Oral Answers to Questions

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Monday 29th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. Reading is one of the most important things children can be doing at a young age. Our Little Moments Together campaign provides free resources for parents to encourage a positive culture of reading at home, and we also fund the National Literacy Trust, which does great work to promote reading.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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T9. Can the Minister give us an update on the schools-based work of the Youth Endowment Fund on trying to stop young people getting involved in crime, and can he tell us how the success of that work will be judged?

Childcare Entitlements

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd April 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I am delighted to hear that Rupert has been able to take advantage of the offer. My hon. Friend is right that in different parts of the country we see different rates required by providers, based on the costs they are facing. That is why our rates are different in different parts of the country. Local authorities have to pass through 95% of what we give them to ensure that as much of that goes to the provider as possible, but we will continue to ensure that they are set according to what providers tell us they are having to pay, so that they have the money that they need.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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An increasing number of constituents are coming to me because they are struggling to access childcare when they need it, which is partly exacerbated by staff shortages and sickness and overstretched providers. However, I want to press the Minister on this point. He said in his statement that the estimated £500 million of additional funding will

“ensure that rates keep up with provider costs pressure”.

What modelling has been done to ensure that that is the case, particularly with reference to places such as Bristol, where we know that a lot of overheads will be higher than in many other places outside London? I do not expect him to have the figures at his disposal today, but will he promise to write to me to give me an assessment of what has been done in relation to Bristol?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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Yes, I will. The projections for the years 2025-26 and 2026-27 are based partly on economic conditions at the time—a few factors going into them will determine those rates—but I will write to the hon. Lady about specifically what has been happening in Bristol to date.

Children Not in School: National Register and Support

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd January 2024

(6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Bridget Phillipson Portrait Bridget Phillipson
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support. Those are precisely the kinds of measures that a Labour Government would take right now to back families, cut child poverty and ensure that children are set up to succeed.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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One reason why children might drop out of the school system and, as my hon. Friend says, go under the radar is because they have had a parent sentenced to imprisonment. The charity Children Heard and Seen tells us that we know exactly how many Labradors are in this country but have no idea how many children are affected by parental imprisonment. We know it is a six-figure sum. Does my hon. Friend agree that we could use a register to try to get some data so that those children get the help they need, whether that is mental or physical support?

Bridget Phillipson Portrait Bridget Phillipson
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all her campaigning work on the important issue of supporting families and children where imprisonment is a factor in their lives, such as when a parent is spending time in prison or is in the criminal justice system. She raises the important issue—one that I will come to in the debate—of the need to get a better sense of all the information around a child so that we can better support all children and families.

Funded Childcare

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Monday 22nd January 2024

(6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I set out in my statement the additional money that we had given to the sector in the last financial year and this one to help it to meet those cost pressures—that was anchored to the survey of 10,000 providers that I talked about. Again, if the hon. Gentleman wants to send me information, data or specific case studies, I will gladly have a look.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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I am glad the Minister said that, because I have a specific case from my constituency that I wish to raise. It relates to the parents of a two-year-old and a nine-month-old baby. They are teachers in local secondary schools and the mother is planning on returning to work after maternity leave. They have been really struggling with this issue of the portal, when they would get the code through and so on. I hope that what was announced will help them, but will the Minister confirm that if it turns out that it does not, I will be able to write to him and get an immediate response?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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Yes, and I hope that the hon. Lady will do so. We have taken an extra-cautious approach on this. A particular group of parents were affected and rather than just write to them, we have written to a much broader group of parents: everybody whose reconfirmation window goes from middle of February to the end of March. So no parent should lose out as a result of this issue and she should get in touch with me immediately if those parents are encountering any problems.

Free School Meals: Children with SEND

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Wednesday 10th January 2024

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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What a pleasure it is to serve with you in the Chair, Dr Huq, I think for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing this debate on an important matter, as demonstrated by the over-subscription of this debate this afternoon. For their contributions, I thank the hon. Members for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), of course, for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) gave a compelling speech, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) made a compelling and pithy point in his speech.

We all agree about the importance of ensuring that all children in school are given the best opportunities to thrive, and the Government are determined to ensure that every child, regardless of background or circumstances, can get the very best start in life. Today, we discuss those who have a special educational need or disability, and colleagues have raised several striking case studies of individual children and their circumstances from their constituency case load or, in some cases, from their personal family experience.

