All 40 Parliamentary debates on 11th Mar 2024

Mon 11th Mar 2024
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Commons Chamber
(Urgent Question)
Mon 11th Mar 2024
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House of Commons

Monday 11th March 2024

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Monday 11 March 2024
The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

Monday 11th March 2024

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

Monday 11th March 2024

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Before we proceed to questions, I regret to inform the House of the death of former Member Lord McAvoy. Tommy represented his home town of Rutherglen from 1987 until he received his peerage in 2010. He was a highly respected colleague and the longest serving Government Whip of recent times, with more than 13 years of service. He will be sadly missed. The thoughts of the whole House are with his family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions

Monday 11th March 2024

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Andrew Jones Portrait Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
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1. What steps her Department is taking to help increase the number of occupations for which apprenticeships are available.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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18. What steps her Department is taking to help increase the number of occupations for which apprenticeships are available.

Gillian Keegan Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
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I join you in your comments, Mr Speaker. My thoughts are with the family of Tommy McAvoy.

Thanks to this Conservative Government, nearly 70% of all occupations are accessible via an apprenticeship. That is a far greater reach than countries admired for their technical education such as Germany and Switzerland. I am sure that many Members joined the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and more than 60 ministerial colleagues out and about during National Apprenticeship Week. I was delighted to join Harry, Chloe and other EDF Energy apprentices off the coast of Blyth, as well as apprentices who are launching exciting careers at J.P. Morgan in the City. Apprenticeships are the route to a successful career, no matter where apprentices live or what they want to do.

Andrew Jones Portrait Andrew Jones
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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Last month, the Prime Minister visited the Harrogate Bus Company to view the new fleet of electric buses and to meet the company’s apprentices. Could my right hon. Friend detail how the Government will ensure that new apprenticeship routes are available in fast developing sectors of the economy such as digitisation and artificial intelligence, or the sectors that will deliver our decarbonisation pledge, such as those new zero-emission buses in Harrogate and Knaresborough?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I thank my hon. Friend for his support at the recent parliamentary apprenticeship fair. Importantly, our apprenticeship programme is future focused. It includes a new battery manufacturing technician apprenticeship, which will benefit electric buses, and others including charging point installation and electric vehicle maintenance. Whether through T-levels, higher technical qualifications or apprenticeships, there are more training opportunities in industries of the future than ever before, in everything from AI to net zero.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for those answers. Progress is being made, though the feedback that I am receiving is that the current maths and English functional skills requirement is an obstacle to a wider range of employers taking on apprentices. To remove that barrier, will my right hon. Friend consider embedding English and maths elements into the apprenticeships standards, so that they are relevant to the job role and employers can be confident that apprentices are acquiring the skills that they need to succeed?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education works closely with employers to ensure that all essential skills, including English, maths and digital, are embedded into apprenticeship standards, and it will continue to do so. We are also increasing funding by 50% to help more apprentices achieve up to a level 2 English or maths qualification alongside their apprenticeship if they do not already hold one, to help them get on in work and in life.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
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As someone who started his working life with on-the-job training at International Computers Limited—a company that is now part of Fujitsu, but we will not mention that name in this House—I very much support apprenticeships, particularly at the higher and advanced level that is required for occupations in information technology. What is the Secretary of State doing to address the worrying fall in the number of apprenticeship starts, particularly to get kids into higher and advanced level apprenticeships?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to learn that apprenticeship starts are up by 3% so far this year. That is because they are backed by record investment of £2.7 billion. Never before has a Government invested so much into high-quality apprenticeships and achieved so much in spreading opportunity across the country.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Like the questioner and the Secretary of State, I am very keen to increase the number of occupations. Two categories have perhaps not been considered. What discussions has she had with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment back home to ensure opportunities for new apprenticeships in farming and fishing?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on a very important point. We work with employers in farming and fishing, and we have a number of apprenticeship standards across those industries. We are always happy to work with any industry that sees an opportunity for more apprentices to be trained in their industry.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. Before I call the second question, Mr Speaker would like me to convey to the House his apologies for his unavoidable absence from questions this afternoon as he has to attend the Commonwealth service in Westminster Abbey, which is about to start at any minute now.

Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)
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2. What assessment her Department has made of the impact of funding decisions on maintained schools since 2010.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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In 2010-11, school funding was £35 billion. Next year, it will be £59.6 billion. That is the highest ever level in real terms per pupil.

Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen
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Recent figures show that the worst impacted schools in Luton North have endured more than £2 million of real-terms cuts since 2010. There are school roofs with holes in, buckets scattered across corridors collecting rainwater, and entire buildings held up by scaffolding. Those are the defining images of 14 years of Conservative Government, 14 years of budget cuts and teaching staff expected to do more with less. We need change. Children in Luton North deserve better. If the Minister agrees, why will he not give children what they deserve?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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On the condition of school buildings, the hon. Lady will know that there is £1.8 billion-worth of capital for maintaining and improving school buildings. On the broader questions about school funding, she might have been alluding—I am looking for some visual recognition—to figures put together by the National Education Union. If so, I have to tell her that we believe those figures to be flawed in multiple respects, including in assumptions they make about the money and the number of children in schools in previous years. I hope she will join me in celebrating the record resourcing rightly going in to educating children.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I welcome the record real-terms funding flowing into our schools, but will my right hon. Friend join me in looking very carefully at the case for extending funding for tutoring? It has raised attainment, in particular for the most disadvantaged, in many of our schools, and been seen as a great success story. When it was introduced, it was intended to be a long-term intervention. May I urge the Minister to continue to look at that and ensure we find money, in addition to the pupil premium, to support that noble aim?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I absolutely agree that tutoring is important in multiple contexts. In particular, in the years since the pandemic it has played an essential part. I will add that tutoring by undergraduates can help to introduce a wider range of people to the potential of a career in teaching. I want tutoring to continue. As my hon. Friend rightly mentions, part of the function of the pupil premium is to make such interventions and it can be spent on them.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
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A teacher in Frome recently reached out and told me that too few pupils are successful in their education, health and care plan applications. Without a plan and the accompanying support for children’s life chances, they are diminished. Can the Minister reassure my constituents that the Government’s plans to reform the EHCP will still ensure that children receive care that is personalised to their needs and not a one-size-fits-all approach to cut costs?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady on the central importance of that support and how vital it is to have it. There are, of course, many more EHCPs than there were statements under the old system, with more children receiving support. She will understand that I cannot comment on the individual case she mentions, but I will mention the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision improvement plan that we have in place.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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I welcome the substantial additional funding that has been given to maintained nursery schools in my constituency, but does the Minister agree that it is vital for us to continue to increase funding for all Barnet’s schools?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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As ever, my right hon. Friend is a great champion and advocate for Barnet’s schools and, indeed, for maintained nursery schools, which, as she says, play a unique role in our system in carrying out those particular functions.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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Last year the National Audit Office reported that 700,000 children were being taught in schools needing major rebuilding works. On top of the problems caused by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, construction issues are emerging daily with block and beam flooring, high-alumina cement and asbestos—all long past their shelf life—up in North Tyneside and down to Luton and beyond. Fourteen years of Conservative Governments have left children learning under props and in portacabins and sheds. Given that this Government’s plan seems to be to leave it for the next Labour Government to sort out those problems, can the Minister at least inform us of the latest estimate of the total school repairs bill?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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Keeping our school estates in the right condition for optimally educating children is of the foremost importance. Since 2015 we have allocated £15 billion to keeping schools safe and operational. I pay tribute to everyone who has been involved in the most recent RAAC issue, including the schools and pupils who dealt with it and my colleagues who helped to ensure that we reached this point. All schools have been told what will happen next: either they will receive a remediation grant, or they will be part of the school rebuilding programme.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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4. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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Our SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, published last March, includes the development of new national standards to improve provision in mainstream settings for children with special educational needs. As for children requiring special school places, last week we announced funding for an additional wave of 15 special free schools, which comes on top of the 108 that we have opened since 2010 and the 77 whose opening has been approved.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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I visit schools in my constituency virtually every week, and I see more and more of them struggling financially, and in terms of staff, with the number of SEND pupils. Moreover, too many staff members are having to go out and fetch children to bring them to school in the mornings, and needing to have social workers based in their schools. This is not about individual schools; it is a systemic problem. What are the Government doing about it?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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In Cambridgeshire, there has been a 27% increase in funding per head for special educational needs since 2021-22 and a special free school is in the pipeline, along with two local authority special competition free schools. Cambridgeshire is also part of our safety valve programme, which helps authorities to run a sustainable special educational needs system.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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I wonder whether my hon. Friend might be able to help my constituent Ella Wakley, who is disabled and travels to her college on the bus, but her blue badge does not allow free transport for her and her assistant until 9.30 am, which is a little late for the start of the school day.

