There have been 48 exchanges involving Mark Pawsey and the Department for Education
|Mon 7th December 2020||Covid-19: Impact on Schools and Exams (Westminster Hall)||7 interactions (1,193 words)|
|Mon 7th September 2020||Oral Answers to Questions||5 interactions (165 words)|
|Tue 4th June 2019||Post-18 Education and Funding||3 interactions (41 words)|
|Tue 7th May 2019||Timpson Review of School Exclusion||3 interactions (85 words)|
|Mon 17th December 2018||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (73 words)|
|Mon 12th November 2018||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (42 words)|
|Wed 10th October 2018||Nursery Sector: Sustainability (Westminster Hall)||5 interactions (863 words)|
|Mon 14th May 2018||Schools That Work For Everyone||3 interactions (71 words)|
|Mon 29th January 2018||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (40 words)|
|Mon 11th December 2017||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (56 words)|
|Mon 11th September 2017||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (48 words)|
|Wed 25th January 2017||School Funding||3 interactions (292 words)|
|Mon 19th December 2016||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (39 words)|
|Tue 22nd November 2016||Education and Social Mobility||3 interactions (68 words)|
|Mon 12th September 2016||Schools that work for Everyone||3 interactions (97 words)|
|Tue 5th July 2016||Teachers Strike||3 interactions (67 words)|
|Mon 4th July 2016||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (52 words)|
|Mon 30th November 2015||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (44 words)|
|Mon 19th October 2015||School Expansion||3 interactions (70 words)|
|Mon 20th July 2015||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (66 words)|
|Thu 25th June 2015||School Transport (Westminster Hall)||7 interactions (1,027 words)|
|Mon 15th June 2015||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (62 words)|
|Thu 26th February 2015||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (86 words)|
|Tue 13th January 2015||Grammar School Funding (Westminster Hall)||5 interactions (919 words)|
|Thu 27th November 2014||Oral Answers to Questions||7 interactions (143 words)|
|Mon 27th October 2014||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (66 words)|
|Thu 11th September 2014||Oral Answers to Questions||7 interactions (149 words)|
|Thu 23rd January 2014||Oral Answers to Questions||5 interactions (85 words)|
|Thu 28th November 2013||Small Businesses||18 interactions (967 words)|
|Wed 20th November 2013||Start-up Loans||3 interactions (85 words)|
|Thu 24th October 2013||Oral Answers to Questions||7 interactions (88 words)|
|Thu 18th July 2013||Oral Answers to Questions||11 interactions (128 words)|
|Thu 9th May 2013||Child-care Ratios||3 interactions (35 words)|
|Thu 20th December 2012||Oral Answers to Questions||6 interactions (114 words)|
|Thu 8th November 2012||Oral Answers to Questions||6 interactions (117 words)|
|Mon 29th October 2012||Oral Answers to Questions||6 interactions (92 words)|
|Mon 18th June 2012||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (74 words)|
|Thu 24th May 2012||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (73 words)|
|Mon 16th April 2012||Oral Answers to Questions||4 interactions (77 words)|
|Mon 16th January 2012||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (83 words)|
|Tue 8th November 2011||Grammar Schools (Westminster Hall)||9 interactions (1,243 words)|
|Thu 9th June 2011||Munro Report||3 interactions (376 words)|
|Thu 9th June 2011||Apprenticeships (Small Businesses) (Westminster Hall)||7 interactions (204 words)|
|Mon 23rd May 2011||Oral Answers to Questions||5 interactions (99 words)|
|Wed 4th May 2011||Rights of Adoptive Parents||2 interactions (2,071 words)|
|Thu 17th February 2011||Oral Answers to Questions||5 interactions (80 words)|
|Thu 20th January 2011||Disadvantaged Children||5 interactions (983 words)|
|Thu 8th July 2010||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (50 words)|
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this timely debate, Mr Gray. I am pleased to be discussing the subject again. I congratulate the young people who stand in solidarity with their peers, their teachers and their family members and who started the petition, and those who have signed it. Pupils in Bath and across the UK have responded with remarkable resilience to this challenging year. Our teachers and school staff have also adapted brilliantly; I thank them all for the work that they have done to make sure that our schools can remain open. It would be an insult to their efforts to repeat the exams fiasco next year.
I have said before that I believe a return to exams in 2021, even with a three-week delay, is the wrong decision. It is about fairness, about which we have already heard a lot in the debate. The time that students have spent in school varies massively across the country, and more may need to self-isolate. I am not convinced that the measures announced by the Secretary of State for Education last week will be enough to level the playing field.
We have seen that teacher assessment works. Teachers are fully capable of assessing their students’ ability. The Welsh Government have announced a flexible approach to assessments that will be delivered in a classroom environment. Those assessments will be externally set and marked to ensure consistency across the nation, but they are not national exams as we know them. Most importantly, the Welsh approach gives pupils the chance to use the summer term to catch up on lost teaching time and to continue learning and building the skills and knowledge that they need for the next stage of their lives. Why should pupils in England not be given the same opportunity?
The Government have yet to answer many questions. Moving grade boundaries may help some students to get higher grades, but will it make up for the huge variation in teaching time? When can students expect the list of topics that will be covered in exams? That must be provided as soon as possible so they can make the most of the rest of the school year. Teachers also need to prepare. If we go ahead with exams, how can we make sure that they are fair? Announcing an expert panel to monitor that is all very well, but again, when can teachers and students expect clarity on what it will mean for them? It is completely unacceptable to continue to kick that decision down the road.
There is a real human cost to all this uncertainty for pupils and teachers. We have already heard much about pupils’ mental health.
Behind every exam result is a young person ready to take on the next stage in their life, whether that is an apprenticeship, a place at university or something else. We cannot begin to know the full extent to which this disruption will affect them, but the exam situation is causing them a great deal of stress and anxiety, and the power to reduce it is in the Government’s hands. The Government owe it to those young people to learn from the summer exams fiasco, rather than rely solely on exams at all costs.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this debate. I certainly concur with the comments made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) about the national tutoring programme. I know that school heads across York, who come together in an organisation called YSAB—York Schools and Academies Board—say that the money could be better and more effectively targeted had they got control of the resources. They also have relationships with people who could deliver such a programme. That would make such a difference, and not only in delivering the programme far more quickly, which is something that we would all want to see.
I also concur with some of the comments made in Libby’s petition on looking at closing schools down earlier before Christmas and being able to displace that time to another point in the calendar in order to keep families safe. Every day, we are seeing hundreds of children in our constituencies not at school. In York, 545 children are not in school in one of the lowest areas of infection in the country. We have to hold things in balance: we have to look at how we can put the right measures in place to keep families safe, but also ensure that there is minimum disruption to children’s education.
This has been the most challenging time for teachers and support staff, as well as students. The stress placed on our young people today, who have worked incredibly hard through this time, has had a profound impact on their mental health, which must be recognised. People do not want to be absent from their education: with every single absence, they see their future slipping away, not least because they are still uncertain as to what the end of the year may bring for them. One thing that they are certain of, though, is that those absences have driven greater inequality.
In researching for this debate, I decided to go back to some source reports, drawing on academia in particular and looking at Ofqual reports too, to examine the assertion that Government keep putting forward: that exams are the best form of assessment. From Ofqual’s work and that of others, that is not what the evidence is saying. For instance, an inequality is hardwired into the system: the evidence shows that male students perform better in exam-only assessments than female students, and we therefore need to look at that issue. While female students perform well in exams, they also excel where there is coursework involved, and therefore the hybrid model that Labour championed during its time in government struck the right balance. That is certainly borne out by the evidence put forward by academics.
That evidence has also shown that having proper access to IT and broadband, and a safe and secure learning environment, removes so much of the inequality around socio-economic status that we see. That is why it is absolutely right for the Government to prioritise those things, although sadly that has been lacking throughout this pandemic: there has been greater divergence, particularly for pupils who already have lower attainment, and that growing inequality in our education system is of great concern.
As set out by the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry last year, teacher assessment during compulsory education is as reliable as formal external exams. That journal also found no bias on the grounds of ethnicity or gender in that type of assessment. It did, however, recognise the impact that exams are having on wellbeing, as did the Mumsnet survey of 1,500 parents, who identified the impact exams are now having on children’s mental health. Two in three children experience anxiety and sleepless nights. For one in 10, exams have a severe impact on their mental health, with 9% seeking medical help, one in five pupils in tears, and 31% experiencing exam stress. Research has shown how exams—not least the gold-standard exams—have exacerbated poor mental health, resulting in an increase of a third in medical referrals, as well as panic attacks, breakdowns, crying, fatigue, and children imploding emotionally.
That poor mental health is creating a new disadvantage through exams, where those who are breaking under the system are performing worse in exams. That must be taken into consideration, not least with the escalation of pressure when a pupil knows that they are sitting exams having had many days of absence, while other pupils have been able to attend school. Now, we have a system where four different nations have four different systems and pupils are applying to universities for the same places, and therefore greater inequality is being built into the system. Sadly, while it is welcome to hear about the work that the Government have been doing, their announcements last week have not addressed the deep concerns about inequality in our system. Certainly, most young people still do not know what lies beyond that point.
An extension of only three weeks to the academic year, as needed as it may be, will not address the missed opportunities children have had. I spoke to one parent whose daughter had had only 16 days since March of her A-level biology course, for which she sits the exam next summer. How will she compare with the pupil who has been constantly in education over that time, when she has had no contact with her educational establishment for three months? The gap is so large that it is clear we cannot depend on an end-of-year-exam-only assessment. I am sure that after the Government have sat in their workgroup, they will be coming back to make further announcements.
However, there is one more question that I want to put before Government, which is maybe a bigger question: what is education for? Surely we need to return to the classical understanding that education is the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to apply it. Passing exams has little to do with that, and therefore the Government’s assertion that exams are the best form of assessment and of advancing pupils’ education is not proven by the academic evidence.
We can trust our professional teachers and educators to nurture and assess our young people with centre-based assessments for all—yes, absolutely, nationally moderated—and turn the stress and tears to joy and prove that education is not just about exams. If the Minister fails to do that, I trust that the higher education sector will take control of how it will admit its next generation of students and force the Government to think again.
Break in Debate
On the point about the end of January, the objective is not to reduce the amount of teaching, but to provide an aid so that pupils can focus their revision and catch up if required. It is not to narrow the curriculum or what is being taught, but to enable catch-up—we have all mentioned catch-up—and to enable them to focus their revision on those areas. That is the point and that is why the end of January is deemed the right date.
Students studying for vocational and technical qualifications can also expect additional flexibilities, including the reduction of assessment for optional units. We want as many students as possible to be able to sit their exams, so we have also got a contingency package if they miss an exam because of self-isolation, illness and so on. In the minority of cases where they cannot sit all their papers, there will be additional means by which they can take a future exam or still be awarded a grade, including additional papers available after the main A-level and GCSE exam series. It is the same for VTQ students who have not been able to complete all their necessary assessments.
This is not easy and not perfect. We are dealing with a situation where there has not been equal access to education. The catch-up is happening right now, but we have taken steps to make sure that students and teachers do not lose out because of covid. We have taken them to make sure that they can still achieve their aspirations and to make sure that coronavirus does not drag down educational standards. Instead, we continue to try to level up across the country.
I am sorry, but I cannot. I would love to, but I want to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North.
I want to thank all of our dedicated teachers and support staff for their continued commitment to supporting children and young people. We all know, when we go to schools, how much young people love being back in school. Even if they are trying to catch up, they still want to be back there. I remain confident that the measures we have put in place, together with the continued dedication of educators and support staff, will suffice. I thank all hon. Members for taking part and the petitioners for raising the subject.