We support, of course, the provision of nutritious food in schools so that pupils develop healthy eating habits and can concentrate and learn, and free school meal provision is important to that being achieved in schools. This Government have extended eligibility for free school meals more than any other. We spend over £1 billion a year delivering free lunches to the greatest ever proportion of school children—over a third. That one in three compares with the one in six who were receiving a free school meal in 2010. That change came despite employment being up by millions, unemployment being down by a million, 600,000 fewer children being in workless households, and the proportion of those in work on low pay coming down substantially since the introduction of the national living wage in 20215-16.

Free school meal provision includes 2 million pupils who are eligible for benefits-related free school meals and a further 90,000 disadvantaged students in further education who receive a free meal at lunch time. In addition, a further 1.3 million infants in reception and years 1 and 2 receive a free meal under the universal infant free school meal policy, which we introduced in 2014. That helps to improve children's education and boost their health, and it saves parents about £480 a year. We have also introduced extensive protections, which have been in effect since 2018, to ensure that while universal credit is being fully rolled out, any family eligible for free school meals transitioning to universal credit from the legacy benefits will retain their entitlement to free school meals, even if they move above the income threshold.

Pupils are eligible for benefits-related free school meals if they or their parents are in receipt of one of the eligible benefits and have submitted a request for meals. As colleagues will know, schools have a duty to provide nutritious, free meals to pupils who are registered with a state-funded school and meet the eligibility criteria for free school meals. The provision should be made for eligible pupils either on the school premises or at any other place where education of those pupils is being provided.

There are, of course, many pupils with special educational needs and disability status that meet the eligibility criteria necessary for free meals. The latest published statistics show that 41.1% of pupils with an education, health and care plan—known commonly as an EHCP—and 37.5% of pupils who are on what is known as SEND support were eligible for free school meals provision in 2023. Similarly, many children with disabilities but not special educational needs will be eligible, and those rates are higher than the overall proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in England.

The standard food offering provided by schools will, of course, be suitable to the needs of many of these children. However, some pupils with additional needs may require special food provision or arrangements. Let me be very clear: all schools have duties under the Equality Act 2010 towards individual disabled children and young people, and they must make reasonable adjustments to prevent them being put at a substantial disadvantage. That means that a school cannot treat a pupil unfairly as a consequence of their disability.

For the provision of school meals, that could lead to schools making reasonable adjustments to ensure that eligible pupils could still access their entitlement. For example, a school could let a pupil with sensory-processing issues go into the dinner hall before other pupils, or it could appropriately tailor the meal choices to the pupil’s particular needs. Schools do, of course, do those things and are best able to understand the individual children and the circumstances of their school.

We have published non-statutory guidance for schools to advise them generally on their duties to make reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils and to support them in doing so. I would also note that, while schools are not obliged to make such adjustments for pupils who are not disabled, many do work with pupils and their families to accommodate a variety of needs. Working with pupils to make adjustments to help them access food can, of course, as a couple of colleagues have alluded to, also help to improve attendance and behaviour. Further to that, we encourage schools to work with parents and pupils to ensure that their food provision adequately meets a diverse range of needs, so that it can be enjoyed and benefited from by all.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for giving way. My involvement in this is partly informed by constituents writing to me, but also as the aunt of a child whose neurodiversity means that she has a severely restricted diet, which is basically beige things and chocolate. I know that my sister has had huge problems in trying to ensure that she gets the right support at school, but I wanted to ask specifically about the Food Standards Agency. As I understand it, the FSA has been carrying out a review into schools’ compliance with the national school food standards, because there is very little information on the extent to which schools do comply with those standards. Does the Minister also see a role for the FSA in looking at whether schools meet that criteria and are actually meeting the needs of SEND pupils in terms of dietary needs?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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Obviously the quality of school food is critical, and regulations cover not only free school meals, in the sense of lunches, but all food that is available during the school day—for example, in breakfast clubs that schools provide and even in tuck shops. I may get inspiration, but I think the standards cover up to 6 pm in the evening for things going on during the school day.

When one talks about compliance with regulations, one has to think differently about what is done at a system level and for individual children. Candidly, I do not think that it is realistic to say that you could have a regulatory agency that was looking at every individual case of individual children and their requirements in that particular school, but it is important that we have those standards. If the hon. Lady would like, I would be very happy, of course, to follow up with her separately.