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I do not know the specifics of the case that my hon. Friend raises, but if she writes to me, I will happily look at it.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
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High-quality early years education can be transformational for children with special educational needs, helping to ensure that they are identified and supported at the most important time for their development, but last year fewer than one in five local authorities in England reported having enough childcare places for disabled children. That is a shameful failure. Is the Minister confident that families with a disabled child will be able to access the childcare to which they are entitled from April?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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We are doing two things in this regard. First, we are reviewing the special educational needs inclusion fund as we roll out the new entitlements to ensure that it is working appropriately. Secondly, we have provided a contractor. Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide places for all children, including those with special educational needs, and the contractor will work with local authorities to ensure that is done.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
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5. If she will issue statutory guidance on teaching economic education in schools as part of the PSHE curriculum.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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It is essential that young people are equipped to make important financial decisions later in life. My hon. Friend will recall our curriculum reforms, and the national curriculum for mathematics and secondary citizenship equips pupils with the essential knowledge, understanding and practical skills needed to manage their money.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
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The Minister is absolutely right to suggest that good financial education helps people to avoid debts and poverty, and to build up a savings cushion for a rainy day. Prevention is undoubtedly better than cure, yet while statutory guidance ensures that students learn about threats such as drugs or unplanned pregnancy, money and finance are more optional. Should they not be taken as seriously as everything else?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I agree with my hon. Friend. There is relevant content in different parts of the curriculum, not only in mathematics, which is statutory throughout key stages 1 to 4, but at secondary level in citizenship. Further elements such as computing are particularly relevant to online fraud. In relationships, sex and health education, some aspects of fraud are covered, as is gambling, but I absolutely agree that it is important to keep these things under review.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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6. What recent discussions she has had with her counterparts in the devolved Administrations on the potential merits of providing additional financial support to students in the context of increases in the cost of living.

Robert Halfon Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Robert Halfon)
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The hon. Gentleman will know that higher education is a devolved matter and that each Administration are responsible for determining the student finance arrangements that apply to students eligible for funding.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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New data reveals that in most areas of England, state school pupils who have received free school meals have less than a one in four chance of entering higher education. One reason for that is that poorer students decide not to pursue that path because of the prospect of being saddled with huge debt, which takes decades to clear. Do the Government believe that they should follow the Scottish Government’s example and abolish tuition fees, so that education can be made accessible to all?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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This Government believe that we need to be fair not only to students but to taxpayers. It is worth noting that, in England, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are 74% more likely to go to university than they were in 2010. We have put together a substantial package to help students with the cost of living, including a £286 million welfare support fund, which we give to the Office for Students to ensure that students with difficulties are helped.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
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Following last year’s 2.8% increase, the Government have announced a paltry 2.5% increase in maintenance loans this September. With a compound inflation rate of 15%, that amounts to a massive real-terms cut. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government have announced a 3.7% increase. Even in Scotland, there will be a £2,500 special support loan for all students. Across the country, students are being forced into working multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. What have this Government got against students?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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I am proud that we have a record number of students going to university. I have already mentioned the fact that the disadvantaged are 74% more likely to go to university than they were before. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing to help students: we have a £286 million welfare fund that we give to the OFS; we have increased loans by 2.8%; we have frozen tuition fees; families across the country have been given, on average, £3,700 to help with energy bills and other bills; we have given hundreds of millions of pounds to the household support fund to support all families; students know that they can have their loans reassessed if their family income falls by 15%; and finally, we have introduced degree apprenticeships so that students do not need to take out a loan but can earn while they learn and get a good, skilled job at the end.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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7. Whether she is taking steps to help improve the morale of teachers and school support staff.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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Supporting teacher wellbeing is crucial to our commitment to a supportive culture in schools, and for encouraging teacher retention. That is why we co-created the education staff wellbeing charter with the education sector, and we have invested over £1 million in school leader mental health and wellbeing support.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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Is the truth not that retention is down, recruitment is down and early retirements are up? What is the Minister going to do to boost the morale of teachers? They say to me, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a Cabinet who had been through a state sector education and sent their children to state schools?”

