House of Commons
Monday 4 July 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
STEM Teachers: Disadvantaged Areas
From this autumn, the levelling-up premium will provide early career teachers in maths, physics, chemistry and computing with a bonus of up to £3,000 tax-free annually if they teach disadvantaged children in disadvantaged schools. That is in addition to tax-free bursaries worth £24,000 and tax-free scholarships worth £26,000.
Maths skills are one of the surest ways to ensure higher future earnings for students, so I welcome this package; it is the right thing to do to try to get high-quality teachers into disadvantaged schools. I also support the specialist maths schools agenda, which ensuring that aim in a different way. Will the Secretary of State update the House on its progress?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that she does to promote maths to girls. I believe she was previously a maths captain—we have a lot to learn from her. We have three great specialist maths schools, with some of the best A-level results nationally. We are on track to have 10 regional maths schools by 2025, including one in Surrey.
Does the Secretary of State agree that in order really to deliver this provision, we need partnerships with local and regional universities? Does it disturb him that some universities seem to want to go back to the past and only teach science and engineering, and not the arts and humanities? If levelling up is to mean anything, we need universities to be there for local communities.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is passionate about the topic, including through his think-tank’s work. He is right that universities, including the Open University, will play a key role. The work that I have witnessed in the collaboration between further education and higher education—the fungibility of both together—in our institutes of technology is equally important to ensure that we produce different runways from which young people’s careers can take off.
Further Education Estate
We want all colleges in England to be able to provide a world-class education, which is why we are delivering our manifesto commitment to offer £1.5 billion to upgrade the further education college estate over the next six years. We have surveyed the condition of FE estates—all colleges received their own survey—and we intend to publish a national overview of the results in the next academic year.
Significant investment has taken place and is taking place at East Coast College, with the energy skills centre in Lowestoft and the civil engineering and construction campus at Lound. However, a long-term strategic approach is required to ensure that local people have the full opportunity to acquire the necessary skills for the many jobs emerging in low-carbon energy along the East Anglian coast. Will my hon. Friend meet East Coast College and myself to go through its strategy and agree a plan for its implementation?
The match funding required for major works is unaffordable for colleges such as New City College. We have two of its campuses in Tower Hamlets, and the college no longer has the facilities to provide the education required for the modern workplace because of redevelopment costs. The maximum grant available through the FE capital transformation fund for this one college is £20 million, but the redevelopment work on the college’s buildings is estimated at £85 million. Will the Minister meet me and the principal of New City College to discuss a way forward, and will the Secretary of State take a close interest in addressing this major outstanding issue for FE college funding?
I was delighted to visit New City College during Education World Forum week. I took a number of Education Ministers from across the world there to see its excellent facilities and the wonderful, world-class education it offers its students. I was pleased that it received, I think, £5 million in phase 1 of the FE capital transformation fund. We continue to be in dialogue with the college into the next rounds. I am obviously happy to talk to the hon. Lady and the principal at any time. We are committed to doing whatever we can to make the necessary upgrades and improvements to the FE college estate.
Last week, Scottish schools broke up for the summer holidays, so I am sure that Members across the House will join me in thanking the staff for the work they have done and wish all the youngsters a very happy and safe summer holidays.
The Scottish Government have invested more than £800 million since 2007 on the further education estate in Scotland. An equivalent investment in FE in England would be £8 billion, not the £1.5 billion that the Government have committed. Can the Minister detail how the college estate in England will be brought up to the standard of the world class Scottish FE buildings without a far greater investment?
In our manifesto in 2019, we said that we would upgrade the FE college estate. We set £1.5 billion aside to do that. I am afraid that I am not in a position to comment on the condition of the Scottish FE estate. It may well be that the Scottish estate was in a considerably worse state of repair after several years of SNP rule.
Dorset Schools: Quality of Classrooms
Improving the condition of schools is a priority for the Department, which is why we have allocated more than £13 billion for that purpose since 2015, including £1.8 billion committed this year. Dorset local authority was allocated £2.3 million to invest in maintained schools this year and there were five successful condition improvement fund projects approved.
I hope I am not giving my hon. Friend the Minister a headache by keeping on reminding him about The Gryphon School in Sherborne, but it desperately needs its temporary classrooms to be replaced. I shall be grateful to hear from him on that. Furthermore, will he help me with Dorchester Middle School? The school, which is nearly 100 years old, has lodged a bid to replace boilers that do not work, and its bid for capital improvement funds has been rejected. Will he help me with expediting these issues?
I know that my hon. Friend has passionately and repeatedly made the case to Ministers for investment in replacing temporary buildings at The Gryphon School. Nominations to the school rebuilding programme are being assessed, and we expect to confirm up to 300 schools this year. He will understand that I cannot make commitments to an individual school at this stage. I understand that the Dorchester Middle School submitted an appeal to its unsuccessful condition improvement fund application. All appeals are now being carefully considered, and we expect to announce outcomes shortly.
I know that schools in Dorset applied to the schools rebuilding programme. I know, too, that the Minister appreciates the importance of informing schools of their place on the programme as soon as possible. However, Under-Secretary of State for Education Baroness Barran told me that schools will be informed later this year. Can the Minister say when schools in Dorset and Lydiate Primary School in my constituency will be told whether they will receive the money that they desperately need?
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has also pressed the case for Lydiate Primary School previously. The Department has engaged with the school and Sefton local authority, and we are aware that it was disappointed not to be included in the first two rounds of the rebuilding programme. All local authorities, including Sefton Council, were contacted about how they can nominate schools for the next round. We do expect to announce schools that were successful later this year, but some of them will be informed sooner.
Affordable and Accessible Childcare
We are committed to improving the cost, choice and availability of childcare. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years in the Department for Education on both education and tax-free childcare. On the childcare element of universal credit, we spend between £4 billion and £5 billion each year. Today, we have announced further measures to increase take-up of childcare support and to reduce the cost and bureaucracy facing both parents and providers.
The Secretary of State has described the Government policy very eloquently, but given the soaring cost of childcare and the enormous pressure on parents and, indeed, on the sector, would it not be so much better to introduce a childcare recovery plan to invest properly in the sector, giving it the resources that are needed and substantially increasing the funds available, rather than cutting costs and looking at staff to child ratios? Will he also look again at the funding of specific parts of the sector, such as the excellent maintained nursery sector; we have three excellent maintained nurseries in Reading. Will he also consider an independent review into this important sector?
On the maintained nurseries, the hon. Gentleman is quite right. When I was children and families Minister, I saw the great work they do. We have announced £10 million of additional support for maintained nurseries. We are investing up to £180 million specifically on early years recovery to address the impacts of the pandemic. That includes £153 million investment in evidence-based professional development for early years practitioners, which are equally important for the sector, because, clearly it is a tight labour market at the moment.
I thank the Secretary of State and his excellent Minister for their drive for quality in this sector. Those of us on the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education will study carefully the consultation put out today, but can the Secretary of State say what discussions he has had with Ofsted regarding the proposed changes to staffing ratios in early years settings that we have heard about today, and when the Department might be able to publish further details of the wider package of childcare reforms that the Minister for Children and Families alluded to on Sky News this morning?
Ofsted has been central to our work and we are consulting on the ratio issue that he mentions. We are also looking closely at childminders, a market that could do with some tender loving care at the moment, and seeing not only how we can help childminders to come into the sector by helping them with fees, but, once they have registered, how we ensure that inspections are proportionate and that they feel they are well rewarded for the work they do so brilliantly.
Instead of delivering meaningful reform of their broken childcare system, the Government have announced a consultation on allowing staff in early years settings to look after more children. Pregnant Then Screwed reports that four out of five childcare providers said that changing ratios would not be of any financial benefit to their organisation, and only one in 12 said that any cost savings would be passed on to parents. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that this proposal will make a meaningful difference to the cost of childcare for families—yes or no?