That, in fact, brings me on to the point that I have in front of me, which is that, where parents do have specific concerns that a school’s legal obligations regarding their child are not being met, those should be raised with the school in the first instance, and subsequently, as necessary, with the academy trust or local authority.

Breaking Down Barriers to Opportunity

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Wednesday 8th November 2023

(8 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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We might have a new monarch on the throne, but what we saw yesterday was a complete abdication of responsibility from the Government, who have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) just said, completely run out of ideas. With no answers to the cost of living crisis and other problems of their own making over the past 13 years, their default response now is just to distract, delay and, as we see with the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, sow division through political point scoring, rather than doing what is right for this country’s economic future and for the planet. The Energy Secretary herself has conceded that we cannot rely on that Bill to bring energy bills down, so who does benefit from the Bill, if not consumers? Could it be the oil and gas companies, making record profits, which are handed billions in taxpayer subsidies?

Doubling down on fossil fuels is not the answer. Clean, cheap home-grown energy is the only way to make us energy secure. As the Prime Minister stumbles in the starting blocks in the race for net zero, or indeed seems to be going backwards, Labour stands ready to lead the sprint for renewables with all the opportunities that they will bring—whether it is green jobs in communities that are making the transition away from dirty fossil fuels; whether it is community power, which we have heard about; or whether it is economic regeneration and technical advances. There is so much potential.

It was a relief that the Renters (Reform) Bill came back before Parliament just before Parliament prorogued and was carried over, but frankly the Bill is not good enough. The ban on no-fault evictions is still being kicked down the road, for probably years into the future. More than 60,000 section 21 notices have been served since the promise to ban them was first made. While we wait for the Government to act, thousands more will become homeless through no fault of their own—victims of a Government pandering to the wealthy property-owners on their Back Benches.

The Renters (Reform) Bill was supposed to transform the private rented sector, but it will remain legal for landlords to discriminate against tenants on benefits. There will be no statutory decent home standard in the private sector, and local housing allowances will remain frozen, meaning that the vast majority of privately rented homes in places such as Bristol will remain unaffordable for people on housing benefit. Given that we have not heard anything from the Government this week, I certainly hope that we will see something on that in the autumn statement. We talk about opportunity. The opportunity to have a decent home and a roof over their head is being denied to so many.

I am pleased that the leasehold and freehold Bill will be introduced. Even the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has admitted that the leasehold system is “outdated” and “feudal”, but it is disappointing to see such a half-hearted attempt at reform again. It is good to see a ban on leaseholds for new houses, but houses make up only 30% of leasehold homes in England. There is no reason why flat-owners deserve less protection and higher costs. That is yet another Tory U-turn that will leave far too many flat-owners facing extortionate bills and ground rents for homes that they already own. Given that the Home Secretary’s recent announcement on tents was not taken up, at least they will be safe in the knowledge that they can switch to sleeping under a dual carriageway in a little tent of their own for the foreseeable future.

I am trying to be positive, but there is not a lot to go on. That is evidenced by the fact that no Tory MPs are waiting to speak, and the last Tory MP who did speak, the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), managed to get through 10 minutes without mentioning anything at all in the King’s Speech, though he told us an awful lot about Shakespeare, which I guess was educational in its own way.

I am pleased that we are finally getting a Bill to ban live exports, even if it has been more than seven years since we heard all those promises during the 2016 referendum campaign. It was one of the Leave campaign’s flagship things. I know people who voted for Brexit only because they thought that there would be a ban on live exports, so it has taken the Government a long time, and where are the other promises that were made on banning imports of fur and foie gras? They were supposed to be a Brexit bonus too.

In another example of better late than never, I welcome the long-overdue football governance Bill, finally giving us a chance to realise recommendations from the fan-led football review. We desperately need greater parity across the footballing pyramid in this country to protect the future of the game and ensure that the excessive wealth of the top clubs reaches the lower leagues and grassroots football.