It was a Conservative Government who introduced the sports premium, and it is a Conservative Government who are ensuring that £320 million is going out to schools so they can ensure that youngsters have the kind of activity they want to see. Returning to school, yes, is incredibly important for the learning that all children benefit from, but it is also about the physical health they will get from being back at school. We are backing this with that money and ensuring there are great sports activities in all schools right across the country.
Exams will be available in all GCSE, AS and A-level subjects in the autumn. Schools and colleges that accepted entries from private candidates, including home-educated students, in the summer should enter those who wish to sit an exam, and there should be no financial barriers to doing so.
Private candidates who were entered for the summer series or where the school intended to enter them for the summer are eligible to enter the autumn series. The candidate’s age is actually not relevant. We expect the school or college that enters students for the summer series to enter them for the autumn.
The hon. Lady will shortly meet the universities Minister in her all-party group on universities and will have an opportunity to discuss some of these things further. She mentioned teaching grants. The Augar report recommends precisely that—that there should be top-ups, although not exactly the same for all subjects. Few people realise the extent of the teaching grant. It is £1.3 billion, with some 40%—two in five—of courses attracting some sort of teaching grant. What the report talks about is how we balance that correctly properly to reflect not only value but cost to serve, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien).
The hon. Gentleman is right. Off-rolling is wrong and should not be happening. There are different categories within off-rolling, and Ofsted will be looking at this issue in its new framework. There are two ways to look at the question of our response coming out on the same day as the report: a positive way and a negative way. I prefer to see it as a same-day service that demonstrates urgency.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The relationship between families and schools is absolutely at the heart of education. Of course we want those relationships to be as strong as they can and for people on both sides to keep on working at them for the good of the child.
I commend the school for taking the initiative to provide its pupils with the opportunity to learn skills for the workplace in a safe environment. I hope that Mr Pollitt will share that excellent practice with other educational professionals and explore the possibility of running supported internships as well.
The national funding formula introduces a fairer system, so that every pupil in every part of the country is funded on the same basis. A child in York with special educational needs, with low prior attainment or from a disadvantaged background will receive precisely the same amount of money as a similar pupil elsewhere in the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. We really have to put the right investment in place for children with special educational needs. We need to give those children the start in life that any other child should expect. We also need to support parents. Parents do an amazing job looking after their children. Having the support of a nursery helps them in their work as well. It is vital that they are not excluded from the so-called “free” offer and that a new exemption is introduced by the Minister. I would be really interested to hear him commit to that today.
We mentioned business costs, which are important. We have heard that nurseries in Wales and Scotland are exempt from business rates. We trust that that can be introduced in England. That would make such a difference to nurseries. Nurseries based in schools and childminders and domestic child carers do not pay business rates, so why do nurseries have to? We also heard about VAT, where we need a level playing field.
The Minister has a real opportunity to reform the funding. York is the example to call on. Those working in the sector have shown dedication, but they are really struggling, and the viability of nurseries, as I saw when visiting them across my constituency this summer, is very fragile indeed. There is a real plea, which is the basis of today’s debate, for the Minister to go back and get the funding that is required. Otherwise, many nurseries could disappear, and that would jeopardise early years altogether.
There is also an additional cost for those parents who need 40 hours of childcare and have to pay a separate rate for it. They may not have a higher income—they may still be on a very low wage—yet they may be subsidising additional hours for other parents who are on the 30 hours.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) for securing this debate on a really important subject. I will not make a lengthy speech, but I would like to follow up on a few of his points, to which I listened with great interest.
I appreciate and fully support the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the value of the nursery sector to working parents and the importance of its availability, but I will focus on its value to children, particularly those from deprived communities. Worryingly, extensive research shows that as many as 35% of children arrive at school with language skills that are inadequate or below the level expected of their age group. It is important that we distinguish between childcare and the educational value of this excellent sector; Ofsted judges more than 90% of providers as outstanding in providing exceptional support for children’s development. For children in deprived communities, that is often a lifeline for the entire family.
When parents have so many life challenges to deal with, the daily support of qualified professionals can make the difference between getting by and not getting by, and can be crucial to children’s life chances. Highly qualified and well-trained staff can often pick up developmental issues, mental health stresses and strains, or special educational needs. They can nip problems in the bud and search out specialist help at a very early stage, which has an impact further down the line. Extensive Oxford University research has shown the value of investing in early years.
I understand that organisations in the sector have business costs, but I would prefer that we saw them as an educational service for children in their early years—a national priority. The current funding arrangements are complex and extremely fragmented, and many nurseries and nursery schools are in danger of closure. I fully understand the pressures on local government; my local authority has endured nearly 60% of cuts to its funding. However, what I seek from the Minister today is recognition that early years should be part of the Government’s plan to increase social mobility and educational attainment and to enhance our economic opportunity as a nation by ensuring that every child can contribute.
I hope that the Minister is listening and that he will try to change the focus—and maybe the Prime Minister’s mind. Instead of focusing on the impact of things like grammar schools, let us get investment into the early years where it will make the real difference. Education does not begin at 11; it begins in the early years. If we invest in children and ensure that they have that opportunity in their early days, they will reap the benefits tenfold in their later educational life. I dare say that we will all benefit from that.
My hon. Friend rightly identifies the importance of diversity and choice in our system. He is also right to remind us that although these are important announcements, in the scheme of things the vast majority of new places created in secondary schools are of course going to be for comprehensive-intake schools, and having this variety in our schools is a great benefit to our system.
I congratulate all the teachers and pupils in Harrow on their receiving that accolade from the Education Policy Institute. We are spending record amounts on school funding—some £41 billion this year. No Government have spent that level of funding on schools in our history. That will rise further to £42.4 billion next year.
I certainly pay tribute to nurseries up and down the country that are delivering fantastic childcare, particularly as part of the 30 hours’ free funding. I am actually getting a little tired of the Labour party criticising the scheme. It is being delivered fantastically well. Some 216,000 parents registered for the September intake, and 93% have taken those places. I look forward to another cohort of children coming in on 1 January.
Children who are educated at home are the responsibility of their parents. Compulsory registration is not necessary. What is necessary is that local authorities take effective action in cases where parents are unable to provide a proper education. However, I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his suggestion.
We will be publishing that paper later in the year. In the meantime, we have already committed to expanding the single point of contact plan, which is making sure schools have an identified point of contact within the NHS. We can learn and build on that excellent initiative.
There are five remaining would-be contributors and the Front-Bench speeches to wind up the debate should start at or extremely close to 6.40. Two minutes each will suffice and colleagues can help each other.
In the two minutes I have to speak, I would like to welcome the Government’s commitment and commend the Secretary of State for tackling this difficult issue. The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) spoke about fairness. Children in the area represented by the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) currently receive £178 more per pupil than my children in Suffolk. After the change, her area will receive £219 more per pupil. I would like the consultation to iron out these anomalies. We in Suffolk are grateful for the uplift, but I, like many others, have campaigned for fairer funding—my children deserve to be treated equally.
I appreciate that it is too complex to make the change in one go, because that would mean walloping some schools harder than others, so we need to have a gentle trajectory. That said, we must not stand back and fail to grasp the nettle. For too long, our children, particularly in rural areas—we have heard from Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Essex—have been underfunded. We have had to play second fiddle to large metropolitan areas. Children in those areas do not deserve better life chances; they deserve the same life chances as others. I have areas of deprivation in my constituency and children who could do with more money spent on their education. This is the right way to continue.
This morning, I held a roundtable of businesses and educationists from across the region. They are talking about skills. Please let us concentrate on early years. That is a bit difficult in Suffolk, because we are losing more than we currently spend on it, but we provide outstanding education. Please can we also look at rural England? Hon. Members should not assume that we have everything. When we consult—
I am of course happy to meet the hon. Lady, but the whole idea of the apprenticeship levy is to change behaviours and ensure that we become an apprenticeship and skills nation. If the school that she describes has apprentices that meet the needs of the levy, not only will they not pay any levy but they will get 10% on top.
My hon. Friend is a champion of small business, both in his constituency and in the House. We are doing huge amounts to support small businesses to take on young apprentices, including a huge financial incentive for both providers and businesses. Very small businesses do not have to pay any training costs if they have 16 to 18-year-olds. We have also cut national insurance contributions for employers when apprentices are aged under 25.
No, I do not. The legacy of 13 years of Labour was disastrous for our youngest people, not just because of grade inflation, which gave millions of young people the sense that they had achieved grades although they were not at the level they needed to be, but—dare I say it—because under the previous Labour Government, youth unemployment went up by nearly 50%. If opportunity is about anything, it surely starts with the dignity of being able to have a job and a career.
Last week I was at Handsworth Grammar School, where around 25% of pupils are eligible for the deprivation element of the pupil premium. Those young people talked to me about how much they value the education they are getting. One student, who is planning to go to Oxford—[Interruption.] I am not sure precisely what that young man would say about the chattering from Opposition Members, but I think he would be extremely dismayed to hear the school that is giving him a transformational opportunity being talked down. His family had arrived in this country just two generations before. His grandparents arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Within two generations of that, he is hoping to be able to go to Oxford. He talked to me about what the chance to go to a grammar school has meant for him, his family and his future prospects. It is levelling up, and that is what we want to do.
I hope that we all agree that the social mobility agenda is about more young people having opportunities and aiming higher, like that gentleman, not fewer. Asking in our consultation how we can make grammars more open to disadvantaged children is exactly what we should be doing.
My hon. Friend is right. It is simply untenable to say to parents who want more choice, and to children who otherwise would have a place in such schools, that they cannot have it. That is simply wrong. We should at least allow local communities to decide. It is not tenable to take the approach of simply saying to parents, “No, you can’t have them; we know better,” or of saying to a child, “You got the grades to be able to go, but you are not allowed to because we have decided.”
As my hon. Friend points out, raising children’s expectations, and also their parents’ expectations, is absolutely critical. We believe we can open up our school system to allow selection to play a role in helping that take place, but I have also set out how I want independent schools and universities to play a stronger role. Doing so will fundamentally set goals high for our children, and if they are set high, children have a chance of reaching them.
Indeed, I do. Although it was depressing to hear Labour Members not even willing to engage with the sort of issues that local communities actually face, we are right to open up this debate so that we can take a measured approach to understanding what a 21st-century policy on grammars should be.
It is nice to hear from the shadow shadow Schools Minister on the fourth row of the Opposition Benches. The only people who are undermining the teaching profession are the leadership of the National Union of Teachers. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman is jumping on this dispute to make cheap political points, instead of joining the Government and condemning this unnecessary and pointless strike. Will he now say that he opposes this strike by the NUT, which is disrupting children’s education and inconveniencing parents?
Finally, just to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the School Teachers Review Body report, we will publish the report, together with our response and a draft revised school teachers pay and conditions document, as soon as we have completed our consideration of it.
My hon. Friend is right. These strikes not only damage children’s education, with every extra day of school missed damaging the outcomes for those children, but hugely inconvenience working parents, who have to make childcare arrangements or take a day off work in order to look after their children. So I share my hon. Friend’s comments, and I pay tribute to the vast majority of teachers and head teachers who are working today, resulting in seven out of eight schools refusing to close.
Of course I will meet the right hon. Lady and the teachers from her constituency to discuss this issue, which we take very seriously. We are competing for graduates in a strong economy, and we have recruited 15,000 more teachers since 2010. There are 456,000 teachers in the teaching profession, and 14,000 more teachers returned to teaching last year. That is a higher figure than in previous years. Teaching is still a popular profession, but we are dealing with the challenge of a very strong economy and competing in the same pool for graduates. We take this issue seriously, which is why we have very generous bursaries to attract the best graduates to teaching.
We have already made it clear that we want to know more about what is happening to children who are home educated. The majority will be educated extremely well, but we believe that there is more to do on this. We also want local authorities to know when children are being withdrawn from schools in order to be home educated, and I expect further proposals to follow.