If the hon. Lady reads the announcement and the case study we put forward, she will see that if the cost is passed on to parents, it is about £40. Crucially, however, it is not a silver bullet. This is part of a package of measures we are taking, which includes making sure that the 1.3 million people who are not currently claiming their tax-free childcare, where they can get 20% of their childcare or up to £2,000 paid for them, or the childcare element of universal credit, do so. That will make a real difference to them, as well as the consultation—bearing in mind that the consultation is also about ensuring that we continue the drive for quality that this Government have delivered in the childcare system and that safety is paramount for every child.
The special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper aims to ensure that the right support is delivered in the right setting at the right time for all children and young people with SEND, including disabled children. To help to achieve that, it proposes nationally consistent SEND standards be set across education, health and care.
At a virtual parliamentary event I hosted with the Disabled Children’s Partnership a few weeks ago, I heard from parent carers who had to fight tooth and nail to get the right school for their disabled child, one that met their needs. I have also heard those experiences from constituents in Durham. That is why it is so concerning that in the SEND Green Paper the Government are proposing to stop carers’ being able to specify a school for their disabled child, making the process even harder. Can the Minister outline how families with a disabled child will still be able to get the right education under this proposed policy?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and I encourage everyone to take part in the SEND review consultation, which will expire on 22 July. The specific point she raises, on the tailored list of settings for parents in our proposal, is absolutely not about reducing costs; it is designed to support parents and carers in making an informed choice about which setting they would like their child to go to. I would be very happy to set out the policy in further detail in a meeting with her.
I commend research carried out by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, whose findings are quite disturbing. It is essential that the SEND Green Paper that the Minister refers to improves accountability in the system. I have also consulted with my constituents in east Durham, who say that not only must disabled young people be able to get the support that they need and have a legal right to, but service providers must be held to account when they miss legal targets. What plans do the Government have to directly intervene when service providers do not meet their legal duties in respect of providing health, care and support to disabled young people in their care?
The hon. Gentleman is right that accountability has to be at the heart of our proposals, and everyone who provides support for children and young people with SEND has a responsibility to deliver it effectively. That is why we are creating new national standards, and creating local and national dashboards so that local authorities, organisations and those who provide SEND services can be held to account. He is absolutely right that accountability and redress mechanisms are at the heart of our proposals. This is a consultation, and it is live until 22 July. We are consulting because we genuinely want to hear the views of the sector and all the parents and carers of children with SEND. Of course I would be very happy to meet him.
My hon. Friend the Minister knows my passion for looking after children and young people around the SEND sector. I welcome the Green Paper and the consultation, because this is a debate that we have needed to have for some considerable time. But the issue in Hertfordshire is going to be around capacity, because the special educational needs schools in my constituency, which are brilliant, are full and double-oversubscribed. This is not all about money—it is sometimes about how it is provided—but there are serious financial problems in Hertfordshire, and I wonder if he would look at that seriously for me.
My right hon. Friend has raised this issue with me on numerous occasions. He is a doughty champion for children with SEND and their parents and carers in his constituency. Of course I will look at this very closely. These are not just words: we are backing this up with £2.6 billion of capital funding to build about 33,000 or 34,000 SEND places across our country, including in Hertfordshire.
I thank the Minister and the Minister for School Standards, who jointly hosted a roundtable on how we better identify children with dyslexia. Can I invite the Minister to support my private Member’s Bill, which will have its Second Reading on 16 September, to make sure that we get the data from early screening so that we can identify children’s and young people’s needs and give them the help and support, and the knowledge that they have that support, to enable them to go on to thrive, flourish and make the most of their lives?
I thank my right hon. Friend for all his work in this area. It was a pleasure to join him at that roundtable. We want all children with SEND to get the right support in the right setting at the right time. At the heart of our reforms is early identification, early diagnosis and early support. Of course I will continue to work with him as we develop our plans as part of the review.
Children who lose Parents to Suicide
Losing a parent to suicide is a devastating loss for any child. Our covid response provided additional information to schools on supporting pupils with bereavement, drawing on specialist provision where necessary. Senior mental health lead training will help schools to include this in their pastoral support. We are also expanding specialist mental health support, backed by an extra £2.3 billion per year.
I was really disturbed to learn recently that there is evidence to suggest that children who lose a parent to suicide have a much greater risk of going on to take their own life as they grow older. With that in mind, I really want to put this on to the Minister’s radar and ask whether any particular suicide bereavement training, resources or signposting is provided to the staff who work in education settings to help them to support children effectively after they lose a family member such as a parent or sibling to suicide.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this to my attention. It is indeed a worrying state of affairs. Senior mental health lead training, which is backed by an additional £10 million this year, supports schools to establish a whole-school approach to mental health and mental wellbeing and provide a supportive environment for children experiencing bereavement. This will also include how to identify where staff need further training to understand children’s needs and offer support. However, I understand that we probably need to go further in this area, and of course I would be happy to meet her to discuss it at greater length.
Children’s Social Care Services: Reform
We will publish an ambitious implementation strategy later this year following three important pieces of work: first, the independent review of social care—the MacAlister review—and then the Competition and Markets Authority study on the children’s social care market, and the national panel review of the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson.
Many years ago, as a residential social worker, I saw the pain and despair of many children in care, alongside their talents, their ambitions and their amazing resilience. None of this has changed, and we know that the most dangerous and difficult time for a child is the transition into leaving care. Too often services are just cut off and the child is left adrift. Will the Secretary of State promise me today that he will look at what more can be done to provide care leavers with consistent, quality support during and beyond those transitions, enabling them to live with foster families into their adulthood?
As the hon. Lady will know—and as she probably remembers from when I was Children and Families Minister—we launched the care leaver covenant, which has made a significant difference to many of our young people in care as they transition out of care. There is also the work we are doing to support those 300,000 families who need that additional support. The work of MacAlister will make a huge difference. The hon. Lady knows that we have “staying put” and “staying close” to help those young people as they transition through, but I give her a pledge that we are serious about implementing the MacAlister review.
This weekend, as the Secretary of State will have seen, the Swedish Government announced a review into the profit motive in children’s education. Can he confirm, perhaps with yes or no, that the profit motive must be taken out of the care of our most vulnerable children?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. Part of why I mentioned the Competition and Markets Authority review to make sure that the system is working properly is that it is something I am concerned about. I would focus on profiteering rather than profit, because I think people will want to go into this sector to help children, and I do not have a problem with their making a profit. It is excessive profiteering that I am certainly concerned about.
Councils from across the country continue to send children and young people on out-of-area placements to Blackpool, often with good reason—to keep those children safe—but they do not notify Blackpool Council or Lancashire constabulary that these children are in the area. Often we find out when it is too late and something has gone wrong. What more can the Government do as part of their review of children’s social services to make sure that out-of-area placements made by councils are communicated to the host areas’ statutory agencies?
My hon. Friend asks an important question, and he will know that we are looking at how we help local authorities to commission and buy places much more efficiently with the regional care co-operatives. There is also the work of the MacAlister review, after which hopefully out-of-area placements will become a rarity, rather than where we are today.
Literature Taught in Schools
The national curriculum states that pupils should read a wide range of books, poems and plays to appreciate our rich literary heritage and to develop a love for literature, as I did as a teenager. That includes pre-1914 contemporary prose, poetry and drama, Shakespeare and seminal world literature. Schools have freedom to select texts meeting those criteria.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that caution is needed with books that encourage a child to question their biological sex and to believe they were born in the wrong body because of gender nonconformity and not conforming to society’s stereotypes? Parents should be able to see what is being shared with children, whether in lessons or the school library.
I want to be clear: parents should know what their children are being taught in school. There are clear requirements on schools about providing parents with information about their school’s curriculum. We appreciate that parents have particular concerns about gender nonconformity, which is why we are developing very clear guidance for the frontline for schools to be able to deal with that issue.
