House of Commons
Wednesday 11 January 2023
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Impact of Leaving the EU
There are many benefits of leaving the EU for Scotland. They include: the ability to agree new trade deals and strategic partnerships, controlling our borders, ensuring that regulation fits the needs of the United Kingdom, control of our fishing waters and the ability to improve the competitiveness of our economy while maintaining high standards.
Statistics from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs show that Scottish exports have plummeted by £2.2 billion over the two years since Brexit, which has already cost Scotland’s economy around £4 billion. The consequences of Brexit have been invariably harmful. What is the Secretary of State for Scotland doing to protect Scotland from this Tory-imposed act of economic self-harm?
The hon. Lady quotes statistics for the two years following Brexit, but those of course are two years where we had other factors to take into account, not only covid and many lockdowns across Europe, but the illegal war in Ukraine. In the first two quarters of 2022, the United Kingdom did more trade with the European Union than it did in any quarter when we were members of the European Union.
Brexit has cost the UK £40 billion a year in tax revenue. That would be enough to fill the black hole caused by the Tory mini-Budget, along with yet another round of Tory austerity. Scotland did not vote for Brexit, for this Government, the last one or the one before that, so does the Secretary of State think it is right that Scotland should suffer due to his party’s extreme Brexit ideology?
This Government respect democracy. We respect the outcome of referendums. There was a referendum in 2014 on Scottish independence. We respected the result; the Scottish National party has not. In 2016, the United Kingdom, which we are all part of, voted to leave the European Union, and we delivered on that.
A report from the Nuffield Trust has found that Brexit is worsening NHS workforce challenges, particularly the recruitment of specialities. Trade barriers have driven up costs and made shortages of medicines and medical devices worse in the UK than in Europe. Why should the people of Scotland suffer worse health outcomes as a consequence of a Brexit they did not vote for?
I would say that the people of Scotland are suffering worse health outcomes because of the incompetence of the Scottish Government to run the health system. Regarding NHS recruitment, I further add that we have a points-based system. It creates flexibility and allows us to deal with the skills gap, and a points-based system was the former policy of the Scottish National party.
Brexit has demonstrably been a disaster for the Scottish fisheries sector. The catchers and the processors are having a dreadful time, but even these trading arrangements are due to end in 2026 under the trade and co-operation agreement. What thought has the Secretary of State given to the future trading arrangements after 2026, or will it be just another betrayal?
We have taken control of our waters. We have left the hated common fisheries policy. We have seen our quota increase by 30,000 tonnes this year in negotiations. We are going to take full control of our waters at the end of the five-year period, and with the other things we are putting in place to support industry, we will increase the processing business, as well.
It is interesting to follow the previous question. Does my right hon. Friend agree that additional UK fishing opportunities totalling about £750 million—that is on top of the TCA agreement—have been secured in recent end-of-year negotiations? Does he agree with me and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation that Scottish industry and Scottish Government Ministers and officials have a stronger voice in the annual negotiations since leaving the EU, and the hated common fisheries policy, than ever they would have when we were still in the EU?
My hon. Friend is a great advocate for the fishing industry, and I agree with everything he says. We have a stronger voice. We have increased our tonnage by 30,000 tonnes, and we will continue to increase it. Everything he does to support that industry is laudable.
This Government seem hellbent on destroying the Scottish seafood sector. Some £60 million has been spent on additional Brexit paperwork alone, while export delays and exclusions undermine our export potential. What has happened to the Brexit sea of opportunity that was promised, and does the Minister accept the assessment of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association that Brexit has
“failed to deliver any benefits”
of a coastal state?
I do not accept that assessment. Certain sectors of the fishing industry have made much progress and seen many benefits. On the processing sector, we are looking at what the shortage occupation list could do to help the sector and at further investment in the north-east. I am confident that there is a sea of opportunity, which we will see over the five-year period, and that, at the end of those five years, the fishing sector will not be jumping up and down saying, “Let’s get back into the common fisheries policy.”
The brilliant EU citizens who contribute to Scotland’s communities, public services and economy include more than 100,000 people who currently have the precarious pre-settled status. The High Court in England recently ruled that the requirement of a further application to preserve their rights here was unlawful and contrary to the withdrawal treaty. Will the Secretary of State agree that the judgment is welcome and should be respected—providing, as it does, security for those EU citizens and protecting their ongoing contributions to Scotland and the UK?
We welcome all EU citizens with settled status and think it is absolutely right that those systems are in place. If the hon. Gentleman has any further questions regarding the matter, I suggest he raise the matter at Home Office questions. I think the system that we have is working and is fair.
When conducting his assessment, did the Secretary of State include figures for the impact of implementing the Schengen borders code between Scotland and England, including the requirements for border infrastructure, that would be required if we listened to the SNP and implemented its policies?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is not just the issue of freedom of movement of people across the United Kingdom, but the fact that while 20% of Scotland’s trade is with the EU and 20% with the rest of the world, 60% is with the rest of the United Kingdom.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
My colleagues have highlighted just some of the negative impacts of Brexit on individuals, businesses, universities and public services in Scotland. There simply are no real Brexit opportunities or sunlit uplands. Does it therefore come as a surprise to the Secretary of State that a poll last year showed that 69% of Scottish voters want to rejoin the EU?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role, and thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) for her positive engagement in the role previously.
Opinion polls come and go; we have seen that. Last week, we saw that 59% of Scots want to remain in the United Kingdom—I notice that that opinion poll was not quoted. As for the benefits of Brexit, we can make our own trade deals, and we have made 71 to date. The SNP has never seen a trade deal it liked—it has never voted for a trade deal in the European Parliament or in this Parliament. There are further benefits: we have left the hated common fisheries policy; I know the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) is very keen on the health sector, and we had an accelerated vaccine programme roll-out; we had a fast and decisive response to the war in Ukraine; and we are able to make our own laws, one of which is precision breeding, which, again, we would like the Scottish Government to support.
I thank the Secretary of State for his warm welcome, but I must point out that June Raine, the head of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, has said innumerable times that the accelerated roll-out was under European Medicines Agency legislation. With the Labour party having now lashed itself to the mast of the floundering Brexit ship, does the Secretary of State at least recognise that the only route back to the EU for Scotland is as an independent country?
The deficit in Scotland is considerably higher than 3%, which is the Maastricht criteria, so that is not the route back. The currency is a problem as well—as we know, the Bank of England is the bank of last resort, and there would have to be a new currency in Scotland following membership of the EU. There is no desire in Scotland to have membership of the EU. I believe that when Scots stop and look at the detail, whether it is on their pensions, trade or currency, they know that their home is the United Kingdom.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Scottish communities have benefited from the UK Government’s £150-million community ownership fund, which is a key pillar in our levelling-up agenda. To date, more than £2 million has been invested in 10 projects across Scotland through the fund, including more than £200,000 to restore the not-for-profit community-run Old Forge pub on the Knoydart peninsula, and £250,000 in Perth and Kinross’s Rannoch hub to provide the historical building with new business and leisure facilities for the local community.
As it is 11 January, I wish everyone in Burghead a happy Clavie. In a historical tradition dating back to the 1750s, tonight, as his predecessors did, Clavie king Dan Ralph and his crew will carry a barrel of burning tar and oil through the streets up to Doorie hill to welcome in the new year. It is an incredible sight and I wish everyone well tonight. The Minister mentioned levelling up. He will know that Moray Council has submitted an ambitious bid that will see jobs and investment in Elgin and across Moray. Can he give us an update on that bid?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the activities taking place in Burghead tonight, and I wish Dan Ralph and his team well in the Clavie this evening. I welcome Moray Council’s engagement with the levelling-up programme. As he will know, the levelling-up fund invests in infrastructure that improves everyday lives across the United Kingdom. To date, eight Scottish projects have been successfully funded to a value of more than £171 million. The United Kingdom Government will shortly make an announcement on the successful bids from round 2 of the levelling-up fund, and I look forward to seeing more successful Scottish bids as part of that announcement.
Can I ask the deputy assistant junior viceroy to be honest at the Dispatch Box that Scotland is being short-changed as a result of being dragged out of the European Union? We used to benefit from much more regional development money, rather than the poxy pork barrel politics of levelling-up money.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member does not welcome the Government’s additional investment into communities across Scotland. We are making decisions based on real devolution and supporting local councils across Scotland by investing in local communities, while the Scottish Government increasingly take more powers away from local councils.
International Trade Links
Scotland is, of course, already benefiting from the United Kingdom’s independent trade policy. To date, we have signed 71 trade deals with non-EU countries and the European Union, which were worth £808 billion in 2021. We have further high-value deals in sight with the trans-Pacific region, India and the Gulf states. My priority is to ensure that Scotland’s best interests continue to be represented in our ambitious programme of free trade agreement negotiations.
The UK Government have an extensive overseas network via its embassies, the British Council and so on. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that the UK Government work collaboratively with Scottish businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, and the Scottish Government to maximise opportunities and utilise resources to best promote the Scottish brand and businesses overseas?
Our response to the recent Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry into promoting Scotland internationally highlights the wide range of activities that the Scotland Office, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for International Trade are undertaking around the world to promote Scottish interests across diverse areas, including trade and investment. UK Export Finance has provided £2.1 billion to Scottish companies since 2016-17, supporting a range of businesses, including food processors, hydro research, manufacturing and renewable energy. Our approach to attracting foreign investment in Scotland is driven by the Office for Investment, which launched in 2020. The successes of the programme are clear, with 4,408 new jobs created by overseas investment.
Does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom securing the double taxation agreement with Brazil, with its 212 million population, is a very significant event for many Scottish exporting businesses, and that the UK’s work to agree geographical indication for Scottish whisky in Brazil will help secure even more jobs in Scotland?
Yes, I do agree, and I commend my hon. Friend for his efforts as the Government’s trade envoy to Brazil. As he will know, Scotland exports the most goods from the United Kingdom to Brazil, so it stands to benefit greatly from the agreement on double taxation, when implemented. Given the importance of the Brazil export market, I also share his ambition of securing GI protection for Scottish whisky in Brazil as soon as possible, with the obvious benefits this will bring to both producers and consumers of our national drink.
Mr Speaker, I assume you will be surprised and delighted to learn that last summer a Bollywood biopic was filmed in Caithness in my constituency. That was a lot of dosh being spent in the north of Scotland. Screen tourism brings in almost £65 million for Scottish businesses, and more than half the people in the UK think that Scotland is one of the finest film and TV locations. Can I ask the Minister what he will do to promote Scotland as one of the best film locations in the world?
I very much agree with the hon. Member’s points about the Scottish film industry. I know he had a distinguished career on the stage during his time in the pantomime season. There is a real opportunity here for Scotland. We can see the benefits for Scottish tourism of TV shows such as “Outlander” and the BBC’s recent “The Traitors”. I am meeting those from VisitScotland next week, and I look forward to discussing these opportunities further with them.
I do not know where all this tosh that we have heard comes from this morning, but the reality of trade arrangements in Scotland and the UK is that, because of Brexit, £15 billion less was spent in the last quarter of 2022 than would have been. What does the Minister have to say to businesses in Scotland suffering under this calamitous Brexit that they did not vote for, and when is he going to do something—or anything—that will help Scotland to escape this Brexit disaster?
I know the hon. Member and the SNP have historically been anti-trade, but this Government are unquestionably committed to expanding trade opportunities for Scotland. Trade continues to grow, trade continues to be an opportunity for the Scottish economy and trade creates jobs for Scotland.
Inflation and Cost of Living Increases
Like many countries around the world, the UK faces the dual challenge of a recession and high inflation. That is why the Prime Minister has made tackling inflation a key priority. As outlined in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, this Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable households across the United Kingdom with £12 billion of direct support in 2023-24. Alongside this, the energy price guarantee is saving a typical household in Scotland £900 this winter.
I thank the Minister for his response. He will know that, in contrast to the UK energy resources that were privatised under previous Conservative Administrations, France’s publicly owned company can cap energy prices at 4% and Germany has cut VAT on energy to 7%. May I ask him what representations he has made to Government colleagues about following European examples and preventing costs going up at source, saving money for people, businesses and taxpayers?
This Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in Scotland through this inflationary crisis with the extra support that is going to the Scottish Government—the record-breaking block grant, together with £1.5 billion of additional funding through the Barnett consequentials. That is on top of the energy support packages that have been put in place by this Government. This compassionate Conservative Government will continue to work to support the most vulnerable in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.
Data from the UK Government shows that standing charges for Scottish households are above the UK average, yet Scotland is an energy-rich country in her own right, producing over 60% of the UK’s gas and a third of its green electricity. This broken Westminster system results in people in my constituency of Airdrie and Shotts and those across Scotland struggling with the cost of living, so can the Department explain why people in energy-rich Scotland are paying more, despite being energy producers?
As the hon. Lady will know, Ofgem is currently reviewing the charging structure, and the UK Government continue to engage with Ofgem as part of that process. Ofgem is independent of the UK Government, and we look forward to the recommendations it brings forward.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
Last week, analysis of average wages in Scotland showed that they are almost £800 lower in real terms than when this Government came to power 13 years ago. In my constituency, they are £6,000 lower. That is the result of 13 years of Tory and SNP incompetence and not growing the economy. Does the Minister agree that after 13 miserable years of Tory wage stagnation, and with inflation now soaring into double digits, the cost of living crisis for families in Scotland is made in Downing Street?
