents’ “Turn on the Subtitles” campaign to improve children’s literacy across the board, but particularly in low-performing areas. Raj Chande, the director of Nesta’s “A Fairer Start” mission, said that the campaign’s evidence is compelling, and it has Nesta’s seal of approval—an important endorsement. Therefore, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to invest in the campaign by reviewing its mass of evidence, and will he encourage parents and children to turn on the subtitles?

I have set out in the White Paper that we share the commitment to raising literacy standards, as I am sure the whole House does, and we want to ensure that all children can read fluently and with that understanding. I thank Henry Warren and Oli Barrett MBE for their commitment to improving literacy levels, and they have championed that campaign. It is a choice for parents and guardians whether their child watches television and whether they do so with the subtitles on, but it certainly makes a difference in the Zahawi household.

Does the Secretary of State agree that as well as funding, data and transparency matter so that we can monitor things, act quickly and see that the plans that we have announced are working to improve schools right across Eastleigh?

I never tire of saying that data and transparency are our greatest allies in improving educational outcomes. We are absolutely focused on delivering against the ambitious targets that we have set for skills, schools and families, and on holding ourselves in the Department against them. Sharing our plans and performance data is a key lever to drive rapid improvement through the complex system that we oversee in education. I have committed to publishing a delivery plan setting out what we will achieve and a performance dashboard showing progress, and I want teachers and school leaders to do the same on behaviour, absenteeism and, of course, standards.

Does the Minister agree that the future of children’s education in the now city of Doncaster has never been brighter due to the excellent steps taken by this Government, the fantastic schools in Don Valley and the roll-out of my role models project on the ground, which shows young people all the career opportunities? With that in mind, will the Minister agree to come to Don Valley and see for himself the good work that is being done?

My hon. Friend is certainly a role model in how he has celebrated Doncaster becoming a city. I am delighted that the role models project is connecting schools in Don Valley to local professionals; it is inspiring and informative for young people to hear about the career journeys of role models and to learn about all the excellent career opportunities available to them in Doncaster. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend and seeing the project for myself.

Does the Secretary of State agree that any increases in funding for schools should be spent on teaching and learning, not on propping up failing energy companies? In an average primary school, £30,000 more—the cost of a teacher—is being spent on energy. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it? Will he include nurseries and early years settings in his assessment?

The 7% increase on last year, in cash terms, that we secured at the spending review for this year includes significant additional funding that allows us headroom, but the hon. Lady is right to highlight the point. Energy represents about 1.4% to 1.5% of schools’ budgets, but because of the energy spike, schools that are out of contract have seen that proportion increase to 7%, 8% or 9%. We are keeping a close eye on the matter. The one message that I would like the hon. Lady and every other hon. Member to take away to their schools is to get in touch with us if they are close to coming out of contract, because we can really help.

May I take the chance to congratulate Stockport children’s services on their “good” Ofsted rating?

I am really concerned at the lack of progress in educational attainment, particularly at secondary level, in schools in parts of my constituency across Stockport and Tameside. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that all parents have the choice of schools with good performance and that children have the opportunities that a good education can bring?

I know that the hon. Gentleman and I share the same passion in what we want for every child. I do not believe that children in Stockport are less talented than children in South Kensington; they have just not had the same opportunity of a great teacher in every classroom in every school. I am determined to deliver that through the White Paper.

I join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating the inspection result for Stockport children’s services; they have done a phenomenal job. I hope that he will be in the Chamber for the statement by the Children and Families Minister—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince)—about Josh MacAlister’s very important review, which has been published today.

You will understand, Mr Speaker, how disturbed I was to learn that Highland Council schools have been ranked as the worst in the whole of Scotland for numeracy and literacy among P1, P4 and P7 pupils. These children are our future. We used to be proud of Scottish education. Will the Government share their best practice with the Scottish Government so that this scandal is sorted out?

That is concerning, I have to say, because although education is devolved, we care about the whole United Kingdom. I am very happy to share our work through the education White Paper and the education Bill, and what we are doing on skills, with T-levels and the lifelong learning entitlement. I worry that Scottish children are being let down. It feels as if Scotland is in freefall down the league tables of the programme for international student assessment.

I am more interested in the Government’s record on academic inequality than in their rhetoric. The annual review of education by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals that since 2010, the most deprived secondary schools have suffered a 14% cut in spending, while for the most affluent schools the figure is just 9%. The new national funding formula makes the disparity worse. The Government’s 10 years of further education cuts also fell harder on poorer students. We all know that the Government stand against aspiration for deprived children and are increasing inequality, as those figures show. Why do they not at least have the courage to admit it?

The hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points, but they are completely misguided. He speaks with great passion, but without looking at the evidence before us. The past 12 years demonstrate that schools have been on an improvement journey. When we came into office, only two thirds of schools could achieve a good or outstanding rating; the figure is now 86%. My predecessors’ work on skills has taken investment in the skills agenda up to £3.8 billion. When we talk to teachers and school leaders around the country, they know that the White Paper will deliver great outcomes for every child. We have set our ambitions high for children all over the country; we know how to get there, and we will deliver.

I was sorry to hear about the Minister for Higher and Further Education, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), and I wish her a speedy recovery.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will join me in wishing all the young people throughout the United Kingdom who are currently sitting their national exams the best of success.

The Secretary of State has praised private schools, including Eton, for building free schools in places such as Oldham, which, according to him, need that investment in education. Can he confirm that it is now Government policy to rely on private school investment where Government funds have been lacking?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we should send our congratulations to the brilliant teachers who have delivered the 650,000 pupils who have taken their key stage 2 standard assessment tests this month. Students began taking their A-levels and GCSEs last Monday, and 3 million individual test scripts have been returned for marking. That is a great achievement after two years of being stuck with covid.

The hon. Lady asked about funding. This Government will be putting £56.5 billion into our school system. We have a plan, which is well evidenced, for delivering a great school with a great teacher for every classroom in the country. Scotland has no plan, and is in freefall in the international league tables.

SEND Review: Further Education

2. What steps he is taking through his Department’s SEND review to support SEND students in further education. (900161)

We are consulting on a wide range of proposals in our SEND and alternative provision Green Paper to benefit young people with special educational needs and disabilities in further education. They include new national SEND standards delivered through new local SEND partnerships and local inclusion plans. We will also set out clear guidance for timely, effective, high-quality transition into further education, higher education, employment or adult social care for young people with SEND.

The Minister visited Suffolk New College recently with me. I went back shortly afterwards to see the inclusion team there. I appreciate that work on the SEND Green Paper is ongoing and has a clear focus on primary and secondary schools, but will the Minister assure me that there will also be a big focus on 16 to 18 FE? The work that Suffolk New College does in preparing these individuals for the world of work is crucial. Sam, who I saw and who had very little confidence, is now leading a whole team at the Chefs’ Whites restaurant there, and will be manning restaurants all over Ipswich. Will the Minister ensure that, when it comes to funding and Ofsted inspections, inclusion should be a requirement for every FE college?

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Suffolk New College, and seeing some of the excellent work that it is doing in respect of a range of issues. I saw just how much the young people in that area are benefiting from their hard work. As my hon. Friend knows, we are engaging widely with a huge number of stakeholders to ensure that we get our consultation right, and I hope very much that Suffolk New College will bring its expertise to that process.

Children with vision impairment require high-quality specialist support to access education and learn skills. I wrote to the Minister outlining concerns about the SEND review’s failure to include anything about the roles and responsibilities of local authority vision impairment specialist education services. According to research conducted by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, more than 60% of local authorities in England have reported a decrease or freeze in full-time specialist VI teaching support. We cannot have a two-tier system. Will the Minister agree to meet me to ensure that proposed local inclusion plans include protected high needs funding for local authorities to deliver specialist VI education services?

I know that the hon. Lady has a great deal of expertise in this regard. We are very keen to ensure, through the SEND review, that children and young people have the right support in the right place at the right time. I strongly encourage the hon. Lady to take part in that consultation, and the Minister responsible has agreed to meet her.

The announcement in the levelling up White Paper that Kirklees has been allocated £100 million of extra funds as an education investment area is welcome news for Dewsbury. Will the Minister explain what that extra funding will mean for further education students and children with special educational needs and disabilities?

It is great to hear how our education investment areas are starting to change the game in areas of great need across the country, including my hon. Friend’s. This is aimed at building a stronger schools system that works to improve outcomes for all pupils, including those with SEND. Our investment will mean improved teacher retention, more pupils in stronger trusts that can offer SEND support effectively, and better connectivity so that schools can use new technology to support learning needs.

Will the Government expressly include acquired brain injury in the SEND review? A lot of youngsters who are affected by it, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, who are four times more likely to have a major brain injury in their teenage years. Everybody gathers round for a few days after the event, but a year later they can be suffering from neurocognitive stall, have terrible fatigue and find it really difficult to get back into the educational system because the support is not there.