My diary is filling up, and we are only on the first question. There is more that we can do, and the whole thrust of the special educational needs reforms is to move towards an ambitious birth-to-25 system so that those who have the potential to move on from secondary school into college, apprenticeships, university and the world of work have every chance to do so. In some areas of the country, the new supported internships have seen the number of young people moving into employment rising from around 15% to 70%. We know that there is more we can do through different routes, but we need to make them available to more young people. I am happy to discuss with the right hon. Lady how we can do that.
I am very pleased to hear about the initiative in Rugby, which is one of many across the country that is using the new free schools programme to bring about a whole range of specialist schools for those with special educational needs. I think that that will include five in the next tranche of free schools that are specifically for children and young people with autism. This is a great step forward and it is good to see Rugby leading the way.
I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend was also a grammar school boy. He is absolutely right to suggest that the request for this expansion reflects the need for more good school places in that particular area. It is also about parental choice. Those are two important criteria. I mentioned in my statement that just under 42% of the school’s current intake comes from the Sevenoaks area, which is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) has also welcomed this decision.
They can take comfort from the fact that we want to create more good school places across the country. We firmly believe in having a variety of schools and real parental choice. If my hon. Friend wants to contact me or the Schools Minister with further details, we will of course always be delighted to look at them.
The hon. Gentleman signals from a sedentary position that he has been present throughout the proceedings, so that is on the record.
My hon. Friend brings a whole new perspective to the issue of school building design—a very in-tents form of education. Paddox primary school is, of course, an outstanding school and the Government’s approach is to give such schools the freedom to make such decisions, particularly if they believe it will help children to learn their multiplication tables.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
I have a great interest in this motion and I thank the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) for securing this debate. In Glasgow this afternoon, there are people outside Glasgow City Chambers protesting at the cuts to bus services within the Glasgow city area. Glasgow City Council has decided to raise the qualifying distance for free bus passes in the city from 1.2 miles to 2 miles for primary school pupils, and from 2.2 miles to 3 miles for secondary school pupils. Those are quite considerable distances, especially for primary one pupils who will be starting school, aged five, come August.
I may not be able to refrain from being partisan in my comments today, because that choice has been made as a result of austerity programmes and cuts being made here, then passed to the Scottish Parliament and down on to councils. Councils have a difficult choice to make in coming to these decisions.
In Scotland, we also have a slightly less complex picture of schools, with fewer choices for pupils. Although Glasgow has catchment areas that can be complex, by and large children go to local schools of their choice in the catchment area; they do not often have to travel past a school they want to go to, to get to the one they have a place at.
Glasgow City Council’s decisions on changing the cost of bus passes—putting that back on parents—could cause serious difficulties for parents who cannot afford to pay for one. If their parents cannot afford it, children will have to walk significant distances, across busy roads and perhaps through industrial estates and derelict areas. If that is a daunting prospect in our glorious Scottish summer, what will it be like in winter time? In Scotland it is often dark on leaving the house in the morning and dark when coming back in the afternoon. It is a pretty grim thought.
Parents are advised by Glasgow’s education department that children should be accompanied—and of course, young children should be accompanied. But that causes serious difficulties for parents with more than one child who have to take their children to different places in the morning. There may be drop-offs at a nursery in one area, at a primary school in another and perhaps even at a secondary school, too. It is practically impossible for parents to make all those journeys.
The level of car ownership in Glasgow is low, particularly in deprived areas, where there is greater reliance on bus services. In 2012, only about half of households in Glasgow had access to a car. Bus transport is important for families and a lot of people without access to a car, because there is no other option for them other than using public transport.
The Labour council administration has made several attempts to introduce the proposal I have mentioned, but it has been rejected by the people and eventually rolled back on by the council; I hope that this time the council sees sense and finds the money elsewhere. More significantly, the proposal means that Glasgow City Council is reneging on promises it made during city school closures in the past, when lots of schools were closed or merged: parents were reassured about transport costs and told that school bus passes would be provided so that children could get to the schools. That was in 2008. Now parents find that the council has reneged on that promise and they are facing serious costs for school transport. That is unfair and will lead to further disadvantage for children in many parts of the city—areas with food banks and areas of multiple deprivation—who are already suffering from significant poverty. People trying to get several children to school face a disproportionate cost. It is deeply unfair that the cost of transport is falling on families at this time.
I understand that some rules about qualifying distances come from a House of Lords ruling in 1986. If that is so, it is time for that to be revised; something decided so long ago that is affecting people now is surely ripe for revision. Things have changed—far more cars are on the road and our cities are much busier, with heavier goods vehicles moving across them. We need to be mindful that young children, some of whom may want to walk to school, will find a great deal of traffic on the roads.
I support this debate. There should be further action on and consideration of this matter, particularly in respect of Scotland, where we have a slightly different situation, with children trying to go to their local schools and parents trying to get them there. We could do a lot to help parents in this situation, including looking again at the qualifying distances to find out whether something better could be put in place.
Is my hon. Friend somewhat suspicious, as I am, of such consultations? Lancashire, too, had a consultation. There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of people would say, “We prefer the system to carry on as it is and that the county uses its discretion.” Irrespective of how persuasive I know my hon. Friend and his constituents can be, my suspicion is that the consultation will end up saying, “Well, I’m sorry, we have to save the money. They do this in Lancashire and several other places, and we’re going to force people to pay.”
I apologise for being late to this excellent debate. The Select Committee on Education has not yet been formed, but I suggest that this issue is one that it might well consider in due course, in the context of proper choice of schools and ensuring value for money.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) on securing this important debate. I doubt whether a single Member has not at some time or other come across the vexed issue of school transport, usually at some kind of advice centre.
I will quickly cover what I understand to be the duties and powers of the local authorities in England to provide home-to-school transport under the Education Act 1996, as amended; I am sure that the Minister will confirm this. The “Home to school travel and transport guidance” for local authorities provides further clarification. The guidance was updated recently—only in July last year—and it covers the statutory duties that a local authority must abide by when making home-to-school arrangements. It also provides local authorities with advice on discretionary powers to make provision for children where there is no statutory obligation; the hon. Member for Ribble Valley focused on that point.
The guidance applies to the vast majority of schools—community, foundation, voluntary, non-maintained and special schools, referral units, maintained nurseries, city technology colleges, city colleges for the technology of the arts, academies, free schools and university technology colleges. An independent school can also be covered if that school is named in the child’s education, health and care plan, so the guidance is pretty comprehensive.
Three main issues affect the arguments about the provision of school transport. First, there is the cost. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley and I might not have identical views, but we all heard his point about that issue. I am concerned that the cost is borne increasingly by impoverished local authorities. Secondly, there is the allocation and provision of school places, which seems to be resulting in an ever-increasing number of children in some parts of the country having to travel substantial distances to school. Finally, there is the question of safety and the emphasis on motor transport rather than walking or cycling. That point was alluded to by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).
As the pressure on public spending intensifies, many local authorities have found themselves facing funding reductions of about 37% over the period 2010-11 to 2015-16. Many hon. Members will recognise that those cuts are not applied fairly across the board, with reductions that can vary from 5% to 40%. Needless to say, councils with the greatest needs and deprivation, such as my own in Birmingham, are required to take the largest share of the cuts. It is hardly surprising in those circumstances that local authorities are finding it harder to provide school transport. The Public Accounts Committee report of 28 January this year warned that further cuts might undermine the viability of not just optional services, but even some statutory ones.
When it comes to school transport, that is exactly what is happening. It is often a case of local authorities tinkering with the distance rules as a means of excluding people. In essence, there is an attempt to save costs. Schools have plenty of other pressures, not least the pensions issue that is looming for the Minister, but they are sitting on quite large reserves. The Department for Education’s figures show that 4,400 academies, as of March 2014, had reserves of £2.47 billion; some way behind are the 18,700 local authority maintained schools, which had reserves of £2.18 billion.
I meet plenty of local authority leaders who ask me why schools, given that they are sitting on these reserves, should not pay for or at least contribute to the transport costs, while local authorities are facing such cuts.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her position. The answer is 133. As I have set out, this Government take swift action to turn around all failing academies, and we want that same opportunity for children who are in failing local authority maintained schools.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, because we have the same problem in my constituency, too. The local authority is responsible for enforcing parking restrictions around schools, and it should do that. The authority must also promote sustainable travel and transport, in order to reduce the number of car journeys to schools.
I do not know why that question was not grouped with Questions 12 and 13—these people are sometimes a law unto themselves—but if the Members who tabled those questions wish to come in, they are welcome to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, as always. I echo congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing this important debate.
I want to take the opportunity to highlight some of the work achieved by the four grammar schools in my constituency: Dartford grammar school for boys, Dartford grammar school for girls, Wilmington grammar school for boys and Wilmington grammar school for girls. Like my hon. Friend, I should declare an interest, in that I went to Dartford grammar school, I am a governor at Dartford grammar school for girls, where my daughter goes, and my son has, fortunately, just passed his 11-plus and is hoping to go to Wilmington grammar school. Grammar school education therefore runs through my DNA. It is essential that we enable it to continue to be successful.
Grammar school education plays a crucial role in providing a diverse range of educational opportunities for children and helps to prevent there being a one-size- fits-all system. Children are different—we all know that—so we should not have an educational system in which every school tries to be the same. Grammar schools also provide social mobility for aspirational people and their children. I accept and concede entirely that grammar schools are not for all children, but many thrive in the academic environment of such schools.
It is essential that we allow grammar schools to thrive financially—that is the substance of this debate. Like all schools, grammar schools need to be adequately funded. I urge the Department for Education to be as flexible as it can with any grammar school approaching it with funding issues—something I know schools are able to do.
The Government have maintained funding for schools. I welcome some of the changes that have been made but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough pointed out, we must ensure that there are no unintended consequences. There clearly have been—that has been part of the problem with funding grammar schools—and they have impacted disproportionately on grammar schools. That situation must change.
The change in funding for A-level pupils from a per-A-level structure to a per-pupil structure has tackled an issue of concern to some people: that pupils were simply being asked to take more and more A-levels when universities were looking only at the top three that pupils were able to pass. I understand why the Department for Education wanted to recognise that issue in the funding structure, but the changes have had a disproportionate impact on grammar schools, particularly those that relied on the extra funding that the previous system provided.
I will keep my comments short as many people want to speak, but I want to establish a thread to run through the debate—that grammar schools are simply good schools and that we need good schools to flourish. I am grateful for the Government’s support for existing grammar schools, which has enabled all four grammar schools in my constituency to expand and encourage and enable more pupils to attend and enjoy the benefits that they provide for the local community.
The Department for Education has recognised the importance of allowing specialisms in schools. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) made the important point that we need to allow the specialism of being good at academic work. That has been recognised by the Department through the university technology colleges being built around the country. I was proud to see the first UTC in Kent open in my constituency. That college specifically encourages pupils to specialise in maths, engineering and science, providing a block or cork for the gap in skills that we had. Having organisations that allow specialisms to flourish can be highly successful. Grammar schools can also provide specialism in academic work, enabling some children to obtain the benefits of that specialism.
In addition, there is now a general recognition that it is perfectly right and effective to allow streaming within schools, so as to have children taught according to their academic abilities. I fail to understand why some people feel that it is perfectly fine to stream within schools but not between them. That argument against grammar schools is illogical.
Grammar schools also help the schools that surround them. There is a myth that they somehow bring other schools down—that they cream off the pupils with the top abilities in a particular area, and as a result of having a grammar school as a neighbour other schools collapse and fall down. In my experience, that is simply not the case. Next to one grammar school in my constituency is the Leigh academy, which is the most over-subscribed school in the county of Kent. It leads a trust that is, perhaps, one of the best in the country. It is a non-selective school in a constituency that has four grammar schools, yet is the most popular school in the whole county.