No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government are committed to ensuring that wages go further, and that people keep more of what they earn. From April 2023 we are increasing the national living wage by 9.7%—the biggest ever cash rise—meaning an extra £1,600 a year for a full-time worker over the age of 23. Since 2010 this Government have also increased tax-free allowances for income tax and national insurance by more than inflation, roughly doubling them in cash terms and taking millions more people out of paying tax altogether.
I am sure when workers in Scotland cannot afford to pay their bills this winter they will be delighted to hear that! Workers in Scotland see their wages lower today in real terms than they were in 2010. It is no wonder that in Scotland teachers are on strike, and that nurses from the Royal College of Nursing and ambulance workers in the GMB have rejected the Scottish Government’s pay offers. It is the same across the UK, yet we now learn that instead of negotiating in good faith, the UK Government want to strip those workers of their rights. Does the Minister think it is right to clap nurses, teachers and many more public sector workers one year, only to propose sacking them the next for asking for a fair pay rise?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, public sector workers are striking in Scotland because of the incompetency of the SNP Government in Edinburgh. This Government are taking action to ensure that public services are protected through anti-strike legislation, which is ensuring that people who use the NHS and other essential services are protected from those types of strike action.
Energy Bill Support
The Government’s energy price guarantee continues to support households across Great Britain, including in Scotland. The Chancellor’s autumn statement set out how the scheme will be adjusted by reducing typical household energy bills to an annual equivalent of around £3,000 from April 2023 until April 2024, saving an average of £500 per household.
A constituent contacted me before Christmas because she was struggling to keep up with her home energy costs. When my office contacted her provider, we found there was little support for her as a victim of Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Ltd, with the huge costs related mostly to the green deal. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his Cabinet colleagues about tailored energy support for Scottish victims of the green deal scam?
As the hon. Lady knows, the green deal was designed to ensure that people were able to make their households more energy efficient, but we have always been clear that the repayments should not have been greater than the savings delivered. If her constituent has been mis-sold something, it is important that a complaint is made to the loan provider, and ultimately to the Financial Ombudsman Service. If that route has been pursued and the hon. Lady still needs some assistance, will she please contact me as I am happy to meet her to discuss the matter further?
I call the shadow Minister, Liz Twist.
One reason families in Scotland are paying some of the highest electricity bills in Europe is that there have been 13 years of failed Tory and SNP energy polices. Scotland is a key contributor in delivering a secure, affordable low-carbon energy system for the whole UK. Under Labour’s proposals we would lower bills for Scottish households and be energy independent, with a plan for clean power by 2030. The former Conservative energy Minister, Claire Perry O’Neill, said:
“Labour are serious about Britain’s energy crisis—unlike my former party”.
Does the Minister agree with his former colleague?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis. The Government remain committed to ensuring that the UK has a green, secured energy supply. I do agree with her assessment of the SNP’s failings—we saw that yesterday in its botched energy statement to the Scottish Parliament.
I trust the hon. Gentleman recalls that the House overwhelmingly rejected the motion to which he refers. The Government are focused on delivering for the people of Scotland. That means helping to tackle the cost of living, protecting our long-term energy security and growing our economy.
I remember how in this place the Secretary of State for Scotland, while explaining the UK Government’s lack of appetite for a referendum on Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, repeated many times that the route to a referendum in 2014 involved “consensus between both Governments.” Given that democracy is fuelled by consensus, is the Secretary of State for Scotland working towards establishing that consensus or is he content to deny the people of Scotland their democratic voice?
The Secretary of State for Scotland and the Government will continue to work with the Scottish Government to deliver on the priorities of the people of Scotland. They are: dealing with the cost of living; dealing with the NHS; and dealing with our education system, as well as a long list of other issues that the Scottish Government are completely failing to deliver on—certainly not another independence referendum.
Order. Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
There are no NHS dentists taking on patients in Lancaster and Fleetwood, and those constituents of mine who are lucky enough to have one are waiting months for an appointment. How long did the Prime Minister have to wait for his last NHS dentist appointment?
As a result of the new reformed NHS dentistry contract, there are now more NHS dentists across the UK, with more funding, making sure that people can get the treatment they need. Let me answer the hon. Lady directly. I am registered with an NHS GP. I have used independent healthcare in the past—[Interruption.] I will answer her question. I am registered with an NHS GP. I have used independent healthcare in the past, and I am grateful to the Friarage Hospital for the fantastic care that it has given my family over the years. The truth is, I am proud to come from an NHS family, and that is why I am passionately committed to protecting the NHS with more funding, more doctors and nurses and a clear plan to cut the waiting lists.
Everyone should have the opportunity to succeed, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we all have a part to play. That is why I am pleased that the Social Mobility Commission is working to provide new information to young people about the opportunities available to them as well as a toolkit for employers so that they can also play their part in improving social mobility.
We come to the Leader of the Opposition.
In the 13 years of the last Labour Government, there were no national NHS strikes. If the Prime Minister had negotiated with the nurses before Christmas, they would not be on strike. If he had negotiated with the ambulance workers, they would not be on strike, either. Why is he choosing to prolong the misery rather than end these strikes?
We have always been clear that we want to have constructive dialogue with the unions. That is also why, when it comes to the issue of pay, we accepted in full the independent recommendations of the pay review bodies. The right hon. and learned Gentleman simply does not have a policy when it comes to this question. He talks about wanting to end the strikes. The question for him is simple then: why does he not support our minimum safety legislation? We all know why. It is because he is on the side of his union paymasters, not patients.
When I clapped nurses, I meant it. The Prime Minister’s response to the greatest crisis in the history of the NHS is to threaten to sack our nurses. His Transport Secretary says it is not the solution. His Education Secretary hopes it will not apply in schools. His own assessments say it could increase the number of strikes. The simple truth is you cannot legislate your way out of 13 years of failure. Between 2010 and 2019, before anyone had heard of covid—[Interruption.]—the number of people stuck on the NHS waiting list doubled. Why do patients always wait longer under the Tories? [Interruption.]
Order. This is the new year. I want to start off with a refreshed Chamber, and certainly not with interruption.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the minimum safety legislation. Let us just talk about it a little bit further, because this is a simple proposition. No one denies the unions’ freedom to strike, but it is important to balance that with people’s right to access to life-saving healthcare at the same time. This should not be controversial. The International Labour Organisation supports minimum service levels. They are present in France, in Italy, in Spain. Normally he is in favour of more European alignment—why not now? [Hon. Members: “More!”]
They have gone from clapping the nurses to sacking the nurses, it is that simple. And to add insult to injury, they are the cause of the crisis. The Prime Minister’s Government commissioned a report on waiting times. He knows this: his own report says that this is not a covid problem; it is 10 years of managed decline. As a result, 7.2 million people are now waiting for treatment. He says he wants to be held to account over that, so let us be very clear: is his promise merely to get those numbers back to where they were before covid—that is 4.6 million—or back to where Labour had them in 2010, almost half that? Which is it?
Again, let us just start with the facts. The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to completely ignore the fact that not just in England, but in Scotland, in Wales and in many other European countries, covid has had an extraordinary impact on health services. We have a very clear plan to bring the waiting lists down and it is one that the NHS supports. I tell you what the NHS does not need: Labour’s only idea, which is for another completely disruptive, top-down, unfunded reorganisation buying out every single GP contract. Those are not my words. The CEO of the Nuffield Trust said it “will cost a fortune” and it is “out of date”—just like the Labour party.
So, the Prime Minister cannot tell us how much he will reduce waiting lists by or when. So much for the accountability he wants. As ever with this Prime Minister, you scratch the surface and you find there is nothing there. Last month, 1.4 million people waited more than four weeks for a GP appointment. When Labour left Government, you were guaranteed an appointment in two days. When does the Prime Minister expect to get back to that?
We have already eliminated two-year wait lists: that was done last year. We are on track this spring to eliminate waits of 18 months, with a clear plan to go further and eliminate waits of 52 weeks by next spring. We are doing that with record funding, more community diagnostic centres, more surgical hubs and more patient choice. That is why I have made tackling wait lists one of my five priorities. What are the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s? They seem to change every single week. At first he was against NHS outsourcing; now he is apparently in favour of it. It is inconsistent, unprincipled and in hock to his union—
Order. Can I just remind the Prime Minister that this is Prime Minister’s questions, not Opposition questions?
I heard the Prime Minister saying that he is now registered with an NHS doctor, so he will soon enjoy the experience of waiting on hold every morning at 8 am to get a GP appointment. I can tell him that those who are waiting now do not want another round of empty promises or boasting about what he has done; they just want to know when they will be able to see a doctor.
This is not just about routine care. There can be nothing more terrifying than being told you might have cancer: that is why the last Labour Government brought in a guarantee that people would be seen by a specialist within two weeks. Today, 50,000 people are waiting longer than that. Everyone in this House will appreciate the anxiety that they are feeling. When will cancer patients once again get the certainty of quick care that they got under Labour?
Why is there a challenge with cancer times right now? Again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman just has absolutely no understanding of the situation. What happened to cancer referrals during covid? They went down by almost two thirds. That was because of a pandemic. By the way, if we had listened to him, we would still be in lockdown and there would be even more waiting lists. Actually, right now there are record levels of cancer treatment as we catch up with those missed things.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about what is terrifying. [Hon. Members: “It’s you!”] What is terrifying is that right now people do not know whether, when they call 999, they will get the treatment that they need. Australia, Canada and the US banned strikes by blue light services. We are not doing that. All we are saying is that in these emergency services, patients should be able to rely on a basic level of life-saving care. Why is he against that?
There is not a minimum level of service any day, because the Government have broken the NHS. The Prime Minister is not promising that people will get to see a doctor in a few days, like they did under Labour. He is not promising that cancer patients will get urgent treatment, as they did under Labour. He is not even promising an NHS that puts patients first, like it did under Labour. No, he is promising that one day, although he cannot say when, the Government’s record high waiting lists will stop growing—and that’s it. After 13 years in government, what does it say that the best they can offer is that at some point they might stop making things worse?
When it comes to the NHS, it is crystal clear: the Conservatives are on the side of patients, Labour is on the side of its union paymasters. I have laid out my priorities for the country: waiting lists down, inflation down, debt down, growth up and the boats stopped. All the right hon. and learned Gentleman does is flip from one thing to another. That is the difference between him and me. He is focused on petty politics; I am delivering for Britain.
My hon. Friend is right to shine a spotlight on that issue. Like her, I am incredibly proud of all our social care workers and their commitment to their profession. That is why, this spring, many of them will benefit from an increase of nearly 10% in the national living wage, which will put an extra £1,600 on to their payslips. However, we also want to make sure that they feel valued through professional development training and career progression, and our half a billion pounds of investment in the social care workforce will do exactly that for the workers in my hon. Friend’s constituency and for others.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.
Given the longest and deepest recession in the entire G7, Brexit, 13 years of Tory rule, the energy price crisis, inflation and high interest rates, if the people of Scotland do the maths—as the Prime Minister so hopes—will they not come to the conclusion that this Union simply does not add up?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman brought up the subject of energy. He was right to do so. When it comes to the economy, energy is incredibly important to Scotland, and Scotland will play a fantastic part in helping us make the transition to net zero. We now know, however, that the Scottish Government do not want to support the Scottish energy industry and the 200,000 jobs that it produces. I am keen to work with the Scottish Government to support the North sea, because it is something of which we are all very proud in the United Kingdom.
If the Prime Minister wants to talk about the fact that Scotland is energy rich but fuel poor on Westminster’s watch, I am more than happy to do that. For today, however, let us reflect on numbers, and in particular the numbers on which Sam Coates of Sky News shone a light—notably those relating to the Prime Minister’s favourite potential successor, which showed that over four months, for four speeches, he had raked in more than £1 million. Does the Prime Minister not find it utterly perverse that senior members of the Conservative party are feathering their nests in this way, while at the same time seeking to deny working people the opportunity to strike for fair pay?
I do not think we need to talk about our predecessors, but I remember—[Interruption.] If I am not mistaken, it was one of the hon. Gentleman’s predecessors who worked for Russia Today.
The hon. Gentleman talks about priorities. Yesterday the SNP spent time talking yet more about independence at a time when we should be talking about delivering for people across the United Kingdom, focusing on their jobs and improving the NHS throughout the UK, in Scotland and, indeed, everywhere else. That is the kind of thing I want to talk to the Scottish Government about, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will work with me to do that.
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for the steel industry, and this Government remain committed to a thriving UK steel industry. That is why our support for steel includes nearly £800 million in relief for electricity costs and steel companies are eligible to bid for up to £1.5 billion in capital grant to speed their transition to net zero steel production.
I am sure the whole House will want to join me in wishing all the best to Gareth Bale, the former captain of the Wales men’s soccer team, who has been a national inspiration and who took Wales to the football World Cup.