Student Mental Health
I have been relentlessly focused on this area, allocating £15 million to student mental health services to support the transition from school to university via the Office for Students. I have worked with the Office for Students to deliver and to keep student space and with the Department of Health and Social Care. I held a summit just last week with the Minister for Care and Mental Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), investing £3 million in bridging the gaps between NHS and university services.
During Prime Minister’s questions recently, the whole House and the Prime Minister joined in wearing blue ribbons as part of the anti-bullying campaign for the Diana Award. This week I am writing to all schools in Watford to raise awareness of an anti-bullying roundtable I will be hosting for students and teachers to share their experiences of tackling bullying. Will my right hon. Friend share what other measures the Government are taking to tackle bullying and to support students’ mental health more broadly?
My hon. Friend has done an exceptional job of caring for his Watford constituents’ mental health, and I am sure that all hon. Members can get behind and copy his first aider programme. Bullying can have long-term effects on mental health. Between 2021 and 2023, the Department is providing more than £2 million to organisations, including the Diana Award, to support schools to tackle bullying.
One in six kids in my constituency struggles with their mental health; it is a deeply concerning situation. What plans does the Minister have to increase specialist mental healthcare support in every school, so that all kids in my constituency have access to the support that they need?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this agenda is incredibly important, and the Government care passionately about it. As a ministerial team, we are focused on supporting mental health and wellbeing. We are funding training for senior mental health leads in two thirds of state schools and colleges by March 2023 and in all by 2025.
If I may, I start by offering a warm welcome to students from Myton School in my constituency, who join us in the Gallery.
In a recent survey by the mental health charity HUMEN, 57% of students said that they had access to university mental health services, while the charity Mind reports that one in five students has been diagnosed with a mental health condition. The Minister was appointed two and a half years ago. Can she honestly say that she has successfully dealt with the crisis on our campuses?
We have, of course, had a pandemic in that time. The Government have ensured that we place mental health at the top of the agenda, and we work in partnership with universities to deliver those services. A summit that I held with the Department of Health and Social Care last week shows that we are working in a joined-up way to ensure that no student falls between the cracks.
We are reforming technical education to ensure that all post-16 students have access to technical options that support progression and meet employer needs. That means that we are creating a generation of technical qualifications designed with employers that will give students the skills that the economy needs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that robust technical qualifications, together with fantastic new facilities, such as the new institute of technology at Grantham College, mean that we can finally dispel the myth that a degree is the only path to success in our country?
That is absolutely right. I was delighted that Grantham College got £3 million to upgrade its facilities. My hon. Friend is right on the button to say that it is not just “degree or bust”, as it was once described by the Opposition. It is now not just about getting 50% into university and 50% into work; there is a third way called apprenticeships, which are the best of both worlds and lead young people into a new way of work.
Colleges and Employers: Collaboration
The roll-out of new local skills improvement plans will forge new relationships between employers and the providers of skills to ensure that we have not only the right qualifications but the right qualifications in the right places.
The Government envisage as many as 600,000 heat pumps being installed every year, yet heating companies in my constituency are struggling to train or recruit sufficient staff for that growth sector. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a real opportunity for further education colleges to collaborate with local businesses and provide that training?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Local skills improvement plans, drawn up by employer representative bodies, will start to bring about that collaboration. There are already excellent training options for aspiring heat pump installers, such as the level 3 heat pump engineering technician apprenticeship or the T-level in building services engineering for construction—both of which are backed by Government funding.
The fantastic Luton Sixth Form College in my constituency is successfully offering BTECs for biomedical science. What is the Department doing to promote that qualification with universities, medical colleges and employers, so that more BTEC students can become the much-needed doctors that we need them to be?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As she will know, we are currently reviewing level 3 qualifications. The overlap list was published a couple of months ago, and we will be responding to it in the new year. We are going through technical qualifications at the moment to make sure they provide students both with a route into work and with experience while they are studying for their qualification. That is what T-levels are all about.
Entirely rightly, we are getting more youngsters and young people into training in technical subjects, but at a recent meeting with Warwickshire College CEO Angela Joyce, I learned that it is a real challenge to find lecturers to teach those subjects. What is my hon. Friend doing to persuade businesses that it is in their own interests to release some of their people into colleges to do some of that training?
Nine out of 10 T-level providers have failed to meet even the Government’s own modest recruitment targets, and an FE Week investigation found that employers’ refusal to offer work placements was cited as a key reason for that failure. Labour wants T-levels to be a success, but courses in crucial areas such as digital, health and science have the lowest enrolment, and employers and students are being failed. We know that the Secretary of State wears the T-level badge with great style, but does he actually understand why the policy is failing? Can the Minister assure the House that, in 2022, the Government will meet the enrolment targets that have been set?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for T-levels in principle. T-levels are going extremely well, and we have very good uptake. The first year of T-levels was conducted in perhaps the harshest circumstances imaginable during covid, but thanks to the hard work of my officials and the hard work of principals, we managed to get almost all students—well over 90% of students—their work placements. If we can do it in the conditions of covid, I think we can do it at other times.
Children with SEND: Provision of Support
We are currently consulting on the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper. This includes our proposal to establish a single national SEND and alternative provision system, setting nationally consistent standards. It will set out how needs should be identified and assessed, and the appropriate provision should be made available to meet those needs.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I have spoken to multiple parents in my constituency whose disabled children are entering the summer holidays without knowing where they are going to be in September or whether the support they need will be in place because of a lengthy delay for an appointment with an educational psychologist. While I welcome the Government’s announcement about increasing funding for educational psychologists, the 2023 intake is too late to help young people who need this support now. How do the Government intend to tackle the backlog in this support and ensure that the SEND Green Paper addresses the funding gap in disabled children’s services?
The SEND Green Paper will go some way to addressing that issue. I thank the hon. Lady for her question; she is right to say that educational psychologists play a critical role in identifying need and advising on appropriate support through their statutory role in the education, health and care plan process. Since 2020, we have increased the number of educational psychologists and the trainees we fund to more than 200 from 160 per annum, and we recently announced that we are investing over £10 million to train over 200 more from September 2023.
Higher Education Courses
For the first time, universities will be subject to stringent minimum thresholds for student outcomes on completion rates and graduate jobs. Boots-on-the-ground inspections have begun, and through our transparency drive to give students all the information that they need and a focus on participation and outcomes, we are driving out the pockets of poor quality in our world-leading higher education sector.
Would my right hon. Friend congratulate Leigh College in my constituency on becoming a campus of the Greater Manchester Institute of Technology, offering the opportunity to study degree-equivalent STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—courses to local students and bringing £13 million in educational investment to the local borough?
I know how hard my hon. Friend has campaigned for that investment. The Greater Manchester Institute of Technology, once open, will play a critical role in filling the local skills gaps in key sectors such as construction, digital and advanced manufacturing, as well as in getting local people high-paid local jobs.
School Budgets: Impact of Inflation
This year core school funding increased by £4 billion, which is a 7% per pupil boost in cash terms. I recognise the pressure that rising inflation has created. We are constantly considering what further support we can provide schools to reduce their costs, and any additional support will sit alongside our range of school resource management tools, to help schools save on regular purchases and reduce non-teaching costs.
I recently visited Hall Road Primary School, which was built in the 1920s. It is in a disadvantaged part of Hull, but it provides an excellent education to local pupils. The headteacher told me that rising costs in energy were really hitting his limited budget for the school. Is the Minister willing to meet me to discuss what emergency funding could be given to the school to help it, and also so that I can lobby for a new school building?
As I have mentioned a number of times, the school rebuilding programme will be making announcements about schools that need that, and of course I would be happy to meet the right hon. Lady and hear about the particular conditions in that school. I recognise that much of our school estate faces the challenges of aging buildings, and it is important that we continue to invest to support schools where they can spend to save.