It is often said, quite rightly, that education is about maximising each child’s abilities and ensuring that they reach their full potential. All children are different, and we must enable the existence of an education system that reflects that fact if we are going to achieve that goal. Only a diverse system of education will be able to cater for the needs of all of our children, and grammar schools provide a crucial part of that diversity.
Does my hon. Friend agree that his points effectively prove the need for floor funding, so that funding is fair and decent for all forms of education, including grammar schools and other good schools, and that that is the way forward, certainly when we bear in mind additional funding from the pupil premium and other such funding streams?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Unfortunately, public grammar schools are all too often dismissed in public debate as a mode of education supported by an out-of-touch elite interested only in the education of a privileged few. Indeed, last August, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) accused the Secretary of State for Education of pursuing education policies based on “1950s Grammar School nostalgia”. I disagree. Such comments, which seek to make grammar schools a tool of ideological division, do not serve well those pupils who attend our grammar schools up and down the country and get so much out of them. It is not nostalgic to want our children to benefit from a rigorous education that inspires them to aim high, achieve excellent results and lay the foundations for success. I want those principles embedded in all schools, and we should embrace that approach to education generally. That has been at the heart of the Government’s policies, and it needs to remain so.
Some people may wish to talk about increasing the number of grammar school places, but we are here to discuss the challenges facing the 164 grammar schools in our country today. As a number of colleagues have said, there is a real concern that we are putting our grammar schools at risk—not, perhaps, because of a wilful desire to eliminate them, but as an unintentional consequence of some of the funding reforms that have taken place.
I have two outstanding grammar schools in my constituency: South Wilts and Bishop Wordsworth’s. They have faced similar, increasingly challenging financial settlements, primarily because of the decision to ring-fence the education budget for five to 16-year-olds, while the 16-to-18 budget has no such protection. That has had a significant impact, particularly on Bishop Wordsworth’s, which faces a deficit of more than £300,000 in its sixth-form budget this year. In the past three years, it has seen a 7% reduction in its per sixth-form pupil funding. Next year, it faces a budget deficit of more than £150,000.
I am not here to advocate special treatment for grammar schools, because this issue affects all 16-to-18 providers. However, there is a case for arguing that the problem needs to be re-examined and that we need to look at the principle of ring-fencing. It is illogical that a school can run healthy surpluses in its 11-to-16 budget, but that they are immediately absorbed by a growing deficit in its sixth form.
If we are honestly to discuss the financial difficulties facing grammar schools, in particular, we need to acknowledge the wider social mobility issues. Grammar schools must remain focused on doing more in that respect. It is true that, although 16% of pupils are eligible for free school meals in an average school, the figure is considerably lower in a large proportion of grammar schools. However, that is because the pool is smaller in the first place, and those figures do not tell the whole story because they are so small.
Importantly, we need grammar school heads to focus on extending the benefits of a grammar school education to as many as possible in the community, as Stuart Smallwood is doing at Bishop Wordsworth’s. I welcome the steps Salisbury grammars have taken to reach out to local primaries by running 11-plus coaching sessions in schools that have traditionally sent fewer pupils to grammars at 11. However, I ask the Minister how that can be sustained when budgets are in the position I have outlined. If we are to advocate more funding, we must unambiguously acknowledge the value of grammar schools—the transformational impact they have on children’s life chances and ability fully to achieve their aspirations.
I am a governor, not of one of the grammar schools, but of Wyvern college, which is very much on the up under a new headmaster. I can attest to the thoughtful partnerships that exist between grammar schools and schools such as Wyvern. Grammar schools act as beacons of excellence, and they raise standards across the board by working constructively with other local schools.
In welcoming today’s debate, I want to highlight the particular challenge facing grammars whose sixth forms are in dire need of cash injections. Many children in my constituency and nearby commute to Salisbury to attend sixth form, because many schools in the area do not have sixth-form provision. That demonstrates how grammars are perceived as the means of completing a high-quality education in south Wiltshire, providing opportunities not afforded to those educated from 11 to 16 at other schools nearby.
When I visited the Minister for Schools, all he really wanted to focus on was the percentage of pupils on free school meals. His logic was, essentially, that unless schools raise that percentage, they will encounter difficulties. It is quite obvious that they cannot sort out the problem overnight, and the Minister’s argument is an empty one when it comes to dealing with the realities schools have been faced with overnight.
As has already been clearly stated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Government believe that organisers, promoters and ticket agents should do everything they can to find solutions to deal with the secondary market. Successive Governments and Select Committees have ruled, found and concluded that regulation should be a very last resort.
I thank my hon. Friend for his wonderfully positive remarks. We are of course aware of concerns, but we remain confident that this will be a great event and that tickets will get into the hands of genuine supporters and fans.
Break in Debate
The hon. Gentleman will have to wait to see what is in the autumn statement, but he raises an important point. I remember the discussions we had about crowdfunding, and he is right about the importance that it has for businesses and for cultural activities. I have discussed that on many occasions with colleagues.
It is fantastic that the women’s team is visiting Rugby on 10 December. I am very pleased that they are being rightly recognised in the same way as the men were when they won the world cup in 2003. The support that our women’s team has been receiving is brilliant.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that regional hubs offer an important opportunity for schools. I hope that all hubs are working in particular with local enterprise partnerships, which offer great opportunities. Many of them have already bid for skills projects as part of the city deals and regional growth funding granted by the Government. I shall certainly look at the funding, but I would never like to pre-empt any Treasury approvals.
I certainly congratulate all those involved at Rugby high school in encouraging our young people to take maths and to continue to study all maths and science subjects. As we have already heard, it is absolutely essential that our young people continue to study STEM subjects, because there is a real need for them among the businesses in our economy.
On the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, he is right that Scottish institutions benefit disproportionately from UK research because of the excellence of their work and that they would no longer be guaranteed access to UK funding streams in an independent Scotland, although I hope they would maintain their excellence. We will certainly try to ensure that SMEs are taken properly into account in the competition for European funding. His point is a good one.
It is. Indeed, reshoring is happening in somewhat surprising areas. I had a meeting only yesterday with representatives of the British textile industry, which almost disappeared years ago. A significant amount of reshoring is taking place because companies want to be close to the market and regard the business environment as attractive. The same is happening in the aerospace supply chain and elsewhere. We are doing what we can to support that through the regional growth fund and other Government schemes.
Break in Debate
Again, I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s basic proposition. As it happens, much of the alarm that was raised some months ago about large American companies taking over British companies or British-based companies on the back of those tax provisions have proved wholly unfounded. He is quite right that takeovers, although they are generally beneficial to the UK economy, should not be driven by artificial short-term tax considerations.
Indeed, and the world competitiveness report acknowledged that Britain ranked number four in the world in overall attractiveness in labour markets. My hon. Friend is right that the reforms we have introduced are certainly one factor in that we have had a growth of 2 million in private sector jobs since May 2010. One factor that has not been noted, and certainly has not been noted by Opposition Members, is the very large number of cases now being dealt with by ACAS that would otherwise have gone through an expensive and frustrating legal procedure.
There is a lot of interest in our new centres for agricultural innovation. We expect to announce the bidding process for the first one in the spring and we will consult on themes for the other centres. I congratulate my hon. Friend on reminding us of the case for York as a possible centre. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was brought up there, but we will try not to allow that to affect our decision.
We are passionate supporters of small businesses. More than 12,000 start-up loans have been approved; over the past year, UK Trade & Investment has helped more than 30,000 businesses to export; and, in April this year, a new employer allowance will cut £2,000 from the national insurance bill of every company in the country.
Ensuring that the commercial property market works effectively is an important part of reforming the banking system and getting it back on its feet after the crisis. That market is one of the main routes through which we can open up more development and ensure that there is more capacity, so that when small businesses want to expand, they have the physical space in which to do so.
That is an excellent idea.
The Department for Work and Pensions also has a role to play. It has done some good things—it has delayed auto-enrolment for pensions, and we heard this morning that there may be a cap on pension charges—but the Work programme needs to offer the potential for proper self-employment. Research undertaken by the all-party group on micro-businesses has found that almost half of the businesses offering the Work programme did not have an adequate skill base to enable people to go back into work as self-employed individuals. The DWP could consider what it might do to help late returners. Organisations such as PRIME—the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise—help them to return to work, but there is very little else, although that matter is important.
Let us not forget the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It has done some great things for businesses. High-speed broadband is absolutely critical, and the fact that there are now broadband connection vouchers for small businesses in 22 cities is very welcome. However, more is needed, because rural areas are really suffering.
That is absolutely right.
We need to spread the broadband initiative and encourage Ministers—sooner rather than later—to look at the 4G market. One of biggest concerns of small businesses is that they cannot get mobile reception, which is critical to them.
I ask the Department for Communities and Local Government to work with the LEPs and get them to engage better with the smallest of businesses. Please could it also look at procurement? Although central Government have done a good job in trying to meet their obligation of giving 25% of contracts to SMEs, the picture in local government is rather less rosy.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change also has a part to play. The £90 million scheme for clean-tech entrepreneurs is a very good step. There is a green deal specifically for small businesses, with a pay-as-you-save scheme. However, more needs to be done, including help with switching suppliers. Businesses currently find themselves moved automatically on to new contracts on disadvantageous terms.
What more could UK Trade & Investment and the Foreign Office do? UKTI has done a really good job, but it needs to do more to help the smallest businesses, and there is a call for greater support at embassy level.
Let us not forget the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which after all represents a fifth of our economy in the form of rural businesses.
Break in Debate
My hon. Friend could not have made a better intervention because I was pleased to be able to contribute to solving that exact problem when I was a Cabinet Office Minister.
Given a few tools, we can all do much more in our constituencies, and Lord Young is continuing to work on that issue in association with my hon. Friend the Minister for Skills and Enterprise. We must encourage small and medium-sized firms to use Contracts Finder, on which they will find a clear record of all available Government contracts. We should urge local authorities and others to put their contracts on that portal to allow the operation of a comprehensive marketplace.
We should also encourage constituency businesses to use the mystery shopper scheme that the Cabinet Office has introduced, which will help to solve the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot. When small businesses that seek simply to get on and do business encounter poor practice or communication from the public sector, they need a way to solve the problem. The mystery shopper scheme does exactly that, and also gives us a chance to do more to encourage public authorities—whether local government, health, police or fire services, or any similar service—to do more to make their procurement SME-friendly.
Small firms can encounter many problems such as the prevalence of pre-qualification questionnaires and late payment. A care company in my constituency deals with customers who are particularly vulnerable, and tragic havoc can be wrought if a health body makes a late payment to such a company. The motion rightly calls on local government to do its part, and I suggest that better procurement forms an important part of that.
That is my view. To the best of my knowledge, the Government are bringing forward proposals to put in place exactly that, which I support wholeheartedly, having started that work some months ago.
The motion refers to red tape, but again there is no way to solve that problem except through a methodical approach. I applaud the opening provided by the mystery shopper service to which I referred as it allows us to be methodical by making a list of things that have gone wrong and solving them one by one. That is the only approach that will work for regulatory problems. We must hear from small firms that regulations have served ill, and then we can go about solving the problems. I always say as a constituency MP that I cannot attempt to help a constituent to solve something if I do not know the detail of what the problem is.
Like many others, I am sure, I encourage firms to use the red tape challenge that the Government have rightly set up, and I welcome the results of the initiative so far. To date, more than 3,500 regulations have been identified for reform, saving businesses more than £215 million per year. That is worth doing, and I am sure that the Minister will update the House about how we can extend that approach to European regulatory burdens. On behalf of my constituency businesses, I care very much about that issue.