This Tory Government attack dedicated health and ambulance staff, but disruption from strikes is as nothing compared with the chronic disruption caused every day by their 13 years of butchering health budgets. Meanwhile, Labour’s Health Secretary in Wales follows the Tory playbook, blaming patients themselves for standards of health. The reality is this: health services in Wales suffer from a combination of mismanagement by Labour and a Westminster funding system that perpetuates poverty. The Prime Minister used to talk about levelling up—[Interruption.]
Order. The question is far too long. The Prime Minister must have got the drift.
Will the Prime Minister therefore commit himself to funding Wales’s public—
Order. I call the Prime Minister.
Let me join the hon. Lady, because as a Southampton fan, Gareth Bale is also a hero of mine and I wish him well. When it comes to funding Wales, it is because of the funding from Barnett that the Welsh Government receive significantly more funding than the NHS in England, but also £1.2 billion of extra funding as a result of the autumn statement. I say what I said to the leader of the Opposition: this is not about political point scoring. The NHS is under pressure in Wales as it is in Scotland and England, in large part because of the impact of the global pandemic. She would do well to recognise that.
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion and campaigner for this project. We will invest up to £1 billion to establish carbon capture and storage in four industrial clusters by 2030. We very much recognise the benefits of the Scottish cluster and the role it could play in decarbonisation, and we are progressing track 2 and will set out further details in due course.
With regard to funding, we announced in the autumn statement £2 billion of extra funding for our schools. I am also proud that this Government have introduced the world-leading, world-first Online Safety Bill, which specifically improves protections for children and puts very strict obligations and penalties on tech companies for enforcing them.
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his local hospital and constituents. I am pleased to say that the new hospital scheme for Torbay is part of our plan to deliver dozens more hospitals by 2030. We remain committed to the delivery of that new hospital, and I am pleased his trust is talking to the new hospital programme team about how to progress those plans.
As the hon. Gentleman will already be aware, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs already carried out a comprehensive, evidence-led investigation, considered everything robustly and concluded that natural causes were most likely responsible for some of the things that we saw. But we recognise that people want a thorough investigation of this issue, and DEFRA has confirmed that an independent panel will be set up to report quickly.
Unlike the Labour council, my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his constituents in Bingley. As I have told him previously, I cannot comment on individual bids but I wish him every success and will be following with close interest how it proceeds.
I am aware that other Government Ministers have looked into this issue and are currently considering the matter at hand. I will be happy to write to the hon. Lady when we know more about the situation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we want to safeguard the future of our public services and make sure that our young people inherit a strong economy, we must be disciplined on spending and borrowing. She is absolutely right about no unfunded spending commitments, unlike the Labour party, as she says, which at the last count has made £90 billion of unfunded spending commitments. It is the same old Labour: it always runs out of other people’s money.
I am very sorry to hear about the case raised by the hon. Gentleman, and I am happy to look into that specific one more closely. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we have recently reformed the NHS dentistry contract, and the hundreds of millions of pounds more funding and more dentists should make a difference around the country, but I will write to him on that specific case.
Scotland’s oil and gas industry supports 90,000 Scottish jobs, but yesterday Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP Government published plans calling for the shutdown of the industry as fast as possible and an end to new exploration. These plans are naive and reckless and were previously described by the SNP leader in this House as “crazy”. Will the Minister reaffirm his support for Scotland’s oil and gas workers and the future of our industry?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know that we will have to rely on hydrocarbons for decades to come as we transition to net zero, and consuming oil and gas from the North sea means less than half the carbon footprint of importing that same oil and gas, so it obviously makes sense to do it here and in the process support tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland. I can reassure him that the Scottish oil and gas industry has this Government’s wholehearted support.
I thank the hon. Lady for her campaigning in this area. We are taking action to improve things. Over the past five years the National Institute for Health and Care Research has invested more than £100 million to support research into eye conditions, but I know there is more we can do and my hon. Friend the Minister is, I believe, sitting down to talk to the hon. Lady in due course. I look forward to hearing about those conversations.
Today, I and others met Sebastien Lai, the son of Jimmy Lai—the ex-owner of Apple Daily who languishes in prison. I remind my right hon. Friend that Jimmy Lai is a British citizen and a British passport holder, and he now faces a trial at the end of the year in which, under the new national security laws, he can be incarcerated for life. And for what? For publishing truth to power.
Will my right hon. Friend please direct his Government, particularly the Foreign Office, to warn the Chinese Government, as the Americans have already done, with the threat that if they persist, the use of common law in Hong Kong will be taken away?
My right hon. Friend speaks with authority, and I thank him for his continued engagement on this critical issue. He knows the actions we have already taken with regard to Hong Kong, not least providing refuge for hundreds of thousands of people and being robust in standing up to what we believe to be Chinese aggression and the undermining of the settlement that we fought so hard to achieve. He has my absolute assurance that I will remain robustly engaged, and I look forward to sitting down with him to discuss this particular issue in more detail as soon as possible.
I thank the hon. Lady for her important work on this issue. Sexual harassment has absolutely no place in the workplace. Everyone should feel safe at work. Of course, we need to make sure that legislation does not have unintended consequences, but I know she is meeting my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities to discuss the Bill further. I look forward to hearing about the progress in that meeting.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the disgusting antisemitic, anti-vax conspiracy theories promulgated online this morning are not only deeply offensive but anti-scientific and have no place in this House or in our wider society?
I join my right hon. Friend in completely condemning, in the strongest possible terms, the types of comments we saw this morning. Obviously, it is utterly unacceptable to make such linkages and to use such language, and I am determined that the scourge of antisemitism be eradicated. It has absolutely no place in our society. I know the previous few years have been challenging for the Jewish community, and I never want them to experience anything like that again.
First, I am very sorry to hear about the experience of the hon. Lady’s elderly constituent. My sympathies go out to her, but this is not about blaming anybody. This is about recognising that the NHS, whether in Scotland, in Wales—where it is run by the Labour party—or here in England, is facing pressure as we recover from the pandemic. The right thing to do is to have a clear plan in place to work with doctors and nurses to ease that pressure. That is what we are focused on doing, and that is what our plan will deliver.
Renewable Liquid Heating Fuel
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reduce the duty charged on renewable liquid heating fuel; to provide for the imposition of obligations on suppliers of heating fuel in relation to the supply of renewable fuel; and for connected purposes.
Although, obviously, no ten-minute rule Bill can compete with Prime Minister’s questions for the attendance of hon. Members, I have been heartened by the extraordinary expressions of support I have had for this proposed legislation from Members from all parts of the House. In addition to those who have agreed to sponsor the Bill, others have offered support in taking it forward, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee; my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller); and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie).
It is no surprise that the Bill should have such support, for 1.7 million homes in the UK are off the gas grid—about 1.1 million in Great Britain and a further 600,000 in Northern Ireland. They are mainly in rural communities and they mostly rely on kerosene boilers for their heating. As we chart a course towards net zero, finding a low-carbon solution for these homes is going to be incredibly important. In 2017, the Government introduced the green growth strategy, which concluded that there should be a concept of electrification first in respect of such homes. That mantra has been repeated in consultations since, and in 2017 the Government also indicated that they wanted to seek to remove boilers from off-grid homes in these rural communities after 2026.
More recently, the heating and building strategy in 2021 and two associated consultations on homes off the gas grid moved further, saying that there should be a heat pump first strategy. The Government propose that, from 2026, the installation of replacement boilers will be banned in those off-grid properties and instead households in those rural communities will be forced to have either air source heat pumps or ground source heat pumps. Don’t get me wrong: there is a role for both air source and ground source heat, and I am a supporter of those technologies. Indeed, Cornwall has impressive geothermal resources and companies such as Kensa, which is a national market leader in this technology.
However, there are some drawbacks to air source heat pumps in particular, and that technology is not right for everyone. The capital cost is very high; at about £12,000, it is at least three times the cost of a new boiler. In some coastal areas, the equipment can be prone to decay and rusting. It also requires a lot of additional insulation in homes, with which comes a lack of ventilation. In some old properties, an associated problem of increased insulation is an increased risk of mould and the health problems that come from that.
The Bill would establish a better path towards decarbonising our energy in these off-grid homes, because the technology now exists to adapt existing boilers to run not on kerosene but on hydrotreated vegetable oil, a renewable fuel derived from waste. The adaptation to the boilers is very modest, involving a small change to a nozzle, an adjustment in the pressure and sometimes a clean of the tank. The cost of the adaptation is no more than a few hundred pounds. The Government’s work in this area on their standard assessment procedure for building energy efficiency—the so-called SAP document—shows that switching to HVO as opposed to kerosene would lead to an 88% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which would be an extraordinary achievement.
In my constituency, the small village of Kehelland has been taking part in a fascinating pilot, organised by local fuel distributor Mitchell & Webber. Residents, the local school and the chapel have all taken part in the switch to the use of HVO. I met them shortly before Christmas and found that the results were fascinating. Typically, fuel consumption is around 30% to 35% lower than for kerosene. Residents reported slightly higher temperatures in their radiators. The local chapel made a very good point, which is that it only needs heat intermittently—that is, when communities are using the hall. It does not want an air source heat pump running continuously to keep temperatures high; it wants to be able to switch that energy off and on, which makes this an ideal solution.
The Government have long recognised the value of renewable fuels in the transport sector. We have the renewable transport fuel obligation, which requires fuel manufacturers and importers to purchase a proportion of fuel from renewable sources. The Bill would extend the RTFO mechanism to cover the use of renewable fuels in domestic boilers and remove the current duties from these renewable fuels, which are entirely counterproductive.
The intended impact of my Bill is to reduce the cost of HVO so that it can achieve parity with kerosene. If we get parity of cost with kerosene—the cost of conversion is modest—we will see a very rapid adoption of HVO. The key thing is that, if the Government were to target carbon emissions, the incentive to use renewable fuels would become quite obvious. The challenge is that the Government are not so much targeting carbon with their current strategy, as targeting the adoption of a chosen technology. They have chosen a winner in air source heat pumps, and that is how they are measuring their success. The risk that they face with their current strategy is that people will put off the decision to make that huge capital expenditure in air source heat pumps. They will patch up their boilers to keep them going, replacing parts when they might otherwise have replaced the whole boiler. That means that the current strategy is unlikely to yield any results in carbon reductions until at least carbon budget 6 in the mid to late 2030s. The great advantage of my proposal is that there would be a rapid uptake of HVO within carbon budget 4—literally within the next four years. Within those four years, we would see a dramatic 88% reduction in carbon emissions.
In conclusion, if we are to meet our net zero ambitions and those crucial carbon budget staging posts in the meantime—4, 5 and 6—the key is to make it as easy as possible for people to make the change. The easier we make it and the more effort we put into making sure that they do not need to change their way of life, the faster the uptake will be; and the faster we get uptake, the quicker we will get to net zero.
I welcome the fact that the Minister for Energy and Climate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), has listened to this speech. The Government have forthcoming responses to two consultations in this area, and they have a wonderful Energy Bill that is ripe for amendment—I look forward to it returning to this House. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will engage further with this proposal, but, for now, I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That George Eustice, Sir Gary Streeter, Kevin Foster, Anne Marie Morris, Mr David Jones, Jim Shannon, Ben Lake, Sir Mike Penning, Mr Robin Walker, Selaine Saxby, Ian Paisley and Derek Thomas present the Bill.
George Eustice accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 March, and to be printed (Bill 224).
11th Allotted Day
Fair Taxation of Schools and Education Standards Committee
I beg to move,
That the following Standing Order shall have effect until 31 December 2023:
Fair Taxation of Schools and Education Standards Committee
(1) There shall be a select committee, to be called the Fair Taxation of Schools and Education Standards Committee, to consider reforming the tax status of private schools in order to raise funding for measures to increase educational standards across the state sector, including the recruitment of new teachers, additional teacher training, and careers advice and work experience for all pupils.
(2) It shall be an instruction to the committee that it shall make a first report to the House no later than 20 July 2023.
(3) The committee shall consist of eleven members of whom ten shall be nominated by the Committee of Selection in the same manner as those select committees appointed in accordance with Standing Order No. 121.
(4) The chair of the committee shall be a backbench member of a party represented in His Majesty’s Government and shall be elected by the House under arrangements approved by the Speaker.
(5) Unless the House otherwise orders, each member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it until the expiration of this Order.
(6) The committee shall have power—
(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time; and
(b) to appoint specialist advisers to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference.
(7) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report to the committee from time to time.
(8) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the evidence taken before the sub-committee.
In this House we often talk of tough choices, especially since the Conservatives crashed the economy, but today I present the House with a very easy choice: to invest in the future of every child or to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest. We on the Opposition side know where we stand. Labour believes that excellence is for everyone—excellence for every child, in every school, in every corner of our country. I ask hon. Members to support that ambition by establishing a new Select Committee to consider how to end the inexcusable tax breaks that private schools enjoy and invest that money in driving up standards across all our state schools.
The evidence for ending private schools’ tax breaks is very clear:
“Removing the tax advantages of private schools would boost standards in the state sector and raise vital extra funds”.
I agree, but those are not my words; they are the words of the now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. It should be an easy choice, but we have tabled this motion because once again the Government are failing—failing to stand up to the vested interests in their own party, failing to consider the evidence even when their own Members have previously urged them to act and, yet again, failing our children.