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I think the hon. Gentleman needs to do some research before he starts asking questions in Parliament. On recruitment and retention, I join him in stressing the importance of retention, which we are absolutely focused on, including through our workload programme. We have a good set of scholarships and bursaries for encouraging entry and a range of different routes into teaching to get the full range of talent that can benefit our children and young people.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
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Would my right hon. Friend agree that good and enthusiastic teachers are vital to ensuring that we have good, successful schools and pupils? What more can be done to assist schools with discipline and truancy issues, because it would obviously help teachers’ morale if they could have some more support?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of brilliant teachers—I think he might have some personal experience of that. He is also right about the central importance of behaviour. In relation to retention, we hear back in surveys that we need to improve further on this. This is one of the reasons that we have the network of behaviour hubs, so that schools can learn one from another about what works best.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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Morale among teachers and support staff is affected by their pay and working conditions, and now the teachers are being threatened with minimum service levels, which would limit their fundamental right to strike. Surely the Minister can recognise that this course of action will lower morale further and ultimately impact the recruitment and retention of teaching staff.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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Nobody is talking about taking away the right to strike. All that we are seeking to do is balance that right, which we absolutely recognise and protect, with the right of a child to have an education.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
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8. What steps she is taking to increase the provision of special educational needs places in Essex.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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I am pleased to inform the House that two new special schools opened in Essex last year, with another in the pipeline. We have also provided £26 million of capital funding to Essex over the last two years to create more places for children with special educational needs or who require alternative provision.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Francois
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Last July, standing here, I launched the campaign for a new special needs school in south Essex. In February this year, working closely with Essex County Council, which I commend for its efforts, we were able to announce a consultation to build a brand-new special needs school in Rayleigh for 100-plus pupils—a through-school for years 3 to 18—to open in the 2025-26 academic year. It has gone down very well locally, but the one concern is that at the moment it is 100-plus pupils and, given the great demand for places, a lot of people would prefer something nearer 200. Is there any way, perhaps with a little help from the Department, that we might be able to achieve that too?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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My right hon. Friend is running an excellent campaign and we are impressed with the speed with which Essex has moved to consultation. I cannot pre-empt the Department’s decision, but what we have heard so far suggests that a very strong case will be put to the Department. We are also about to allocate the remaining £900 million of capital funding for special educational needs schools, from which Essex will of course benefit.

Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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9. What progress her Department has made on ensuring that more schools achieve good and outstanding ratings by Ofsted.

Gillian Keegan Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
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Under the last Labour Government, only 68% of schools were rated good or outstanding, letting down a generation of children. Thanks to this Conservative Government, that number now stands at nearly 90%. In the last year alone, 214,000 more children now attend good or outstanding schools, and I am delighted that this now includes the Lord Derby Academy in Knowsley, which I visited last week. Our plan to give every child a world-class education is working. Labour has no plan. Remember that it has twice stood on a manifesto to abolish Ofsted. It is clear that every time Labour gets into power, children’s education suffers.

Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller
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Nine out of 10 of the schools in my constituency are good or outstanding, reflecting this Government’s commitment to high standards and the incredible hard work of the staff and the school leadership, but special schools have struggled to achieve the same in my constituency. How is my right hon. Friend helping them to get to where we want them to be, where they can all be good or outstanding?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that Basingstoke’s schools have been transformed over the past decade, up from just 52% rated good or outstanding under Labour. We have recently brought in two of our strongest specialist multi-academy trusts to drive improvement in special schools. Solent Academies Trust is now responsible for Dove House School, and Chiltern Way Academy Trust will shortly be taking over three local underperforming special and alternative provision schools, two of which will receive significant capital investment from the Department to support the education of vulnerable children.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
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10. What assessment she has made of trends in the number of level 2 and 3 apprenticeship starts since the apprenticeship levy was introduced.

Robert Halfon Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Robert Halfon)
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Sixty-five per cent of all apprenticeship starts so far this year have been at levels 2 and 3, with level 3 remaining the most popular level, accounting for 43% of all starts. Over 360 apprenticeship standards are at levels 2 and 3, covering more than half of all apprenticeships.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Perkins
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I can understand why the Minister does not refer to the trends, because he knows that level 2 apprenticeships are way down. The Government’s reforms have seen level 2 apprenticeship starts fall by two thirds since 2012-13, and the number of people employed on an apprenticeship with a small and medium-sized enterprise has fallen by 49% since the levy’s introduction. The Minister talks powerfully about apprenticeships, but why does he think that young people are now half as likely to be on an SME apprenticeship than they were when the levy was introduced?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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I hugely respect the hon. Gentleman. I know he is a bruiser, but I had been looking forward to his question. I thought he would celebrate the 13,000 apprentices in Chesterfield since May 2010, the 11,270 apprentices at levels 2 and 3, or the £19.5 million investment in Chesterfield College. If I were him, I would be urging his party to stop its plan to destroy the apprenticeship levy, which would halve the number of apprenticeship starts overall. It would be back to square one.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is not just that level 2 and 3 apprenticeship starts have plummeted by over 50% since the levy was introduced, but that 16 to 18-year-old apprenticeship starts are down by 41%. Research by the Sutton Trust and the London School of Economics further shows that, by 2020, the proportion of apprenticeship starts by those from poorer backgrounds had dropped significantly. Opportunities for all our young people to earn and learn expanded every year under Labour. Is it not now painfully clear that the biggest barrier to opportunity is this Tory Government?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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As always, Labour Front Benchers are obsessed with quantity over quality. We have transformed the quality of apprenticeships. Seventy per cent of occupations are covered by over 680 apprenticeship standards. There has been a 6% increase since this time last year in the number of under-19 starts, and overall starts are up by 3% over the same period. The crucial thing is achievement, which is up by 22%. Female STEM starts are up by 7.5%, starts by people with disabilities are up by 6.3%, and starts by people from ethnic minorities are up by 15.4%, compared with 10.6% in 2010. Not only are we focusing on quality over quantity; we are improving the number of starts and achievements too.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con)
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12. What steps she is taking to increase childcare provision.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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We are removing one of the biggest barriers for working parents by vastly increasing the amount of free childcare that working families can access. By 2027-28, we expect to spend more than £8 billion every year on free hours in early education, double what we are spending now, to help working families with their childcare costs.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds
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My constituent Diane Bennett, who runs a small group of very popular local nurseries, tells me how appreciative she is of the Government’s plan for childcare and early education, particularly the £500 million of additional funding that has been secured. Clearly, as she and other nursery providers look ahead, she is concerned that, although the Government have a clear plan, there is no clear plan coming from the Opposition. Can my hon. Friend set her mind at rest?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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My hon. Friend is right. Last week the Chancellor announced that we will be increasing rates until the end of 2027 for early years providers, which is something they have asked for. I cannot give my hon. Friend any reassurance about Labour’s plan, because it has no plan. The shadow Secretary of State says that childcare is her top priority, yet she has no plan for it. What does that say? Parents should be very worried about Labour getting into power, both for the childcare on which they rely and for every other area of education.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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Families right across my constituency are finding it increasingly hard to access affordable childcare locally. From speaking to two providers last week, it is clear to me that the current level and structure of free hours funding, even with the Government’s recent announcement, is not going to go far enough to allow these providers to expand, given the capacity and staffing costs that would entail. What reassurances can the Minister offer families in my area that, finally, the Government are going to get on top of the childcare crisis we are facing and make sure that families in my constituency will not have to go without?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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We set our rates based on a survey of more than 9,000 providers, in order to get those right. Last year we saw a 13,000 increase in the number of staff in the sector and a 15,000 increase in the number of places. We work with every local authority to make sure that they have sufficient places, and I am confident that the hon. Gentleman’s area will have that too.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
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Gloucestershire County Council cares about our childcare businesses and listens to my calls to make sure that monthly payments are going to childminders. As we have heard, the Chancellor is putting in another slug of money—£500 million—but local childminders are telling me that things such as the proposed date of payment mean that they are still out of pocket and still cannot pay their staff. Therefore, all the work is not being felt on the ground. Will the Minister meet GCC and I to iron out some of these mechanical issues at local authority level, so that everybody can benefit from what the Government are doing?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I thank my hon. Friend for continuing to champion this sector. She is absolutely right about the importance of paying on a monthly basis, which we encourage all local authorities to do. We will be saying more about that in the coming weeks, and I will be happy to meet her to discuss this further.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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The Minister will be aware that private equity firms have been causing great damage in other parts of the education sector, such as children’s homes and special schools, but we are now starting to see this in childcare. Oakley Capital has acquired Lilliput nursery in Hersham and Elmbridge, and has hiked up prices by a staggering 25%; that is an additional £365 per child per month, which parents simply cannot afford. Does he agree that it is quite wrong for private equity firms to be making these eye-watering profits on the backs of hard-working parents? What is he going to do to stop this happening?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of profiteering that we have seen in some areas of children’s care and social care. We will be setting out some steps that we will be taking on that shortly. I do not know the specifics of the case she has just referenced, but, again, if she writes to me, I will be happy to look at it.