In the remaining two minutes available, I will conclude by talking about recruitment, which is crucial for small and medium-sized firms. Of course we all want such businesses to become larger firms, if that is their ambition, but to do so they need great people to become their employees. I run a large campaign in my constituency called Norwich for Jobs, which does what it says on the tin. It seeks to create more jobs in Norwich, especially for those aged 18 to 24, and we aim to halve youth unemployment in Norwich in two years. I am pleased that local firms have responded to the call and that more than 800 jobs and apprenticeships have been pledged to the campaign. Although the campaign has been going for only 10 months, 400 young people have been helped into work so far. I want to ensure that small firms have pride of place in that campaign. I will soon run an event with the Federation of Small Businesses and a sister campaign called Swarm. We will consider how to encourage small businesses into such operations, and help them to find the talent they need among local young people. That not only helps the community and young people, but places small businesses in control of their recruitment.
I hail the £2,000 reduction in national insurance that is coming forward in the shape of the enterprise allowance, which will be important for cutting small firms’ jobs tax from Easter next year. I also note the success of start-up loans. So far there have been about 30 of them in Norwich, and 10,000 nationally, which is to be welcomed as it is all to the good of small businesses.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and to co-sponsor this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) on securing it. I am pleased to speak in this debate, which considers how we can overcome the issues facing small businesses. Small businesses, which in my definition are those with fewer than 50 employees, are the powerhouse of the economy. They contribute 46% of the UK’s income in the private sector—a massive £l,558 billion—and constitute more than 99% of all businesses. Ultimately, a sustained recovery will be built on their backs, as has been said, and that must be recognised.
A whole range of different factors affect the success and even the viability of small businesses, including access to finance, the high costs of business rates and energy bills, but I will focus my remarks specifically on late payments. Hon. Members may know that for the past two and a half years I have run a campaign on late payments. It started as a small, local issue after a haulier came to one of my surgeries and said that he was going to go out of business because of late payments. The average term he was being given was 30 days, but he was often not being paid for 90 days. That is a common story that I wanted to look into in more detail.
I tried to discover the scale of the problem and it was striking that so few businesses would come forward and describe what they were experiencing. That was until one brave local couple, who started a plumbing business 35 years ago, came to me and said that their business was going under—as indeed it did with debts of more than £150,000 due specifically to late payment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, if slightly patronising. I have gone into the issue in quite a bit of detail, and it was a specific point about late payments.
Let me give a bit of background to this case. As I said, the story of Ann and Harry Long is far from unique and is a particular problem for small and micro-businesses that do not have the cash-flow buffers of larger companies. I have a particularly a high level of micro-companies in my constituency—more than 85% of companies have fewer than 10 employees—and a number have gone into administration, primarily as a result of late payments.
Nationally, we know from Bacs that more than £31 billion is owed to small businesses, and more than half—58%—of the country’s 1.7 million SMEs say that large companies choose when they pay. In 2011, only £24 billion was owed, so the problem is increasing. If we compare what is owed in late payments to the amounts being lent by high street banks, which last year was £56 billion, we sense the scale of the problem.
According to Bacs data, the average SME is owed £31,000 at any one time and waits an average of eight working weeks for payment, which is nearly double the contract terms. I am particularly concerned about the gaping north-south divide. Small businesses in the north say that they are owed an average of £39,000, which is almost double the £23,000 owed to the average southern business.
The 2012 small business survey reported that 55% of SMEs, 53% of small businesses and 46% of micro-businesses say that large companies are not paying their bills on time. The most recent Federation of Small Businesses survey suggests an even worse picture. Seventy-three per cent. of businesses say that they were paid late in the past 12 months, and one in five say that half of all invoices are paid late. Interestingly, 70% say that the problem has got worse in the past 12 months and that the private sector is the biggest culprit.
Research by the Forum of Private Business last year indicated that late payment is having a significant impact on businesses development, productivity and growth. Access to, and the cost of, finance, and credit trade insurance, were cited as problems linked to late payment. Late payments have a knock-on effect, leaving many small businesses in a vicious cycle of late payment. The FPB’s economy watch panel indicates that 42% of SMEs believe that late payments were not seen as important.
As we have heard, the impact of late payment can be disastrous. It is estimated that, during the 2008 recession, 4,000 businesses failed as a direct result of late payments. No official data have been collected, but the situation needs to be monitored. There is growing evidence that late payments to SMEs are hurting our economic recovery. Office for National Statistics data show that SMEs make up to 98% of the total number of organisations, providing 59% of all private sector jobs and 45% of all employment, and generating 46% of the UK’s income.
What is being done to tackle the problem of late payments? The previous Government introduced the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998, but it was not used, because companies feared being blacklisted. The prompt payment code, a tool introduced by the Institute of Credit Management, committed signatories to pay suppliers on time under the terms agreed without attempting to change payment terms retrospectively, enabling every level of the supply chain to meet the terms. However, the code has had mixed effects. First, there is a very poor take-up by FTSE 100 companies.
Break in Debate
We will stock a variety of local produce. There will be some continental produce, but there will be traditional Lancashire produce too. It will be well worth a visit and opens a week on Saturday.
The first thing to say in a debate about small businesses is what a great contribution they make not just to our economy, but to our culture, our communities and the way we live our lives. As the hon. Member for Newton Abbot said, we need to spend more time celebrating the work of smaller businesses and the people who run them. It is these business people who are the backbone of our economy. They create the vast majority of jobs, and export their goods and products across the world. They are at the heart of innovation, which is often copied by larger businesses, and drive growth throughout the United Kingdom. They also carry the burden of worry and stress of managing risk every day of the week. We need to do more to celebrate what they do.
Small businesses are vital to our economy, but they are also vital to our society: they are one of the most powerful forces for social mobility. Academics and politicians often talk about the importance of education with regard to social mobility. That is important, but by starting and growing businesses people can thrive and prosper. They are vital in encouraging and establishing social mobility.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment, because that is exactly the point I am making about social mobility and supporting entrepreneurialism and the growth of small businesses.
Let me tell hon. Members about one of my constituents. Ian lives on the Falinge estate in Rochdale, which has achieved notoriety for having the highest number of benefit claimants in the country. Like others there, Ian was unemployed. He was determined to get out of that situation, so he decided to start his own business. He cashed in his pension and set up his own fish and chip shop. He learned the ropes by working for free in another nearby chippy and then set up his own shop in the town centre. I used to pop in and have a chat with him every now and again. He was making a good fist of it and there were always plenty of customers coming through the door. In his first year, he won an award at the town’s annual business awards. Despite all that success, Ian was forced recently to close his shop simply— I do not exaggerate—because of business rates. He was paying double in business rates what he was paying in rent, and that was not sustainable.
Ian’s case is a tragedy for him and for social mobility. It demonstrates that unrealistic business rates are damaging our economy and our society. The Government need to do more on business rates and should have gone ahead with the revaluation. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I support the Labour leader’s proposals to freeze and then reduce business rates for smaller businesses in particular. Business rates are not the only issue, however. Let me provide another example: banking.
Hanson Springs, a very successful family business in my constituency, was in 2009 dragged by RBS into what we now know to be the Global Restructuring Group scandal. Let me briefly explain. RBS in my opinion deliberately undervalued a property it had a loan against and used that as an opportunity to push Hanson Springs into its Global Restructuring Group. At the first meeting with GRG, Hanson Springs was introduced to a solicitor who had been brought along to discuss taking an equity stake in this family business. GRG then forced a business review with Zolfo Cooper on to it at a cost of £20,000. Its GRG manager had previously worked for Zolfo Cooper—I am sure that was a coincidence. Hanson Springs was then given three options, none of which was acceptable. As the family pointed out to me, if the business had not been cash-flow rich and if they had not had the personal resolve, the company would have been forced to close.
Hanson Springs is now 50 years old—we have moved on four years. It turns over £20 million each year, employs 180 people, exports 85% of what it produces, and since the problems with RBS, has paid in excess of £l million in corporation tax. If RBS had had its way, we would have lost hundreds of jobs and the money from taxation, and we would have had people claiming benefits and yet more manufacturing moving abroad. Hanson Springs is a perfect example of business at its best. It is a great example of a family pulling together to create something great and is probably a perfect example of social mobility, but look how it nearly all went badly wrong because of RBS’s behaviour. Ultimately, it is down to us politicians to intervene and set up the right regulatory process to ensure that banks treat our businesses better.
Smaller businesses are exceptionally fragile entities. It is our responsibility not to take them for granted and our duty to remember that these businesses are the lifeblood of our country.
Break in Debate
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) on securing this debate. She was absolutely right to highlight the importance of small businesses to the success not just of our national economy but of local economies up and down the country. Clearly, we all support small businesses and we all want to see them succeed. Indeed all large businesses were once small ones, and the big businesses of tomorrow are the start-ups and small businesses of today.
However, it is all very well to talk about support, but there needs to be practical advice and policies in place that give start-ups, sole traders and small businesses the full support that they need to prosper and succeed. Most businesses in this country are small. The vast majority of those people employed in the private sector work for small businesses. In many respects it is the owners and workers in those enterprises who are the unsung heroes of our economy.
Let me take, for example, a small business in my constituency of Carlisle, with, say, five employees. That business pays business rates, which helps the local and national economy, employer’s national insurance and corporation tax. It will collect VAT, and it may well pay VAT itself. It makes a huge contribution to the national economy. It also conducts business with other local enterprises, helping to create a more economically active local economy. In addition, it provides employment to five families, providing them with a standard of living and supporting their lifestyles. There is also often a wider benefit to the community. The business owner may well live in the area, contributing socially to the community through membership of other organisations. They are often on school boards, local charities and sports clubs.
My principal contribution to this debate relates to the role that local government should play in supporting small businesses. We should remember that the vast majority of business people will have absolutely nothing to do with central Government or Government Departments such as BIS and, with the greatest respect to the Minister, will probably never come in contact with a Minister. The most important people in government with whom business people are likely to come into contact will probably be from the local council, a local councillor or perhaps an MP.
I accept that much is made of the contribution, involvement and policy decisions of central Government. Central Government clearly have a significant if not central role to play. They set the general environment in which business can or should flourish and create a framework within which business will function. Nevertheless, we should not and must not underestimate the role that local government must play in supporting and encouraging small businesses to flourish and succeed in their area.
Local councils, local councillors and officers can make a substantial difference in a number of key areas. The obvious one is planning, where the local plan can be made as business-friendly as possible. The administration process should be as efficient as it can be and issues for small businesses should be highlighted early so that they do not incur unnecessary costs. The second such area is property ownership. Local councils are often property owners; for example Carlisle city council, believe it or not, has about £100 million worth of commercial property. It can make a difference by using that to good effect. The third area, as has been highlighted, is procurement. It is not necessarily the big contracts that matter; the small ones can make a real difference to small businesses. Local enterprise partnerships are also important. Councils have a role and are often on the boards, and LEPs need to be pro-business and to help develop policies that support small businesses in flourishing.
There are two other key points. We need small business support and engagement with those local professionals who can help businesses: surveyors, accountants, bankers and lawyers. Indeed, we should encourage relationships with the local chamber of commerce or the Federation of Small Businesses, with encouragement on business plans, finance, employment and other such matters that will help businesses to succeed.
Most importantly, local government can provide leadership. It can give local small businesses a sense that the council supports and will support them and that there is a vision and a sense of direction for the area of which the businesses are a part.
I want to highlight that the responsibility to engage with and support small business from a government point of view does not lie merely with central Government; it is important that local government plays its part.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and other hon. Members on securing the debate.
Before I came into politics, I used to wholesale fruit and veg. It was a family firm, which my father started and grew to a decent size. Then I had all the disputes that every son taking over a family firm has with their father, when they tell their sons that they are not doing it right, but we managed to sneak up the turnover of this fruit and veg business, working nights in New Covent Garden, to £7 million a year employing 17 people. We did it in spite of rather than because of the Government. Some of my points will be based on those old experiences, which small businesses in my constituency tell me they still face.