The hon. Gentleman has been a powerful champion in this House for that cause, and I am pleased to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester—the city of Colchester—(Will Quince) will meet him to discuss this.

Political Impartiality in Schools

The law is clear that schools must remain politically impartial. I know that colleagues on all sides of the House relish going into schools for hustings during elections. Children need to learn about the yellow team, the blue team, the red team and the green team, but I recognise that some issues can be challenging to deal with, so my Department has recently published clear, comprehensive guidance to help teachers tackle sensitive issues in the classroom in a politically impartial way.

In April this year, members of the National Education Union claimed that it was somehow impossible to teach history in a balanced manner. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that some children are at risk of being indoctrinated by political activists masquerading as teachers? Will he bring forward powers in the new Schools Bill to strike off those who repeatedly fail to comply with impartiality guidelines?

Our knowledge-rich history curriculum requires teaching methods of historical inquiry. We should be teaching children how to think, not what to think, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims and discerning how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed. Our guidance supports this, and schools already have powers to take disciplinary action where teachers repeatedly breach their legal duties.

Condition Improvement Fund

4. What recent steps his Department has taken to ensure that condition improvement fund allocations reflect the needs of schools and pupils. (900163)

The condition improvement fund addresses significant condition issues in eligible academies, voluntary-aided schools and sixth form colleges. Applications are carefully assessed on condition need, the quality of the project plan and value for money in order to prioritise the most urgent works. We announced the funding of more than 1,400 projects in the last round, including 10 in County Durham.

Leadgate Primary School and Consett Junior School in my constituency hit some of the core criteria outlined in the plan, but at the top of County Durham’s list is Villa Real special school, which does not meet the normal criteria, given that it is less than 25 years old. However, there is a real need for expanded special needs provision in County Durham, and that school has serious structural issues. Can the Minister reassure me that that school will be looked at properly, even though it does not fit the traditional criteria?

I recognise that my hon. Friend is a great champion of his schools. I believe that this is a local authority-maintained school. Local authorities receive condition allocations to improve their school buildings. Instead of the school applying to the condition improvement fund, Durham County Council will receive £6.6 million for the 2022-23 year. We have also announced £1.4 billion of investment for the financial years 2022-23 and 2023-24 to improve existing high needs provision, of which Durham will receive £11.2 million.

The reality is that the schools estate is crumbling after 12 years of Tory negligence. In 2019, the Government’s own survey revealed that one in six schools required urgent repairs, and the Minister’s own Department is warning that some school sites present a risk to life. Millions of children are learning in buildings that are not fit for purpose, so can he tell us whether he has had any success in securing funding from the Chancellor and whether he is confident that every school building in England is safe for the children who learn in it?

The safety of pupils and staff is paramount. We have one of the largest condition data collection programmes in Europe, which helps us to assess and manage risk across the estate. Through our programmes, we prioritise buildings where there is a risk to health and safety. We have invested more than £13 billion since 2015 in improving the condition of school buildings and facilities, which includes £1.8 billion committed this year. In addition, our new school rebuilding programme will transform the learning environment at 500 schools over the next decade and will prioritise evidence of severe need and safety issues.

Alternative Student Finance: Muslim Students

5. What progress his Department has made on developing an alternative student finance product for Muslim students. (900164)

We remain committed to delivering alternative student finance, and we are currently considering if and how it can be delivered as part of the lifelong loan entitlement.

It is estimated that 4,000 Muslim students a year do not go into higher education because there is no finance available that is compatible with their faith. David Cameron promised to fix this nine years ago. A good deal of work was done, but it seems to have run into the sand in the past few years. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for reaffirming the Government’s commitment to delivering on David Cameron’s promise, but can he give us an indication of how much longer Muslim students will have to wait?

We will provide a further update on alternative student finance as part of our response to the LLE consultation, which closed earlier this month.

Student Loan Interest Payments

Monthly student loan repayments are based on income, not interest rates, meaning that no one will see their monthly repayment increase due to interest rates. From September, we have reformed the student loan system so that new borrowers will not repay more in real terms than they originally borrowed—that is fair.

The level of student loan interest rates is of great importance to students, past and present, in my constituency, half of which is in the new city of Wrexham. Will my right hon. Friend provide further detail on how we can apply a sustainable downward pressure to student loan interest rates in future?

That is an important question, and I fully recognise the concerns of students and their parents about increasing interest rates. I am looking actively at how we can mitigate that, and we will be setting it out shortly. I emphasise again that no one’s monthly repayment will increase due to higher interest rates, which is an important point to make when people’s budgets are tight.

Violence Against Women on University Campuses

Violence against women is unacceptable, and we must pursue a zero-tolerance culture. I have written to the Office for Students to make clear my view that it should make tackling sexual misconduct a binding condition of universities’ registration. I have also launched a pledge that commits universities to not using non-disclosure agreements to silence victims of sexual harassment. Fifty-three providers have so far made the pledge, and we expect many more to follow.

We are far from zero tolerance at the moment. As a parent of two daughters who have attended or are attending two different universities, I have seen that universities are not safe spaces. Research shows that between two thirds and three quarters of female students, and 70% of female university and college staff, have experienced sexual violence.

The president of the University of Roehampton’s students union has been in regular contact with me about incidents there and about how the local police’s hands are tied because sexual harassment is not a crime, so they cannot take action. There are many factors. Will the Secretary of State go further and commission a review of sexual violence on campuses across our country and take more action to make our campuses safe?

Universities UK published a report a couple of years ago assessing the sector’s progress on tackling gender-based violence, harassment and hate crime. It showed some progress had been made, but only 72% of responding institutions had developed or improved the recording of data on harassment. I need them to go much further, and we will keep everything on the table. I am determined that we get to where the hon. Lady and I both want to get. I am the father of a nine-year-old girl who will one day go to college or, I hope, take a degree apprenticeship. A zero-tolerance culture must be delivered.

Freedom of Speech in Education

The Government maintain our commitment to the protection of free speech and academic freedom in universities with the reintroduction of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill following the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.

As the Secretary of State says, it is right and just that we are in the vanguard of the fight for free speech. As the Bill that will ensure that progresses through the House, the backdrop against which we debate it is disturbing, with universities continuing to use the Equality Act 2010 to elevate the fear of disturbance or distress above the ability of free speech to inspire, enthral and move the academic agenda forward. The case of Dr Sarkar at the University of Oxford is a recent sad example, but it is by no means exceptional. Will the Secretary of State, before the Bill reaches the statute book, conduct a review of free speech policies at universities, and, if necessary, issue fresh guidance to ensure that academics and students in those universities can speak freely? [Interruption.]

I shall attempt to be pithy, Mr Speaker.

The Government and I are clear that issues such as antisemitism are abhorrent, but universities and students’ unions must balance their legal duties, including freedom of speech and tackling harassment. The Bill will place duties directly on students’ unions to secure freedom of speech for staff, students and visiting speakers. No one should fear expressing lawful views.

Early Years Services and Childcare

We are committed to improving the cost, choice and availability of childcare and early education. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on early education entitlements, and up to £180 million on addressing the impact of the pandemic on children’s early development.

Parents of children attending the YMCA community nursery in Bedford are facing unaffordable sevenfold price increases. Rising business costs, huge losses and staff shortages are the consequences of the Government’s funding model, which goes nowhere near funding the costs for nurseries or parents. Does the Minister agree that levelling up means nothing if children cannot access the best start to their education and their parents cannot work because they cannot afford nursery costs?

That is exactly why we spend more than £5 billion a year on childcare and early years, including: the offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds; the offer of 15 and 30 hours for three and four-year-olds, which is worth about £6,000 per child to parents; the universal credit offer, which is worth up to 85% of childcare costs; the tax-free childcare; and the holiday activities and food programme. Of course we take this issue incredibly seriously.

For families with young children, soaring childcare costs are a huge pressure on the cost of living. A quarter of households earning between £20,000 and £30,000 a year are paying more than £100 a week for childcare. The Government’s only response so far has been a proposed cut to staff to child ratios in early years settings. Parents have not asked for that, and 98% of providers believe that it will do nothing to cut costs for parents and could reduce the quality of care. Will the Minister set out why he believes that asking parents to pay more for less is a remotely adequate response to the rising cost of living?

Over the summer, we will consult on moving to the Scottish staff to child ratios for two-year-olds—from a ratio of one to four compared with one to five. I want all parents and carers to receive value for money, and more families to benefit from affordable, flexible and quality childcare. Such changes would help settings to deliver that by handing them more autonomy and flexibility. However—this is important—my priority continues to be to provide safe and high-quality early years provision for our very youngest children; as I have said before, I will not compromise on those things.