Simon Clarke Portrait Sir Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con)
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13. What progress her Department has made on rebuilding Skelton Primary School in Cleveland.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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Skelton Primary School was announced in the second round of the school rebuilding programme in July 2021. It is the second school in a batch being delivered by the contractor Tilbury Douglas. We therefore expect construction work on this complete new build to begin in late summer and complete next year.

Simon Clarke Portrait Sir Simon Clarke
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, which is reassuring news, because Skelton Primary is a very good school but it is in need of a comprehensive rebuild. The headteacher, Mrs Walker, worked through last summer in the expectation that the rebuild could begin as soon as this Easter, but that has not happened, because the builders came back saying that more money was required. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that that date of the end of the summer is now fixed? Will it be possible for me to meet the civil service team in charge to discuss this with them further?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I acknowledge all that my right hon. Friend says. I can reassure him that the scope of works, including all funding committed, has been confirmed on this new build. However, of course, if it would be helpful to have a meeting, I would be happy to do this.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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14. What steps her Department is taking to encourage take-up of degree-level apprenticeships.

Robert Halfon Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Robert Halfon)
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I note that the Labour Front Benchers did not mention the 222,320 starts on degree apprenticeships since their introduction in 2014-15. There are now more than 170 employer-designed degree-level apprenticeships available, including in occupations such as doctor, space engineer and midwife. We are spending an additional £40 million in the next two years to support providers to promote degree apprenticeships.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith
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Businesses in my constituency regularly tell me that they much prefer apprentices and those who have taken degree-level apprenticeships to traditional graduates. That came up time and again in a recent engagement event I held with Buckinghamshire Business First at Ercol in Princes Risborough. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what more the Government are going to do to send a clear signal to all pupils across the whole country that degree-level apprenticeships are out there, they should sign up for them and they will have fantastic careers ahead of them?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is a champion of the automotive and motorsport industry in his constituency. He will be pleased to know that we now have UCAS for apprenticeships, which will transform the apprenticeship scheme when students apply for university or apprenticeships. The apprenticeship skills and knowledge network goes to thousands of schools, interacting with many hundreds of thousands of students. As I mentioned, we are spending £40 million to promote degree apprenticeships among providers. We have strengthened legislation to ensure that schools do more to promote apprenticeships and technical and vocational education.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
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15. What steps she is taking to ensure school pupils are informed about apprenticeship opportunities.

Robert Halfon Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Robert Halfon)
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My hon. Friend is a champion of FE and skills—he has asked a lot of questions about the subject over the past months. We want apprenticeships to be part of the careers conversations in every school. We have strengthened the law so that schools must offer pupils at least six education and training provider encounters. We have invested £3.2 million in the apprenticeship skills and knowledge network, which reached over 2,300 schools and colleges in 2022-23.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous
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Vandyke Upper School in Leighton Buzzard, which I visited last week, tells every student about apprenticeships and has an excellent apprenticeships ambassador. As the Minister will know, sadly not every school does this. Most teachers have been to university and they may not know about apprenticeships, so what can we do to ensure that every school tells every student about apprenticeships, as Vandyke Upper School does, because they can be life-transforming for the right students?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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My hon. Friend speaks a lot of wisdom. I congratulate Vandyke Upper School on its work. I have been to apprenticeship fairs and careers days at the Oasis Academy in Brislington. Huge amounts of work are going on with the careers enterprise company and the apprenticeship ambassador network, to ensure that there is a network member engaged at every secondary school and college. I have mentioned some of the other things we are doing to promote careers and apprenticeships in all our schools.

Jane Hunt Portrait Jane Hunt (Loughborough) (Con)
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16. What steps she is taking to promote post-college opportunities to pupils with SEND.

Robert Halfon Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Robert Halfon)
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We know that with the right preparation and support the overwhelming majority of young people with SEND are capable of sustained and paid employment. The National Careers Service offers young people with SEND aged 19 to 24 tailored support from careers advisers. We are investing £80 million until 2025 to build capacity and support an internship programme. We have also launched a mentoring pilot for disabled apprentices.

Jane Hunt Portrait Jane Hunt
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Homefield College, based in Mountsorrel and Sileby in my constituency, is a community-based independent specialist college that offers education, training and independent living skills for people with learning disabilities and communication difficulties. What steps are being taken by the Department to promote and support such excellent FE colleges, and to help create opportunities for work experience, life skills and development for students, so that they may go on to live happy and fulfilling lives as an integral part of their local community?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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I was pleased to visit Loughborough not so long ago with my hon. Friend. She is passionate about FE and skills. I know Homefield College well; it is a brilliant college and I am glad it was recently allocated £95,000 for capital spend. We have the £80 million supported internship scheme for those with special educational needs; an FE bursary scheme for special needs teachers; specialist National Careers Service advice for young people; and the SEND code of practice to prepare young people for adulthood. We are doing everything possible to support FE for those with special educational needs, to ensure that they get on the ladder of opportunity.

Steve Tuckwell Portrait Steve Tuckwell (Uxbridge and South Ruislip) (Con)
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17. What steps her Department is taking to help improve teaching and learning in schools.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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Great teaching is truly transformational in children’s lives. Thanks to our brilliant teachers, and the focus on high standards in the curriculum, attendance and behaviour, nine and 10-year-olds in England are now the fourth best in the world for reading.