There will be nobody who does not agree with the basic premise that we want to see excellence in all of our schools. Can the hon. Lady explain why she thinks she needs a Select Committee to achieve her aspiration? Surely she needs either an amendment to a Finance Bill or primary legislation? She does not need a Select Committee.
We will be considering all of our options for how to force this issue, but this is a choice for Conservative Members. There is a clear and straightforward way that we could look carefully at this issue, and the motion sets that out. The question for Conservative Members is whether they are prepared to defend inexcusable tax breaks for private schools, or whether they want to invest that money in ensuring that all our children in our state schools get a great start in life.
May I ask the shadow Secretary of State whether any Labour Members on the current Education Committee have put such ideas forward to its Chair for investigation by the existing Select Committee?
I cannot speak on behalf of other hon. Members, but I will happily address the point about the substance of the Select Committee in a moment.
Our children are at the heart of Labour’s ambition for Britain. Children alive today can expect to live into the next century, with the pace of change increasing and technological advancements growing. We must equip them for that world, and that must shape how we think about our schools today and tomorrow, about what it means to grow up in this country and about what the country they inherit will become. Children do not lack vision. Time and again, when meeting, talking to and listening to children, I am struck by their optimism and ambition, and not just for themselves and their families, but for our country and our world.
I am determined that, in government, Labour will match that ambition. The education we provide for our children today will shape all our futures, and by delivering an excellent education for every child, we will build a better future for all levels. A child at school now cannot pause and wait for change; they get only one childhood and they get only one chance. Our job is to make sure that their childhood is the best it possibly can be.
This House should not wait either. The Government have told us that they are not prepared to act. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), the Chair of the Education Committee, has set out his priorities—I am glad to see that someone in his party is talking about childcare for once, and I welcome his Committee’s interest in this area. However, we urgently need action there too, driving up school standards and the opportunity to end private schools’ tax breaks. A new direction and new ambition are needed to drive forward that change.
When I was on the Education Committee in 2019—just for the information of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), conversations about future work tend to happen confidentially within a Select Committee—we produced a report on special educational needs and disabilities, which one of our best pieces of work. In that report we highlighted the need to train teachers and people working in schools on SEND as a key priority. The money that my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is talking about could be used to provide that training, the need for which was identified back in 2019, but which is yet to take place because schools do not have the funding they need and the Government are prioritising tax breaks for private schools instead.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will set out in more detail exactly what difference that money could make to delivering a brilliant education for all our children.
On money, the case could hardly be stronger. After more than a decade of Conservative Governments, what do we have to show for it? We have childcare in crisis, a recovery programme in chaos, staff leaving our schools in their droves, school buildings collapsing, attainment gaps widening, apprenticeship numbers in freefall, colleges being pushed to the brink, and universities treated as a political battleground, not as a public good.
Once again, it will be the task of the next Labour Government to repair our schools system and equip it for the future. But we know that takes money. As the cost of living crisis spirals, the Government have imposed the greatest tax burden for 70 years, reaching again and again into the pockets of working people to fix their mess. Labour will put our children, their futures and the future of our country first by asking those with the broadest shoulders to contribute their fair share; by requiring private schools to pay business rates, as state schools already do, and to pay VAT, as our colleges already do.
At this time of economic uncertainty, asking the public to subsidise a tax break for private schools is inexcusable. We are not talking about small sums. Putting VAT on independent school fees would raise “about £1.7 billion”—those are the Chancellor’s words, not mine.
The hon. Lady talks about these so-called tax breaks. Does she not appreciate that all private schools have a duty to give bursaries and scholarships? I myself went to a private school, and I could only afford to do so on a bursary. Does she not understand that her plans will destroy that, making private schools the privilege only of the super-rich and absolutely destroying the middle classes? The people of Rother Valley who send their children to Mount St Mary’s College and other private schools often do so through bursaries. Why does she want to deprive my constituents of that sort of education?
I will come in more detail to the record of private schools on the means-tested support that they make available, and on falling partnerships, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that it is not a great record. I gently suggest to him that the people of Rother Valley and across our country—the vast majority of whom send their children to state schools—would prefer his focus to be on driving up standards in state schools, not on defending the tax breaks enjoyed by private schools.
I have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman, thanks.
On funding, we could do so much to drive up standards in schools for all our children. The new committee would look at the ways in which money raised from ending tax breaks for private schools could support high standards for all our schools everywhere, including through recruiting new teachers. We know that the most important factor for boosting children’s learning in school is the quality of teaching. Teachers, school leaders and support staff are doing an incredible job to support our children, but there are simply not enough of them. Under this Government, teacher vacancies have more than doubled, there are more than 2,000 temporarily filled posts a year, and teacher recruitment targets have been missed yet again. More teachers are leaving than entering our classrooms. For a decade they have been overworked, overstretched and undervalued. Our growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis was created by this Government.
Labour has said that we would use the money raised by ending private schools’ tax breaks to support our teachers. We would invest in recruiting thousands of new teaching staff, filling those vacancies and plugging skills gaps, and ensuring that teachers are not burnt out because they are covering their own job and someone else’s. Once they are in our schools, we will support every teacher with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive, and with an entitlement to ongoing training, so that instead of trying to squeeze learning for professional qualifications into evenings or weekends, or the odd session on an inset day, teachers are encouraged and supported to take on learning opportunities.
Labour would support teaching staff with the skills that they say they need to support children who have special educational needs and disabilities or who have learned English as a second language, and would help them to develop their professional expertise in the curriculum or knowledge sequencing. That training would ensure that teachers are confident in their expert knowledge and can help every child to thrive. Those steps would help the next Labour Government to ensure that every child is taught by a qualified teacher. Every child and every parent should have that guarantee.
Of course, we all agree with the hon. Lady about all children going to excellent schools and being taught by excellent teachers. Can she set out her plans for armed forces families, who are so well supported by private schools up and down the country? My constituency has so many forces families. More than 5,000 forces family children in this country, particularly those from single-parent families, go to boarding school to allow their parents to be deployed. The continuation of the education allowance covers some of that, but so often it is backed up by the bursaries given by schools and by taxpayers’ money. Can she set out how her plans would protect children from armed forces families?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to our amazing armed forces and the contribution that they make to keeping our country safe. It is right that they are properly supported and recognised. However, those numbers are starting to fall. Clearly, the Committee that we are recommending could consider all such areas. We do not anticipate that the proposals would cover specialist provision either, for example. There are ways in which they can be carefully drawn to ensure that exemptions apply where they should. I join her in paying tribute to the armed forces—she need not be concerned about what we are discussing today.
Our school staff are at the heart of our education system, but they have been let down. That is never clearer than when the Government refuse to work with them. No teacher wants to strike, no headteacher wants to close their school, and no teaching assistant or educational support worker wants to miss out on time with the children they help to succeed—they go into teaching to improve and transform lives—but this Government’s neglect means that they feel they have no choice. The Government are still failing to take seriously the urgent need to get around the table and prevent strike action.
For months, a merry-go-round of Education Secretaries and chaotic mismanagement has seen our children and our schools go neglected. We have had five Education Secretaries in one year; it is no wonder that no solutions have been found. After months of refusing to meet, to negotiate or even to acknowledge the problems around pay and conditions, an eleventh-hour meeting was little more than window dressing. The Government could still avert strike action, but they need a plan and they need to start working with teachers now.
Labour has set out our plan. Through recruiting new teachers and valuing those in the profession, we would work together to help every child to thrive.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to teaching assistants and school support staff, who play such a tremendous role in educating and assisting in the classroom. Many of our schools face the prospect of having to do away with teaching assistants simply because of budget pressures. Does she agree that our plan goes some way to addressing that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all see and recognise the value that our teaching assistants, learning support assistants and school support staff bring to our schools. Our teachers just could not do their jobs effectively without them. We all recognise their contribution, and I join him in paying tribute to them.
For everyone in this House, there is nothing more important than our support for children’s education and ensuring that standards in all schools are up to scratch and equal. In the thoughts that the hon. Lady is putting forward, can she address the issue of underachievers? I know that the Minister of State at the Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), was at one time very keen on that issue. In my constituency, and across the whole of the United Kingdom, people—young, white Protestants, can I say?—underachieve because they do not get the educational opportunities that they need. Does the hon. Lady feel that what she is proposing can change that to the benefit of people who do not get the educational standards that they should?
Here in England we see growing and widening attainment gaps in many areas, but I point out to Ministers that we saw that starting to happen even before the pandemic hit. We all recognise and appreciate the impact that covid has had on our children’s education and wellbeing. I still think it is shameful that the Government failed to act on Sir Kevan Collins’s recommendations to bring forward a thorough recovery plan to support all our children. The Prime Minister claimed, when he was Chancellor, that he had “maxed out” on the support available to our children. Sadly, that will cast a very long shadow over children’s life chances here in England.
Our teachers do so much to improve the lives of children, but over the last few years they have truly gone above and beyond. From the covid pandemic to the cost of living crisis, our schools are supporting and holding communities together. They are doing an incredible job, but they cannot change all that happens beyond the school gates. Rising child poverty is holding children back, as is the growing mental health crisis. Too many children are struggling with their mental health, and they are struggling without support—unable to see a GP, stuck on child and adolescent mental health services’ waiting lists for years and left in limbo without help. No child should be left without the support they need to be happy and healthy, and no parent should be left feeling unsupported and alone when helping their child to face mental health problems.
We know that supporting young people with mental health is putting another burden on schools and our overstretched school staff, and the Government just are not doing enough. Mental health support teams are reaching a fraction of the children who could benefit. Senior leaders are being required to take on yet another responsibility for children’s mental health, because child and adolescent mental health services are unable to tackle the backlogs. We all know that wellbeing is essential to enabling children’s learning, but again the Government are letting young people down.
Using the money raised, Labour will give children access to professional mental health councillors in every school. We will ensure that children are not stuck waiting for referrals, unable to get support, and that teachers are not trying to carry the burden of young people’s mental health on top of wider workloads. We will ensure that every child knows that help is at hand. For young people for whom accessing support in school is not the right choice, we will deliver a new model of open-access youth mental health hubs. Providing an open door for all our young people, getting support to children early, preventing problems from escalating, improving young people’s mental health, not just responding when they are in crisis, and enabling them to learn and to thrive—that is Labour’s plan.
One of the issues that we see, sadly, is the stigma associated with mental health, especially in some communities. Does my hon. Friend feel that, if we give our young people access to mental health provision from a young age, that stigma will not grow in them as they become adults and they will be able to discuss mental health with their families, especially those families who we know need help and support? Because there is stigma in those communities, those children are not able to discuss that.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is incredibly important that we tackle the stigma that exists. That should be on a genuine cross-party basis. It is in all our interest that we make it as easy as possible for people to come forward and get the help they need. Sadly, even when people are able to come forward because they recognise they are struggling, they will wait years sometimes even to be seen. That cannot be right and that is why, under our motion, we would use some of the money raised to make sure that all our children get the mental health support they need as quickly as possible.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will just make a little more progress, if my hon. Friend will allow.
Our motion will also task the committee to consider how the money raised by ending tax breaks could deliver the careers advice that young people so desperately need. Two thirds of young people do not have access to professional careers advice. Pre-pandemic, almost half of young people reported that they felt unprepared for their futures. Half of employers reported that young people were leaving education unprepared for the world of work. The Government are failing to support young people, and that is failing our economy, too. Their illogical plan to scrap Connexions has left a gaping hole that Labour will fill. We will invest in more than 1,000 new careers advisers and embed them in schools and colleges across the country, stepping in where Conservative Governments have failed.
This week, I spoke to some of the biggest businesses in the country. They told me that they struggled to engage with schools around careers and jobs of the future. They are concerned that teachers do not know what opportunities exist now and will exist in future. They worry that young people are not getting the access to the opportunities they need. Just as they step in to compensate for our struggling mental health service, teachers are also doing their best with careers advice, but it is not the job of teachers to fill this hole. I want our teachers free to focus on ensuring the highest standards in our schools, delivering opportunities and making learning fun. For a decade, this Government have piled more and more responsibilities on to our teachers. It is time to let teachers teach.
By expanding a network of professional careers advisers across our schools and colleges, we would free up teacher and lecturer capacity, and we would give young people the expert support they need to make informed choices about their futures and to learn about apprenticeships, T-levels and vocational opportunities, alongside the higher education options available to them. We would go further and introduce a minimum of two weeks’ work experience for every young person, opening up new opportunities, enabling young people to explore their interests, build confidence and develop the skills that employers tell us they desperately need.
While Government neglect is leaving young people unprepared for their futures and the world they will inherit, Labour is facing the future. We want to meet the collective challenges that we all face—the digital shift, climate change and automation—and that starts in school and must continue with learning throughout all our lives. Labour’s plans will embed mandatory digital skills across the curriculum to make sure that no child leaves school without the basic digital skills they need for the modern world. Our plans will ensure that young people in school and college today leave our education system ready for work, ready for life and ready to grasp the opportunities of the better-paid jobs of the future. This is what aspiration for our children looks like: creating opportunities, driving high standards and delivering excellence for all, and that is what parents want from Government, too—not parroting lines from the independent schools lobby, but standing up for children and their life chances.