More than half of families with two-year-olds do not access any formal early years education or childcare at all, while a shocking 65% of eligible two-year-olds are not receiving the full free entitlement. Early years education makes a huge difference to children’s development and can have a lifelong impact by mitigating disadvantage. What is the Minister doing to increase the pitifully low uptake of free places for two-year-olds?

The hon lady is absolutely right that take-up of the two-year-old disadvantage offer is much lower than we want it to be. In truth, take-up of the universal credit childcare offer is lower than we want it to be and take-up of the tax-free childcare offer is lower than we want it to be. Throughout the House, we all have a duty to promote those offers more widely, and I certainly understand that the House will.

The truth is that even with the billions of pounds that have been spent on childcare, the issue has proved to be a hot mess for Governments of all colours for a number of years. I applaud the Department for trying to grapple with this tricky issue. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is looking carefully—it is right that he does so—at regulations across the whole of the childcare piece that drive up costs for families, and that he is talking to parents and the childcare sector about that? Will he also confirm that he is looking to support childminders in respect of future changes to regulations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are working jointly with other Departments to consider options for how to improve the system within the parameters of the 2021 spending review. As I have said, as well as the quality of provision, health and safety will continue to be of paramount importance, and any significant changes to regulations would require consultation. My hon. Friend is right that we need more childminders to enter the market; they are often the most flexible and affordable type of provision and I am looking into the regulatory changes we can make to encourage more of them to enter the profession.

Mental Wellbeing of Pupils

12. What steps he is taking to help primary and secondary schools support pupils’ mental wellbeing. (900171)

This month, we announced £10 million to extend senior mental health lead training to more schools. Such training will be available to two thirds of schools and colleges by 2023 and to all by 2025. It will support our schools White Paper actions on the promotion of a school week and targeting of support to improve mental wellbeing.

Since being elected, I have been lucky to visit many schools throughout my constituency. I have been told consistently, both by teachers and by pupils, that students of all ages are struggling to cope with poor mental health and that the situation has worsened considerably since the pandemic. That comes against the backdrop of a survey, reported on recently in The Guardian, that found that 43% of GPs have told parents to seek private care for children with poor mental health. Will the Minister adopt the recommendations of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and commit not only to support young people’s mental health but to report on it annually to Parliament?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue, which is one of the big challenges of our time. We know that pressures on young people in relation to mental wellbeing are growing, which is why on 12 May I announced an additional £7 million to extend senior mental health lead training to even more schools and colleges. That will help our ambition to reach two thirds of eligible settings by 2023 and brings the total amount of funding for 2022-23 to £10 million. In addition, we will roll out mental health support teams to 35% of all schools by next year. In truth, though, we do need to go further. I regularly speak to my counterpart at the Department of Health and Social Care to see what more we can do in this policy area.

One of the best ways to demonstrate, both to teachers and to young people, that we value and support them is to make sure that they have a decent school to go to in the first place. I hope the Minister will therefore join me in congratulating Gillian Middlemas and the staff and pupils of Whitworth Community High School, which has just been topped out as part of the Government’s school building programme. I hope he will also take the time to visit my constituency to see the work—

I would be happy to visit my right hon. Friend’s constituency. The schools that are doing best on mental health and mental wellbeing are the ones that take a whole-school approach, as that school no doubt is.

A set of schools that are usually forgotten are the pupil referral units that take on pupils with extensive special educational needs and disabilities. Tackling such a challenging set of needs requires a multidisciplinary approach, but PRUs throughout the country do not have set criteria for how they should teach students or support children back into mainstream schools, and nor do they have sustained funding. Will the Minister look at the fantastic model for multidisciplinary and multi-agency education that is delivered at Orchardside School—the Department is aware of its work—in my constituency? Perhaps he can come to see the work being done there and how sustained investment can make a difference.

I would be very happy to do so. We need a step change in the way that we approach alternative provision. That is why alternative provision is a key part of the special educational needs and disability and alternative provision review. We do need a step change. I would be very happy to come to see the hon. Lady’s constituency. We are investing an initial £2.6 billion in capital for SEND and alternative provision places, which I know will be game changing.

On Friday past, I presented Arthur Redmond at High Lawn Primary School with the Bolton North East community champion award for litter picking. Does the Minister agree that a national campaign for primary and secondary schools across the country to get involved in litter picking would help boost kids’ mental wellbeing?

That was an interesting link from my hon. Friend. None the less, he does have a point that a whole-school approach to mental wellbeing is about doing all sorts of extra-curricular activities. One of the best ways, of course, is getting children and young people outside. Would I encourage a campaign to tackle littering? Of course, I would.

I am both eager and angry this morning, which is why I wanted to get in my question to the ministerial team as early as possible. Are Ministers aware of the great scandal that children’s needs are not being identified early enough to change their life trajectory? Up and down the country, parents are waiting months, even years, to get any sort of assessment or statement. Why do the Government not wake up to that and do something about it?

As I have said, I regularly meet my counterpart at the Department of Health and Social Care. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that at the heart of the SEND and alternative provision review is not just inclusivity, but early identification.

Dyslexia and other Neurodivergent Conditions

14. What steps his Department is taking to help improve (a) early identification of, (b) teacher training in and (c) support for pupils with dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions in primary schools. (900173)

Our ambition, which I know my right hon. Friend shares, is that we will level up opportunities for all children and young people. That is why I have published the Schools White Paper and the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper, which sets out our plans to better identify children at risk of falling behind and then provide them with the support they need. That includes those with neurodivergent conditions

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and for the work that he has done. The White Paper and the SEND review have gone down very well, but they are about the direction of travel; we need to get to the destination. Will he confirm the need for a universal approach to screening for neurodiverse conditions and will he also congratulate those who are doing good work already such as those at Laureate Community Academy in Exning in Newmarket, which I visited earlier this month?

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), will be hosting a roundtable meeting this summer to discuss the different approaches being taken around the country, where I hope we will learn from some of those people—as my right hon. Friend knows, I will always be the evidence-led Secretary of State. Early intervention is important, and the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper will deliver that. Moreover, the parent pledge in the Schools White Paper is a lever for teachers to identify those children with dyslexia and dyspraxia and to put that help in place.

Maths and English: Support for Pupils

The Schools White Paper includes a parent pledge to identify children who have fallen behind in English or maths and provide them with support. To help schools support pupils who have fallen behind we have invested £1 billion in 6 million tutoring packages by 2024, re-endowed the Education Endowment Foundation, set aside £55 million for our accelerator fund and introduced a menu of targeted support methods. We are continuing to invest in networks of maths and English hubs to support schools. I was privileged to visit a maths hub in St Marylebone’s C of E School on National Numeracy Day.

I very much welcome Stoke-on-Trent being announced as a prioritised education investment area. Locally, partners have been working hard to drive up standards through an education challenge board. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should welcome that work and that this is the way that we will drive up standards in both English and maths?

I, too, am very pleased that Stoke-on-Trent is a priority education investment area. With such proud and outspoken Members of Parliament, the area is always well-championed in this House. Our approach will look to build on the strong work to date in all those areas, including existing partnerships such as the education challenge board. We will be considering the best ways to do that and ensure that a diverse range of local partners inform our decision making in every priority investment area.

Does my hon. Friend share my view about the importance of children knowing their multiplication tables by heart? Does he therefore welcome the fact that the multiplication tables check for nine-year-olds that takes place next month will, for the first time, show how well-prepared children are for the future demands of the maths curriculum?

Yes, absolutely. I thank my right hon. Friend for his extensive work, when he was Minister of State, to improve maths education, not least through introduction of the multiplication tables check. I assure him that we intend to continue to build on those important reforms. The first statutory administration of the MTC will be in June this year. The digital assessment of year 4 pupils will determine whether pupils can fluently recall their times tables, which is essential for future success in mathematics. Where the check identifies pupils who need extra support, schools will provide that.

Severely Absent Pupils

16. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s steps to help return severely absent pupils to school. (900175)

My schools White Paper and new attendance guidance set out how we expect schools and local authorities to support severely absent pupils so that they can attend regularly. We also recently launched a live data trial for schools, trusts and local authorities, enabling them to target support at pupils who need it most.

My right hon. Friend rightly says that he is driven by the data, and I thank him for the work he is doing to try to get these children back to school. The Centre for Social Justice suggests that 13,000 children in critical exam years were severely absent in the autumn term 2020, and FFT Education Datalab suggests that 5% of pupils were severely absent from September to May this year. What data are the Government collecting on children in exam years who have been severely absent, and what is being done to bring them back to school and to ensure that they get targeted tuition through the catch-up programme?

I am delighted to confirm that, as my right hon. Friend knows, we are bringing forward legislative measures to establish a local authority registration system, but that is for the future. Those GCSE, AS-level and A-level students sitting exams this year have been given advance information to help them focus, and to give them the confidence to come in and take exams this year. We are also working to make sure that the alliance of national leaders across education is doing everything it can to deal with persistent absenteeism, and to make sure that all children are in school, which is the best place for them to be.