I have spoken to local headteachers who report that due to inflation, staffing costs have increased by 12%, with gas costs increasing by 20%, and electricity by 30%. One headteacher said,
“please ask the Secretary of State what am I supposed to cut in order to meet inflation costs: the mental health first aider we’ve had to recruit because of the backlog at CAMHS, or the resources we’ve had to put into a community kitchen because so many children were going without meals? Should I turn off the heating in the winter, or simply cut teaching staff?”
What would the Minister like me to say to that headteacher?
It is important that we invest to support schools. That is why we are putting in a £4 billion—7%—increase in the funding of schools. The Department also helps schools to get best value from their resources through a range of resource management tools. Those include recommended deals for energy, and support for schools in switching and entering new energy contracts. I encourage schools to engage with that programme, and of course we all want to ensure that those important priorities for schools can be addressed.
Schools are telling us that standstill funding, inflation and rising energy costs mean that they are having to limit the numbers of healthy options in schools meals. The Government agree with Labour that good healthy school meals are essential for children to thrive, especially as for more and more children the school dinner is their only hot meal. The Minister for Children and Families said about school meals that it was up to schools to “manage their own” individual budgets. Is that the best the Government can serve up?
Our increases in school funding have been front-loaded to get money to schools rapidly, so this year core schools funding is increasing by £4 billion—a 7% cash boost per pupil. Our national formula also targets that funding towards areas of deprivation. It includes an FSM factor, which means that all pupils on free school meals will attract additional funding. The total amount allocated through deprivation factors in the national formula is increasing by £225 million, or 6.7%, in the next year, compared with last year.
The TS6 postcode area in my constituency is one of the most disadvantaged in Teesside, and there are not enough secondary school places for TS6 children this year, next year or the year after that, with kids having to travel miles to the nearest school with capacity. While understanding the inflationary pressures on schools, will the Minister work with me to ensure that there are enough school places for young people in the TS6 area in the years ahead?
Inflation is hitting all schools and colleges hard across my constituency, but unlike academies, councils, schools and other education providers, colleges cannot claim back VAT on supplies and services. Will the Minister speak with officials in other Departments to consider that issue, and to ensure that colleges such as Derwentside College in my constituency are able to do the best they can with the price pressures they are facing at the moment?
Skyrocketing energy bills are squeezing school budgets. The latest data suggests that prices have almost doubled in the first quarter of the year alone. With cost pressures putting children’s learning at risk, will the Minister publish the results of his Department’s survey on the experience of schools? When does he plan to bring forward the additional support that schools need to keep the lights on?
The Department’s analysis of the cost increases that schools face is published annually in the school costs note, and it includes the impact of inflation. That was last published in March, and we will continue to publish it annually.
More broadly, it is important to recognise the additional money—the £4 billion that I have talked about numerous times—going in this year on the back of published figures that show that, at the end of the last academic year, 97% of academy trusts were in cumulative surplus or breaking even, and 92% of local authority maintained schools were in that situation. That was, in both cases, an improvement on the year before.
On 7 June, day two of Arriva’s bus strikes in Leeds, a group of year 10 pupils at the John Smeaton Academy in Leeds faced a dilemma. They had an exam, but their school bus was not running. What is more, they live in a hotel 4.2 miles from the school—that is because they are resettled Afghan refugees. They woke up very early and walked the 4.2 miles to school so that they could sit their exams. Those children are exemplary students. They are very welcome in Britain, and their example should inspire us all and shame those whose striking has jeopardised young people’s futures.
The Secretary of State has suggested that it would be unforgiveable for teachers to go on strike. What is unforgiveable is that teachers’ pay has fallen by a fifth in real terms in the past 12 years of Conservative rule. At the same time, they have been crushed under an unsustainable workload, hurting mental health and wellbeing. It is no wonder that seven in 10 have considered quitting in the past year. Will he commit to giving teachers the above-inflation pay increase they so richly deserve?
I do not think that any teacher would want to strike after the damage that covid did with students being out of school. In my evidence to the pay review body, I talked about wanting to deliver almost 9%—it was 8.9%—for new teachers this year and a 7.1% uplift next year to take their starting salary to £30,000 a year. My recommendation for more senior teachers was 5% over two years.
I certainly agree with the SEND commissioner’s recommendations for Birmingham City Council to take responsibility for its SEND provision and rapidly make changes for improvement. I will of course continue to work closely with the commissioner and the council to monitor progress, and the Department will not hesitate to intervene further if Birmingham does not deliver on its plan to implement real lasting change. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will hold it to account.
Last week, the Secretary of State’s flagship Schools Bill was left in tatters as he pulled 18 out of 69 clauses. Will he explain whether that was because he was bamboozled by his officials, he did not understand his own legislation, or he planned it all along? Or was it just the incompetence that we have all come to expect?
At least I am not missing in action. If the hon. Lady had looked at the detail of my White Paper rather than attempted to play politics with it, she would know that I always promised a review of clauses 1 to 18 because we are taking what is in contract with multi-academy trusts and putting it in statute. I have now launched that review to ensure that we get it right so that clauses 1 to 18 come to this place and the Bill gets through to deliver the outcomes that we all want to see for all children.
That really is quite hard to believe.
Parents will know that the cost of care is skyrocketing, yet even the Children’s Minister himself—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince)—admitted that the changes the Government are considering are
“not going to significantly change costs”.
Labour has already set out how its children’s recovery plan would tackle this vital issue and provide immediate help to families now. What will it take for the Secretary of State to find some fresh ideas that actually address this growing crisis?
The hon. Lady again misses the point. The package is not just about the ratios. It is about looking at how we encourage and grow the childminder market, how we ensure the 1.2 million parents who are eligible to get tax-free childcare make that claim and, of course, how we support teachers, both in our brilliant maintained nurseries and across the system, to do much more for the children we want to see them deliver for.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He will know that it is local authorities, rather than the Department for Education, that have responsibility for transport to education. I understand that Cumbria County Council already provides some support for travel to college for students who are disadvantaged. It is also possible to top that money up with our 16 to 19 bursary, but I am happy to discuss the matter with him further.
The number of graduates owing more than £100,000 in student loans has gone up by more than 3,000% in a single year, with over 6,500 graduates now having six-figure balances. Next year, with inflation, things could be even worse. Will the Secretary of State detail what urgent action he is considering to tackle the huge levels of graduate debt?
As the hon. Member will know only too well, we responded to the Augar report in full a few months ago. We tried to get the right balance in who pays, between the graduate and the taxpayer, so that we have a fair system in which no student will pay back more in real terms than they borrowed. This Government are focused on outcomes, making sure that degrees pay and deliver graduate jobs.
Indeed, the Secretary of State will engage with my hon. Friend on his passion for this subject. He knows we are investing £17 million in the Nuffield Early Language Intervention programme to improve language skills in reception-age children who most need that help. I would just like to also take this opportunity, because I know—
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has been pressing my noble Friend in the other place on this matter. The case for the high school did not go to the playing field panel in June, because queries requiring further information from the applicant were raised by the Department’s design team. The applicant has been fully updated on the request and the information required. The case should now be going to the panel in September and I will ensure we update him at that stage.
I hope my right hon. Friend will see this book I have here, “The Children’s Inquiry” by Liz Cole and Molly Kingsley, about the damage to children during lockdown. The number of ghost children is still rising: it has risen by 100,000 to 1.7 million absent children. I know my right hon. Friend set up the Attendance Alliance Group, but the fact is that we need to get those children back to school, and the numbers are rising. What will he do to ensure those children get back to school in September?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee. Those are not just ghost children; they are flesh and blood. We must make sure that we do everything in our power to get them back into school. The national register will identify where those children are, so that we can really focus on that.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the team at Penketh High School on its ever improving standards? Ofsted recently improved its rating of the school, there was the sports gold award last week, and year 9 student Leon Stretton has signed for Warrington Wolves—a huge success in the town. However, the school’s problem is the poor state of its estate. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at its recent application to improve the standard of the SEND building?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that FE colleges are engines of social mobility, and we are well aware of the pressures that they are under. We are engaging constantly with the Association of Colleges, principals and colleagues across Government to make sure that we can help them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that improving the quality and depth of technical qualifications is vital to our levelling-up agenda and also to helping everyone improve social mobility?