Steve Tuckwell Portrait Steve Tuckwell
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We have seen how children in English schools are the best readers in the western world thanks to this Government. In Uxbridge and South Ruislip, we see how that work is being translated into outstanding or good Ofsted ratings. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the team at Ruislip High School and the children’s services team at Hillingdon Council on their recent outstanding ratings, and will he pledge to work with me to ensure that children across Uxbridge and South Ruislip have the best possible education?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Ruislip High School and Hillingdon Council’s children’s services team. Nearly 90% of schools in Uxbridge and South Ruislip are now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, up from under 70% in 2010, following the great work of teachers and our relentless focus on improving school standards.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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19. What steps she is taking to help ensure the availability of high-quality childcare for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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To ensure high-quality childcare for children with special educational needs, we are investing hundreds of millions of pounds to increase hourly funding rates and the amount of dedicated additional SEND funding, such as the disability access fund, for all eligible children, and funding the training of early years special educational needs co-ordinators.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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To the surprise of no one who looked at what the Government were proposing, my inbox, like those of many other MPs, is full of emails from parents who cannot get the 15 free hours in April without paying for a massive hike in their fees. One group in particular that is struggling is parents of children with special educational needs or a disability. That was entirely predictable, because the Government’s own impact assessment said explicitly that changing the ratios could have a “negative impact” on the provision of places for children with special educational needs.

The Minister stood at the Dispatch Box on 22 January and pledged to me that every parent who wanted the 15 free hours for their eligible two-year-old would be able to get a place. Can he restate that pledge today explicitly for parents of children who have special educational needs, and pledge that they will not have to pay a higher fee—yes or no?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I appreciate that it must be very frustrating for the hon. Lady, who genuinely cares about childcare, to be in a party that cannot be bothered to come up with a plan for it and has had to ask someone else to write it one because it cannot think of one. On her specific issue, as I said, we are working with every local authority to ensure that they have the places that they need for all children.

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
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20. Whether her Department is taking steps to ensure that initial teacher training courses include early identification of autism.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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The Department for Education recently reviewed the mandatory initial teacher training core content framework, alongside the early career framework. Particular attention was given to the needs of trainees and early-career teachers when supporting pupils with special educational needs.

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker
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That was a very useful response, for which I am very grateful. I recently brought my ten-minute rule Bill to the House, which was specifically about mandating autism training in the initial teacher training framework, because we all know that early identification is vital. If education staff all had autism training right from the start, we could put in place a system so that autistic children receive support very early on in their school career. Will the Minister assure me of the steps that he has taken to include autism training specifically in initial teacher training, and meet me again to discuss supporting my ten-minute rule Bill?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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My hon. Friend is running a strong campaign. From September 2025, initial teacher training and the early career framework will contain significantly more content on supporting pupils with special educational needs, including autistic pupils. We have committed £12 million to the universal SEND services programme, which has so far given training to more than 135,000 professionals regarding autism awareness, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend again.

Darren Henry Portrait Darren Henry (Broxtowe) (Con)
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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

Gillian Keegan Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
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We are delivering the largest ever expansion of childcare in England’s history, which begins rolling out in just three weeks’ time, from 1 April. We did it before when we more than doubled the entitlements there had been under the previous Labour Government, and I am delighted to update the House that our latest projections show that more than 150,000 new funded places will be secured by early April. We expect that number to grow in the months ahead, saving parents more than £550 million in childcare costs.

April is just the first phase. From September, parents with children from the age of nine months until they start school will be able to benefit from that support. Only the Conservatives have a plan that hard-working parents can rely on as they grow their families. Labour has no plan, so why does it not support ours to give families the certainty they deserve?

Darren Henry Portrait Darren Henry
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I recently visited Fairfield Spencer Academy in my Broxtowe constituency, where I met Craig Jones, who is doing good work with the Junior Adventures Group, a leading provider of school-age childcare. During my visit, I observed staff providing crucial support to children beyond regular school hours. However, it is evident that that level of support is not consistent around the country, and that funding for the school-age childcare sector needs reform. I welcome the £289 million for the wraparound care sector, but will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commit to introducing a universal funding model linked to parent earnings, similar to that for the early years, to ensure providers remain affordable and sustainable?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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We are making wraparound childcare available for all parents who need it, and we are supporting hard-working parents to balance having a family and a successful career. Our £289 million investment will help schools develop exciting programmes before and after school, which will provide more flexibility for working parents. I am sure the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to keep him updated on progress.

Bridget Phillipson Portrait Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab)
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Neither the Secretary of State nor any Treasury Minister met representatives of the early years sector in the months before last year’s Budget announcement on childcare. Now, with just three weeks to go, parents, providers and even the Government’s own civil servants are sounding the alarm. More than seven in 10 providers say they will not offer additional places and a quarter say they are likely to close within a year. Will the Secretary of State now guarantee that all parents will be able to access the childcare places that she promised?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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Absolutely; I set that out in my topical statement. We are working with every local authority to ensure the places are available. I am glad the hon. Lady mentioned childcare, because it is yet another policy area that the Labour party has no plan for. We are delivering the largest expansion of childcare in history so that working parents of children from the age of nine months to the start of school will get 30 hours of childcare a week. The real question is: what is Labour’s plan? Nobody knows, because it does not have one. It is clear that the Conservatives are the only party with a plan for working parents.

Bridget Phillipson Portrait Bridget Phillipson
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There is one way we can find out what the public think: call a general election.

Last week, we heard another promise from the Chancellor for a new funding mechanism for early years providers. There was talk of hundreds of millions of pounds more for the sector, but strangely no news about where the promised £500 million will actually come from—there was nothing at all in the Budget documents. Will the Secretary of State tell us today where the money is coming from, or is this yet another reckless, unfunded pledge without a plan from the Conservatives?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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There would be no childcare on the table if the Labour party were in charge, so I urge all working parents to support the Conservative party, which has a plan for them. Like everything we do, the £500 million will be fully funded. It secures the rates in the future so that businesses up and down the country have the confidence to invest. The Labour party has absolutely no plan for childcare and for supporting working parents in this country.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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T4. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rightly championed childcare and early education. I congratulate her on the £500 million in this year’s Budget, on top of the billions committed last year to the sector—

Bridget Phillipson Portrait Bridget Phillipson
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indicated dissent.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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It is in the Red Book. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to show her where it is.

I urge the Secretary of State to keep pressing on some of the Education Committee’s other recommendations, including on extending family hubs, removing rates and VAT from childcare providers, and reforming tax-free childcare to drive take-up.