Topical Questions

The United Kingdom’s education export was estimated at over £25 billion in 2019. I am delighted that 132 Education Ministers from 110 countries around the world are in town today to join us at the Education World Forum this week.

We all want to congratulate all those students sitting exams. Hundreds of thousands have already sat their exams, including 650,000 taking key stage 2 standard assessment tests. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing them very well.

In the platinum jubilee year, 4.5 million primary school children in schools in England and Northern Ireland will receive a hardback book, as will those in schools in Scotland and Wales who opt in. In some homes there are no books, and those children will take home this beautiful book about Her Majesty’s reign and the Commonwealth.

Last week I received an email from a parent on Holbeck Avenue in Bolsover, saying:

“There is no 6th form available at The Bolsover School and so pupils wishing to do A levels have an expensive bus ride in order to get anywhere. For instance it costs around £650 a year if your child is successful to get a place at St Mary’s High School in Chesterfield and the choice of courses at Chesterfield college are quite limited.”

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State share my passion for ensuring post-16 education in the Bolsover constituency?

My hon. Friend and I met on 9 May to discuss access to the full range of post-16 education in his constituency. I asked my officials to look into the matters raised at that meeting. I know my hon. Friend is a champion of this issue and has looked at the evidence, and I will write to him very shortly.

The Schools Bill gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers over the operation of our schools. Does that mean that he recognises that the Government’s approach to school improvement over the past 12 years has failed?

Quite the opposite. The hon. Lady clearly does not follow the evidence. If she looked at it, she would see that families of schools in high-performing multi-academy trusts have delivered better outcomes for their students. Whether they are Church of England schools, Catholic schools or grammar schools, they are all joining us on this journey, and I invite her to do the same.

Headteachers are telling us they are having to cut back on staffing, school trips, and even pens and paper. As costs soar and the national insurance rise comes into effect, the Secretary of State is still failing to invest in our children’s recovery. Experts have lined up to tell him the damage his inaction will cause, not just to our children’s future but to Britain’s future success. What will it take to convince him to put our children first?

I do not know whether the hon. Lady was listening when I talked about the 7% cash increase in the budget for schools this year compared with last year—that is £4 billion going to our schools. By 2024 we will be investing £56.5 billion in education. Of course money makes a difference, but if she visits Hammersmith Academy she will meet a great leadership team who are delivering for their students—60% of whom get the pupil premium—because leadership matters. I wish her luck in her leadership campaign.

T4.   Apprenticeships are a terrific opportunity for those with learning difficulties, due to the vocational nature of the training, but we need more such opportunities. Where there is a surplus of funding from the apprenticeship levy allowance, will the Minister consider directing it at incentivising smaller companies to provide apprenticeships, thereby ensuring parity of opportunity for those with learning difficulties, such as those with 22q11 deletion syndrome? (900153)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We certainly want an increased number of learners with disabilities starting apprenticeships. Working with Disability Rights UK, our disabled apprentice network provides valuable insight into attracting disabled people to apprenticeships and retaining them on them. We also offer financial support for employers and providers that take on apprentices with additional needs.

This Government’s oven-ready Brexit deal allows the UK to associate with Horizon Europe, but because of the faffing around over their Northern Ireland protocol, there is still no certainty about this association. When will this Government stop treating research as a Brexit bargaining chip and provide assurance to our researchers that funding and collaboration are safe?

This Government have always been clear about our desire to secure a good relationship with Horizon and the huge benefits that the UK’s world-leading universities can bring the scientific community in that respect. We have made a clear offer to the EU, and it is for the EU to come forward and engage with us.

T6. Burton and South Derbyshire College is a fantastic example of a higher education facility using innovative learning techniques to inspire and train tomorrow’s scientists and engineers. Will the Secretary of State commit to investing more in higher education facilities to ensure that young people get the learning and experience they need to progress into sought-after, well-paid careers? (900155)

I was delighted to visit that excellent college in my hon. Friend’s constituency and to see the fantastic work being done there. She will be pleased to know that we are investing £450 million of capital funding in higher education providers over the next three years, and that £400 million of that will be targeted on strategic priorities such as high-cost science, technology, engineering and maths and degree apprenticeships, for which providers can submit their bids until 27 June.

T2. A few minutes ago, the Minister told the House what the Government are doing about pre-school childcare, but what does he say to families in constituencies like mine, where the financial benefits of going into work are swallowed up by childcare costs, or people do not even access childcare because they cannot afford to? (900151)

As I said, we spend over £5 billion a year on supporting parents with childcare costs. This year alone, we are putting an extra £160 million into the sector. The important thing is to make sure that the existing entitlements are being taken up, and as the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) rightly pointed out, we need as a House to ensure that our constituents are aware of what they may be entitled to.

T9. The decision to scrap grammar schools was once described as “a real tragedy for this country…they are a very important part of the mix in our educational system…and they should be supported”.I completely agree with the Prime Minister and I am glad that the Secretary of State is also so supportive, saying that he wants to “spread the DNA” of grammar schools across the education system and give them a special status to retain academic selection in the upcoming Schools Bill, but it is not right that children in Teesside and Stoke-on-Trent do not the same opportunities as a child in Kent or Stratford-upon-Avon, so will the Government support my right hon. Friend— (900158)

The Schools Bill will protect grammar schools. However, we have 165 grammar schools, and 90 of them are already playing their part in those families of schools in multi-academy trusts. We have a system with 22,000 schools. I mentioned Gary Kynaston’s brilliant leadership of Hammersmith Academy. My hon. Friend should go and have a look at Michaela and what Katharine Birbalsingh has done there. That is—

Order. Come on, let us be fair. Both of you have lined these comments up—that is great—but it is topical questions; they are meant to be short and sweet. Do not take advantage. It is not like you, Secretary of State; you are too nice a person.

T3. Last week, the Government published a list of BTECs that they intend to scrap, and impact assessments show that 27% of BTEC students are deemed the most disadvantaged. I was one of those students, and a BTEC got me back into education and on to university. T-levels will not appeal to all those students. Assessors are making decisions affecting the lives of thousands of young people, so can the Minister confirm who these assessors actually are? (900152)

We have a range of independent assessors going through the process. The consultation process will last the next few months, and we intend to publish the final list of qualifications to be defunded to make way for our world-class, gold-standard T-levels in September, thereby giving colleges two years to prepare.

I was reminded, on a recent visit to the excellent Warrender Primary School in my constituency, how important schools are to safeguarding. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what plans will be put in place, through the schools White Paper, to ensure that schools continue to play a central part in statutory safeguarding arrangements?

Schools are under a statutory duty to co-operate with the arrangements set out by local safeguarding partners, and we have asked safeguarding partners to review how they work with schools in all their areas. We requested that all local areas review that following the Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. We will actively look at this issue as part of our response to today’s care review.

T5. Universities right across the UK have been teaming up with our counterparts in Ukraine, not only to try to ensure that institutions still exist when the war is over, but to deliver lectures to students virtually. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues across Government about supporting this impressive initiative, so that it can continue? (900154)

Supporting Ukraine’s education system is a priority for us all, as is supporting children and young people who come from Ukraine. The Minister for Higher and Further Education has been working closely with the sector, and I have been working across the schools piece to make sure that our education sector is as well placed as it can be to support Ukrainian students.

Farming has a very important role in my constituency, and I am amazed by the amount of technical knowledge that is needed these days. What more can the Department do to introduce an interest in farming in schools?

I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that from September next year, the T-level in agriculture will be available. I hope she will be promoting it in South East Cornwall.

T7. In my constituency, there are simply not enough school places for children with special educational needs. What is really needed is a new school to increase capacity. What conversations has the Department held with local authorities to establish in which areas there is the most need for special schools, and where a new school would deliver the most benefit? (900156)

Over the course of the spending review period, we have secured an additional £2.6 billion for special and alternative provision places, with £1.4 billion of that being made available this year. The hon. Lady should speak with her local authority to make sure that provision is covered.

Last Friday was the 36th anniversary of the rebel amendment in the House of Lords proposed by Lady Cox, which banned the indoctrination of schoolchildren with partisan political views. Does the Secretary of State accept that the concept of anti-nuclear education, and of anti-imperialist education, which led to that ban, are to be compared with the concepts of vicious identity politics and of the decolonisation of subjects, which rightly fall foul of the legislation he cited?

My right hon. Friend raises a very powerful point, and he is quite right: children should be taught how to think, not what to think.

T8. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 27% of children in the UK are living in poverty, which equates to eight in a classroom of 30. A classroom with hungry children is not an environment that is conducive to good learning, so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor to plan emergency interventions to tackle such shocking levels of child deprivation and inequality across these islands? (900157)

The Government have taken action that is worth more than £22 billion this financial year. We have also put in place immediate support for families who are struggling by doubling the household support fund. We have made changes to the taper rate of universal credit and we have extended, by £200 million a year, the holiday activities and food programme.