Do the Government share my concern at the injection of vast quantities of communist cash from countries such as China and Vietnam into our universities—Oxbridge colleges in particular? Will they set up a taskforce to examine the problem and make recommendations?
At a roundtable at Heathfield Community College last week, the Secretary of State’s adviser and I heard a number of great ideas from a group of headteachers and governors. One was that there is surely a need for the proposed parents’ pledge, to outline not only what parents can expect from teachers but what teachers can expect from parents. Would that idea help us to help teachers teach?
We want to ensure that every child across the country has a complete and well rounded education, receiving targeted support where needed. We have made the pledge to parents to make that happen. If a child falls behind in English or maths, they will receive targeted support to get back on track and parents will be kept up to date with their progress. We expect parents to engage constructively with schools and to give support in terms of both attendance and behaviour, which will of course maximise their children’s opportunities.
A total of 800,000 children, more than 35,000 of whom live in the north-east, are in poverty and are being denied free school meals owing to punitive, Government-imposed eligibility criteria. Despite cross-party calls for eligibility to be extended to all families on universal credit, the Government have refused. Why?
About 1.9 million children receive benefit-related free school meals, with provision supporting the most disadvantaged. Eligibility has been extended to more groups of children under this Government than under any other over the past half century, and that includes the introduction of universal infant free school meals and further education free meals.
With the school holidays cantering up to us, can my right hon. Friend confirm that helping parents with the cost of childcare is a key priority for his Department? What impact does he expect the decision to pay up to 85% of the cost of childcare for those on universal credit to have, as opposed to the 70% that was provided under the previous regime?
Ministers keep telling us that it is important for parents to claim the tax breaks for childcare. Last year the Government spent just £150,000 on advertising them, saving the Treasury £3 billion. What additional funding has the Department secured for advertising child tax credit spending?
At the YMCA young carers festival which was held at Fairthorne Manor on Saturday, I learned that there was no central Government guidance for schools on providing support for young carers. Attendance policies can have a detrimental impact on their education and mental health. How will the Minister bring central guidance to schools to help these vulnerable people?
We are updating our attendance guidance, and I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss further the specific issue of young carers. Having met young carers groups in my own constituency, I know how important it is to engage with them properly and effectively, and we should do that throughout our school system.
On Friday I visited Hartford Manor Primary School in my constituency. Like many schools up and down the country, it is suffering as a result of the escalating cost of energy bills. What are the Minister and the Department going to do about it, as a matter of urgency?
As I have said many times already, we have put £4 billion in for next year. We want to work with schools to support them. There is support through our school resource management system, and specifically through the “Get help buying for schools” system. We will continue—[Interruption.]
CHOGM, G7 and NATO Summits
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about the NATO, G7 and Commonwealth summits, held in Madrid, Schloss Elmau and Kigali respectively.
In the space of seven days, I had the opportunity to work alongside more than 80 Governments—nearly half the entire membership of the United Nations—and to hold bilateral talks with more than 25 leaders, ranging from the new Presidents of South Korea and Zambia to the Prime Ministers of Japan and Jamaica, demonstrating the global reach of British diplomacy and the value of our presence at the world’s top tables.
Our immediate priority is to join with our allies to ensure that Ukraine prevails in her brave struggle against Putin’s aggression. At the Madrid summit, NATO exceeded all expectations in the unity and single-minded resolve of the alliance to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, and to explode the myth that western democracies lack the staying power for a prolonged crisis.
All of us understand that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will find new targets for his revanchist attacks. We are defending not some abstract ideal but the first principle of a peaceful world, which is that large and powerful countries cannot be allowed to dismember their neighbours, and if this was ever permitted, no nation anywhere would be safe. Therefore our goal must be for our Ukrainian friends to win, by which I mean that Ukraine must have the strength to finish this war on the terms that President Zelensky has described.
When Putin claimed that by invading his neighbour he would force NATO away from Russia, he could not have been proved more spectacularly wrong, because the single most welcome outcome of the Madrid summit was the alliance’s agreement to admit Finland and Sweden. I hope I speak for the whole House when I say that Britain will be proud to stand alongside these fellow democracies and reaffirm our unshakeable pledge to come to their aid and defend them if ever necessary, just as they would for us. We were glad to smooth their path into NATO by giving both nations the security assurances they needed to apply for membership, and when I met Prime Minister Andersson of Sweden and President Niinistö of Finland last Wednesday, I told them I was certain that NATO would be stronger and safer for their accession.
Before Putin’s onslaught, both countries had prized their neutrality, even through all the crises of the cold war, and it is a measure of how seriously they take today’s threat that opinion in Sweden and Finland has been transformed. It speaks volumes about Putin’s folly that one permanent consequence of his attack on Ukraine will be a doubling of the length of NATO’s border with Russia. If anyone needed proof that NATO is purely defensive, the fact that two quintessentially peaceable countries have chosen to join it demonstrates the true nature of our alliance.
Now is the time to intensify our help for Ukraine, because Putin’s Donbas offensive is slowing down and his overstretched army is suffering heavy casualties. Ukraine’s success in forcing the Russians off Snake Island by sheer weight of firepower shows how difficult the invader will find it to hold the territory he has overrun. We need to equip our friends now to take advantage of the moment when Putin will have to pause and regroup, so Britain will supply Ukraine with another £1 billion of military aid, including air defences, drones and electronic warfare equipment, bringing our total military, humanitarian and economic support since 24 February to nearly £4 billion.
To guarantee the security of our allies on the eastern flank, NATO agreed in Madrid to bolster its high readiness forces, and we in the UK will offer even more British forces to the alliance, including almost all of our surface fleet. We have already doubled our deployment in Estonia, and we will upgrade our national headquarters to be led by a brigadier and help our Estonian friends to establish their own divisional headquarters. If you follow the trajectory of our programmes to modernise our armed forces, Mr Speaker, you will draw the logical conclusion that the UK will likely be spending 2.5% of GDP on defence by the end of this decade.
Earlier, at the G7 summit, the first full day of talks coincided with a Russian missile destroying a Ukrainian shopping centre, killing at least 18 people. This barbaric attack on an obviously civilian target strengthened the resolve of my fellow leaders to provide Ukraine with more financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic backing for, and I quote the communiqué,
“as long as it takes”.
That is exactly the term later echoed by NATO. The G7 has pledged nearly $30 billion of financial support for Ukraine this year, and we will tighten our sanctions on Russia. The UK will join America, Japan and Canada to ban the import of Russian gold, which previously raised more export revenues than anything else except hydrocarbons.
The G7 will devise more options for ensuring that nearly 25 million tonnes of grain, trapped inside Ukraine by Putin’s blockade, reaches the countries that rely on these supplies. Just as the world economy was recovering from the pandemic, Putin’s war has caused a surge in global food and energy prices, raising the cost of living everywhere, including here at home. The G7 agreed to
“take immediate action to secure energy supply and reduce price surges…including by exploring additional measures such as price caps.”
We will help our partners in the developing world to meet their climate targets and transform millions of lives by constructing new infrastructure according to the highest standards of transparency and environmental protection. Through our Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, an idea launched by the UK at the Carbis Bay summit last year, we will mobilise up to $600 billion of public and private investment over the next five years.
Many beneficiary nations will be members of the Commonwealth, and I was very pleased to attend the Kigali summit of this unique association of 56 states, encompassing a third of humanity. More countries are eager to join, and we were pleased to welcome two new members, Gabon and Togo.