On crime, of course Labour supports the need to bring in tough sentences for serious and violent offenders, but this is not the first time the Conservative Government have made such promises. Since 2010, almost 4,000 convicted rapists have received sentences of less than seven years. It is no surprise that this Government are all talk and no action. We have a record backlog in our courts, with more than 65,000 cases waiting to be heard in the Crown courts. That is thousands of victims waiting for justice to be done. Two thirds of English and Welsh prisons are overcrowded and as of last month we had barely 500 prison places left, which raises the question of where those extra prisoners will go. That is just not joined-up thinking; again, it is making grand statements without making the investment in our public realm that is needed to back up those promises.

This debate is as much about what was not in the King’s Speech as what was in it. There was no mention of the long-awaited employment Bill or pensions reform; no register of children out of school; no commitment to reform the dental contract, which dentists and my constituents are crying out for and which Labour will deliver; and nothing on tackling the climate or nature emergencies. I am told we will need primary legislation to ratify the global ocean treaty, which the UK signed with some fanfare earlier this year. Where is that legislation? It will be a very short piece of legislation, but why the delay?

It is not as if this is a Government bursting with ideas, full of ambition and struggling to find space in the parliamentary timetable for all the urgent and inspirational things they want to do. We will have to wait for next year’s King’s Speech for that. Given that the Government seem to have so few ideas, why have they stalled on some of the things we already know they have been looking at? Where is the mental health Bill, for example? We have had the draft Bill and plenty of time for pre-legislative scrutiny, so why is this Bill dragging on and running out of time when reform is so desperately needed? And why, five years on, are the Government still procrastinating over a ban on so-called conversion therapies? LGBT+ people deserve better than to be told that their sexuality or gender identity can be cured. When will the Government follow Labour’s example and back a full, inclusive conversion therapy ban?

What this King’s Speech reveals is that we have a Government devoid of compassion, of leadership and of conscience, exemplified by a Home Secretary who describes homelessness as a “lifestyle choice”. Demonising the most vulnerable in society is a political choice. Overseeing the managed decline of the NHS is a political choice. Trashing the UK’s international climate reputation is a political choice. Letting that trickle-down mini-Budget crash our economy last autumn and lead us into a cost of living crisis was a political choice. Those are the actions of a Tory Government who for 13 years have put self-interest over the interests of the country. It is time to give the people of Britain a chance to choose. This King’s Speech shows that the country needs a general election and a Labour Government.

Oral Answers to Questions

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Monday 23rd October 2023

(9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mark Garnier Portrait Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con)
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1. What progress her Department has made on ensuring equality of school funding through the national funding formula.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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13. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of core school funding for the 2023-24 academic year.

Gillian Keegan Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
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The Government introduced fairness into school funding. Under Labour, we got disproportionately inflated school budgets in places such as London, while constituencies such as mine were underfunded for over a decade. It was the Conservatives who introduced the national funding formula, which funds schools fairly, objectively and, most importantly, based on the needs of pupils, not political ideology. Not only that: this year, school budgets are up by over £3.9 billion, and next year schools will be funded at their highest level in history, at £59.6 billion.

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I am conscious of the pressures that many local authorities have faced on their high needs budgets. Nationally, high needs funding is set to increase by 60% between 2019-20 and 2024-25. Next year, Worcestershire will receive more than £89 million for its high needs budget. The Department is also supporting individual local authorities to tackle financial sustainability through two programmes: the Safety Valve programme for those with the highest deficits, and Delivering Better Value in SEND, which will help local authorities, including Worcestershire, to develop plans to reform their systems to reach a sustainable footing.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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The recent accounting error by the Secretary of State’s Department will mean a cut of more than £2.5 million for schools in Bristol. That money could have been spent on breakfast clubs, SEND provision, mental health support, or even such basics as paying the energy bills. The Prime Minister said in this conference speech that his main funding priority in every spending review from now on will be education, but he is cutting school budgets now. Does the Secretary of State not realise the impact that will have on schools, whose budgets have already been cut to the bone?

Higher Education Students: Statutory Duty of Care

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Monday 5th June 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Helen Grant Portrait Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con)
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The campaign that led to this debate first came to my attention when I met my constituent Hilary Grime and her son Hamish in December last year. Hilary’s daughter Phoebe had been a pupil at Cranbrook School in my constituency, where she had been a happy, outgoing student who loved surfing and ice hockey. But she struggled when she moved to university, and tragically, on 5 June 2021—exactly two years ago today—she took her own life in her university accommodation. The pain and ramifications suffered by families who have lost a child to suicide are unimaginable, but very sadly many other parents and families have been touched by similar devastating losses.