It is clear that the Government’s arguments on private schools simply do not add up. Private school fees have far outstripped wage rises over the past 20 years. Boarding school fees now average a mammoth £37,000 a year. That is more than the average worker earns in a year and is beyond the reach of all but the very wealthiest in our society. Conservatives will turn to bursaries, but the Independent Schools Council’s own figures shows that a mere 8% of children get means-tested fee support. The partnerships with state schools that they use to justify this special status have gone down again this year.
Protecting private schools is not about aspiration for all our children; it is about ensuring exclusive opportunities remain in the hands of a privileged few. Government Members know that. Back in 2017, they committed to review private schools’ tax status if partnerships did not grow, because they recognised that it is unfair and unreasonable to ask the public to pay for opportunities that most can only imagine. What has changed in that time? I note that the Minister for Skills, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), is with us today. When he was Chair of the Education Committee, he said that
“charitable status for most private schools is something that should come to an end. The monies saved by Government from these concessions could be used for more teachers”.
We agree, but what has happened since?
We know that the now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), described the elite benefits gained by those accessing private education as morally indefensible. He said:
“That tax advantage allows the wealthiest in this country, indeed the very wealthiest in the globe, to buy a prestige service that secures their children a permanent positional edge in society at an effective 20% discount. How can this be justified?”
I agree with him, yet the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, and the new Education Secretary are too weak to stand up to the independent schools lobby.
It should be easy for the Government to support our motion today, because education is about opportunity—the opportunities we give all our children to explore and develop, to achieve and thrive, and to have happy and healthy childhoods. I was lucky to attend a great local state school when the last Labour Government were transforming education across this country and when my teachers were fiercely ambitious for me and my friends, because they believed in the value and worth of each and every one of us. I want every child, in every school, in every corner of this country to benefit from a brilliant state education, supported by a Government who are ambitious for all their futures. That is why we need private schools to pay their fair share and support every child across our great local state schools to realise those ambitions. Today, the Government have a choice: they can hide behind their vested interests, or they can finally stand up for excellence for every child. I commend the motion to the House.
My mission is to make sure that every child in this country gets a fantastic education and every opportunity to make the most of their abilities. My expectation of excellence is the same whatever the type of school and wherever it is in the country. A good education is not a battle of this school versus that school—at its most basic, it means giving every child the means to find their place in the world. My job is to make sure that schools do that, and independent schools have a valuable role in delivering that.
By the Opposition’s own account, applying VAT to independent schools might deliver £1.75 billion more per year for schools. The key word in that sentence is “might”. I gently suggest that “might” could be over-optimistic, or even economically illiterate. The Government recognise that a good education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better, which is why we are putting an extra £2 billion into our schools next year and the year after. This will be the highest real-terms spending on schools in history, totalling £58.8 billion by 2024-25. [Interruption.] I hear a few mumblings of “2010” from the Opposition Benches, so let me put that into context. When we took office from Labour, the spending was £35 billion per year. For those following the maths, that is a 68% cash increase.
Under this Government, schools will not need tax changes to receive extra money; they will not have to wait. Without that policy, they will be getting it from April this year, and even more—£2 billion, as opposed to an optimistic £1.75 billion.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. It is a shame the shadow Secretary of State did not afford me the same courtesy—I thought a debate was an exchange of ideas. What the Labour party is actually proposing is to financially penalise parents for paying to educate their children. I would have thought that would affect the number of families who could afford to keep their children in the independent sector, and lead to an influx of children from the independent into the public sector. What assessment have the Government made of how much that would cost the taxpayer in net terms? My hunch is that it would actually cost more than it would raise, and therefore not only would the policy not deliver for everyone, it would not deliver for anyone.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, showing her economic literacy in full. I will get on to explaining some of the figures.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I am very happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
This issue surely boils down to a moral argument. It is charitable status that gives independent schools their tax benefits, but what kind of charity requires a person to pay an average of £37,000 in order for it to benefit from tax breaks? Is that really a charity?
There is the huge education benefit, but I think the hon. Member may have his maths a little wrong—I do not think the average is £37,000.
We are improving state-funded education, not undermining the aspirations or choices that parents have for their children. That is important. We are delivering a world-class curriculum for all schools, not attacking world-class institutions that secure international investment and drive innovation. We are driving school improvement, not driving small schools serving dedicated religious and philosophical communities out of business. We are providing the funding to schools that they need.
I am delighted that Labour decided to include school standards as part of this debate, as our record speaks for itself. In 2010, just 68% of schools were rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding, but we have taken that to 88%—hopefully the Members opposite are still following the maths—which is a vast improvement driven by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb).
Moreover, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) should join me in praising the work of this Government. Since we took office, schools in her local authority of Sunderland have gone from 67% rated good or outstanding to 91%. Meanwhile, 97% of schools in the Leader of the Opposition’s local authority now enjoy a rating of good or outstanding—I am sure he has thanked my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton for his role in making that happen. The shadow Schools Minister, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), should also be grateful; when Labour was last in power, fewer than half of his local schools met that standard, but I am happy to share with the House that we have taken that dismal record and made it good—literally. Today, Portsmouth now boasts 92% of schools rated as good or outstanding. I want to take this opportunity to thank teachers, headteachers and support staff up and down the country for their incredible work over these years, as they have been the key drivers of this success. I can guarantee that we will not stop there.
Underpinning that record are improvements in phonics, where a further 24% of pupils met our expected standard in the year 1 screening. In just eight years from 2010, we brought the UK up the PISA rankings—the programme for international student assessment—from 25th to 14th in reading and from 28th to 18th in maths.
We will continue that trajectory as we build on the ambitions of the schools White Paper, which will help every child fulfil their potential by ensuring they receive the right support in the right place at the right time. This will be achieved by delivering excellent teaching for every child, high standards of curriculum, good attendance and better behaviour. [Interruption.] Somebody opposite mumbles “13 years”—I am sure that schools are delighted with the improvement I have just outlined over the past 13 years. We will also deliver targeted support for every child who needs it, making it a stronger and fairer school system.
Let us focus on the independent school sector. We are very fortunate in this country to be blessed with a variety of different schools. We have faith schools, comprehensive schools and grammar schools, to name but a few, all of which help to support an education that is right for children. The independent school sector itself is incredibly diverse. It includes large, prestigious, household names—in this House, we will all have heard of famous alumni from Eton—but there are 2,350 independent schools, and not many of them are like Eton. Reigate Grammar School, a fee-paying independent school that now charges £20,000 a year, once educated the Leader of the Opposition; like many in this category, it started as a local grammar and became independent. In fact, 14% of Labour MPs elected in 2019 attended private schools—double the UK average. I will be interested to see which of those hon. Members votes to destabilise the sector that provided the opportunities afforded to them.
As someone who did not benefit from such a prestigious educational background, I stand here focused not on the fewer than 7% of children who attend independent schools, but much more on the 93% who attend state-funded schools, as I did. As the Opposition wish to use parliamentary time on this issue, I would point out that the sector provides many benefits to the state and individuals alike. Independent schools attract a huge amount of international investment, with more than 25,000 pupils whose parents live overseas attending independent schools in the UK. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) pointed out, many could be working in our armed forces.
One of the greatest things I saw while working in the classroom, unlike those on the shadow Front Bench, was a scheme introduced under the Conservative Government by the former Minister for Children and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), which provided looked-after children with scholarships and bursaries to some of the leading boarding and private schools across our country. Are schemes like that—giving those most deprived kids the very best opportunities—not under threat because of the Opposition’s dangerous ideological plans?
Absolutely. We will always focus on the people we can help. The more people we can help through a diverse school system, the better.
The independent school sector also has an international presence, exporting services through campuses in other countries. The independent sector includes many settings that serve small, dedicated faith communities, some with lower per-pupil funding than state-funded schools.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. She said that she wanted every child to have an excellent teacher, and so do I, but two thirds of teachers are planning to leave the profession in the next two years because of unmanageable workloads. What is the Government’s answer to that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We have 460,000 teachers, which is more than we have ever had in our school system—in fact, 24,000 more. I am glad to introduce some facts to his argument.
The sector also includes special schools, where some places are state funded. That provides vital capacity for vulnerable pupils that could not easily be replaced. There are hundreds of independent special schools that provide world-leading specialist support to some of our most vulnerable children, whether that is hydrotherapy provision for children with physical disabilities; sensory experiences for children with autistic spectrum conditions or who are non-verbal; or invaluable one-to-one support for young adults with Down’s syndrome preparing to step out into the adult world.
Many hon. Members across the House will have someone in their family or know someone who benefits from those services, such as my nephew with Down’s syndrome and the son of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson). More than 5% of children with an education, health and care plan rely on the provision offered by an independent school. Are the Opposition suggesting that we put VAT on those fees? Hopefully not—[Interruption.] I am delighted to hear that they would not as the policy evolves.
The Opposition’s proposed tax policy would create a number of different challenges across that diverse sector and the outcome is uncertain. The more affordable schools, many of which are former grammar schools, are likely to be at greater risk from an increased tax burden, and the closure of such schools would increase inequality and reduce choice for families. Many schools, when faced with a sudden hike in costs, are likely to seek to avoid passing on the full cost to hard-pressed families. Indeed, many might choose to reduce the bursaries and scholarships that broaden access to such places instead.
Almost 160,000 pupils at Independent Schools Council schools receive some form of bursary or scholarship. For clarity, Independent Schools Council schools represent only about half of independent schools, so the number of people receiving financial support is likely to be far higher. Any independent school closures or a reduction in bursaries would only increase the pressures on the state-funded sector. At the current average cost per pupil of £6,970, the projected cost of educating in the state-funded sector all the pupils we are aware of who receive some form of scholarship or bursary would be more than £1.1 billion. That does not factor in any additional capital or workforce costs to create places for those pupils.
In fact, research undertaken by Baines Cutler shows that, in the fifth year of the Opposition’s ill-thought-through policy, the annual costs would run an annual deficit of £416 million. Yes, hon. Members heard correctly: the policy could end up costing money. That could have been a contributory factor to the last Labour Government, during their 13 years in office, armed with a calculator and the figures, not implementing such a divisive policy.
The Secretary of State referenced the Baines Cutler report. Can she clarify who were the commissioners of that report and who tends to cite its findings?
I would like to clarify that the figures that I used—160,000 pupils times £6,970—are our figures, so £1.1 billion is our calculation. The Baines Cutler report was commissioned by the independent schools sector. Of course, everybody in the sector, as in many other sectors, commissions research, but I hope that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that, because the report was commissioned, it did not have to be validated—of course, it would be. [Interruption.] If she wants to understand, it would cost £1.1 billion at the current average cost per pupil £6,970. I do believe that that is why previous Labour Governments did not implement the policy, because it would greatly undermine the benefit of any additional funding to the state sector, and it could result in Labour’s proposed financial benefit in fact being a net cost to the Exchequer.
I remind right hon. and hon. Members that two thirds of Independent Schools Council members—almost 1,000 of them—are engaged in mutually beneficial cross-sector partnerships with state-funded schools. Those schools share expertise, best practice and facilities to the benefit of children in all the schools involved. I thank my noble friend Baroness Barran, who is in the Gallery, for her work with independent schools to emphasise and grow those partnerships.
To give one example, Warwick School and King’s High School have worked together to support students to prepare for assessments and interviews to highly selective universities. An increasing number of independent schools also provide subsidised places for disadvantaged children through the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation’s broadening educational partnerships programme.
I am sure that the shadow schools Minister, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, will be interested in my final example, which benefits teachers in his constituency—he does not appear to be that interested, but I will try. The Hampshire Physics CPD Partnership provides fully funded professional development workshops targeted at specialist and non-specialist physics teachers to support teaching at key stage 3 and 4. The partnership includes many schools and colleges in Hampshire, including UTC Portsmouth.
The proposals do not make financial sense; they do not make sense to parents and they certainly do not make sense to children in the sector. The Labour party’s policy is the politics of envy. In this Government, we do not have to level down to level up; I am not somebody who resents other people’s opportunity. As many hon. Members understand, I went to a comprehensive school in Knowsley that I could not boast about in the same way that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South does, because it sadly failed generations of children.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I will not give way; I think I understand my school better than most.
That is why I am hugely honoured to be in this role to support all children in any education setting to get the excellent education that they deserve. I do not want to level down anybody; I want to level up everybody. Our independent sector is a small but important part of our school system. It brings valuable international investment to the UK; it serves small, dedicated faith communities; it creates special school capacity; it drives innovation; it gives parents a wider choice; and its bursaries are a valuable tool for driving social mobility. We should not undermine that.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent defence of the independent sector and its partnership work. Does she believe that Labour’s policy would also undo the fundamental principle that the UK does not tax the supply of education? Furthermore, there have been repeated references to “tax breaks” to mean simply not paying extra tax on top of the income tax that people already pay. That is a misleading description and should not be used to describe this ill-thought-out policy.
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is lots that is misleading about the way the policy has been presented, and that the benefit of education is the reason it receives tax breaks.
It is not for the Government to determine the work of parliamentary Select Committees, but the motion proposes the setting up of a new Select Committee that would take up considerable parliamentary time and resources. If I am correct, the House published an estimated cost to the taxpayer of those Committees of £417,000, at the very least, in this calendar year alone. Furthermore, there is already a Select Committee empowered to look at these issues—one which I and my fellow Ministers regularly appear in front of—the Education Committee. I have no doubt that we will hear more from members of that Committee.