It is an amazing fact that our familiar legal and administrative systems, combined with the English language, knock 21% off the cost of trade between Commonwealth members. It is because the Commonwealth unites that advantage with some of the fastest-growing markets in the world that we are using the sovereignty that the UK has regained to sign free trade or economic partnership agreements with as many Commonwealth countries as possible. We have done 33 so far, including with Australia and New Zealand, and we are aiming for one with India by Diwali in October.
It is true that not every member of the Commonwealth sees Putin’s aggression as we do, or exactly as we do, so it was vital to have the opportunity to counter the myths and to point out that food prices are rising because Putin has blockaded one of the world’s biggest food producers. If large countries were free to destroy their neighbours, no Commonwealth member, however distant from Ukraine, would be genuinely secure.
The fact that, in a week, the UK was able to deal on friendly terms with scores of countries in three organisations shows the extraordinary diplomatic assets our country possesses. As we stand up for what is right in Ukraine and advance the values and interests of the British people, I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of his statement, and I welcome him back to these shores. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, so I wish him the best of luck in seeing if that works as a party management strategy.
It has been 131 days since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, 131 days of war at the heart of our continent, 131 days of Putin trying to make his neighbours cower and 131 days of brave Ukrainian resistance. I have always said that this House, and Britain’s allies, must put aside our differences in other areas and show unity in our opposition to Putin’s aggression. And we have done, driven by the inspiration provided by the people of Ukraine and the leadership and courage of President Zelensky.
As this conflict reaches its sixth month and drags on in eastern Ukraine, it is important that we do not think our job is done. Putin would like nothing better than for us to lose our focus, for the grip of sanctions to weaken, for military aid to Ukraine to dry up or for cracks to appear in the unity of his opponents. So I welcome the progress made at the NATO summit last week, and congratulate our good friends in Finland and Sweden on their formal invitation to join the NATO alliance, and of course Ukraine on securing its candidate status to join the European Union. I hope that these processes can be concluded as quickly as possible to send a clear message to Putin that his war has permanently changed the European landscape, but not in the way he planned.
I also welcome the commitment to strengthen our collective deterrent capabilities. I have seen at first hand how British personnel are working with other NATO forces to ensure that the collective shield that has protected us for three quarters of a century remains as strong as ever. So I welcome the agreement on the new NATO force model, ensuring that over 300,000 conventional troops will be at high readiness across Europe. Can I ask the Prime Minister how this agreement will affect British military planning and whether he believes our extra commitments can be met, given his cuts to UK troop numbers?
The commitment made at the G7 of further financial support for Ukraine is also welcome, as are plans to help Ukraine with post-war reconstruction through an international conference. There can be no clearer case that aid spending makes Britain more secure and prevents the need for military spending in future, which demonstrates the folly in reducing our aid commitments at a time of global instability.
I am pleased that unity was on display at both the NATO summit and the G7 summit, but I am concerned about current unity within the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is a valuable and important institution for this country. It is not just a symbol of our past; it is important for our future, providing us with influence in all parts of the world. But in recent years, there have been serious signs of strain. When many major Commonwealth countries abstained at the UN over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the summit should have been an opportunity to widen the diplomatic coalition against Putin. Instead, the Prime Minister waged a divisive campaign against the Commonwealth leadership that ended in a humiliating diplomatic failure, only illustrating his embarrassing lack of influence.
Instead of investing in aid that strengthens the alliance, the Prime Minister has cut it. Instead of upholding the rule of law that should define the Commonwealth, he reneges on treaties he has signed, undermining Britain’s moral and political credibility, when we need our word to carry trust. My fear is simple: the vacuum we leave behind will be quickly filled not by those who share our values, but by those who seek to destroy them. We cannot let that happen in Ukraine. We cannot let that happen anywhere.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the terms in which he, broadly speaking, has addressed the UK’s recent diplomatic activity. I have just a couple of points to come back on. He talks about the UK breaking international treaties. I do not know what he is talking about there, but if he was talking about what we are doing in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol, that is not what is happening. We believe that our prior obligation, which I would have thought he supported, is to the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is what we are supporting. He talks about the UK’s ability to win people over. It was striking in the conversations I had with leaders from around the world how few of them, if any, raised the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, and how much people want to see common sense and no new barriers to trade. What the UK is doing is trying to reduce pointless barriers to trade and one would have thought that he supported that.
On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s points about the UK’s contribution to NATO and to the new force model, and whether that is sustainable, I suggest that Opposition Members should talk to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg about what the UK is producing and committing—it is colossal. We are the second biggest contributor to NATO and the second biggest contributor of overall support for the Ukrainians, providing £2.3 billion in military assistance alone. We are also ensuring that our armed forces are provided for for the future, with £24 billion in this spending review—the biggest uplift in defence spending since the cold war. Defence spending is now running at 2.3% of our national GDP, which is above the 2% target. That is felt around the room in NATO; people know what the UK is contributing and are extremely grateful.
As for what the UK also contributes to NATO, under the new force model, we will contribute virtually all our naval forces. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman also knows, we are the only country to contribute our strategic independent nuclear deterrent to NATO. I still find it a sad reflection of the Labour party that, at this critical time, when Vladimir Putin is sadly using the language of nuclear blackmail, we are in a situation in which the principal Opposition party in this country still has eight Members on its Front Bench who voted to discard our independent nuclear deterrent, including the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). Apart from that, I welcome the terms in which the Leader of the Opposition has responded.
I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. I ask him: was there general agreement at all three summits that our fragile rules-based order is under threat, and that strategically we have entered a profound era of geopolitical change? I commend his efforts in Ukraine—it is a shame that other NATO countries have not lent as we have—but I encourage him to go further and secure a UN General Assembly resolution to create a humanitarian safe haven around the critical port of Odesa, so that vital grain exports can reach not only Europe, but Africa, to prevent famine there.
I thank my right hon. Friend particularly for his point about grain exports. As he knows, the work is being led by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The UK is doing a huge amount to support but, as I have told the House before, we may have to prepare for a solution that does not depend on Russian consent, because that may not be forthcoming.
I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of his statement, and welcome him back from his travels around Africa and Europe. It is perhaps worth reiterating the support of all of us in this House for President Zelensky and Ukraine in their struggle against the war criminal Putin.
The scale and depth of the challenge facing our global community are self-evident: war in Europe, the return of soaring inflation, rising interest rates, and a cost of living crisis that is punishing people in the pocket. We are faced not just with one crisis; this is an accumulation of crises that needs, deserves and demands a collective response. At moments like this, solutions can only come from a co-ordinated effort. Efforts during the 2007 financial crisis and the co-ordination during covid demonstrate just that right across the world, and none of us should be in any doubt that the crisis that we are now in is every bit as severe, steep and deep as anything we faced at the time of the financial crisis.
I regret to say that so far the collective effort—that sense of urgency—has been badly lacking, particularly from organisations such as the G7. The response has been far too slow and far too small. Prime Minister, it is obvious that the G7 outcomes are nowhere near enough to combat the cost of living crisis that we now face. When can the public expect some leadership and action? When will we see a coherent, co-ordinated and credible plan to increase energy supply, cap prices and drive investment to the global economy before recession becomes inevitable, or is the plan really to delay until the winter, when things will only get worse? Leadership now, in responding to supply shocks, will allow us to fight inflation. A failure to take appropriate action will expose us all to longer-lasting inflationary risks.
On Ukraine, can the Prime Minister go a little further and give us the outlook regarding what we will do to ensure that we can get grain out of Ukrainian ports? Four hundred million people worldwide rely on Ukrainian food supplies. This is now about stopping not just war, but famine.
I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that all these global efforts will work only if there is trust between global leaders. Can the Prime Minister therefore explain, in this moment of many crises, how breaking international law and threatening to start a trade war with our neighbours helps anyone?