One of the best parts of our jobs as Members of Parliament is going to see small businesses and people taking risks to do good things and start employment in our constituencies. My constituency, like that of every other Member who has spoken, is full of amazing and surprising small businesses. I have a company called Bambino Mio, one of the largest companies dealing in reusable nappies. It started 15 years ago and now exports to almost 70 countries across the world. Another company is Daisy Roots. Many Members with children and grandchildren will have bought a pair of Daisy Roots shoes without knowing about it. EllaPure is a company direct selling all-natural skincare products. It was started by an 18-year-old lad two or three years ago, whom the shadow Minister met at a lunch with me not so long ago. He is a very impressive individual. Those three businesses all come from one small village, Brixworth.
I know that the Government have done lots of good stuff. I am delighted to be behind a Government who have created 1.4 million new private sector jobs since 2010, who are cutting national insurance, benefiting every firm by £2,000 next year, and who have allowed people to start 400,000 new British businesses. One of the things we do really well in this country is enable companies to set up quickly. It is a very simple process, which takes away a lot of the confusion. We have a very good scheme for enterprise zones. Neighbouring my constituency is Northampton, where the Northampton Waterside enterprise zone’s plans to change the face of the town for the better can already been seen.
However, there are many issues that affect micro and small businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about employing people. Businesses take a massive risk when they start employing people. Perhaps some Members had never done that before taking people on in their offices here. Any Member who has had a dispute with an employee will understand how difficult it must be for a small business, which might have only one or two employees, when a relationship with an employee does not work and the risk that such employment involves.
Many small businesses complain about bureaucracy. I think we are doing reasonably well on that. Perhaps we could do more, but the thing that I think we could do better is to open up procurement in the public sector. I am sure that the Minister will tell me that we have got rid of a whole tranche of things and that businesses no longer need to provide three years’ worth of audited accounts before being able to bid for Government work. That might have been the policy change and what we are trying to implement, but a small business in my constituency called Mapcite, based in my village, was told that only a couple of weeks ago by the Department with which it was trying to deal. Then there are issues relating to rural broadband, which we are sorting out but which we need to get right. Rural broadband is ultra-important.
We are finding that lots of business men and women are interested in mentoring, partly because they feel that they got so much out of growing their business and want to give something back. Engaging more mentors is a vital part of the scheme, but that is not a constraint on expansion owing to the enthusiasm—to which I pay tribute—of business men and women who want to help others to get the sort of start that they had.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is surprising to see the Labour Benches almost entirely empty when the House should be uniting in support of the excellent start-up loans scheme. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who started his own business and who does much in this House to promote those who start their own businesses.
4. What steps he is taking to support small businesses. (900671)
We are doing more than ever to support small business. More than 7,000 start-up loans have been drawn down since the scheme’s launch in September 2012. Over the past year, UK Trade & Investment has helped 31,800 businesses to export, the growth accelerator scheme has supported more than 9,000 small businesses, and the regional growth fund has helped a further 3,000.
Break in Debate
As an avid cinema-goer and, indeed, someone who used to go to that cinema, I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend, but the process is this: the Competition Commission has come to a resolution and the next step has to be to go to the Competition Appeal Tribunal. I suggest to my hon. Friend that, since the Cambridge law faculty has some of the best minds in the country, including that of his predecessor, it may want to take on this issue on a pro bono basis.
We are totally committed to that task. Under the red tape challenge—the one in, two out system that my colleague the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) is leading admirably—we estimate that we have probably already saved business about £1 billion a year, and there is a commitment to extend that process.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Automotive Council has identified skills shortages as a key problem. As a result of the adoption of the strategy document, the industry has committed itself to a significant growth in the number of apprenticeships. We have already seen a considerable increase, but he is right to suggest that this is an issue not simply for the big original equipment manufacturers but for the supply chains, and a lot more needs to be done to make the car industry seriously competitive through skills.
This is indeed a very successful industry. Over the last couple of years, we have had commitments to something in the order of £6 billion-worth of new investment. One factor has undoubtedly been the confidence that the Government are fully supportive of the industry and are working with it through the Automotive Council. The confidence factor is indeed spreading into the supply chain. There are very good economic reasons why a significant amount of the supply chain that has been offshored should now be onshored—and that process is beginning. We want to do everything we can to encourage it.
Break in Debate
The first thing I would say to the hon. Lady is that our lightly regulated employment market is an asset to the British economy. It helps the economy to grow and it is one of the reasons why, despite the very challenging economic circumstances we have seen and despite the fact that unemployment is still too high, we have seen employment rates bear up rather better than in some other countries. It is important that we simplify employment law—I would have hoped that there would be cross-party agreement on that—but of course it is also important for a functioning economy that we ensure that basic protections remain in place for workers.
Order. In conformity with long-standing convention, the hon. Gentleman cannot come in a second time on substantive questions. His enthusiasm and appetite are appreciated and he can try his luck during topical questions.
Break in Debate
Coventry seems to have some problem in that area. I come from the city of York, which went through this misery, as many towns have done in the English league. I can certainly have a look at that; it is not immediately clear to me where I fit into the picture, but I am interested in football and want to see it healthy.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. It is fair to say that employment tribunals are costly in terms of time, money and stress for everybody involved, both employers and employees, so what we are trying to do through our employment law reforms is reduce the number of cases going to tribunal. We are streamlining the rules of procedure, which should also help to reduce costs, but the really important savings will come from getting more cases resolved through early conciliation, which is what the Government are pressing ahead with.
It is interesting that nobody on the Opposition Benches has addressed the issue that these ratios are operating in Ireland, France and Germany. Are Opposition Members saying that the quality of child care in those countries is not good enough? Are they saying that high-quality providers from those countries should not be able to operate in this country? As for the hon. Lady’s point about the nurseries in her constituency, they are absolutely free to carry on operating as they operate now. This policy is about giving parents the ability to make different choices and the kind of choices that parents have in other countries, where they pay a lot less for child care and they receive high-quality care.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he makes the very good point that at the moment there is no flexibility for nurseries if staff are absent. Either they must not take a particular child or they have to find additional staff at a cost, and we know that many nurseries are struggling to be sustainable. The ratios offer flexibility for different situations: for example, at the time of day when children might be sleeping, when less supervision is required, or when parents come to pick up their children. Our proposals are about allowing nurseries to exercise professional judgment and flexibility in how they staff them.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is also worth noting that strikes and industrial action at present are at historically low levels. That is a sign of positive industrial relations and is to be welcomed. Trade unions play a very important role, and although the headlines generally focus on industrial action and strikes, the excellent work that they do on training and resolving workplace disputes often does not hit the headlines and should be commended. We always keep issues under review, but it is fair to say that the industrial action laws and situations are generally working well.
8. What steps he is taking to increase the number of small and medium-sized enterprises which export to international markets. (134543)
Exporting is a key part of the Government’s plans to return the economy to sustained and balanced growth. That is why we have increased funding to UK Trade and Investment in the autumn statement—an extra £140 million over the next two years—enabling UKTI to double the number of small and medium-sized firms supported from 25,000 to 50,000 by 2015.
I congratulate Automotive Insulations on its extraordinary success over the past few years. Of course for an automotive company it may make sense to start with helping to penetrate the European supply chains, but in due course it may want to look further afield. In the end, this is a matter for the company to decide, but of course it is for the Government to provide help and advice.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, because what often happens is that one business goes under and its creditors get into difficulty as a result. We want to make sure that the system works to prevent such situations and provide support to businesses. We need to be wary of unintended consequences, because we also do not want a regime under which people who have had a failure in business cannot start up again, but we need to look at the disqualification regime and check that we have got the balance right.
19. What recent steps he has taken to encourage business start-ups; and if he will make a statement. (127316)
There were almost 500,000 start-ups last year—the highest number since records began in 1997, up from 360,000 in 2010. We are helping to encourage business start-ups by providing advice and financial support, and confidence that the Government will pay their way.
Absolutely. I too have visited a Peter Jones academy, and they are a brilliant new innovation. The new start-up loans provide finance and support for young entrepreneurs to help them get a start, and we need to do all that we can to support people who want to start up businesses.
I am delighted to hear about the progress in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and she has ingeniously managed to keep her question in order. If she would care to write to me on that subject, I will certainly look at the issue further. In the light of what she has said about disadvantage in her constituency, I hope that she will welcome the pupil premium, which must be helping schools enormously in her area.
4. How many 16 to 18 year-olds started an apprenticeship in the last year for which figures are available. (124978)
Early provisional data show that 126,000 apprenticeships were started by those under the age of 19 in the last academic year.
I agree very strongly with my hon. Friend. The first graduation ceremony was held at Buckingham palace a fortnight ago, and the next will be at York minster on 12 November. I hope that around the country we will have ceremonies of graduation from apprenticeships to show the value that has been added to young people’s lives by this fantastic programme.
Order. I am keen to accommodate colleagues, but brevity is now of the essence.
It is rare that a Minister gets the opportunity to receive the praise intended for a Secretary of State, so I will just stand here for a moment or two.
I entirely agree with the principle mentioned; this House has an opportunity to put manufacturing beyond party politics. I want to do that, as does the Secretary of State. We are putting in £125 million specifically to target the supply chain, and I want to make sure that that is available shortly. We are working well with Birmingham city council and others, and I look forward to being able to develop things further.
Absolutely. I again pay tribute to many of the work force in the motor industry. They have demonstrated the willingness to show that British workers are highly productive and that we can compete, and they are also flexible. That is the good news story. There are history lessons, and I hope that the Labour party has now learnt them.
Earlier this year, the Government published an adoption action plan aimed at reducing delays in adoption by legislating to prevent local authorities from spending too long seeking a perfect adoptive match, by accelerating the assessment process for prospective adopters and by making it easier for children to be fostered by their likely eventual adopters in certain circumstances. We will also introduce an adoption scorecard to focus attention on the issues of timeliness linked to a tougher intervention regime.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. He has taken a great interest in this subject and brought constituents to meet me about it. He is right that part of the process is to ensure that the public are better informed about the virtues of becoming a foster parent or adoptive parent. For that reason, earlier this year we set up a website, “Give a Child a Home”, on which there is all sorts of information. We will add to and improve that to encourage more people to come forward as prospective adopters. It is a big ask but a wonderfully fulfilling thing to do.
We are allowing all good schools to expand. I am an unalloyed fan of all good schools, whether they are comprehensive or selective. No new selective schools will be created under the coalition Government, but all successful schools have the right to expand, and any parent who believes that any school is in breach of the admissions code has an expanded right to complain to the schools adjudicator. Good schools doing a better job for more students: that is what the coalition delivers; I am amazed that the hon. Lady objects.
I certainly agree with that and add my tribute to that school. The early years of a child’s education, when they are learning to read and to become fluent in arithmetic, are key to their success in secondary education and beyond. I would like to pay our tribute to the work that that head teacher is doing. Government Members agree that the autonomy and independence of head teachers, and their ability to run their schools as they see fit, are key to raising standards. That is what all the evidence suggests internationally. That is the drive behind the academies programme.
To be fair, I think that man has got move and groove and slinky hips, and I will be voting for him. As an ex-dancer, I was taken by his dancing abilities.
I welcome what the Government are doing. I welcome free schools and academies, because I believe in choice. The grammar schools in Wirral West are moving to become academies and following the academy route. As they progress towards becoming academies, I hope they will remain true to their beliefs, aims, aspirations and founding principles. I hope they will remain the same when they become academies. I hope that our support for them will allow them to flourish, that we do not change a winning formula and that we ensure that these excellent schools remain in our community.
What the coalition Government are doing is a refreshing change. They are offering choice, pushing for discipline, looking to support and encourage all sorts of schools and looking for achievement in every area. Yes, there must be academic achievement, but there must be achievement and fulfilment for every child. What some might do in academia, others might do through practical skills, while others might provide for their community in a very different way. I support all those kids, because they all have a talent; we just have to find out what theirs is and nurture them.