Diptford Church of England Primary School in my constituency is operating from the village hall, because its buildings have been damaged. They are temporary buildings, so the money that might be allocated from the Department would be to repair those temporary buildings, which is clearly illogical. Will the Schools Minister meet me to see what we can do to secure money for new buildings for the school?

T10. A recent investigation by Schools Week found that rural schools make up 40% of school closures, which is an increasing proportion. Small community schools are having to fight for survival, but they are central to their communities. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that rural schools stay open? (900159)

We have a presumption against closure for rural schools, but we also want to make sure, through a fairer funding formula, that they are properly funded according to the cohorts of people and the sparsity of the area that they serve, rather than according to a formula that was set up decades ago.

The Church of England and the Catholic Church run a third of schools in England. How does the Secretary of State plan to improve that partnership even further for the benefit of all children?

The Church of England and the Catholic Church have been partners on the journey of the White Paper. They are already making ambitious plans to deliver what we all want to see—great schools where children get a great education in the classroom wherever they live in the country.

When a child experiences deep trauma, it can escalate their vulnerability and can display itself in many ways, including harm to themselves and others. Early intervention is key, but when residential placements are required, it is inexcusable when there are no places available locally or nationally. How will the Secretary of State rectify that as a matter of urgency?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question; we have spoken about the matter privately. As she knows, local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure sufficient provision in their area to meet the needs of children in their care. The example that she presents should not have happened. The Government are supporting local authorities by providing £259 million of additional funding to expand their residential provision of both secure and open children’s homes. That will provide more safe homes for vulnerable children.

I had the pleasure of visiting St. Paul’s C of E Academy in Tipton on Friday and met its fantastic headteacher, Anna McGuire. It was not successful in applying for condition improvement funding, so will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure that schools get clear guidance on how to apply? Perhaps he will visit the school in future.

Does the Secretary of State support the chair of the Office for Students’ endorsement of Viktor Orbán, including his approach to academic freedom in higher education?

I support the chair of the Office for Students for all the work that he is doing to improve outcomes for students in our universities.

Blyth Valley is at the forefront of the green industrial revolution, but we need to ensure that our young people are equipped to fill the skills gap in those industries. We need local jobs for local people, so will the Secretary of State visit to see how we can link schools and industry to deliver for young people?

Last week, on Radio 4, a Leeds primary school headteacher said that, due to cost cutting by catering companies, they were having to challenge caterers about the size of school meals to ensure that children have

“more than one potato or more than four chips”.

Given that the Scottish Government deliver free school meals for children in primary 1 to 5, and will be expanding that to all primary pupils, what consideration has been given to increasing funding for free school meals to ensure that all primary pupils have at least one decent-sized meal a day?

We certainly recognise the pressures that some schools may face and we have been giving them the autonomy to agree individual contracts with suppliers and caterers using their increased core funding. As the Secretary of State set out, that funding has gone up by £4 billion in 2022-23 alone, which is a 7% cash increase, but of course, given the importance of the issue, I keep a watchful eye.

North East Ambulance Service

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on the North East Ambulance Service and if he will launch an investigation.

Can I start by saying how horrified I was to read the concerns raised about the North East Ambulance Service in reports over the weekend? My thoughts are first and foremost with the families affected by the tragic events described. I cannot imagine the distress they are going through. It is hard enough to lose a loved one suddenly, but to have fears that mistakes were made that could have made a difference, and more than that, that the facts of what happened were not revealed in every case, goes further. They have my unreserved sympathy and support.

In healthcare, a willingness to learn from mistakes can be the difference between life and death, and it is because of this that, as a Government, we place such a high value on a culture of openness and a commitment to learning across the NHS. That is why the allegations raised by The Sunday Times this weekend are so concerning. As was made abundantly clear by the Secretary of State’s predecessor almost a decade ago, non-disclosure agreements have no place in the NHS and reputation management is never more important than patient safety.

The Government are wholly supportive of the right of staff working in the NHS to raise their concerns. Speaking up is vital for ensuring that patient safety, and quality of services, improve, and it should be a routine part of the business of the NHS. That is why, over the last decade, substantial measures have been introduced to the NHS to reduce patient harm and improve the response to harmed patients, including legal protections for whistleblowers, the statutory duty of candour, the establishment of the Health Services Safety Investigations Body and the introduction of medical examiners. It is also why, in response to a recommendation of the Sir Robert Francis “Freedom to speak up” review in 2015, the Government established an independent national guardian to help to drive positive cultural change across the NHS so that speaking up becomes business as usual. However, when it comes to patient safety, we cannot afford to be complacent. It remains a top priority for the Government and we continue to place enormous emphasis on making our NHS as safe as possible.

I note the concerns raised in this weekend’s reports. They have been subject to a thorough review at trust level, including through an external investigation, and the trust’s coronial reporting is subject to ongoing independent external audit and quarterly review by an executive director. I also note that the Care Quality Commission has been closely involved. However, given the seriousness of the claims reported over the weekend, we will of course be investigating more thoroughly and will not hesitate to take any action necessary and appropriate to protect patients.

The Government are also committed to supporting the ambulance service to manage the pressures it is facing. We have made significant investments in the ambulance workforce, with the number of NHS ambulance and support staff increasing by 38% since 2010. Health Education England has mandated a target to train 3,000 paramedic graduates nationally per annum from 2021, further increasing the domestic paramedic workforce to meet future demands on the service, while 999 call handlers have been boosted to over 2,400, so we are very serious about improving resources for the service.

I fully appreciate the concerns of right hon. and hon. Members across this House, and we will be pleased to meet any who have constituents affected by the reports this weekend so we can look at the issue more fully.

Can I just say that it is three minutes—and that means three minutes, not three minutes and 40 seconds —and I am sure whoever writes these speeches can actually time them through? I say to those on both Front Benches that we have to think about Back Benchers, who need to get their hospitals mentioned and their ambulance trusts as well.

I call the shadow Secretary of State, who I am sure will stick to the allocated time.

I pay tribute to the courage of the whistleblowers, as well as The Sunday Times journalists David Collins, Hannah Al-Othman and Shaun Lintern, without whom none of this would have come to light. But with respect to the Minister, it should not have taken an urgent question to bring her to the House today. On what she said about the Department further investigating, what form will this investigation take, who will be involved and what assurance can she give the families that there will be both answers and accountability, which is what they deserve?

Peter Coates died after an ambulance did not reach him in time. An ambulance two minutes away could not be dispatched because the station door was faulty, and staff did not know about the manual override. The ambulance that was dispatched decided to stop at a service station, even though it had sufficient fuel. Information about these errors was then withheld by the service, statements were changed and staff were asked to withhold the mistakes from the coroner. Peter Coates’ family learned the full truth only when contacted by reporters last week. His is just one of what is thought to be 90 cases involving gross negligence, cover-ups and tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money offered in exchange for staff silence.

The Minister mentioned the CQC. Why did it fail to spot this, rating the service “good” in 2018? Why did it fail to spot the situation even after being tipped off in 2020? Why is taxpayers’ money still being offered to buy the silence of staff when non-disclosure agreements were supposedly banned in 2014? What role did under-resourcing and understaffing play in this scandal?

Record ambulance waits exist in every part of the country, with heart attack and stroke victims waiting longer than an hour for an ambulance. As for the North East Ambulance Service, it is advising the public to phone a friend or call a cab rather than wait, while presiding over gross negligence, cover-ups and taxpayer-funded gagging orders on staff. That is the record on its watch. It is a national disgrace. What are the Government doing about it?

We take the patient safety element of this extremely seriously. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions on who we will be meeting, I am happy to meet all the families affected to hear their concerns and the actions that they want taken. We met with the CQC this morning on this specific example, but we will be meeting with the ambulance trust. I also want to meet the coroner, and we want to hear from the whistleblowers. I am very happy to meet any member of staff who wants to raise concerns so that we can get to the bottom of exactly what has happened.

This Government introduced the duty of candour. Mistakes will always happen, no matter how much money is put into the health service or how many staff it has, but when a mistake does happen the hospital trust or ambulance trust should be open and up front about it, start a proper investigation, and learn the lessons so that it never happens again.

I thank the Minister, who is a practising nurse, for her profound commitment to patient safety. What happened to Peter Coates, Quinn Evie Beadle and others was a terrible tragedy for them and their families. No doubt the paramedics made mistakes, but everyone makes mistakes in the course of their work. What is unforgivable is the cover-up by the North East Ambulance Service, and the fact that we made the families go through such hell to get to the truth.

At the heart of this is that we still make it far too difficult for everyone involved in such cases to distinguish between ordinary human error and gross negligence, with the result that the organisations responsible for people’s care default to a defensive, covering-up position. Will the Minister take this up with the Ministry of Justice to ensure much clearer delineation between the ordinary human errors that we all make and gross negligence, which is never forgivable?