The right hon. Gentleman should look more carefully at what the G7 produced in terms of the plan to cap prices for oil and gas and particularly to try to stop Putin profiteering, as he currently is, from his illegal war. There is a plan. I will not pretend that it is going to be easy, but we are doing as much as we can. We are certainly taking a lot of other action, for instance, to help countries around the world with access to the fertiliser they need. He is right to raise the issue of the 25 million tonnes of grain currently held hostage in Odesa. There is a plan to get that out. It is not easy. If he looks at the numbers, though, he will see that we are gradually getting more grain out of those Ukrainian silos and into Europe and into Africa, and we will continue to do that.
As for the right hon. Gentleman’s final point about the UK and the so-called breach of international law, I repeat what I said to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition: what the countries around the world see is the UK offering consistent leadership in the matter of standing up for the rule of law and standing up against Putin’s aggression. I promise him—that is what has been raised with me in the past 10 days.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the leadership that he has shown in the past week and welcome his commitment to our Royal Navy forces being part of NATO. As the Defence and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly starts its two-year investigation into the Russian maritime threat, does he see ongoing support of the Royal Navy in the long term, and what conversations has he had with other NATO allies to increase their maritime support for this vital mission?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his work for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which was mentioned to me at the summit. I can tell him that the UK is leading the NATO alliance in providing for the new force model in our naval commitment, and we are trying to encourage others to do the same.
Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Prime Minister will know that time is running out to get grain to the hundreds of millions of people who will be facing destitution and hunger, as the Secretary-General has warned. Can he tell us who will provide the security guarantees to Ukraine? The fear is that, if we open a sea corridor, the Russians will seek to use it to attack Odesa. Can he confirm that it is to Turkey that the world is looking to provide those guarantees, so the grain can get out before the moment is lost?
The right hon. Gentleman is completely right: the Turks are absolutely indispensable to solving this. They are doing their very best and I thank President Erdoğan for all the efforts that he is making. It does depend on the Russians agreeing to allow that grain to get out. The UK is offering demining facilities and insurance facilities for the vessels that will be needed to get the grain out. He is right about the urgency. We will increasingly have to look at alternative means of moving that grain from Ukraine if we cannot use the sea route—if we cannot use the Bosphorus.
Does the Prime Minister accept that, before there was a shooting war in Europe in the 1980s, it was right for this country to spend 5% of GDP on defence and, if he does, why does he think it is adequate for us to spend only half that percentage by the end of this decade?
My right hon. Friend has campaigned on this issue for years. I think we will have to spend more. Logically, Mr Speaker, if you protract the commitments that we are making under AUKUS and under the future combat aircraft system, we will be increasing our spending very considerably. What we want to do is to make sure that other allies are doing the same. That is most important. That is why Jens Stoltenberg is, we hope, going to set a new target and allow the whole of the alliance to increase its funding.
While the Prime Minister was talking about British values at three international summits, he was whipping Conservative MPs to vote to trash one of our greatest British values, the rule of law. While he was talking about increasing defence spending, he was ploughing ahead with plans to cut the British armed forces by 10,000 troops. While he was talking about the problem of global price rises, he was raising unfair taxes on millions of pensioners and families across our country. We are facing a domestic economic crisis and a global security crisis, and the Prime Minister is facing his own political crisis. Can he tell the House precisely what his plan is to take our country forward?
I am very happy to tell the right hon. Gentleman, since he asks, that our plan is to help the people in this country with the cost of living, as we are, with £1,200 coming in to people’s bank accounts this month, which we can do because of the sensible economic steps we have taken in coming out of the pandemic, and then to build a stronger economy with reforms to our planning, our housing, our transport and our energy networks. We will take down costs for people up and down the country and continue to make this the best place to live and invest in in the whole of our hemisphere. That is our plan for the country, and I commend it to him.
Western purchases of Russian energy are paying for Putin’s war. Will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts to ensure that we invest in more production and output of oil, gas and electricity here, to make our contribution to reducing western dependence?
Yes. I think the UK can be very proud of the way we have moved beyond hydrocarbons in so many areas, but we must recognise the limits and the pace of what we have achieved, and be less neuralgic about using our domestic hydrocarbons, particularly when the alternative is just to import them from abroad.
It is 3,056 days since Putin started his illegal invasion of Ukraine, and we spent far too long turning a blind eye to what was going on there, so forgive me if I am a little impatient even about what we have already achieved. I want to see a British industrial strategy to ensure we are making enough lethal weaponry to give to the Ukrainians so they can win. I want to see a major diplomatic effort to ensure that Putin does not make further inroads in Republika Srpska and Bosnia. I also want to make sure that we as a country are still as focused on the laundering of dirty Russian money through the City of London as we should have been 10 years ago.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the UK led the way in Europe in supplying weaponry to Ukraine, and the next generation light anti-tank weapons were of great importance. When it comes to sanctions, we have a new economic crime Bill coming in that will help us to clamp down further, but what we have done already is very considerable. The squeeze is being felt by Putin and his economy, and we will continue to apply it. The hon. Gentleman asks for a long-term strategy: what he got from the G7 and NATO was a commitment to stick to the course for as long as it takes, and that is what we are going to do.
When the Prime Minister’s remarks at the NATO summit were reported last week, the commitment to spending 2.5% on defence appeared to be quite solid. His remarks today are less so. Is that a commitment, and how are we going to pay for it? We have to have a credible plan to pay for it. Are we going to put up taxes, or are we going to reduce expenditure in other areas to deliver what is a welcome and important commitment to the defence of the United Kingdom?
It is a straightforward prediction based on what we are currently committed to spending under the AUKUS and future combat air system programmes. They are gigantic commitments, which I think are the right thing for the UK, and they will take us up to that threshold. Of course, much depends on the size of our GDP at the time and the growth in the economy. My right hon. Friend asks how we will pay for it: we will pay for it out of steady and sustained economic growth, as I said to the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey).
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill and the Bill of rights are all Bills that numerous informed commentators and cross-party Committees of this House have said threaten to breach our international treaty obligations. The Prime Minister indicated to the Leader of the Opposition that last week some of his interlocutors, at least, had raised these issues with him. All of us who have travelled abroad on parliamentary business recently will have had these issues raised with us. So can he tell us exactly what concerns were raised with him over the past week about his Government’s disrespect for the international rule of law and human rights, and what he is going to do about it?
The Prime Minister should absolutely be congratulated on what he has done on defence spending. While many in his position previously talked about it, this is actually the biggest increase since the end of the cold war. However, will he confirm that no directive has been issued from No. 10 or the Treasury on numbers of defence personnel, and that that will continue to be the case going forward should the situation change?
My hon. Friend speaks wisely on this matter, which he knows very well. We keep the actual numbers under constant review. The most important thing is that our troops are the best in the world but they also have to have the best equipment in the world, and that is what we are paying for.
I was relieved to see the G7 recognise that 200 million people now face starvation around the world, along with the pledge to mobilise £100 billion in IMF special drawing rights to help to alleviate the crisis. Last week, however, the Foreign Secretary could not tell us how much the UK has been given in special drawing rights nor what her target was for sharing them back—presumably because it was not on Instagram—so can the Prime Minister help us? Can he reassure us that all £19 billion of the UK’s new special drawing rights will be shared to help with this crisis in order to set a good example to the rest of the world?
I strongly support the Government’s commitment to 2.5% and the Prime Minister’s hint in this statement that we may go further than that in the years to come. None the less, although last year’s integrated review talked about cutting conventional forces—tanks, aircraft and boots on the ground—one of the lessons of Ukraine is that we must not do that, so will he think again about the commitments we have made to cutting, in particular, our infantry?
I know that my hon. Friend has military experience himself, but what we are learning from Ukraine is the vital importance of having troops with a military operation that has 360° protection and the best possible equipment. That is a lesson that the Russians are learning to their cost themselves.