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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This Conservative Government are backing this country’s brilliant childcare providers as we roll out our historic childcare offer. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, that is on top of the roll-out of universal services in family hubs. To give certainty to the early years sector, we have confirmed that average funding rates will increase over the next two financial years—as he stated, the details are in the Red Book—giving them the confidence to invest and expand. Only the Conservatives have a plan for hard-working parents.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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Academic independence is central to a functioning democracy, so in light of the false accusations levelled at an academic on the board of UK Research and Innovation by the Secretary of State’s colleague, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, and her subsequent apology, what action is the Secretary of State taking to assure academics that they remain free to make legitimate comments on issues of concern?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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Of course, academic independence and the ability to speak freely are very important—they are things that we hold dear, and that we must protect at all costs within our universities and academic institutions. That is why we passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, and it is why there is a free speech director in the Office for Students, who has taken up that post and will work to ensure we do whatever we can to protect those things in our country.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson (Dartford)  (Con)
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T5. I have four grammar schools in my constituency, which provide an important and very popular element of a diverse education system. Therefore, will the Minister please commit today to continue her support of grammar schools, both now and in the future?

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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I support all great schools in our diverse school system, including strong grammar schools. I continue to encourage grammar schools to increase access for disadvantaged pupils, which can help so much with social mobility.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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T3. Acre Rigg Infant School in Peterlee was given a 25-year life expectancy when it was built in 1950. It has asbestos in every wall and a metal structure made from recycled world war two aircraft. Seaham Trinity Primary School has lifting floors, rising damp, black mould caused by a faulty roof, leaking pipes and poor screeding. It is a £5.3 million school that was built in 2008 by Surgo. Can the Schools Minister explain to parents how their children are supposed to flourish and prosper in such an inadequate educational environment?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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In the 2021 spending review, we committed £19 billion for school capital over the three years. I do not know offhand the specifics of the schools that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I would of course be very happy to meet him to hear further details.

Mark Eastwood Portrait Mark Eastwood (Dewsbury) (Con)
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T6. I recently held my third annual skills and apprenticeships fair at the iconic Pioneer House Kirklees College building in Dewsbury. Will my right hon. Friend visit the college and meet some of the apprentices, employers and college staff who helped make that event a great success?

Robert Halfon Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Robert Halfon)
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I would be absolutely delighted to visit Kirklees College, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his apprenticeship fair. I note that the college has a great record on apprenticeship achievements, and that 970 apprentices have started their future. Overall at Kirklees since 2010, there have been something like 12,300 apprenticeship starts in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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T8. An estimated 6,000 children in England are attending illegal or unregistered schools that provide limited or no appropriate education, often in an unsafe environment. Does the Minister agree that while efforts to introduce a home education register to keep track of children who are outside a school setting are welcome, more legislation is needed to close the loopholes exploited by proprietors of illegal schools and ensure that children are kept safe and educated appropriately?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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The hon. Gentleman will, of course, know of our plans and our support for the private Member’s Bill on that subject. He and I used to serve together on the Education Committee back in the day; these are issues that have been long standing, including under previous Governments. From the schools White Paper, he will also know of the other things we have committed to do when legislative time allows.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby  (North Devon)  (Con)
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T9. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Berrynarbor primary school, where I discussed the challenges that rurality imposes on that school and how hard its staff have worked to overcome those challenges. What steps is the Department taking to support rural primary schools, which often have a vast catchment area and difficult buildings?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I recognise what my hon. Friend says about rurality. Of course, the lump sum element in the funding formula is important for small schools. We have more than doubled the national funding formula sparsity funding in three years, with £6.5 million for Devon in 2024-25. We are also investing to improve the condition of school buildings, and Devon County Council received an annual capital allocation of £3.5 million this year.

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
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Ministers will be aware that four schools in North Tyneside closed just over a month ago because of a structural problem not related to RAAC. The 1,700 pupils have been relocated, thanks to the council and to the schools working together. Can the Minister assure me that funding will be made available either to rebuild or to restructure the schools as soon as it is needed?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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Yes, and I am aware that the hon. Lady has met my noble Friend Baroness Barran. Inspections by structural engineers are ongoing, as I think the hon. Lady will know, but the early indications are that this was a historical and isolated issue about the way the school was built. We continue to work with the local authority and with the school, and I would of course be happy—if appropriate, and if it would help—to meet her in due course.

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
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About 10 years ago, following the Government’s reforms, the number of adoptions in England doubled, but 10 years on, they have halved. Why?

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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My hon. Friend raises a very important point. We are taking a number of actions to increase the number of people who adopt and foster, and to support kinship care as well, but I would be happy to discuss this matter with him further.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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Many of the children with special educational needs, mental health challenges and childhood trauma who are not in school in York are not able to access their education because of insufficient estate and placements, and because of the environment and specialist personnel. What are the Government doing to ensure that every area has a workforce plan and an estates plan, and the funding to match?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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Through our special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision improvement plan we are taking a whole range of actions. That has included increasing the number of special school places by more than 60,000 since this Government came to power, as well as training a lot more special educational needs co-ordinators.

James Davies Portrait Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con)
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Headteachers in Denbighshire, Flintshire and Conwy have recently written to all parents about the dire financial situation facing their schools. My understanding is that schools in England are receiving the highest funding ever per pupil in real terms. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that and outline what discussions he has had with the Welsh Government to ensure schools in Wales also see the benefit of that funding?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I regret that, as education is a devolved matter, the Labour party is in charge of education in Wales. It really saddens me to hear of children in my hon. Friend’s constituency suffering from its mismanagement of that system, despite the great work of brilliant and inspiring teachers in Wales. He is absolutely right that in England, under this Government, funding is at a record level. Meanwhile, in Wales, I am sad to say that education standards are not only the lowest in the UK, but lower than the OECD average. I am afraid it is clear that every time Labour gets into power, children’s education suffers.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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The Secretary of State loves plans. What is her plan to reinvigorate and change the course of Ofsted?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I was delighted to attend the Association of School and College Leaders conference alongside Sir Martyn Oliver, who announced the Big Listen, which is part of making sure that we get the cultural reforms required. I am concerned by reports that some teachers and headteachers feel that they are not listened to or are treated in a dismissive or rude manner. I hope everybody will engage fully with the Big Listen, because I think we need to make sure that Ofsted is respectful, and treats our service, and our teachers and headteachers, with respect.

Michael Ellis Portrait Sir Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con)
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At Cambridge University, a barbaric vandal wearing a £1,000 Mulberry backpack was so full of hate for Jews that she felt Lord Balfour’s letter of 1917 gave her the moral superiority to destroy a valuable and historic painting of him. This shines a light on the pernicious atmosphere faced by Jewish students at universities across the country, with calls for “Zionists off our campus” now shamefully normalised, and “Zionists” really meaning Jews. What steps does my right hon. Friend propose to take to convey to university heads that they have a legal and a moral obligation to stamp out antisemitism?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his question. Arthur Balfour was a great man and identified the need for a homeland for British Jews. That is why antisemites do not like him and are slashing his picture. I and the Secretary of State are spending a lot of time with Jewish student groups. I have been to Leeds University to spend time with Jewish students, because the chaplain there was attacked, and we are working with Universities UK. We have announced a £7 million package to give to Jewish student groups, including the University Jewish Chaplaincy, to try to stop antisemitism on campus. We are also developing a quality seal that we will ask universities to adopt, so that they deal properly with antisemitic incidents. Last week, I and the Secretary of State had a meeting with the Office for Students, to make clear to the regulator that antisemitism across our universities is not acceptable.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. I appreciate that two hon. Members are rising to ask questions, but perhaps they have forgotten that they have already had that opportunity; each asked a question earlier this afternoon. I know the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) got away with two questions, but I often make an exception for him due to his longevity in this place.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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It is being suggested to me that I should use the word “seniority”, and that does have a better ring to it—I mean the hon. Member for Huddersfield’s seniority in this place.