Our focus should rightly remain on improving standards at all schools, so we will continue to ensure that all state-funded schools have the funding they need to make sure every child receives the best education and opportunities possible. I remind Opposition Members of the £2 billion extra next year and the year after that was awarded in the autumn statement, as well as the figure for our overall spending on schools of £58.8 billion as opposed to £35 billion in 2010. We will continue to ensure all state-funded schools have the funding they need so that all children receive the best education and opportunities possible. This proposal is the politics of envy. It is pulling the rug from under good independent schools in a weakly veiled, politically motivated, economically incoherent policy which will not help our mission to ensure that every child can reach their potential. We as the Conservative party do not level down; we focus on levelling up.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that I do not want to impose a time limit, but I urge colleagues to stick to a maximum of seven minutes per contribution.
It is a pleasure to be called so early in this debate. Since we are in the business of declaring where we went to school, let me say that I went to a comprehensive school in Barrow-in-Furness. The Secretary of State said that she went to a comprehensive school in Knowsley, but I invite her to explain what her Government are doing for more than half of the children in Knowsley who are failing their maths and English GCSEs. She is very welcome to intervene on me and explain what her Government are doing for those children in Knowsley, if she wishes. Would she like to do so?
I am happy to intervene. The hon. Lady may have heard me say that, when I was at school, 92% failed to get the minimum of four or five GCSEs. I look at those schools very regularly and, yes, that has improved massively since then, but it is still nowhere near good enough. We are very much focused on supporting those schools, on maths hubs and on introducing maths, free phonics and lots of things that will help in the early years, as well as the teaching support and the development of teachers. She is absolutely right that many in my family, including my cousins and my cousins’ kids, have been to schools in Knowsley, so like her, it is a very personal issue for me.
I am really glad to hear that the Secretary of State takes such an interest in schools in Knowsley, but in Knowsley, as in many parts of England, we have schools where children are failing to reach their potential, and that is not because of a lack of will from the teachers.
This debate is a good opportunity to pay tribute to our teachers, our teaching assistants and the parents supporting children at home, who make sure that our kids get the best education possible, as well as—if I may stray a little bit beyond the debate—the youth workers. Where we still have them, youth workers also support children’s education in an informal environment. It is an environment post covid in which, frankly, it is truly remarkable the lengths that our teachers and teaching assistants have to go to make sure that our children can access such an education.
I want to put on record my personal thanks to the headteachers cluster in the Lancaster and Morecambe area, who consistently and persistently meet me and my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris)—we are meeting them again in a few weeks’ time—to ensure that, as Members of Parliament, we are aware of the challenges that schools face in the Lancaster and Morecambe area.
However, these teachers cannot continue to shoulder the burden for the Government’s failure. I would say that the education sector is in crisis, but we have now been saying that for many years, with no active response from the Government. The Government cannot continue to pretend that they are serious about investing in schools while the vast majority of schools are facing huge cuts, in spite of growing pupil numbers and costs. In Lancashire, 520 out of 564 schools face cuts this year, with £24.3 million needed to restore real-terms per pupil funding to its level last year. The staff who work in those schools desperately want to improve schools and provide better for their pupils, but they need the Government to meet them halfway and to help them do so.
This debate is not just about one type of school, and I want to talk about rural schools. I have some small rural schools in my constituency, and I recently met Rebecca Scholz, who is the headteacher at Scorton Primary School in my constituency and Calder Vale St John Primary School. She is already struggling to make her small rural school budgets meet the needs of her pupils. Those schools do not have school halls, so they have the additional costs of hiring village halls for PE lessons. They do not have school kitchens, so they have to get school meals taxied in from schools further afield that do have kitchens. All of this puts additional costs on these small rural school budgets, and it is making it very difficult for Rebecca to ensure that these schools are sustainable.
I entirely agree with the point the hon. Lady is making about small rural schools. For many years in this House I led the cross-party campaign on fairer funding—the f40 campaign—which pushed for the needs of rural schools. Does she not agree that key to meeting that challenge is reform of the funding formula for schools, which, sadly, is not mentioned in the Opposition motion?
I am very well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s campaign, and I think there was a huge amount of sympathy for it, but his party has been in government for 13 years, so reform of the schools funding formula really does fall on his party’s shoulders. I would like to see that come from his own party.
This debate is not just about small rural schools. I have a three-form entry primary school in Lancaster that is facing cuts next year of £197 per pupil. Many such schools are obviously dealing with huge social issues as well as providing education. Schools in more deprived areas, where education can make a huge difference, are suffering an even bigger financial hit. Many of my constituents contacted me recently about the campaign to extend free school meals. There are around 800,000 children living in poverty who are deemed ineligible for free school meals. The Prime Minister was warned that pupils face a “bleak, hungry winter”, but as yet he has refused to extend free school meals.
I am equally concerned about the growth in the attainment gap, which was mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State, between the most disadvantaged and the most affluent. These are not just numbers; these are children who are being left completely behind by the system, and communities will feel these costs for decades to come. Policy choices in all areas have an impact on schools. When the health sector fails, young people come to school unwell, and more often than not their mental health needs are being left unmet. When a young person’s needs are not met in any sector, schools are left to pick up the pieces and they pay the price. In these incredibly difficult contexts, teachers are understandably exhausted, and now we are seeing what is in effect a real-terms pay cut for the vast majority of teachers. Frankly, I think that is an insult after the heroic work they have done for our children.
The thing is that people know this, so the persistent problems we are seeing with the recruitment and retention of teachers should come as no shock to the Conservative party, which has made teaching an increasingly undesirable and unsustainable profession. Thirty six thousand, two hundred and sixty two—that is the number of people who left the teaching profession in 2020-21. That is 36,262 people who were overworked and underpaid to such an extent that they felt that they were not able to continue. How many teachers must leave before the Government take drastic action? We need a Government who are on the same side as teachers. To invest in teachers is to invest in students, and to invest in students is to invest in the future.
I rise more in sorrow than in anger about today’s extraordinary Opposition motion to create a new education Select Committee for the House of Commons.
I was recently elected as the Chair of the Education Committee, with I believe quite a significant amount of support among Opposition Members. I canvassed Members all across the House and spoke to them about the issues that are priorities for them. I made sure that in my campaign I was listening to Members on all sides of the House about the things they felt would make a difference to the education of children in this country and the things that fall within the remit of the Education Committee. I can count on the fingers of one hand—no, in fact, I can count on one finger—the number of Members who raised this issue as a priority for them. So I find it extraordinary that the Opposition have tabled a motion to make this the subject of an entire Select Committee all of its own, even more so given that their own members of the Education Committee are nowhere to be seen today.
I have great respect for the Opposition Members on my Select Committee, who do an excellent job in holding the Government to account and challenging on education policy issues, not least on some of the issues that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) mentioned, such as careers information and advice. We are currently conducting an inquiry into that, which was started by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is on the Front Bench.
It seems extraordinary to me that, without any forewarning or any notice to the Chair of the Education Committee, the Opposition have decided to try to sideline the established mechanisms of this House and to sideline the Education Committee on this issue by creating an entirely new committee. There is absolutely no reason for that. I gently point out that the Opposition should be doing a better job of encouraging their own Committee members to engage. Sadly, I can count four Conservative members of the Education Committee in this debate, but there are none on the Opposition Benches. I suspect it is because they know that this policy is a shambles.
The net financial impact of raising the cost of independent education is likely to have a negative impact on the cost of state education, because it will drive up demand for places in a very constrained secondary sector. In my constituency right now we are pretty much full in the secondary space, and a new school is being built by the local authority at a cost of around £40 million to meet our needs. If we were to raise fee levels for the two independent schools just in the mainstream sector, King’s and RGS, the chances are that many families would no longer be able to afford to send their children to those schools, and they would be looking for places in the secondary sector—places that are not currently there. There is a failure to understand and think through the consequences of the Opposition’s proposed policy.
I detect—and in conversations I have had with Back Benchers from all parties, I heard about it—the huge pressures on childcare. That is one reason I proposed that if I were elected Chair of the Select Committee we should do an inquiry into that issue—indeed, the shadow Secretary of State welcomed the fact that we are doing such an inquiry. I did not, however, hear the same demand and pressure from people saying, “We must do something to make life more expensive for people who choose to send their children to independent schools.”
When the Opposition talk about “tax breaks”, that is a complete misnomer in this respect. The charitable status of education has existed for well over a century. Every Labour Government from 1945 has supported the principle of the charitable status of education, and Labour Members ought to be honest about what they are trying to do. They can make legitimate arguments, and say that they believe independent education is a bad thing and they want to discourage it—if they choose to have that argument, they can have it—but the net result of what they are proposing for the independent sector would be to make it more elite and out of reach for ordinary families. The big names out there would no doubt continue to thrive, with wealthy families that can afford to pay and international students—that issue has already been mentioned—but many smaller independent schools might be driven out of business, and if that were the case, the cost of meeting those places and that demand will fall on the state education sector. As the Secretary of State said, that cost is more than £6,000 per pupil on an ongoing revenue basis, and there is also capital to think about and the extra classrooms and schools that will be required to meet that need. I do not think the Opposition have done their homework in that respect.
I understand from what the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South said from a sedentary position to the Secretary of State that it is Labour’s intention to exclude the specialist independent sector from this policy, but when Labour Members look at their net revenue figure, they are looking at fees across the entire sector, including that specialist sector. I simply do not think they have done their sums. The focus of those on the Opposition Front Bench, as opposed to their Back Benchers—where are they all, frankly, in a debate of such importance to their party?—shows that this is not really about a serious policy for the school system. This is about an attempt to brand the Prime Minister and have a personal go at the leader of the Conservative party. I do not think that will wash with the great British public, and this is more about the politics of the playground than a serious schools policy.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way to Opposition Members, because they have not had the decency to approach my Committee or to speak to me as its Chair before putting down this extraordinary motion. I do not feel that I should have to give way to them during this debate.
I will continue to make the case for investment in education. As schools Minister, I was proud to be involved in negotiating the single largest increase in our schools budget on record in real terms. I am delighted that my predecessor and successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), has secured an even bigger increase off the back of that.
The shadow Education Secretary did not appear to have read her own motion when she talked about mental health. We all agree that mental health is a huge challenge and something that needs to be addressed, but there is nothing whatsoever in the motion about mental health, or in the remit of the extraordinary new Select Committee that Labour is trying to create, that addresses that issue. Labour Members need to do their homework before they come forward with such proposals. I am sure my Committee will be happy to consider any serious proposals that come forward, but this ain’t it.
I am worried that this Government are becoming dangerously complacent about the situation in our schools. In Newham we have many bright and ambitious children who achieve so much despite all the difficulties, and I am going to talk about that today. Newham has the second highest child poverty rate in the country, but nevertheless attainment is well above the national average. We are seeing many brilliant young people going on to universities—top universities—and contributing so much to our economy and society. What a testament to the ambition of those families, to the ambition and commitment of those children and, most of all, to the commitment and ability of those teachers. However, one headteacher in my constituency told me just yesterday that she and every other headteacher she knows is either already running a deficit budget, or expects to do so, so that achievement is at risk. Let’s face it: the failures of 12 years of Tory policy are having the biggest impact on the most vulnerable individuals and families, with lifelong consequences for them, and a real cost to our economy.
Let me remind some Conservative Members what “most vulnerable” children means. This is about children going to bed hungry, in small, damp, mould-crusted flats. It is about children who are not able to learn in school because they do not have the support they need with their special educational needs or disabilities. It is about children who are vulnerable and who, in the absence of support, can sometimes be disruptive to the learning of others. When class teachers do not have specialist staff to help with those children’s individual needs, that forces them to work even harder, and the learning of all the children suffers as a result.
In Newham there is a backlog of up to 18 months for children who need an assessment for an education and health care plan. One of my constituents was told that they would have to wait two years—a completely unbearable length of time—while their child struggled at school without the support they needed. So my constituent went to family members and borrowed money to pay for a private assessment. It is just like with private healthcare—the consequences of Tory failure can be avoided, but only for those who can somehow find the money to pay their way out of the system. In many areas such as Newham where poverty is rampant, children and schools are having to do their best without specialist support or the much-needed resources attached to EHCPs. Even when a family manages to get that assessment and an EHCP is drawn up, funding falls well below what is needed to meet assessed needs. I have been told of one local case where the actual cost of meeting a child’s needs was estimated to be almost four times higher than the funding on offer for their plan, and it is the same for other social care needs.
Our schools have a massive role to play in getting children early help against gang grooming and county lines. But children’s services are so overstretched that when our schools make referrals, they tell me they are being turned away unless the situation has already escalated to the point of police involvement. That is a waste of money, if nothing else, and it is certainly a waste of my children’s lives—literally. I hope that all hon. Members will understand that waiting for police involvement means that it is often way too late to stop a child’s life spiralling out of control into further chaos and crime. Instead, schools are told they have to support needs that have little to do with learning, and they simply do not have the expertise or the resource to be able do so.