Another issue in my constituency is that fewer girls than boys apply to grammar school. There is no reason for that, other than parents’ not necessarily looking at their girls, and their potential to go to grammar school, in the same way. My hon. Friend’s system would be extremely interesting, in many ways, in relation to opening that up and perhaps increasing the number of girls who apply.
Why are not primary schools encouraging parents to put their children in for the examinations, and opting in on behalf of the children? Does my hon. Friend agree that primary schools do not do enough to get their children into grammar schools?
I am very interested in the experience that the hon. Gentleman describes, but is he entirely comfortable with categorising children in that way at the age of 11?
[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
The greatest risk of dying a violent death is when you are less than one year old. And the greatest risk comes not from strangers, but from those who are closest to you in your own home—those who should love you and take care of you. Social workers are in the front line of the battle to protect babies and children. The importance of caring, motivated and well-trained social workers just cannot be overestimated. Frankly, if we do not recognise the massive potential of a good social worker to turn around life chances for babies and children in vulnerable families, we shall get the society we deserve.
I congratulate Professor Munro on her comprehensive report on what is generally recognised to be a difficult and troubled area. I want to focus today on recommendations 10 to 13 of that report, because I have spent the last 10 years of my life developing a passion for and a detailed understanding of why she may have made those points.
Recommendation 10 states:
“Government should place a duty on local authorities and statutory partners to provide sufficient early intervention services for those children and young people who do not meet child protection thresholds”.
That, to me, is the key recommendation, and I can encapsulate why in the shortest of slogans: prevention is kinder and cheaper than cure. Supporting vulnerable families and enabling them to form a secure bond with their babies in the first two years of life has profound consequences for society. Can anyone here imagine what the relationship is like between a mother and her baby if she would allow her boyfriend to stub out cigarettes on her little boy, as happened in the case of baby Peter? No, none of us can quite get our heads around what on earth possessed a mother to so violate the nurturing role of parent and carer as to allow her own need for a boyfriend to overrule the tigerish instinct of a mother. For my own part, I am quite sure I would kill rather than let anyone harm my children like that.
What makes one mother or parent neglect, abuse or even kill her own child, while another would kill to protect her child, is simple: the quality of the attachment between the carer and the child. This attachment begins during pregnancy, and its development is most critical during the first two years of a baby’s life. We could call it the Harry Potter syndrome. Harry was loved and nurtured by his parents until Lord Voldemort murdered them when Harry was two years old. He then suffered unspeakable cruelty and neglect at the hands of his uncle, aunt and cousin, but through it all he kept his unshakable sense of self-worth, personal resilience and his ability to make friends and form strong relationships. Those qualities are the reward for secure early attachment between baby and adult carer.
That is not just an entertaining story; the scientific evidence is overwhelming. When a baby is born his brain is significantly underdeveloped, but between six months and 18 months, as a result of the stimulation of a loving relationship, of peek-a-boo games and silly baby-language chatter with mum, the brain puts on a massive growth spurt and the central frontal cortex—the part of the brain that enables empathy and deals with social interaction—starts to develop at an astonishing rate. Conversely, the baby who is neglected, abused or treated inconsistently by uncaring adults will fail to develop a healthy frontal cortex. His ability in later life to form strong relationships with friends, a partner, work colleagues and so on will be severely impaired—and for a girl baby who does not form a secure bond, the incredible tragedy is that without help, she will struggle to form a bond with her own babies in later life, and so the cycle of misery is perpetuated through the generations.
It is at the critical end of the spectrum of poor attachment that the social worker is the key to the outcome for the child and the family. Where a baby is severely neglected or abused, the development of the frontal cortex may simply never happen. Babies left to scream for hours at a time suffer other problems as a result of having constantly raised levels of the stress hormone. Those babies develop a tendency towards high-risk-taking behaviour, drugs, violence and self-harming. Our prisons, streets and psychiatric hospitals are full of the evidence of poor early attachment. It is in these cases—the most difficult to resolve—that social workers often represent the only chance of survival for the family. However, their challenges are manifold. How can they identify those particular cases? How can they tell if the problems are temporary or life-threatening, and how can they be supported in what is an almost impossible task?
I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that providing parent-infant psychotherapy will dramatically change the work load of social workers and the amount of support available for these vulnerable families before those problems happen. I wanted to give you a perfect case study, Mr Deputy Speaker, but time does not permit, so you will have to take my word for it that the Oxford Parent Infant Project, a charity that I have chaired for the past 10 years, provides an enormous amount of life-saving support for families in Oxfordshire by working with social workers to reduce their work load, to provide them with the support they need and to help these vulnerable children. OXPIP also provides training in the crucial understanding of parent-infant relationships. What is so sad, to my mind, is that for many of those who attend, it is a “road to Damascus” moment. Previously they had no understanding of brain development, the critical importance of early attachment and the possible interventions.
I would like to leave my hon. Friend with these two thoughts: first, we need to provide parent-infant psychotherapy across children’s centres in the UK, and secondly, we need to improve significantly the quality of education not just for social workers but for everyone who works with babies.
Like the previous speaker, I do not intend to make a long speech. I rise to make just one point to the Minister before allowing him the time he needs to sum up the debate.
I welcome the Munro report and its recommendations. Everybody, on both sides of the House, would agree that it is important for the best interests of the child to be paramount in all child protection decisions. However, a number of constituents have raised concerns with me about the term “emotional abuse”, and how it is defined and interpreted by social services. I note that none of the recommendations of the Munro report relates to the term “emotional abuse” or its definition. We would all agree with the need for children to be taken away from such abuse, but some parents who have come to my surgeries are concerned that in some cases social services are being over-zealous or taking quite extreme action based on a rather loose interpretation of the term “emotional abuse”. In one case highlighted to me, social services removed a child from her parents because they felt that she had not been made aware of her father, the evidence for this being that there were no photos in the house. That seems to be based on a loose definition of “emotional abuse”. As part of the Minister’s review of child protection services, will he consider looking again at the definition of the term, to ensure that it is applied correctly and accurately?
There can be no better illustration of the acorn-to-oak analogy than the one given by my hon. Friend. We all agree that small businesses are the future, that large businesses dominate the opportunity for growth in the private sector and that that is an area on which we should therefore all focus.
The Federation of Small Businesses data show that only 8% of small businesses have taken on an apprentice in the past year, and that is an area on which we need to focus.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He, too, has brilliantly anticipated some of the themes that I want to bring up. He is right to focus on two key elements, one of which is administration and the second of which is cost, which also brings in the crucial factor of value. Let us delve deeper into the question of bureaucracy or administration. There are perceptions out there that taking on an apprentice is a time-consuming business; those of us who have done so know that it is not.
Break in Debate
I totally agree. That is part of the problem, which my hon. Friend has highlighted. There is a culture in certain parts of this country in which work is frowned upon. I am glad to say that we now have a Government who want to get this country and our young people working and create a culture of work, rather than one in which being kept—staying at home and collecting benefits—is a job choice, not a safety net.
That brings me to the other risk that employers in my constituency tell me about, which concerns employee retention after several years have been spent training a young apprentice. Obviously, the costs of that training are borne by the Government, in the main, but there are also costs to the employer in training people on the job. Employers are concerned that a young person will come in, serve an apprenticeship and leave. In certain trades, including the craft trades such as bricklaying, plumbing and so on, people can quickly set up as self-employed workers, and employers are concerned that they will invest their time and money in training young people who will either get a job elsewhere or set up on their own. We must address that, whether through an incentive scheme for employers or by other means. We must do all that we can to encourage employers to take people on and overcome those risks.
We need to consider the barriers to career progression that make things more difficult for employers, particularly those who have younger employees. That was highlighted to me on a visit to MES Systems in my constituency, which has two fantastic young apprentices whom I met. One of the apprentices had just finished his time and had qualified as an installer of security equipment, but unfortunately that young man will have to spend this coming year working for somebody else, not because he cannot do the job independently but because the company could not get insurance on the van that he needed to drive to get around independently. That is a major impediment not only for the young person who is not getting the experience of working independently but for the employer, who knows that additional work is available but is hamstrung by the fact that that he cannot send a person out to do that work, allowing him to take on another apprentice. That is the type of barrier that we need to think carefully about.
To touch on another constituency scenario, I spoke to the principal of a firm of accountants several weeks ago. The Minister will be glad to hear that he is looking to take on four apprentices as trainee accountants, but I am sad to report that to date, he cannot fill those vacancies, which is a sad indictment of careers advice and the link between employers, schools and FE colleges. It is important for the Government to tackle that issue. I hope that the all-age careers service will help with the quality of advice that our young people get, so that they can have proper careers and receive independent advice based on getting a job rather than on trying to meet exam targets or school or college league table targets. To many youngsters, that is important, but to some it is not as important as getting straight into employment.
My hon. Friend has highlighted the flawed ethos of the Labour Government and their target culture of wanting to get 50% of our youngsters into university. Although that has been useful for many of our young people, and we should certainly not decry the importance of a university degree, it has led, as he has said, to a culture where people frown on youngsters who have not gone to university, which has left those youngsters feeling dejected and undervalued. That is a poor position to put ourselves in.
To refer back to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), we need to fill the gap in the skills sector, and there are many younger people who would be better off taking the skills route rather than going to university and perhaps doing a degree that is not necessarily recognised by employers or that is not relevant to getting into the labour market.
That is exactly what the Green Paper is about, and I hope that the hon. Lady, if she has constituents who are particularly affected by our proposals, will ensure that they respond. The proposals are absolutely about making sure that children get the help that they deserve, but that is sadly not happening at the moment, partly because a lot of resources are wasted.
The Government and I are very concerned that adoption has lost momentum in recent years, and that is why we have launched a programme of reform. This has included setting up a ministerial advisory group, writing to directors of children’s services and lead members, publishing revised guidance, and launching an adoption data pack to support and challenge local authorities. We are also funding two voluntary sector projects to improve adoption practices and helping to promote adoption through National Adoption Week.
I echo my hon. Friend’s support for the fantastic dedication of prospective adopters and people who take on that great responsibility. I know of his great interest in this area. He is absolutely right. I do not want to see anything that stands in the way of people coming forward and offering themselves to give safe adoptive placements to vulnerable children. He has raised this issue with me before in an Adjournment debate. I give him an undertaking that we will see if there are any problems in this area that are undermining the system.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing this evening’s important debate. It seems that we have been debating for days in this Chamber and he was unlucky enough to draw the short straw of having his debate at the tail end, after a night when some of us have been left short of sleep.
Leaving aside the specific case behind today’s debate and the correspondence between my hon. Friend, myself, the Department for Education and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), to which reference has been made, I know that, like many of us across the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby is a big admirer of the many thousands of wonderful parents in this country who have chosen to adopt a child. His closing remarks absolutely affirmed the nobility of such an activity, and I very much wish to encourage, and have been seeking to encourage, it in my time as the Minister with responsibility for adoption and children in care.
My hon. Friend raised several crucial issues and I wish to address as many of them as possible because, as he knows, adoption is an issue on which the Government have been working extraordinarily hard over the past year. As he said, I cannot refer to the specific case of his constituent because it is before the courts. It is clearly a difficult case and it has been going on for some time. As he says, the child has been placed with the adoptive parents for some 10 years and that child is regarded as their own. He was also right to mention the oft-referred-to rights of children that are at the heart of the Children Act 1989. The welfare of the child must be the paramount consideration when dealing with any matters to do with children in the care system. He also mentioned that we hear, quite rightly, about the rights of birth parents. Only in extreme circumstances should a child be taken away from their birth parents and the process should end in adoption only when it is not safe for that child to be returned to the birth parents or parent.