I thank my right hon. Friend for making those points. Several safety measures were started when he was Secretary of State for Health, including the duty of candour. There is supposed to be a culture in place where, if mistakes happen, the health service is open and honest about that. The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch was introduced. There is independent investigation. Anyone can report concerns to that body and an investigation will take place. There is the early notification system in maternity, where if mistakes or incidents happen the process is first and foremost to say that to relatives and family and to start a lessons-learned process. The patient safety commissioner is to be appointed shortly. We are doing everything we can not just to improve patient safety, but to improve openness and learning within the system to change the culture within the NHS.

The North East Ambulance Service has been dysfunctional for years—before covid, during covid, since covid. Elderly women and men are still lying on the pavement with broken bones waiting to receive attention. Pregnant women and people suffering from acute problems such as heart attacks and strokes are still being asked to call a cab to get to hospital. It is not good enough. When this investigation starts, will MPs in the region be allowed to participate? We all have numerous tragic cases that we would like to discuss.

As I said in my opening remarks, I am happy to meet the affected MPs. It is important that we hear from everyone, whether that is the family and friends of those affected, staff who have concerns or MPs who hear from their constituents first hand, but may I just say that the staff in the North East Ambulance Service are working hard? In the past year, they responded in less than 15 minutes to more than 28,000 serious and life-threatening incidents. Mistakes can happen, and it is important to learn from them, but we should place on record our thanks for all the hard work they do on a daily basis.

At a surgery earlier this month, Mr Mitchell, a retired paramedic, told me about how his wife suffered a cardiac arrest. He called an ambulance and was told that there would be a wait for that ambulance. After 20 agonising minutes, and knowing the importance of timely care, he drove his wife down to a local defibrillator and administered care himself. Ninety minutes after his call, five ambulances arrived on the scene. His wife, sadly, lost her life. That is just one case brought to my attention that outlines the absolutely shocking record of the North East Ambulance Service. Will my hon. Friend give me, Mr Mitchell and all our affected constituents her assurance that the Department will investigate NEAS’s failures fully and rapidly to ensure that no more lives are needlessly lost?

I have heard of the sad incident affecting Mr Mitchell. Incidents such as that are exactly what we need to learn from. It is not acceptable for five ambulances to arrive on the scene after 90 minutes. We need a learning culture and system where staff can flag such concerns and learn from them, with systems put in place so that these incidents do not happen again, but my concern is that I am not confident that that is happening at the moment. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and other local MPs to discuss what more needs to be done.

I am not reassured by the Minister’s response. She talks about substantial measures, but substantial measures have not worked. She talks about the CQC, but it has been involved, it did not find the errors and it has not apologised for the mistakes. I would like the Minister to add the trade unions—the GMB and Unison in particular, who represent the majority of NEAS staff—to the list of people she will talk to. NEAS has been making mistakes for decades and nothing seems to be done about it. She needs to get a grip of it for the people of the north-east.

I am absolutely happy to meet anyone who wants to discuss concerns, but there are routes. We introduced the whistleblowing policy so that, at any stage, those staff and their unions can raise concerns and instigate investigations with the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, with those investigations looking at a service as a whole. I am happy to take any concerns forward and meet any group who wants to discuss them with me.

My constituents have been horrified to see and read about what has been going on in their local ambulance services. They have a right to know what has been happening, and bereaved families in my constituency and those of my neighbours really have a right to know. It is also crucial to know that so that we can get to the bottom of it and prevent it from ever happening again. Will the Minister ensure that her Department acts rapidly on this? Will she also reiterate that NDAs have no place in our NHS, because they go to the heart of preventing the positive change and learning from mistakes that we need to see?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that I have already had an initial meeting with the CQC and the trust this morning and that I will instigate further meetings after today. On NDAs, a previous Health Secretary made a move to outlaw them, and I will speak to the Secretary of State about whether we need to go further, because I am concerned that we cannot have a culture of learning and disclosure while NDAs may be in place.

This cover-up totally stinks. It will stink to the family of a gentleman who tragically died while waiting for an ambulance which, unbeknown to the family, had been dispatched to Middlesbrough from Bishop Auckland, around 25 miles and 40 minutes away. If the family had been allowed to know how long the ambulance would take to get there, they would indeed have tried to save his life by driving him to the hospital less than 3 miles away. The people of Middlesbrough and the north-east are entitled to the security of knowing that an ambulance will get to them promptly in the event of an emergency. Will the Minister guarantee that?

I would like to hear more from the hon. Gentleman about his constituent’s case. I have concerns about what was reported in The Sunday Times. I am concerned that the process followed in investigating those concerns has not got to the bottom of some of the fundamental problems, so if he would like to meet me afterwards I would be very happy to take it further.

When senior managers and administrators are found to be directly involved in gross negligence and deliberate cover-ups, will they lose their jobs or will they be allowed to continue?

A statutory duty of candour is in place. As I said, if a mistake happens—mistakes can always happen, even with the best prevention methods in the world—there is a statutory duty to reveal it to the family and the patient involved, and to have a full investigation and learn lessons from it. I am concerned that that may not have happened in this case.

The reports in The Sunday Times yesterday on what has happened with the North East Ambulance Service and the cover-ups were truly shocking. My thoughts, and I am sure those of everyone, are with the families who have found out information that had previously been covered up. The Minister talks about the steps the Government have taken to ensure that whistleblowers can come forward, but clearly something has not worked. Equally, the CQC also missed it. What more steps will the Government take to pursue the investigation to ensure that this simply cannot happen again?

The hon. Lady is quite right that the reports in the newspaper this weekend were absolutely shocking. The cases highlighted were not about ambulances not attending, but about mistakes that happened at the scene. What is more concerning is that those facts were not necessarily shared with the coroner and that families were not told either. That is more concerning to me than the actual events, because when there is a suspicion that the facts are not known, it prompts fears about what else is not known. I therefore take that extremely seriously and will be following up later today, and with the Secretary of State, to see what steps we need to take to reassure families further.

Some of us who have been here for a while can recall that we desperately tried to warn the last Labour Government that big was not always beautiful and that regionalising the ambulance services would not work well because they were too large and too remote. Nevertheless, they pressed on. But we are where we are. The East of England Ambulance Service has some very deep-seated problems, despite the best efforts of the paramedics, although thankfully not quite as horrendous as this case. Will the Minister, when she has a moment, announce a review into the operation of all regional ambulance trusts to improve their performance across the whole country? If that cannot be done, can they be broken up into smaller, more effective units? The current system is not working.

I hear my right hon. Friend’s concerns. I am happy to look at his concerns for his own particular ambulance service and discuss them further.

The Government have again failed the north-east. The failures of the North East Ambulance Service could fill a book and there is no doubt that there cannot be a north-east MP who has not had complaints about poor response times and lack of care. It is also evident that NEAS is now highly reliant on crews from other organisations, something I was told years ago would be phased out of the service as it grew its own paramedics. The latest revelations show the service is far from fit for purpose and we can no longer sit back. Will the Minister order not just an inquiry but a root and branch review of NEAS and get it sorted?

In my role as patient safety Minister, I am happy to look at any patient safety concerns. The Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is responsible for ambulances, has heard the hon. Member’s request.

Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), the Minister will be aware that there have been significant problems in the East of England Ambulance Service over a number of years. He is absolutely right that the ambulance service regions are too big, so will the Minister consider making the ambulance service in the eastern region much smaller and creating an Essex ambulance service, so that it is better able to provide the services that people in Essex and my constituency need?

As I said to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), I am happy, as the Minister for patient safety, to meet to discuss any safety concerns and issues following the review of the cases that we have heard about today. As for wider ambulance reforms, the Minister for Health is here and he has heard that request.

Notwithstanding the appalling and heartbreaking cases that were highlighted in The Sunday Times and, indeed, The Northern Echo, including that of my constituent, Quinn Beadle, the Minister implied in her response that processes had been put in place to ensure that these things do not happen again. Does she want to take this opportunity to apologise to my constituents, Mr and Mrs Brocklehurst, for an incident that happened this year? Mrs Brocklehurst fell in her driveway, sustaining severe injuries, including five broken ribs, a collapsed lung, two crushed discs in her spine and other damage. It took the North East Ambulance Service three hours and 15 minutes to arrive. She experienced systemic failures throughout her experience, from a call handler advising her to place a bag of frozen peas on her broken back, to a trainee and two other paramedics wanting to lift her, before administering six syringes of morphine and placing her on a board without a neck brace. At the hospital, Mrs Brocklehurst was queued by the trust, in agony, for six hours before being treated. It is a disgrace, Minister.

I am very sorry to hear that and I apologise to Mrs Brocklehurst. That is not an acceptable event to have happened, and I can only imagine the pain that she was going through. I am very happy to meet him and his constituent to discuss that further because, obviously, that wait should not have happened.