When we look at these issues, we see that of course they are about teacher shortages and crumbling school buildings, but we also need to look at the wider social and economic barriers that are so damaging to children’s learning. What about housing? In Newham, 8,363 children are without a stable home—they are in temporary accommodation. Lower quartile earnings in Newham are £1,451 a month, but the lower quartile private rent on a two-bedroom home is £1,400 a month. Someone could spend all of their earnings just on getting a roof over their head without even thinking about energy or all the other bills that are massively increasing. So, according to the Government’s own data, we have almost 3,500 families without a stable home and in temporary accommodation.
From schools, I hear about children who are effectively living in one heated room, with the whole family huddling together for an evening. Obviously, trying to do homework in those circumstances is impossible, so we have children staying at school as late as they possibly can. It is so different from when I was growing up. I can say with confidence that without the stability of my family’s council flat, I would not be standing here today. We were not having to move constantly or to travel long distances because we had yet again been kicked out of a house.
What about food? Food insecurity has tripled from pre-pandemic levels, which in Newham were appallingly high. I am hearing directly from schools about children whose one decent meal a day—possibly their only meal a day—is coming from their school lunch. Why are we not providing that? Why are the Government not providing free school meals to enable children to concentrate throughout the school day without that constant nagging hunger? This is a wealthy country—I am told. How can we justify children’s life chances being held back because their families cannot afford food?
Even though Newham’s children come from London, they face many barriers. We need to tackle all those factors if we are ever going to truly level up. Instead, the social problems get worse because of Tory failures that go way beyond their failure with the school system.
Looking at all these additional stresses and needs, we come to the fundamental issue of core funding for schools. My understanding is that more than 8% of our state schools were already in deficit before the cost of living crisis, and the pay rises needed to manage it are having to be met from existing budgets. My schools tell me that they simply cannot afford to recruit new staff. That is affecting all our children, but particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities, whose needs simply cannot be met within existing resources. Let’s face it: the situation with staffing was already difficult before the cost of living crisis. In 2020, Newham had the second highest rate of spending on secondary supply teachers. How can we expect the skilled workforce that we need to come forward from circumstances like this? How can we expect our hard-working, dedicated, professional staff to struggle on?
Earlier today the Prime Minister said:
“Everyone should have the opportunity to succeed.”
But to will the ends, he must provide the means; otherwise, those are simply empty words, signifying nothing.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who spoke with her usual passion and great knowledge of her constituency. There are a few of us in the Chamber who cut our political teeth on, or were involved in, the 1997 general election campaign. For every problem that came before us, the Labour answer was the windfall tax. They would say, “The windfall tax will sort this, that and the other.” It seems to me that the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), and her colleagues see the motion as the educational equivalent of a windfall tax to solve all the problems, which many of us are alert to and which need to be addressed.
The money raised—this £1.7 billion—will, according to the motion, go to
“the recruitment of new teachers, additional teacher training, and careers advice and work experience for all pupils.”
In speeches, we have been told that it will address mental health, deal with SEND, underpin TAs, deliver mandatory digital skills and extend free school meals. This is the windfall tax that covers everything. This is the goose that will lay the largest golden egg in educational history.
Let me share a secret with the House: maths is not my favourite subject—please do not tell the Prime Minister—but, by my calculation, on the sums suggested divided by the number of schools in the state sector who would be recipients of that funding, that amounts to about £53,000 per school, per year. That is on the expectation that the £1.7 billion remains a continual, but some schools will get smaller, some will close and so on. It is therefore an entirely false prospectus.
I think that the shadow Secretary of State must have read in the press that her leader is thinking of having a shadow Cabinet reshuffle and scratched her head to think, “What might get me on the front page of the newspaper and to lead a debate?” May I say gently to her that it might have seemed a good idea in theory to have this debate, but the practice is not playing out.
I am a huge supporter of the Select Committee system—I happen to chair one and enjoy it—but we do not need another one to address the issues of what could be done to help education. I am sure that the Education Committee will look into it, if that is what its work programme wants to do—[Interruption.] But let me set out my stall. I will yield to no one in my support for state education in our country. I went to what Mr Blair as Prime Minister would have called a “bog-standard comprehensive” in Cardiff. Of my three children, one goes to a church primary and the others go to one of our local high schools. They are receiving excellent education from first-class teachers. I have been a governor of two state sector schools and my wife is a current school governor, because we understand entirely that education provides the keys that are going to unlock all of life’s doors.
Conservative Members believe in a meritocracy. We are far more interested in where people are going than from where they have come. The motion—this idea—is all about class envy. It is all about divide. It is all about pulling down. May I say gently to the Opposition Front-Bench team that we do not improve things that need improvement by pulling down and reducing the excellent. We should be focusing on fostering that which lots of schools already do. There is a good example in my constituency: Bryanston, which is a leading independent school, teamed up with Blandford School, sharing resources and expertise in a whole load of areas to the improvement of children and their educational experience. That is what we should be focusing on, not pulling down something that is working. The effect on global soft power from the experience of coming to the UK, which the independent sector provides for so many young people, is always overlooked when we come to this debate. It is a very important tool in our arsenal; we must not forget it. We need to focus on those important issues. Nobody in my constituency says, “You are going to make my school better by stopping that school having VAT relief and charitable status.” They want to know what the Government are going to do to make their schools better and the attainment of their kids better. They are not motivated by this narrative of envy, and it is a shame that the House is being invited to be so today.
The motion presupposes that it will be of no cost to the public purse, but a conservative estimate suggests that about 100,000 children would be taken out of the independent sector and put into the state sector. That would have a cost, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) indicated, on already pressured state places, particularly, although not exclusively, in the secondary sector. Bursaries and scholarships would be removed. Who benefits? Nobody, apart from a narrow class interest suggested by some Opposition Members and certainly not shared by those on the Government Benches. I do not believe it is shared in the country either.
This is an important debate on how we can fairly tax private schools to raise funding for measures that are needed to improve educational standards in the state sector. Hundreds of constituents in Liverpool, West Derby, including many educators, have contacted me about improvements they want to see and specifically on the issue of hunger in the classroom. I would like to represent those concerns in this place and speak about the difference that universal free school meals—a nutritious, free school breakfast and lunch for all children in primary and secondary state education—would make by improving children’s education, health and happiness.
Food insecurity levels have doubled since the start of 2022 and an estimated 4 million children are now going hungry in the UK. That includes many thousands in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby, where the relative child poverty rate is significantly higher than the national average, in a city where one in three people are in food poverty. Food prices have increased by 16.4% in the year to October and healthier foods are now nearly three times more expensive than less healthy foods. That is devastating for children across the country and their families, including the many who are hungry but do not meet the Government’s eligibility criteria for free school meals. They are part of the 800,000 children nationally who are below the poverty line, yet still do not qualify.
Food poverty leads to health and life expectancy inequality, malnutrition and a host of related health problems. It affects children’s educational attainment and life chances. When asked about children coming to school hungry, 88% of teachers reported pupils being excessively tired and 84% reported that they are easily distracted. Less measurable, but no less important, is the effect on individual human dignity and social cohesion over time. As was reported by School Food Matters, nutritious school meals are linked to good mental health, wellbeing and educational attainment. Research found that over half of teachers felt that children who come to school hungry display anxiety. It is not just the hungry children themselves who are affected; half of all children say that they feel upset that some children do not have enough to eat at school, so this is also affecting children who are being fed.
Through fairer taxation, the Government could invest in a roll-out of universal free school meals. Findings from the Government’s own pilot noted improved educational attainment, with children making between four and eight weeks’ more progress in maths and English. Crucially, universal provision removes all stigma from school food and ensures all children have an equal opportunity to thrive and be healthy. The Government’s adviser, Henry Dimbleby, said:
“When children sit down to eat with friends and teachers in a civilised environment, it cements relationships, helps them to develop social skills and reinforces positive behaviour throughout the day.”
Backing that up, we heard powerful evidence at recent sittings of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee about the benefits and how this investment would more than pay for itself in the long run.
A cost-benefit analysis of universal free school meals by PwC shows the undeniable societal and economic benefits. If the Government made the investment, the core benefits over 20 years of providing universal free school meals would be £41.3 billion, compared with a total cost of £24.1 billion. The core benefits are savings on food costs, health and school spending, and increased lifetime earnings. There would also be £58.2 billion in wider economic benefits, meaning that the total benefits from an investment over 20 years would be £99.5 billion. Yes, that’s right: something that is so needed and that is morally the right thing to do would give the taxpayer a return of £100 billion. It’s a no-brainer, whatever side of the political ideological divide you sit on.
We need political leadership in the Government that guarantees and realises the right of all our children to healthy food. If we accept the universal and compulsory requirement that all children up to the age of 16 be in school, why do we break from that principle of universal care, nurturing and protection in relation to their meals during the school day? We would think it absurd if children were not provided with adequate shelter, heating, drinking water and sanitary provision while in school, so why take a different approach to the equally essential element of food?
Today, we are literally consigning our most vulnerable children to a lifetime of poor life chances, ill health and low life expectancy from a lack of suitable food. That is not why I am in this place. Surely, we are all here to change that. Political choices define our time here. I implore the Minister to make the right political decision and invest in universal free school meals for every child in this country to give them the opportunity of a long, healthy and fulfilling life. They deserve nothing less.
I start by expressing a belief that I hold and that many other Conservative Members hold, which is that education is a necessity, not a luxury. What we have today is all about ideology. It is not a pragmatic approach and it fails to understand how our school education system actually works. To stick VAT on school fees and end charitable status would have a devastating effect on the independent sector. This is very much an attack on aspiration itself.
My experience, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), is of going, back in the day, to what one might call a bog standard comprehensive. I became a teacher. I taught in the state system and in independent schools. For a short time, I was also the principal of a small independent school. Many parents were not super-rich people, but they all had something in common: they wanted to give their children the very best opportunities and a better life. Whatever their income and situation in life, that is what parents want for their children. Many parents make huge sacrifices—some working second jobs—to put their children through these schools, and we need to recognise that.
Today seems to be all about money, so let us look at the point that private schools actually save us money. The Daily Mail reported that they add about £16.5 billion to the economy—an alien concept to the anti-growth coalition, as we would call them—and that there are 328,000 jobs in independent education. To put that in context, that is as many as Asda, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op combined. Private schools pay £5.1 billion in tax contributions—enough for about 150,000 nurses, I believe —and save the Treasury about £4.4 billion in state-funded places. Of course, if children were not in independent schools, they would need to go to state schools. We could end up with a situation where we have 90,000 children leaving and having to be accommodated in the state system.
We have two outstanding Outwood academies in Worksop in Bassetlaw, which I represent. We have deprived areas where children are given great opportunities due to our academies programme—something else the Labour party opposed. Both schools are heavily oversubscribed. Outwood Academy Portland is being expanded, which we really welcome, but that is happening without an extra influx of people coming in from the independent sector. Imagine if, all of a sudden, all the extra kids came in from the independent sector. What would happen? It has already been mentioned: we would need to find extra school places. All that would happen is that local children would not be able to find a place in their local school. There would be far more competition for the available places, and we would need to find somewhere for those children as well.
The Opposition motion would benefit nobody. My Labour council’s local plan includes building 12,000 houses, but it does not really have any plans for infrastructure and it does not seem to know how to collect money off developers through the community infrastructure levy. We were already concerned about the impact on school places, even without Labour’s plan. If a Labour Government were to introduce what the Opposition have suggested today, it would put further pressure on people who want an outstanding academy education for their children.
Independent schools do a huge amount for our community. The Independent Schools Council’s “Celebrating Partnerships” report highlights the work of Worksop College, a large independent school in my constituency that does wonderful work with 11 local state schools. It does chemistry roadshows, park runs and all sorts of activities; I praised its work in the House to the former Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who was very kind in his remarks about it.
A report commissioned by the Independent Schools Council suggests that if charitable status were removed, many schools would be able to reclaim VAT on their capital and building works. That would benefit larger and wealthier schools more than small, single-sex junior or all-age day schools, and it would potentially mean the Treasury having to write cheques for millions of pounds. I am sure that that is not the intention behind the motion, but I am afraid that it is a possible consequence.
Approximately 200 private schools with 26,000 pupils could be forced to close, and hard-working parents on lower incomes would be hardest hit. There would be a negative effect on bursaries and scholarships. Independent schools would become the preserve of the super-rich, who would be the only people who could afford to send their children to any of them. The schools, of course, would simply fill their places, where possible, with children whose parents were paying full fees. The damage would be to aspirational parents—the ones who are trying their best and the ones whose children are on bursaries and grants.
I am sure the Opposition believe that private schools are simply for posh people who want to send their children to Hogwarts to train as wizards or whatever, but the reality is that independent schools take all different forms. It is about parental choice. Private schools also sponsor academies, which is a great way of ensuring that all children, whatever their background, get an outstanding education. Improving education for all does not have to come at the expense of others. It should be about aspiration, opportunity and partnership, not the envy, ideology and bitterness that we see on the Opposition Benches.
As I mentioned in my intervention on the shadow Secretary of State, I served on the Education Committee in the last Parliament. I had a very positive relationship with the then Chair, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who I see has now made it to Minister. With respect, I have to say that it is disappointing that the current Chair—the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who I endorsed for the position—gave such a partisan speech. I would have thought that one of the main bonuses of being a Select Committee Chair rather than a Minister was having the opportunity to hold the Government to account and question them, rather than blindly following and endorsing everything they say.