UK Armed Forces

Monday 11th March 2024

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

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15:36
John Healey Portrait John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement on the state of the UK armed forces.

James Cartlidge Portrait The Minister for Defence Procurement (James Cartlidge)
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It is an honour to set out how our outstanding armed forces are doing incredible work around the world, protecting the UK and our allies. That includes operating on every single NATO mission, supporting Ukraine against Putin’s aggression, and tackling Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red sea. We are spending a record amount on defence. That includes an extra £24 billion in cash terms between 2020 and 2025, which is the largest sustained increase since the end of the cold war. The Government fully recognise the growing security threat, which is why we have set out our longer term aspiration to invest 2.5% of GDP on defence when fiscal and economic circumstances allow. We are already spending more than 2% of GDP on defence, exceeding our NATO target. We are delivering the capabilities that our forces need, significantly increasing spending on defence equipment to £288.6 billion over the next decade, and introducing a new procurement model to improve acquisition.

For the Royal Navy, that includes Dreadnought, Astute and AUKUS submarines, as well as fleet solid support ships Type 26 and Type 21 frigates. For the Army, Future Soldier will deliver the largest transformation in more than 20 years, re-equipping and re-organising to be more deployable and lethal. The RAF will become an increasingly digitally empowered force, with the Global Combat Air Programme providing a sixth-generation fighter jet capability, building on that provided by our Typhoons and F-35 fifth-generation aircraft today. Our Defence Command Paper 2023 set out our plan to deliver a credible war fighting force, generated and employed to protect the nation and help it prosper now and in the years to come. We will embody a fully integrated approach to deterrence and defence, including across all domains and across Government, by exploiting all levers of state power, and with allies and partners.

John Healey Portrait John Healey
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I pay tribute to HMS Richmond’s actions over the weekend, defending shipping in the Red sea against a large-scale Houthi attack. Those are the demands that our armed forces face as threats increase.

The Defence Secretary owes the public and Parliament an explanation. He said that we are moving into “a pre-war world”, and ahead of last week’s Budget he wrote to the Chancellor and stated that

“we must take bold action in your Budget to commit to defence spending increasing to 2.5% in 2024. It would re-establish our leadership in Europe.”

But there is a growing gap between the Defence Secretary’s rhetoric and the reality for our armed forces, who are charged with preparing for this new dangerous era. In the Budget there was no new money for defence, nothing new for Ukraine, and nothing for Gaza or the UK’s operations in the middle east. Worse, both the Treasury and the House of Commons Library confirm that the defence budget will be cut by £2.5 billion in cash terms in this next financial year. The 2.5% of GDP, which the Minister referred to, was not mentioned once in the Treasury Red Book; the last time this country spent 2.5% of GDP on defence was in 2010 under a Labour Government.

While Putin wages war in Europe, Ministers are warring with each other. Challenging defence policy in public, the Minister for Security was on TV this morning calling for 2.5% now. That is a serious breakdown in collective ministerial responsibility, but I am most concerned about the serious state of the UK armed forces. What signal does it send to our adversaries when our forces have been hollowed out and underfunded for the last 14 years; when the Public Accounts Committee finds the largest ever funding deficit in the MOD’s equipment plans; when the British Army has been cut to its smallest size since Napoleon; when forces recruitment targets have been missed each and every year for 14 years; and when satisfaction with service life has hit a record low?

I have one simple question for the Minister: where is the plan for better defending Britain? It is clear that our armed forces cannot afford another five years of a Conservative Government.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about HMS Richmond. I am sure that we all agree and pay tribute to our Royal Navy personnel, who are there ultimately to defend not only themselves but freedom of navigation for the rest of the world. We should recognise the importance of the role that they are undertaking on behalf of our Government.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the funding for next year. To be clear, that will represent a 1.8% increase in real terms and not the cut that he suggested. If we spend the money that we expect, it will amount to £55.6 billion—about 2.3% of GDP, which is traditionally how we measure our spending. That is significantly above the just under 2.1% in 2019, so it is a significant increase as a percentage of GDP.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about recruitment, which is an important issue. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Families is doing a lot of work on that and, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, in January we saw the highest number of applications to the Army in six years. A more positive picture is developing, recognising the importance of the mission. We should not talk down our armed forces when we expect people to apply and to want to be recruited into them.

I note the range of comments about the 2.5% and want to make several points. The first is that the right hon. Gentleman said that we had not spent that percentage since Labour were in power. Well, something extraordinary happened at the end of their time in power: they crashed the economy, we had a full-on banking crisis and a letter was left for our Government saying “there is no money.” It is no surprise that we had to take difficult decisions, but despite that we have shown our commitment to the armed forces.

When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister approved the largest ever increase in defence spending since the cold war, and there has been further money since then in the Budget. Of course, we are committed to 2.5% when the circumstances allow. For all the right hon. Gentleman’s bluster, he has not even committed to matching our current spending on defence, let alone 2.5%; we challenged him on that at Defence orals and he was not able to give any commitment whatever to spending.

The public know where we stand: 2.3% in the year ahead and 2.5% when the economics allow. We do not have a clue where Labour stands.

Jeremy Quin Portrait Sir Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con)
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I agree with the Minister that we have extraordinarily capable armed forces whose productivity is second to none. However, as is set out in “Ready for War?”, our Defence Committee report, they are extremely engaged globally and have a great deal to do, much of which is invaluable. At the same time, they are having to prepare for the “pre-war” phase to which the Defence Secretary referred. In that context, does my hon. Friend agree that the timing of the 2.5% target—that is very welcome and a very good first step—needs to be determined by the level of threat as a priority expenditure, rather than as economic conditions allow?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I do not think that we can commit to levels of public expenditure or tax cuts, for example, without being confident that the economy can support them in a prudent fashion—an entirely reasonable and rational approach. However, I totally agree with my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Defence Committee. We all recognise that we are living in a more dangerous world—the Secretary of State has alluded to the threats we face not just in Ukraine but in respect of other adversaries around the world—and I totally understand why there is the wider debate on what we spend, but we already have a significant budget, and we must ensure that it is spent well and delivers value for money. That is why a key priority for me is reform of our procurement system so that we can ensure that our armed forces can prioritise effectively. Ultimately, it is the capability that we have now that will determine our ability to warfight.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
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I congratulate the shadow Defence Secretary on securing the urgent question and join him and the Minister in remembering those on HMS Richmond.