Over 2.8 million students are in higher education in England and Wales. Over the past 10 years, one student in England and Wales has died as a result of suicide every four days. It is an absolute tragedy that we are losing so many of our young people right at the start of their lives. Yet despite that, the law remains very unclear and limited when it comes to what duties and responsibilities universities have in relation to their often very vulnerable young students. The law in its current form was tested recently. In that case, a claim of negligence failed because the judge found that no relevant duty of care existed.

By contrast, the Government’s response to the petition appears, on the face of it, to have a rather different expectation of universities. They said:

“Higher Education providers do have a general duty of care to deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution and, in carrying out these services, they are expected to act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of their students.”

They go on:

“This can be summed up as providers owing a duty of care to not cause harm to their students through the university’s own actions.”

That statement is too simplistic and cites no legal authorities whatever in support. Lawyers have argued that the general duty does exist, but those arguments have thus far been unsuccessful.

In answer to a question asked in March this year by the shadow Minister for Higher Education, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), the Government conceded:

“The existence and application of a duty of care between HE providers and students has not been widely tested in the courts.”

Therefore, at this moment, beyond certain very specific circumstances, the law offers only limited protection to students who suffer harm because of their university’s negligence.

This issue affects a significant and very vulnerable section of our society. University students are adults in law, but they are often living away from home for the first time in their lives. They are sometimes located great distances away from their established support structures of school and home. University students are not covered by the laws that protect students at primary and secondary school, nor do they receive the legal protections afforded by employment. There is a gap: far too many students fall through the middle and do not receive the protections to which they are entitled.

Some progress has been made on prevention in recent years. Universities UK represents 141 universities and, working together with agencies such as Papyrus, is improving access to mental health and pastoral support for students, but such support is not consistent throughout the country. Universities UK concedes that one in four students have a diagnosed mental health issue and one third are recognised as having poor wellbeing. It says that the university mental health charter, created by Student Minds in partnership with UUK and others, provides a framework for institutions to adopt.

Universities UK says that the framework would enable a whole-university approach for safe, inclusive, healthy settings for students, but there is no requirement for universities to sign the charter. There are at least 285 higher education providers in the UK and, of the 141 universities that UUK represents, only 61 have signed the charter. Only five have been awarded charter status and none have thus far achieved the two higher levels of accreditation: merit and distinction.

Although some universities are clearly raising their game, others are lagging behind, creating something of a care and wellbeing lottery for students in the UCAS application process. A statutory duty of care would set the bar to level up that standard—a standard that requires all higher education providers to do what might reasonably be expected, while maintaining their autonomy in deciding exactly how that will achieved. That is the backbone of this debate.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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I apologise for not being able to stay for the whole debate; I must be on the Front Bench in the main Chamber soon.

As a Bristol MP, I have been in touch with the vice-chancellors of the University of the West of England—who is the national lead on mental health—and of the University of Bristol to try to get assurances that they are taking this issue seriously. I believe they are. The hon. Member made an important point: the focus is very much on the big universities, but we also need to work with other further education establishments and those that are less in the spotlight. Does the hon. Member think that the statutory duty of care is the way to bring those organisations onboard? Or is there another way to do that?

Helen Grant Portrait Mrs Grant
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I certainly do. As I said a few moments ago, a statutory duty of care would level up the standard of care in the way that our young people deserve. Obviously, we must put in place all the other suicide prevention measures, but they are not working. They are insufficient. We need both. We need more. We need clarity in the law, and we certainly do not have that at the moment.

Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Monday 13th March 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). That was clearly not an easy speech to make. Coming from a large family—I am up to about 20 nephews, nieces, great nephews and great nieces; even the children are having children now—I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like if one of them sadly went down the same route as Jack, and her speech was incredibly brave. Having spoken in a debate last year after the death of one of my very close friends by suicide, I know you feel powerless when it happens but, at the same time, you think, “Well, by speaking up and using what powers we have in this place to try to draw attention to it, I am at least doing something that will help others.”

Before getting to the main thrust of my speech, I want to pick up on a couple of things that my hon. Friend mentioned. I too attended my friend’s inquest, and a prevention of future deaths notice was published. I did quite a lot of digging around beforehand as to what was going to happen at the inquest. There is an issue about how long these things take. He ended up having a fairly quick hearing, but some cases take a long time to get to that stage. It is not entirely clear what happens when these notices are issued, and I asked some parliamentary questions about this matter. It is one thing a coroner issuing a notice, but does it just end up in a big pile? Is action actually being taken and are efforts being made to ensure that lessons really are learned?