I am absolutely delighted to hold the Government to account and indeed to criticise them, as I have been known to do in the past. However, I gently say to the hon. Lady that what we are debating today has nothing to do with Government policy; it is about a proposed Opposition policy with which they want to sideline the Education Committee. That makes me angry, and I think it should make the whole Committee angry.
I do hope that the hon. Gentleman will exercise his new-found freedoms as Chair and make the full transition from parliamentary supporter of the Government to parliamentary ambassador holding them to account.
Some incredibly impressive straw men have been conjured up in this debate, including the faintly ludicrous idea that if we prevent independent schools from being charities and from being funded partly by the taxpayer, they will suddenly all close, everyone will suddenly come to the state schools and it will be a tragedy that costs our state sector so much money. What utter nonsense! The average cost of an independent school over a child’s education is £270,000, so I hardly think that parents will be running for the local comp if those schools suddenly stop having charitable status.
This year, private school fees are set to rise by 7%. If the Government’s ideas were logical, we would therefore expect a reduction in the numbers attending private schools, but what is happening? At exactly the same time that fees are rising by 7%, we are seeing no suppression of enrolment; in fact, the numbers who wish to enrol are increasing. This idea that numbers will suddenly decline if we make private schools stop being charitable institutions and start paying a fair amount just does not stand up.
I thank all the schools, teachers and school staff in my constituency. Schools do so much more than just educating children. I will briefly mention one school: Chiltern Primary School. If the Secretary of State ever visits, I hope that she will have a look at the work that Chiltern is doing. Every Thursday, it does something called Chat and Choose: parents line up and pay £1 for six items of food, which they can collect from the school, and a professional is there at the same time to advise and support them. That is an absolutely excellent example of a school doing so much to support the wider community. I put on record my thanks to Chiltern for its work.
Politics is always about priorities. Given the state of the economy, thanks to 13 years of Conservative Government, I am slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) chose to cite the last Prime Minister, who did not do particularly well with our economy, as someone whose recommendations we should follow. We have a choice. What will we choose and who should we choose to invest in?
In my earlier intervention I mentioned SEND, which is a real passion of mine and of the right hon. Member for Harlow. One priority that our Committee identified was the need to give teachers more training in SEND support. I was a teacher for 11 years: when I first started, I was not adequately trained to fully support all pupils with SEND. One possible use of the £1.7 billion is supporting teachers in that way. I would hope that that was a priority for whichever party was in government.
I want to mention oracy: speaking and listening, which the Schools Minister—the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), who has returned to his place after a short break—has heard me mention before. Spoken language is one of the strongest predictors of a child’s future life chances, but it is often overlooked and undervalued. I chose to prioritise it when I was a teacher by giving children opportunities to talk. I even set up a little debate club for year 6 pupils in my primary school. At the time, a parent said, “Why are you doing that in a comprehensive? That’s for the private schools.” No: debate, discussion and holding your own in a conversation should not be a skill learned just in private schools; it should be taught in all schools.
Oracy is not just about making everybody an Oxford-standard debater. It is more than that; it is about helping people with communication difficulties, supporting people to become more active citizens, and giving people social support and confidence. The Education Endowment Foundation has found evidence that oral language approaches in schools have a very high impact on pupils’ outcomes and a very low cost. In fact, six months’ additional progress can be made over a year when pupils are supported with oracy.
I do not want to take up too much of my hon. Friend’s time, but she is making an excellent point: oracy is really important. Before Christmas, I met Wirral primary school headteachers and their representatives, who stressed the financial challenges that their schools face. The things they are finding it difficult to pay for include speech therapists and mental health support for children. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot afford not to give schools that support, because it is essential for our young people?
I absolutely support my hon. Friend, who is a tireless champion for schools and educators.
I also want to mention social confidence. Oracy helps students to get along with others. It gives them support with so much more than just academia. It helps them to engage with democratic society and the democratic processes. I hope we will remember that when we look at our priorities, at what we value and at where money can best be spent to support the majority of people.
I do not think private schools are going to close overnight if their charitable tax status is suddenly removed. What I do think is that the money could be invested to support more pupils, and I hope that by doing that we could help every single child in the country, not just those whose parents can pay £270,000 for an elite private education.
Let me start by saying—although she may not like it—what a tremendous fan I am of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). Unfortunately, however, in this instance I think she has missed the mark. While I absolutely respect the fact that she, like me, was on the frontline of teaching in state schools across our country, dealing with some of the most disadvantaged pupils in our communities, I need to make sure that she understands people like me.
I went to an independent school because my mother got off the council estate in London through grammar school after her father, a postman who died when she was 17 years old, and her mother, a local teaching assistant, put all the money they could into giving her the very best start in life with a tutor. My father, who had failed his O-levels, went back to school to be a cleaner during the day, then took night school classes and worked his way up, through the Open University, to be the first member of my family to hold a degree. If it had not been for my lifelong-supporting stepfather, who decided to invest in me, his non-biological son, I would not have had the privileged education that I was able to receive. So to try and make out that my family, who did not have holidays, new cars, house upgrades or extensions, but who decided that they wanted to invest in my brother and me to make sure we had the very best education, were simply some super-rich family—well, that is for the birds.
Yes, we were middle-income earners, and yes, my brother and I did not face the hardships that my mother and father had had to face, but to portray in that way any parent who aspires to enable their child to go to that type of school and has the money to do so is simply wrong. I walk around Stoke-on-Trent, North, Kidsgrove and Talke meeting parents who work on the shop floors of our local ceramics manufacturers, who are cleaners in local domestic households, who are workers in microbusinesses hiring maybe two or three local people, and who choose to spend their money in schools such as Edenhurst or Newcastle-under-Lyme, because that is their right, that is their choice and that is their money—while also paying their taxes on top, which funds the state education sector. It is completely wrong to portray such people in that way.
I find it astonishing that the vast majority of Opposition Back-Bench speakers have not actually addressed the motion, which proposes the establishment of an Education Committee 2.0, with a Chair who I am sure they believe would agree with their views, and with members who would obviously have a predetermined conception of what they wanted the outcome to be and would obviously come up with the result that they wanted. When I was a teacher, we certainly did not teach children to answer questions like that in exams, because it would have been the wrong thing to do; the idea was to have the ability to look at all sides of the argument and understand it.
I find it astonishing that we are having this debate, and that Opposition Members, despite praising the current Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), as the shadow Secretary of State did, are saying to him, “You are doing a good job on childcare and we like what you are doing on careers, but because we are worried that you might not just agree with our policy we are going to try and set up a side-Committee—but, by the way, none of our Education Committee members agree with us, because they have voted with their feet and not turned up for the debate.” They have not even asked the Chair of the Education Committee to put forward his views in either a public or, I assume, a private session. If minutes can be provided to prove me wrong, I will be more than happy to be shown them.
This demonstrates yet again that we are here for purely ideological reasons. The maths simply does not add up—that is why the Prime Minister is absolutely right to want more pupils to study maths up to the age of 18, and I suspect that the Labour party should be the subject of a pilot study for this scheme to make sure that we show how it works and their sums add up.
As has been explained so beautifully by other Members, the scheme will come at a cost to the taxpayer. Some private schools, though not all, will close, and therefore some pupils will need other places. In Stoke-on-Trent we have no secondary school places available to fill, so there will be a cost to the Stoke-on-Trent taxpayer, as kids will be bussed out of the local area to neighbouring schools, although it may not be clear whether they themselves will have spaces. That will put more pressure on teachers at a time when they are still recovering from the covid pandemic.
Labour seems to think that new teachers will magically appear, although they have to go through a year of training and recruitment. That is challenging not because of Conservative rule, but because the likes of Opposition Members are telling me and others, time and again, how terrible teaching is—how terrible the conditions are, how terrible the classrooms are, how terrible the children are to work with. Is it any wonder that people do not turn up and ask to be teachers, when an advert over here is telling them that teaching is the worst profession in the world to work in?
I speak as someone whose partner is a former Labour party member who fully supports what the Conservative party has been doing to raise educational standards with a knowledge-rich curriculum and strong behavioural expectations. I have seen the same in schools with Labour-supporting headteachers, such as Kensington Aldridge Academy, right at the foot of Grenfell Tower, who have done excellent work to ensure that a rigorous curriculum gives children the chance to go to university. I think that, last year alone, six to 12 students went to Oxbridge from that school in that deprived part of Kensington because of the tremendous work of—yes, those friends: obviously, I declare my interest. That shows what this Government have done, time and again, to deliver for those people.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. According to the PISA—programme for international student assessment—tables, literacy and maths skills plummeted under Labour. We went from seventh to 25th in reading and from eighth to 28th in maths, and it has taken successive Education Secretaries and hard work from Ministers to recover from that position. Does he agree that before applying their big-state, freedom-stripping, economically illiterate ideologies to education, the Opposition should first get the basics right?
I fully concur with my hon. Friend. The simple truth is this. Even the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), told students at one of his local private schools, Redmaids’ High School, that he did not agree with this policy. Behind closed doors, the Labour Chair of a Select Committee says one thing while Labour Front Benchers say another.
This is not just about money; it is also about jobs. It is about the caterers, cleaners and groundskeepers who will lose their jobs if these schools close, and it will not necessarily be easy for them to find jobs to replace them. It is this Conservative Government who have introduced the successful multi-academy trusts and phonics; literacy and numeracy are up; and the disadvantage gap had narrowed before the pandemic. There is £7.7 billion from the spending review, and an extra £4.4 billion from the autumn statement. The Conservatives are on the side of teachers, on the side of parents and on the side of pupils. It is a shame that the Labour party is not.
The whole argument about how we tax private schools is underpinned by a much more important question: why do so many parents choose to send their children to private schools? Some parents, particularly those whose children have complex special educational needs, feel that they have no other choice, as Government cuts in council funding mean that councils often struggle to provide the support that their children need. Others look at the sports, art, music, drama, debating skills, coding clubs and other opportunities that private schools offer, to a far greater extent than could be dreamt of by many of our state schools. They see that the pupil-teacher ratio in private schools is half that in state schools, as the Government fail year after year to meet their own teacher-training targets. They see that a private school has an on-site counsellor, when their child has been waiting months, sometimes years, to be assessed by child and adolescent mental health services and subsequently treated if they need help.
As the Government continue to let our pupils down, having failed to invest properly in covid recovery, we cannot blame parents for wanting the very best for their children. However, the Government cannot brush off criticisms of the status quo as an attack on aspiration. They know just how badly distorted the playing field in our education system is distorted.
At the root of the inequalities I have outlined is money. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the average private school fee is £6,500 more than state school funding per pupil. More than half of private schools are charities, required to operate for the public benefit, yet current case law allows private schools to decide for themselves what that public benefit is. It lets some private schools get away with the bare minimum. Others, on the other hand, are doing far more.
In October, I attended the launch of Feltham College in a neighbouring constituency. It is a new sixth form run out of Reach Academy in Feltham, which is an inspirational school founded by an inspirational man called Ed Vainker, who happens to be a constituent of mine. Reach is run in partnership with Hampton School in my constituency and Lady Eleanor Holles School, also in my constituency, as well as in partnership with Kingston University and various other partners. The two independent schools offer 28 taught periods per week across a range of subjects, particularly the sciences. The teachers from LEH and Hampton have also offered additional tutoring and coaching sessions for students at Reach who want to apply to Oxbridge or to medical school and need to go for interviews.
The partnership is producing results: students at Reach achieve the best chemistry and biology results that the school has ever had. Children and young people from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds in an area that historically has sent far too few of them into higher education are seeing the most extraordinary results. I want every private school to offer that sort of support to the state sector, not by imposing top-down solutions—as some previous Education Secretaries have attempted—but, rather, by partnering with neighbouring state schools to identify needs in the local community and to share resources and expertise effectively.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. I wholeheartedly support some of the work that she has outlined around partnerships. Does she not agree that, fundamentally, this goes to the heart of how we see education: education is not a charity but a fundamental basic right?
I agree that education is a fundamental basic right. I am about to talk about the nature of charitable status. It should not be seen as a club. Some private schools perhaps do operate in that way, but lots do not. The hon. Lady goes to the heart of my point: if we are to give private schools charitable status, they need to do much more across the board to earn and to keep that status. We should expect the level of collaboration I have outlined between Reach, Hampton and LEH. We should expect that sort of collaboration from every school with charitable status. A charity is not a club. It should not use resources to benefit only its own members, even if it occasionally waives the entry fee. If it does, the Charity Commission should have the power to revoke its charitable status.
I also believe—this point has been made by some Members—that education is a public good. Our VAT system recognises that essentials such as food and healthcare should not be subject to additional taxes. Currently, all education provided by eligible bodies, including schools, universities and providers of English as a foreign language, are exempt from VAT. That is important because it is a statement that education—however it is provided—is as much a public good as bread, eggs and cheese.
I am in politics because I am passionate about education. The importance of education was instilled in me and my sisters from a very young age. I believe that every child, no matter what their background, should be given the opportunity to excel and