I have tirelessly raised the issue of North Norfolk ambulance response times over and over again in this place, and there is absolutely no sign of them improving. Wells-next-the-Sea has the record of the worst response times in the entire country, which, given the elderly demographic and high number of tourists there, is not good enough. I am trying to be practical: why can the Government not fund a national programme and recruitment drive of community first responders to really help and assist our paramedics, who are completely beleaguered? Will the Minister please take that away as a serious consideration, because we cannot keep going on as we are?

First responders do have an important role but they are not a substitute for paramedics. We have 3,000 paramedic graduates trained nationally per annum and we have increased our ambulance and support staff by 38%, so we are making that investment in the ambulance service.

I have been struck by the similarities between this case and the failings in maternity care at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust that were in part due to a toxic management culture—as outlined by Donna Ockenden earlier this year—in which staff were afraid to raise concerns. Given the similarities, will the Minister commit to ensuring that we have a system where staff can whistleblow to an independent organisation and where they feel safe to admit that they have made a mistake?

The hon. Lady shares my concerns about what underpins all these issues. From Mid Staffs to the Ockenden review, the fundamental issues in events that have happened under a number of Governments have been about covering up facts and about staff not feeling confident or safe in speaking out. There is a HSIB mechanism whereby staff can refer a matter directly for investigation, and we have introduced the national guardian to support staff in speaking out, but it is clear that more needs to be done.

A whistleblower working for the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust said this month that the service is on the verge of collapse. Patient safety, ambulance waiting times, inadequate pay, burnout and understaffing issues were highlighted as areas of concern after the publication of the trust’s staff survey report last month. The Minister has spoken a lot today about mistakes. Does she agree that failing to back stronger provisions on workforce planning in the Health and Care Act 2022 will prove to have been a massive mistake?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that NHS England is doing work on workforce planning, which is crucial to ensuring that we have not just the right number of staff, but the right skills mix. I can also reassure him that performance in the ambulance service nationally has improved from March to April.

The ambulance service has been working under severe stress during the pandemic and in dealing with the ensuing backlog. We need to be mindful that although these are tragic events, the vast majority of ambulance staff are working extremely hard and caring for patients.

This is an appalling scandal and tragedy. Unfortunately, it follows a whole series of events that everybody in this Chamber could name, from Morecambe Bay to Mid Staffs to Bristol. The Minister claims that the NHS is open and that it has a learning culture when genuine mistakes are made. That is good rhetoric, but I am afraid that it is not the reality. What will she do to make it a reality? Last week, The Economist estimated that 1% of all deaths in this country are down to mistakes in the NHS.

As I have said to other hon. Members, mistakes are always going to happen; that is human nature. The difference is that we are trying to introduce a culture of openness and learning in the NHS so that staff feel confident in coming forward, and so that when a mistake does happen, lessons are learned to prevent it from happening again.

Let us look at the record of this Government. It is this Government who are introducing a commissioner to oversee patient safety across the NHS. It is this Government who have introduced a statutory duty of candour so that when mistakes happen, patients and their families are notified and the process of learning starts. It is this Government who have introduced an early notification system specific to maternity—

It is working. Neonatal deaths and stillbirths have reduced by 25%, so the systems are working. When they do not, we need to investigate and find out why.

It feels as if there is no sense of urgency. I introduced the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 to protect emergency workers; I hope that it is working, but assaults on ambulance staff and paramedics are still increasing. No wonder so many of them are leaving. We need a radical overhaul to ensure that we recruit more staff into the NHS, including more paramedics, and that fewer of them leave because of burnout.

What I really do not understand is why the Minister is not announcing an investigation today. Apart from anything else, surely it is an offence to provide false information to a coroner. Should that not be investigated by the police?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the police have investigated and that they did not find evidence of that. As I have said at the Dispatch Box, I will look into specific cases to be confident that no stone has been left unturned with respect to the allegations in The Sunday Times. There are measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 that increase sentences for assaults on emergency workers, which we take extremely seriously.

As far back as December last year, I wrote to the Secretary of State urging him to commission a CQC investigation of the crisis in our ambulance service, using his powers under the Health and Social Care Act 2008, because the CQC does not have powers to conduct thematic reviews itself. Since I wrote to him, we have seen scandal after scandal. In the north-east, people were told to phone a friend; in the west midlands, a patient waited more than 22 hours; in the south-west, stroke and heart attack victims are having to wait more than an hour; and in my own constituency, a cancer patient nearing the end of life had to wait almost 12 hours in agony for an ambulance to arrive. Surely it is time for the Government to stop sitting on their hands and to commission the CQC to launch a wide-ranging investigation of the crisis facing all our ambulance services.

Let me reassure the hon. Lady. The CQC has been heavily involved in this case. I met representatives this morning to hear from them, and will be following that up. Moreover, an extra £55 million has been invested in the ambulance service nationally. We are aware of the pressures that the service is facing, and will do all that we can to support it.

Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on how the Government are responding to “The independent review of children’s social care” and the Competition and Markets Authority’s children’s social care report.

This Government believe in a country where all children are given an equal chance to fulfil their potential, but sadly we are not there yet. That is why we made our manifesto commitment to launch the independent review of children’s social care in March 2021; its report was published today. The review was commissioned to take a fundamental look at the children’s social care system, and to gain an understanding of how we must transform it to better support the most vulnerable children and families. I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Josh MacAlister and his team for this comprehensive review, as well as thanking the children, the experts by experience board, and the care leavers, families and carers who shared their experiences of the current system and their aspirations for a future one.

The review is bold and broad, calling for a reset of the system so that it acts decisively in response to abuse, provides more help for families in crisis, and ensures that those in care have lifelong loving relationships and homes. I look forward to working with the sector, those with first-hand experience and colleagues in all parts of the House to inform an ambitious and detailed Government response and implementation strategy, to be published before the end of 2022. To get us there, I have three main priorities. The first is to improve the child protection system so that it keeps children safe from harm as effectively as possible; the second is to support families to care for their children so that they can have safe, loving and happy childhoods which set them up for fulfilling lives, and the third is to ensure that there are the right placements for children in the right places, so that those who cannot stay with their parents grow up in safe, stable and loving homes.

To enable me to respond effectively and without delay, I will establish a national implementation board consisting of people with experience of leading transformational change, to challenge the system to achieve the full extent of our ambitions for children. The board will also include people with their own experience of the care system, to remind us of the promise of delivery and the cost of delay.

I want to be straight about this: too many vulnerable children have been let down by the system. We cannot level up if we cannot make progress on children’s social care reform. However, we are striving to change that. Our work to improve the life chances of children is already well under way, and is aligned with the key themes of the review and the CMA report. On 2 April, we backed the Supporting Families programme with £695 million, which means that 300,000 of the most vulnerable families will be supported to provide the safe and loving homes that their children need in order to thrive.

We welcome the review’s recognition of this programme as an excellent model of family intervention, and today, with the review as our road map, we are going further. We will work with the sector to develop a national children’s social care framework, which will set a clear direction for the system and point everyone to the best available evidence for how to support children and families. We will set out more detail later this year.

I pay tribute to every single social worker who is striving to offer life-changing support to children and families day in, day out. Providing more decisive child protection relies on the knowledge and skills of these social workers, which is why I support the principle of the review’s proposed early career framework. We will set out robust plans to refocus the support that social workers receive early on, with a particular focus on child protection, given the challenging nature of this work.

We will also take action to drive forward the review’s three data and digital priority areas, ensuring that local government and partners are in the driving seat of reform. Following the review’s recommendation for a data and technology taskforce, we will introduce a new digital and data solutions fund to help local authorities to improve delivery for children and families through technology. More detail will follow later this year on joining up data from across the public sector so that we can increase transparency, both between safeguarding partners and the wider public.

Recognising the urgency of action in placement sufficiency, we will prioritise working with local authorities to recruit more foster carers. This will include pathfinder local recruitment campaigns that build towards a national programme, to help to ensure that children have access to the right placements at the right time. As the review recommends, we will focus on providing more support throughout the application process to improve the conversion rate from expressions of interest to approved foster carers.

Delivering change for vulnerable children is my absolute priority and, as suggested by the review, I will return to the House on the anniversary of its publication to update colleagues on progress made.

This statement also provides an opportunity to welcome the recommendations set out in the Competition and Markets Authority report into the children’s social care market, which was published in March. As an initial response, I have asked my Department to conduct thorough research into the children’s homes workforce, engaging with the sector and with experts to improve oversight of the market.