The other thing I would pick up on is what my hon. Friend said about university students. Sadly, University of Bristol had a spate of suicides, which was again why my attention was drawn to this issue. The issue also came up at an event I did last year with the band New Order, talking with the Campaign Against Living Miserably —the suicide prevention charity. One thing that came through was that, in some cases, universities do not feel that they can talk to the parents because students are classed as adults and, even though there are signs of distress, they feel they cannot go back to them. There is a need for a named adult when students register, so they can ensure parents know what is going on. Again, there were a few cases where that had not happened.

In some cases, as we have heard, there are few signs from young people and children, and families can be shocked by sudden incidents when they were not aware their child had mental health problems. However, a record number of children have mental health problems that are known and are on the NHS mental health waiting list. The situation is worsening rapidly, in part because of the pressures on children because of covid and the years of lockdown.

NHS stats from November last year revealed that one in six children aged between seven and 16 show signs of a probable mental health condition, and that jumps to one in four among young people aged 17 to 19. Half of all mental health problems are established by the age of 14, so it is imperative that we ensure today’s school pupils do not end up as tomorrow’s suicide statistics, whether that is when they are still young people or, as in my friend’s case, 30 or 40 years down the line.

I recently asked about adverse childhood experiences at Prime Minister’s questions. I think the Prime Minister just heard the words “children” and “mental health” and replied about what mental health support is available, rather than actually addressing my question. I do not particularly blame him for that, but I was asking about how we prevent children from reaching a stage when they are in mental health crisis because of things going on in their lives. We need to address not just the consequences, but the causes of poor mental health in children and, ideally, prevent those adverse childhood experiences from happening in the first place.

I entirely support calls to talk more about mental health. I encourage children to seek support if they are struggling, and I encourage teachers and professionals to try to identify whether children are in that place, but it should not just be about helping children cope. It should be about trying to ensure that children are happy and healthy right from the word go, whether that is trying to stop things like online harms; dealing with problems at home, including parents who may not be getting the help they need themselves, which will obviously have an impact on their children; or any of the other factors we know lead to children feeling in a dark place. Any strategy also has to include that.

As has been said, about four children a week—200 a year—lose their lives to suicide. I commend 3 Dads Walking for drawing attention to the issue, and for its work with the charity Every Life Matters. Going back to my earlier point, I see that the dads feel this work is the least they can do. I hope that we can do justice to them today, and that the Minister can show them that something will come of all their efforts. I also commend Papyrus and other charities for their work.

Bristol City Council published its updated suicide prevention plan last August. One of the seven action points is about targeting mental health among specific groups, including children and young people. That includes providing mental health first aid, a course called SafeTALK, and self-harm training to school mental health leads. I am sure we will hear more from the shadow Schools Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), about Labour’s plans for mental health professionals in every school. The council’s plan also includes a “suicide pack” and a “self-harm toolkit” produced in Bristol, which are practical resources. Members have mentioned quite a few local charities. In Bristol, Off the Record works mostly with young people to offer them outreach, mental heal workshops, one-to-one counselling and so on.

People have already flagged that any sort of education in schools needs to be done in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. My concern is that talking generally to a group of children who are in a reasonably good place might be fine. If a child is already in a dark place, I am not entirely sure that is the best way of reaching out to them, particularly for an introverted child who has gone inside themselves. That is a question for the professionals, but I wanted to flag that up.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker
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The hon. Lady raises an interesting point in paying tribute to 3 Dads Walking and everyone who has campaigned on this issue. We have heard strong support from across the Chamber for doing more. Does she agree that it is important to work with the experts to ensure that any curriculum materials are properly sourced and age-appropriate? Elsewhere in the RSHE curriculum, there has been a big backlash and concerns when parents feel that might not be the case. If this is to be done, it needs to be done well. Organisations such as Papyrus and CALM, which the hon. Lady mentioned, can play an important part in informing that.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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That is absolutely right. We always talk about the value of tailoring things to the individual, whether that is job seeking or health support. That can be difficult when resources are tight. My plea is that we have the teaching assistants and extra staff in schools so they can get to know the children and learn their individual characteristics.