The Prime Minister will have heard the deep concern on both sides of the House, particularly from the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), about grain in Ukraine and the issue of world hunger and poverty. The Prime Minister said in response that he was talking about the possibility of seeking a solution that may not have the consent of the Russians. For the avoidance of doubt, can he confirm to the House that he is looking at breaching the Montreux agreement about larger forces in the Black sea?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that. No, we are not looking at doing that. There are alternative solutions that do not involve the presence of UK or other warships in the Black sea, although they might involve a tougher approach. We are also looking at the possibility of using the rivers, particularly the Danube, and the railways to get the grain out in smaller quantities than we would be able to do with a giant maritime convoy through the Black sea. We are looking at all the options, including smaller packets of grain coming out in that way.
My right hon. Friend stated that
“Ukraine must have the strength to finish this war on the terms that President Zelensky has described.”
Are we confident that all our allies are as involved and supportive as the UK has been and continues to be for as long as it takes?
I think the answer to that is yes, because every time we go to one of these summits and we think that the alliance is friable and that the strength of the pro-Ukrainian coalition is weak, people gravitate towards the centre and towards what the UK is saying because there is no alternative: Putin is not offering any kind of deal, and President Zelenskyy cannot do any kind of land-for-peace deal. There is no other option for us but to continue to support the Ukrainians in the way that we are, and that is why the unity remains so compelling.
I absolutely understand that the sanctions regime so far has focused on the Russian elite, with travel bans and bans on the export of luxury goods, for example, as well as Russian hydrocarbons, which earn them so much foreign exchange money. As the war continues into the longer term, should we not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, look at the Russian money still sloshing around in the UK? If somebody has made a large amount of money in Putin’s Russia, should we not assume that the chances are that it is dodgy and start to tighten the domestic sanctions regime?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we have to keep tightening the noose the whole time. The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill will help. It will give us new powers to seize crypto assets and new powers over money laundering. One thing he will have spotted at the G7, which was very important, was the new sanctions on Russian gold worth £13.5 billion, which I mentioned in my statement. That will hit them.
I welcome what the Prime Minister has said about working with other countries to reduce the price of oil and gas, which is critical in this country and across the world. Will he give the House a bit more detail on how we have been working with other countries, particularly in the Commonwealth, on investing in renewable energy, which is clean, safe and secure and reduces our dependence on hydrocarbons over the medium term?
The answer is that the UK is making massive investments in Commonwealth countries. In the G7, the partnership for global infrastructure and investment helps developing countries around the world to move forward and to make the leap ahead to green technology, and to take investment from the UK—and not perhaps from others who are busier in getting them to pay their debts.
I have listened carefully to the Prime Minister’s warm words about the Commonwealth and its relationship with independent countries. In 1941, it was the then Prime Minister Churchill who signed the Atlantic charter with the United States, committing Britain and the United States to delivering people’s right to choose their own form of government and self-government. This respect for the principle of equal rights and the self-determination of peoples was incorporated into the United Nations charter in paragraph 2 of articles 1, 73 and 76. In light of that, can the Prime Minister set out what mandate he has won that allows him to breach this UN principle, deny Scotland’s claim of right and hold Scotland’s democracy hostage?
I know that the First Minister has asked for another referendum, and I just point out that we had one in 2014. Right now the priorities of the country should be rebuilding after covid and taking us forward together as a united country, and that is what we want to do.
Ukraine is by far the most important issue facing us, not least in terms of preventing mass starvation in Africa. One cannot help noticing that unlike all the other fluff in the newspapers every day, nobody dares criticise the Prime Minister’s resolute leadership on Ukraine. What concerns many of us is that some of our allies do not seem to be as resolute as he. While they will give full support to Ukraine not to lose this war, they are not that keen on Ukraine winning this war, because they do not want to humiliate Putin. Can the Prime Minister make clear that it is the absolute commitment of NATO to defeat Putin once and for all?
I agree 100% with what my right hon. Friend said, with just one clarification: it is 100% the objective of NATO, and all our friends and allies, to make sure that Putin fails in Ukraine—it is very important that we frame it in that way—and he can and he will, because the Ukrainians will not have it any other way.
Rwanda and the UK hosted the “Keeping 1.5 Alive” event in Kigali, but at the same time, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report said that the requirement—the opportunity—to keep within 1.5° had now shifted forward from 2032 to 2025. Given that most major emitters in the G7 are not even meeting the Paris commitments that they made seven years ago, what realistic chance does the Prime Minister believe there is of the G7 stepping up to the plate in the next three years to achieve that turning down of emissions?
I strongly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. In my time in the House, I cannot recall a foreign affairs statement in which the serving Prime Minister could take more personal satisfaction than the one that he has just delivered to the House. His leadership of NATO and the welcome conclusions of the NATO summit only reinforce the fact that, as the Leader of the Opposition said, what Mr Putin wants is for us to lose focus. Will the Prime Minister sustain his focus; get the grain out of Ukraine to meet the desperate need of the rest of the world; and ensure Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign state?
I thank my hon. Friend. That certainly remains the Government’s objective. I stress that what we are doing to support the Ukrainians is not just right in itself, as everyone accepts, but right for the world. That is why it continues to be supported around the world.
The NATO summit rightly identified that Russia and China challenge our security. China continues to make clear the territories that it disputes in the Indo-Pacific. As war rages in Ukraine, concerns for the west’s ammunition stockpiles are growing, and the Prime Minister continues with plans that will see capability gaps in our Navy with fewer planes, tanks and troops. Without a drastic rethink of those cuts, how realistic is the UK’s desire in the integrated review to have a presence in both the north Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific?
Actually, at the Commonwealth summit, the most interesting thing was the widespread understanding of what the UK is doing in the Indo-Pacific tilt and the moves we are making to engage with that part of the world and strengthen our friends and allies in that region. Hon. Members saw what we did with the carrier strike group—an absolutely astonishing exercise—and know about the AUKUS commitment that we have made. We are in the embassies in that part of the world and are increasing our deployments there as well.
The single most impactful thing that we could do now to bear down on the cost of living would be to encourage OPEC, in particular Saudi Arabia, to pump more oil. What will the Government do to encourage our partners, such as Saudi Arabia, to do that? The Saudi Arabian oil Minister recently said that the relationship between Saudi and Moscow is
“as warm as the weather in Riyadh”—
a provocative statement that was probably influenced by our continued negotiation with Iran on a nuclear deal. Could the United Kingdom Government take a lead on that?
My right hon. Friend is correct about the role of Saudi. There may be some question about how much more the Saudis could pump out at this moment, but there is no doubt that we will need a lot more OPEC-plus oil. As hon. Members know, the UK has strong and productive relations with Saudi Arabia, which need to continue, and we need to make sure that the whole west does as well. We make that point to the Saudis. That is the way forward; they need to produce more oil—no question.
May I say to the Prime Minister that there is some good stuff in what he has reported and he should be applauded for that, but there are other things that are deeply worrying and concerning? I come from quite a military family—I saw little of my father until I was six because he was away serving in the Royal Engineers during the war—and I tell you that I take a real interest in the size of our Army. Over the last 10 years, I have consistently said to Ministers and Prime Ministers that dipping below 100,000 serving men and women is dangerous and foolish. Whatever the warm words this morning, the fact is that his Government are still committed to going down to 72,000 men and women, and that is not enough to fully protect our country. Will he think again about the size and power of our Army?
I thank the hon. Member very much. I want to say that I perfectly understand why he speaks as he does, but the reality is that the UK Army—the Army alone—will have a whole force of over 100,000: 73,000 plus 30,000 reserves. The key test is: what are they doing and how are they equipped—how are they protected? They are the best in the world, but we also want to make sure that we give them the best possible equipment, and that is what we are doing. If you listen to the Ukrainians, they will tell you that our equipment is the best.