Most importantly, perhaps, we have made it clear from day one that we have a lot of work to do to get an adoption system that is truly fit for purpose. I have been coming at it from the angle of wanting to ensure that we have more adoptions as well as speedier and smarter adoptions, but I am also conscious that we must ensure that we get the right adoptions. The right children should be adopted and everything should be done to restore children to their birth families wherever possible.
My hon. Friend raised quite an interesting scenario that falls in between those two points, in which parents had come forward as adopters, were confirmed in that role and took on a child as their own, but their position was challenged at a later date after which legal action was brought to bear on them. Such a situation is quite unusual, but he has certainly made me aware of such cases and in formulating our approach to adoption, I want to take them on board. If we are to promote adoption as providing a suitable home for a number of children who were not lucky enough to be able to be brought up with their birth parents, it is crucial that we ensure that there are safeguards so that the right children are placed for adoption and the people who adopt them have their interests protected, too. After all, they have come forward with the noblest of intentions. We need an adoption system that is truly fit for purpose in all those respects.
No one could fail to be concerned by the fall in the number of adoptions of looked-after children over the past few years, particularly the decline in the timeliness of placements. When it has been decided that a child’s future best lies in an adoptive placement, we owe it to that child to get on with placing them as swiftly as we can so that they have as good a chance as possible to secure a second chance at the stable family upbringing that was denied to him or her in the first place.
At this stage, I would particularly like to commend the campaign that has recently been promoted by The Times and, in particular, by the journalist Rosie Bennett, who has highlighted a lot of the shortcomings in the adoption system and has worked with us in the Department for Education to try to highlight the problems and to promote some of the solutions. We are working with a number of organisations and people who are interested in the field of adoption.
As I have said before, both in the House and outside it, we want to see the decline in adoption stopped in its tracks and more children adopted quicker and more smartly when that is in their best interests. I also want local authorities to consider carefully the support that adopted families need—my hon. Friend mentioned that—so that everything possible is done to increase the number of successful adoptions. It is not just a question of getting more adoptions to happen; adoptions must be sustainable and they must not break down. It is all the more important that we get a good match and that the right support is provided at an early stage and for as long as it takes so that everything possible is done to increase the number of lasting and successful adoptions.
Placing a child for adoption with prospective adopters is only the start. Adoptions need to succeed and that is why I set up a ministerial advisory group on adoption. At our next meeting we will consider adoption breakdowns and how better adoption support can help to prevent them. As part of a wider programme of adoption reform, we have recently published revised national minimum standards, revised statutory guidance and an adoption data pack to inform and stimulate debate both nationally and locally about the volume and timeliness of adoption.
In addition, as many hon. Members will know, we have asked David Norgrove to review the family justice system. The review panel’s interim report, which came out just last month, provides a valuable initial assessment of the challenges that the family justice system faces. We encourage everyone who has experience of the system to contribute their views over the coming months so that the panel has as much information as possible on which to base its final recommendations, which are due out later in the year. I have also had very productive discussions with Sir Nicholas Wall, the president of the family division, and I will be holding further discussions with judges and members of the judiciary who are involved in adoption.
To come back to the specific circumstances outlined by my hon. Friend, the Adoption and Children Act 2002 makes it quite clear that in reaching a decision about the adoption of a child, the paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child’s welfare. In reaching a decision, the court or agency must take into account a number of issues, including the likelihood of any relationship with birth family relatives continuing, as well as the benefits to the child, and it must have regard to the child’s ascertainable wishes and feelings. I know from some of my constituency cases that ongoing contact with birth parents is a difficult and sensitive issue; great sensitivity and, often, the judgment of Solomon, is required.
As my hon. Friend knows, during the period between a placement order and an adoption order, the adoption agency must satisfy itself as to the child’s welfare and consider any additional requests for support by the adoptive parents. Once an adoption order has been made, adoptive parents are in exactly the same position as birth parents, but adoption support services are available. An adoption order is, of course, final and irrevocable, other than in exceptional circumstances. The courts have consistently emphasised the special, permanent nature of adoption orders because they affect people’s status and alter the most fundamental of human relationships. However, the High Court has the power to set aside an adoption order on appeal in cases of mistake or where there has been a failure of natural justice due to procedural irregularities or fraud, but that is extremely rare and is to be avoided if at all possible as it is greatly unsettling for the child.
Children, adoptive parents and birth family members all have the right to an assessment of their needs for adoption support services on request and it is for the local authority to decide what services to provide. Sensitive, proactive post-adoption support can sometimes make all the difference to the success of an adoption. Having looked at the record of some independent adoption agencies in particular, I know that it is invariably those agencies that offer good pre-adoption placement support and good-quality post-adoption support for as long as it takes to make sure that the adoptive placement is sustainable and able to last that tend to have the lowest disruption rates and the best records of giving children a decent second chance. The cost of not providing such support, in terms of children returning to care, can be very great in financial terms and, more importantly, in the human and social effects for the children involved.
There is a legal framework under the 2002 Act that protects the identity of the adopted child and the adoptive family. My hon. Friend rightly raised the important issue of security of information for adopters and I would be interested to hear how the case he has discussed evolves and to learn where security breaches might have happened, because it is essential that the anonymity of new arrangements is paramount. If there are flaws in the system that enable people to exploit it in a way that is not in the best interests of the child, we need to be able to do something about that. We need to be able to identify such problems and I would appreciate further discussions with him as the case he mentioned is unravelled.
No information should be disclosed that would reveal the child’s identity or whereabouts or the identity or whereabouts of the adoptive parents. Although there are safeguards in place, in today’s electronic world a determined person with little information about an individual might be able to find them, but that is no excuse for our not having in place systems that are as watertight as possible.
As regards contact after adoption, my hon. Friend will know that before a child is placed for adoption, the adoption agency must assess the needs of the child in relation to future contact arrangements with members of their birth family. It must ascertain the wishes of the child, birth parents and any other person whom the agency considers relevant about future contact. As I said, that is a sensitive and difficult area. Contact plans are reviewed at the various stages of the adoption process, and are considered by the court when making a placement order and an adoption order. It is not something that is static—it is constantly assessed and reassessed.
It is important that adoptive parents are made aware that, as part of the support services available to them, they can receive help in relation to any contact arrangements and, like the birth family and of course the child in question, the adoptive family can ask the adoption agency that placed the child to review the contact arrangements if they are not working or if the child’s needs for contact have changed. That is not uncommon as the child grows up and begins to ask questions about his or her origins. I must emphasise that once an adoption order is made, a birth parent has no automatic right to contact, and can only make an application to the court for an order for contact with the court’s permission. The court may make a contact order requiring the person with whom the child lives or is to live to allow the child to visit or stay with the person named in the order, or for that person and the child otherwise to have contact with each other. It bears repeating that a court will do so only if, having weighed the evidence, it is clear that such contact would be in the child’s best interests. The paramountcy consideration always comes into play. The revised adoption guidance that I mentioned earlier covers those matters.
It is worth noting that if adoptive parents are unhappy with the way in which they have been treated by the local authority they have the right to make a formal complaint under the local authority complaints procedure. If they are unhappy with the council’s response, they may request a panel hearing, which will have independent representation. If they remain dissatisfied, and think that a local authority has treated them unfairly as a result of bad or inefficient management—“maladministration”—they can refer their complaint to the local government ombudsman.
My hon. Friend mentioned legal aid, and I am aware of his correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon. I will not deal with the detail of that issue, but he is right to refer to the review. It is worth noting, however, that the legal aid review is intended to achieve a level playing field for various aspects of family justice, as that is clearly not the case at the moment. Legal aid changes might affect adoption in some cases, but I am happy to take another look at that if, in the light of my hon. Friend’s case, he thinks that there is not a level playing field, and I am happy to take part in discussions with my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice.
The Ministry of Justice recently consulted on changes to the legal aid system, with the aim of focusing resources where they are most needed, and it is currently considering a response to the consultation, so its final judgments are a little way off. Decisions about legal aid funding in civil cases are a matter for the Legal Services Commission, which is responsible for administering the legal aid scheme. Generally, legal aid in civil cases is available to anyone who qualifies, provided that the applicant is using the courts of England and Wales and that the case is within the scope of the scheme. Civil legal aid is available for cases involving the welfare of children. Each application, which may include the child if they are a party to proceedings, is considered on an individual basis and is subject to statutory tests of the applicant’s means and the merits of the case.
Let me finish by repeating our absolutely, intently serious commitment to improving adoption services in this country, in particular to those people who come forward to provide loving and supportive homes to children who desperately need the second chance that they were denied with their own parents. With the wider reforms that we are introducing, we want to get people talking and thinking about adoption again, and we want all that to translate into action, with better-quality, sustainable placements right across the country. If there are examples from this case and others that hon. Members wish to raise that show in some way that the ability of adoptive parents, who have often gone through a long, drawn-out and intrusive process, to continue to offer a stable, loving family placement to an adopted child is impaired, we will need to look at that, and I am happy to review the situation if that is the case. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue, and I hope that his constituent’s case, which is behind today’s debate, reaches a satisfactory conclusion. Equally, if there are important lessons to be learned that we can apply to the whole area of adoption, I should very much like to learn them.
Question put and agreed to.
Yes, we must drive up their status; we must elevate the practical. The aesthetic of apprenticeships matters, and I am determined to ensure that those who achieve vocational, practical and technical competence are as revered as—indeed, perhaps more revered than—we who pursued the academic route.
The Government are reviewing employment laws to provide the flexibility that businesses need and support economic growth. As part of this, we recently launched a consultation on employment tribunal reform and the employer’s charter, both aimed at increasing business confidence to take on, and manage, staff.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we recently published the consultation, “Resolving workplace disputes”. I urge him to ask businesses in his constituency to respond to that consultation because we want to ensure that the current system, which I believe is bad for employers and employees, is reformed.
I need to race on—I am terribly sorry. In Chinese families there is not the same correlation between poverty and the outcomes we see in other types of family. While we focus on the early years, I would like us to reintroduce the concept of character into public discourse and to discuss how to bring up and raise children to improve their life chances. When I talk about character, I mean self-discipline and a child saying, “I am not going to watch TV now; I need to do my homework.” I mean a child showing respect to others and knowing that when they go to school and someone gets on their nerves, they should not just thump that person, but should report them to the teacher. Some academics call these considerations pro-social norms. This is something that happens at home and we should not be afraid to talk about character in our public discourse. Character is a function not of wealth but of values and we should be happy to speak about it.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate and I applaud Members on both sides of the House for the good temper in which it has been held. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) who spoke just before me in a debate on life chances. He and I started 43 years ago in the same class. I sat three behind him, and I am delighted that his life chances have not been overly impacted by that experience.
We are talking today about social mobility, which, to me, is the hallmark of a civilised society. It is a subject that probably 650 Members on both sides of the House would agree really matters. It really matters that we get this right. I want to speak on one aspect of this, and it is about how we measure it and targets. Occasionally targets get a bad press and people say that we should not have so many, but in this area, targets are important. The problem is that we have confused three different things—poverty, inequality and life chances. Those three are quite different. They are heavily correlated, but they are not the same, and the danger is that if we apply a policy to the wrong one, or try to affect another, we will get the wrong outcomes.
My concern is that we have made the measurement of inequality a proxy for success in that area. We have discussed the intention of the last Prime Minister but one to eradicate child poverty by 2020, which is a noble ambition, but the principal definition used for that purpose—median income at 60%—is a measure of inequality, not poverty. The risk is that money is spent sub-optimally and that, even though we make transfer payments of £150 billion over a period, we will still be ranked 21st out of 21 countries in a UNICEF report.
What we are changing is the quango that will report on the final decision. We are not changing the streamlined system that will sit behind it—we think it is good; for business and for infrastructure—but we do think it important that when a final decision is made on a major infrastructure programme, it is made by a Minister standing at this Dispatch Box who is accountable to this House. I think that is an important principle; it will not undermine business investment and it is good for democracy.