I want to flag the issue of neurodiversity. We already know that children mature at different ages, so determining what is age-appropriate can be quite difficult. I have personal experience of one case where a child was in mainstream secondary school, but was so distressed and alarmed by what she was being taught about drugs, crime, gangs and so on, that she ended up in a full-blown mental health crisis and went to residential provision, where she was diagnosed with autism. She went into a special school because that was a safer environment for her. That is just one example of how being taught about something is different for every child. Some of the available therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, might not be appropriate for somebody with an autism diagnosis whose mind does not work in that sort of way.

The special educational needs and disabilities review, which was published last year, was jointly authored by the Health Secretary and the Education Secretary, but there was very little about the overlap with CAMHS. I know the Minister is not here to speak for the Health Department, but the role of CAMHS is crucial.

My other point is about what support is provided once lessons and that individual’s one-to-one support are over. I will end on that. I do not know what has happened to the suicide prevention strategy; I hope that we see it. I think I was told that it was imminent when I did my Westminster Hall debate last year, but I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

--- Later in debate ---
Nick Gibb Portrait The Minister for Schools (Nick Gibb)
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It is a pleasure to respond to this debate under your careful stewardship, Ms Nokes. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on the way he opened this important debate. It has been a debate with many deeply emotional testimonies from families who have lost loved ones to suicide, including a moving speech from the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams).

I also thank Andy Airey, Mike Palmer and Tim Owen for being here today and for their tireless efforts to increase awareness of suicide prevention. Through their campaign, 3 Dads Walking, Andy, Mike and Tim took on the challenge of walking between all four Parliaments, a 600-mile walk that has raised over £1 million to support suicide prevention, in memory of their daughters Beth, Sophie and Emily. Through the campaign, Andy, Mike and Tim shared personal stories of their kind, talented and much-loved daughters and the devastating impact that losing them has had on their parents, siblings, and wider families and friends. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has taken a keen interest in the campaign after she met Andy, Mike and Tim in 2022, when she was serving as Minister for Care and Mental Health. I know she has written to them recently and hopes to meet them again soon.

In 2020, as Minister for School Standards, I helped with the introduction of education on mental wellbeing through the relationships, sex and health education curriculum. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) said in her intervention, we need to be able to talk about mental health. That is an important first step, but I recognise the concerns raised in the petition and in this debate and will do my best to address them.

The death of any young person is tragic, and we need to do everything that we can to prevent it. It is heartbreaking to think that some young people have suicidal thoughts and do not know how to address them, and it is heartbreaking that families have to go through the loss of a child with possibly no indication of their state of mind, as movingly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). We know that going to school can in and of itself be a protective factor for many young people, and we want schools to be places where emerging issues are identified and supported early and where pupils are taught to identify their own feelings and seek the right support at the right time. We need, as the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) put it so well, to help young people back to the path of hope.

The statutory curriculum guidance for RSHE sets out the detailed content that pupils should be taught. They are taught about the building blocks needed to develop positive and safe relationships and good physical and mental health. The content includes how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing concerns, such as anxiety and depression. Pupils are taught where and how to seek support, including who in school they can speak to if they are worried about their own or someone’s else mental wellbeing. I hope that that valuable knowledge will stay with children as they progress into adulthood, so that they will continue to look out for friends and know how to seek the help that is needed when they or someone they know is struggling and not able to take the first step in supporting themselves.

In addition to mental wellbeing, the health education curriculum provides content on the benefits of daily exercise, good nutrition and sufficient sleep, which can all have a positive impact on a young person’s health and wellbeing. Ensuring that pupils understand the links between good physical and mental health will provide them with valuable tools for managing their emotions. We want schools to develop curriculum content that is helpful to their pupils. Our approach is not to dictate how and when schools teach this content, but to ensure that they recognise that it must be covered in an age-appropriate and sensitive way, as my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said. The RSHE statutory guidance is clear that the subject of suicide and self-harm can be discussed as part of this topic, but it is important that teachers approach it carefully, because we have to acknowledge that, taught badly, it has the potential to do harm. We need to consider the issues carefully before making it an absolute requirement.