Sadly, we know that too many children are still not being protected from harm quickly enough. This is unacceptable. On Thursday, the child safeguarding practice review panel will set out lessons learned from the heartbreaking deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, and the Secretary of State for Education will come to this House to outline the Government’s initial response to these tragic cases. For too long, children’s social care has not received the focus it so desperately needs and deserves. I am determined to work with colleagues across the House and with local authorities across our country to deliver once-in-a-generation reform so that the system provides high-quality help at the right time, with tangible outcomes. For every child who needs our protection, we must reform this system. For every family who need our help and support, we must reform this system. For every child or young person in care who deserves a safe, stable and loving home, we must reform this system. This is a moral imperative, and we must all rise to the challenge. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement today. Labour welcomes the report of the independent review of children’s social care. I would like to add my thanks to Josh MacAlister and his team for their hard work and commitment. I also want to pay tribute to the social workers, support workers, foster carers, children’s home staff, youth workers and everyone else who strives day in, day out to provide safety, support and stability to children who are in need or whose own families are unable to care for them. Their work is vital, it makes a huge difference, and it often goes unrecognised. At the top of my mind today are the group of care leavers I hosted in Parliament earlier this year. They were articulate, thoughtful and kind. All had been through experiences that no child should have to endure, and they all deserved far better than the current system had been able to deliver.

I welcome the review’s conclusion that a total reset of children’s social care is needed. That conclusion is a terrible indictment of the extent to which this Government have been failing children for more than a decade. During those 12 years, we have seen the number of children living in poverty rise to 4.3 million. That is a key causal factor underpinning the Government’s failure of children: the unbearable pressure on families increases the risk of abuse and neglect. We have also seen the number of looked-after children increase continually, up by a quarter since 2010; the number of section 47 inquiries, when a local authority has cause to suspect that a child is in need, has gone up by 78% since 2011; half of all children’s services departments have been rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement”; vacancy and turnover rates for children’s social workers are increasing; and outcomes for care-experienced children and young people are worsening. In the meantime, the 10 biggest private providers of children’s homes and private foster care placements made a jaw-dropping £300 million in profits last year.

We welcome the review’s clear statement that providing care for children should not be based on profit—it should not. The law recognises childhood as lasting until the age of 18, and it is shocking that the Government have continued to allow children to be placed in unregistered children’s homes and other completely unsuitable accommodation. We welcome the review’s conclusion that the use of unregistered placements for 16 and 17-year-olds must stop, and stop now.

At the heart of the Government’s failure is the erosion of early help and family support, which is demonstrated no more starkly than by the 1,300 Sure Start centres that have closed since 2010. We welcome the review’s focus on restoring early help to families so that many more children can be supported to remain and to thrive with their own family, on supporting kinship carers and on seeking to ensure that every looked-after child can build lifelong links with extended family members.

Although the Minister reannounced a series of policies today, there is nothing here that will deliver the transformation in children’s social care that the review demands. Successive piecemeal announcements are yet further indication of what the review describes as

“a lack of national direction about the purpose of children’s social care”.

The Minister does not seem to grasp the depth of change that the review requires, at scale, across the whole country.

Will the Minister commit to a firm date for publication of a comprehensive response to the review and a detailed implementation plan? Does he expect that there will be a need for legislation? How does this square with the Queen’s Speech voted on last week, from which children’s social care was completely absent? How will today’s announcement of early help investment in a handful of additional places ensure that early help services are available in every single area of the country, so that every family who need help can be supported?

What representations is the Minister making to the Treasury in response to the review? Will he commit, as the review demands, to an end to profiteering in children’s social care? How will he ensure that the voices and experiences of children are always at the heart of children’s social care? How will he guarantee that the workforce, who are the backbone of children’s social care, are fully engaged and involved as the reforms are implemented? Finally, how will he ensure that, as the reforms are implemented, the framework of accountability for decisions made by the state about the care of children is strengthened?

This review sets out the urgent need for the Government to put children first and to stop poverty, mental illness, substance misuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse and other adverse childhood experiences becoming the defining experience of a child’s whole life, so that every child can thrive. Labour will always put children first. We did so in government, and we will do so again. This review represents an opportunity to deliver the total reset that is needed in children’s social care. It is an opportunity that must not be missed, and we will hold the Government to account every single day on the framework of support and the outcomes for our most vulnerable children.

The hon. Lady asks a lot of questions, and I genuinely mean it when I say that I want to have as much of a cross-party approach as possible in tackling this issue and delivering the review.

I thank the hon. Lady for her largely constructive comments, and I thank her for the tone in which she referred to the review. We all want to act on the review to bring about the change we all want to see. Although I completely understand why she wants to talk about the past, we have to be honest with ourselves that, despite years of real-terms funding increases to children’s social care, too many children and young people have been failed and let down, and are still being failed and let down, by the system. System reform is decades overdue, so I hope she will understand why I want to focus on the future and how we will look to implement the review.

The hon. Lady rightly pushes me on implementation, which is key. The Secretary of State and I are determined that this will not be just another report gathering dust on a shelf in Whitehall—this is far too important. That is why I am establishing an implementation board with sector experts to drive the change that we want and need to see. An implementation plan will be delivered by the end of this year.

Finally, the hon. Lady should not, in any way, doubt my personal determination to implement many of the review’s recommendations. Many colleagues who look at my Instagram feed say I have the best job in Government, and to some extent they are right, but what they do not see is that every weekend I read the serious incident notification report detailing all the children who have been killed, murdered, abused or neglected, or who have taken their own life, during the previous week. It is a harrowing read. I know that no legislation, process, procedure or review—however good it is—can prevent evil, and I cannot promise that there will not be further cases like Arthur, Star, Victoria, Daniel or Peter. However, with this most excellent review—it really is excellent—we have a plan, a road map, and an opportunity that we must and will grasp to ensure that such cases are as rare as they are tragic.

I strongly welcome the report, which is visionary in its scope. I thank Josh MacAlister for briefing me on its findings a few days ago. It is very much a “family, community and upwards” report, rather than a “top down from the Government” review, and that is important. I hope that the Government are bold on the funding issues raised—costs of, I think, more than £2.4 billion—and the proposal of a windfall tax on private companies to raise money for more vulnerable children.

As colleagues will know, the Education Committee is finalising our inquiry on the educational outcomes of children in care. We know that just 7% of children in care achieve a good pass grade in GCSE maths and English, and Josh MacAlister’s report says:

“In too many places the contribution and voice of education is missing”.

What are the Government doing to ensure that these vulnerable children are being placed in good or outstanding schools, and that they are receiving the right, targeted catch-up tuition and mentoring support to help them to catch up on lost learning and, ultimately, to get the good jobs that they rightly deserve when they come out of care?

Our intention is to be bold and ambitious. The plan is to set out an immediate response today. There will then be a full response and implementation plan by the end of the year. The Government and I very much welcome this reset opportunity, and I hope that our level of ambition is clear to the House.

My right hon. Friend is right that the results for children who have been through and are currently in the care system are unacceptable. His Select Committee is rightly working on a review into the matter, and I look forward to working closely with him. This is all about improving the outcomes and life chances of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the country; the key is ensuring that they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

We have to ensure that we level up social care. What does that mean at its heart? Yes, it means continuing our investment in children’s social care, but it also means setting the level of ambition significantly higher, which is exactly why the Government initiated the independent review of children’s social care and are looking at the 80-plus recommendations closely, and why we have an implementation board, which will develop a clear implementation plan.

We are taking steps now, because this is not just about money; it is about culture change, system change, and process and procedure change. I hope that over the next days, weeks and months, we can get the right team in place and set the right strategic direction so that the plan can be ready by the end of the year and we can really get motoring with the change that the right hon. Lady and I so desperately want to see.

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

Mr Speaker, I know I am getting old; indeed, this week I take receipt, amazingly, of my senior person’s railcard. In my 25 years in this House, I have sat through many once-in-a-generation reform programmes, many children’s Acts and many reviews, some of which I launched myself and some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) launched subsequently.

As the Minister quite rightly said, a review is only as good as its delivery, so why will it be any different this time? In particular, will he point to the welcome references —there are some very welcome points in this review, for which I pay tribute to Josh MacAlister—to “family help”, which seem similar to the Munro review’s “early help” 10 years ago? How do they interrelate with the family hubs that the Government are pushing forward and the welcome “best start in life” programme, which is being pushed forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom)?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he did as Children’s Minister when he was at the Department. He is right to say that we have to ensure that the implementation of this report and review is different from what has gone before. It may not shock him to know that in the back of my mind I have the 2014 special educational needs and disability review; that plan was bold and ambitious, and many considered it to be the right one, but the implementation was not and, as a result, it was not delivered and we have had to revisit it. That is why I am not going at this like a bull at a gate.

There are 80-plus recommendations and they have to be considered very carefully. We have to listen to the sector, stakeholders and others to make sure we get it right. That is why, although I have responded immediately to set out the things we can do right now, I am also setting up an implementation board to ensure that we listen to the sector experts with experience of transformational change, so that we can deliver the change that we all so desperately want to see. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome the level of ambition and that he is desperate to see change, too.