We know that mental health awareness, as already covered by the curriculum, can have an impact on preventing suicide. We have been funding a large-scale randomised controlled trial of approaches to improving pupil mental wellbeing in schools. The trial will provide evidence on what works to support children’s mental wellbeing and how it can be delivered in schools. The “aware” arm of the trial is testing approaches to mental health awareness teaching, including a school-based programme for young people aged 13 to 17 called Youth Aware of Mental Health, for which there is good international evidence that it reduces suicidal ideation. That has the potential to add to the work that we have already done to improve teacher confidence and the quality of teaching by developing online training materials and implementation guides that give advice to schools and staff on how best to support pupils’ mental and physical health.

The issue of social media came up during the debate. Teaching children to be safe online is another aspect of suicide prevention that is covered by the existing curriculum. The inquests into the tragic suicides of Frankie Thomas and Molly Russell found that unsafe online content, and in Frankie’s case the failure of the school to support her in the online environment, contributed to their deaths. As the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) pointed out, life for this generation of teachers has changed beyond recognition, compared with the previous generation and generations as far back as mine.

We know that social media can be a force for good in relation to mental health. It is part of life and relationships for young people, but for it to be helpful we need to make sure the online environment is as safe as possible. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) raised that concern. Technology and the risks and harms related to it continue to evolve and change rapidly. As the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said, we need to be wary of the toxicity of TikTok, as well as of the dark web, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) mentioned. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) put it, we must switch off the unrealistic expectations of social media.

Through health education, we are equipping children and young people with the knowledge they need to use the internet and social media safely, and understand how to deal with the content they encounter online. In addition to the statutory health education content, we have published guidance for schools on teaching online safety, which helps them deliver internet safety content in a co-ordinated and coherent way across their curriculum.

To check that RSHE teaching is having an effect, we are monitoring its implementation. We want to test whether schools are implementing the requirements with sufficient quality to understand what helps and hinders good teaching. As the Prime Minister announced last Wednesday, we have brought forward the review of the RSHE statutory guidance, which was originally due to commence in September 2023. The current content I have already set out on mental health and wellbeing covers a large amount of what it is important in suicide prevention, but we will look further at this as a priority area for the review and decide whether to add requirements on teaching about suicide. As part of taking a comprehensive, evidence-based approach, we will make sure we speak to the experts in the field. We plan to start the review as soon as possible.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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The Minister talked about testing whether RSHE is having an effect by monitoring its implementation, looking at what is being taught in schools and so on, but what is being done to take it beyond that and look at outcomes? It is one thing to prove that children are being taught about the dangers of drugs, but we must see an impact on the number of children suffering drug-related harm, getting involved in gangs or, in this case, going down that path. How do we judge whether it is having an impact, rather than just whether it is being implemented?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The review will be thorough. It will not only talk to experts, but will look at the data and evidence and statistics from Ofsted and other bodies to ensure it is thorough and leads to the RSHE guidance document being the most effective it can be to deliver the aims and objectives of the RSHE curriculum.

Reform of Children’s Social Care

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Thursday 2nd February 2023

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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Absolutely. It is vital that we support care leavers as they journey into adulthood. We are increasing bursaries for care leavers from £2,000 to £3,000 and increasing the apprenticeship bursary that my hon. Friend mentions from £1,000 to £3,000. That comes on top of the existing bursaries for further education and university. It is also very important that we support access to work. We have a care leavers board, and we will be working to ensure that many more businesses take their duties to care leavers as seriously as the excellent businesses that have been mentioned, such as John Lewis.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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Bristol City Council, with the help of funding from the Department for Education, is setting up two new care homes: one for children with complex mental health needs, and another for adolescent boys with challenging behaviour who are involved in the criminal justice system and are at risk of exploitation. That will ensure that they do not end up being placed outside the city. It is obviously a very good move, but the number of young people in care in Bristol is predicted to rise by 5% next year alone, so we know that needs will increase. What are the Government doing to support local authorities to expand in-house provision even further and to tackle profiteering by private providers so that we can ensure that children are safe in our hands?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Bristol City Council is obviously doing a good job of using the funding. We have £259 million in funding to build more children’s care homes and make sure that they meet area-specific needs—more complex needs, in some cases—and that they are closer to home. We are also encouraging local authorities: we will be working on a pathfinder for regional co-operative boards, because we recognise that it is sometimes easier to get a number of local authorities to work together on more specialised provision.