On Friday, the Public Accounts Committee’s found that the

“MoD is increasingly reliant on the UK’s allies to protect our national interests. NATO membership deters hostility, but the report warns such deterrence can only be effective if our Armed Forces are credible.”

To paraphrase the report, given that many of our allies face similar capability challenges, is the Ministry of Defence developing mitigations for dealing with the risk of allied support being curtailed or withdrawn if, critically, there is a change of Administration in Washington come November?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he makes an important point about the importance of alliances. NATO is fundamental to the defence of our country, the wider western world and our allies beyond. Critically, to put this in context when we talk about the state of the armed forces, which is what the urgent question is about, and the alliances that he referred to, let us remember that we have just launched Steadfast Defender, which is one of the largest ever NATO exercises, involving 96,000 personnel, of which almost 20,000 are from the UK. I believe that we make up 40% of the land forces. That is an extraordinary contribution by the UK. We also offer our nuclear deterrent to NATO. We are supporting our allies, we stand together under article 5, and we should all do everything possible to support NATO in its 75th year.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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May I commend to anyone interested in the historical context a report produced by the Defence Committee in July in 2019 called, “Shifting the Goalposts? Defence Expenditure and the 2% Pledge: An Update”, HC 2527? It shows that for the last 20 years of the cold war this country spent between 5.6% and 4.1% of GDP, calculated in the same way we do today, on defence. Does that not show both sides of the House that we have an awful long way to go now that there is a hot war in Europe before we match what we used to do when there was a cold war in Europe?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My right hon. Friend put that eloquently, and he speaks with great passion and expertise on the cold war and our recent history. As he knows, in the cold war era we had the working assumption that an invasion—or certainly a confrontation—could be launched on the border in Germany very quickly. We had a huge number of forces deployed, and given that threat we spent, understandably, a higher percentage of GDP on defence. Since then, we thought we had a more peaceful era. Those illusions have been shattered by Putin, and we have all had to wake up to that. That is why we have done so much to support Ukraine and, yes, why we will do everything possible to support our armed forces.

Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab)
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The Secretary of State said he wanted to ensure that

“our entire defence ecosystem is ready”

to defend, but here is the reality of our armed forces under this Government: capability delays and shortfalls, stockpile shortages, losing personnel, woeful recruitment levels, a £29 billion black hole in finances, and, as of last week, no real boost to the MOD’s budget. The Secretary of State is failing, isn’t he?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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When the hon. Lady talks about procurement and delays, I would have thought she could at least recognise the support we have given to Ukraine, where we have procured an extraordinary amount of ordnance into the country to help Ukrainians to defend themselves. Much of that has been at great pace, not least from gifting, for example, our AS-90s, a whole range of munitions, and 300,000 artillery shells. Had it not been this country’s role, I think we can safely say that Russia would have been successful.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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Whether it be covid, the war in Ukraine or the middle east, it is clear that our world is becoming more dangerous, not less. Many of us in the House have been calling for increased defence spending and for a recognition of the symbiotic relationship between our economy and security. That has been illustrated by what has been going on in the Red sea. That is why we need to spend more, but how might we spend it? Will the Minister consider a defence review, because Ukraine continues to illustrate how the character of conflict is changing? On that note, will he agree that the biggest international security threat is Russia as it moves to a war footing? We have done well to slide across £12 billion of support, but unless more is done, the tide will turn in Ukraine and that will change the economy and security of the whole continent.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My right hon. Friend, as ever, makes some excellent points. He is right to mention how we spend the money. It is one thing to talk about GDP figures and spend, but what are our priorities? As Procurement Minister, and as I set out in my recent statement on the integrated procurement model, I want much greater use of data, particularly from the frontline in Ukraine, to inform our own defence industry so that we can bring forward at a much greater pace those technological innovations, whether in uncrewed systems or complex weapons, that will truly help strengthen our defence. As for a review, he will appreciate that is a matter for the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, but he makes an excellent point.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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We have the smallest Army since the Napoleonic era, so can I press the Minister on this? Was a cut of £2.5 billion in cash terms announced in the Budget last week?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I hear this point about Napoleon many times. If it is the Labour party’s position to significantly increase the size of the standing Army, that is a massive financial commitment. The hon. Gentleman needs to have a word with the shadow Defence Secretary and the shadow Chancellor, because as yet they have not once committed to current spending levels, let alone 2.5% when the economic conditions allow.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
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I strongly support my hon. Friend’s powerful commitment to defence in general, but I am rather disappointed by his tepid promise about moving to 2.5% of GDP. I also find myself in the career-wrecking position of strongly agreeing with the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, who put the arguments extremely well. The fact of the matter is that last week’s Budget reduced both kinds of defence expenditure by £2.5 billion, and we are not facing any kind of move towards 3%, which no less a figure than the former Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), publicly called for last week. Two serving Ministers have said how disappointed they are by the Budget. By what possible arithmetic does the Minister conclude we are in fact increasing defence spending, when every expert in the world says that we patently are not?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who always speaks with such expertise on defence matters. First, on 2.5% being tepid, we have to be able to sustain that. If it was a one-off, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force would not be able to plan accordingly. It has to be an investment that we can sustain and, thereby, the economy of the country has to be able to sustain it. Forgive me for sounding like I am still in my previous job at the Treasury, but the country has to be able to afford it, and we need to be prudent in the commitments we make on public expenditure, not least so that they are sustainable in the long term and not a one-off, which would be the worst thing we could do.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab)
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The Minister keeps saying we should not talk down our armed forces, but we are not; the armed forces are doing a splendid, brilliant job. What we are doing is running down what the Government are doing, which is not enough—let us put it that way. We have the greatest threat since the cold war. We have war in Ukraine, the middle east in disarray and China increasing its spending. The real blame for the situation with defence lies with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Does the Minister think, in these circumstances, that most reasonable people would have thought it okay not to put extra resources in the Budget for defence?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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When the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he oversaw the biggest increase in spending since the cold war. The current Chancellor significantly increased defence spending in the previous Budget for the years ahead. We are not cutting defence spending. As I said, if the hon. Gentleman takes the figures in totality, it will rise by 1.8% in real terms. If we spend what we expect to next year, we will spend 2.3% of GDP on defence—around £55.6 billion.

Bernard Jenkin Portrait Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)
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May I make a suggestion to my hon. Friend? It is perfectly clear that the MOD wants to increase defence spending, as does the Opposition spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), if we are to take his criticisms at all seriously. Is the right question to ask whether we are spending enough to prevent a war, not to fight a war? How much more do we need to spend to be an effective deterrent, which we do not appear to be at the moment?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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As I said, it is important that we engage in the key capability questions. It is one thing to talk about spending more, but what capabilities would we purchase, and where are our shortcomings? It must be a new development at the heart of defence to have a constant feedback loop of data on integrated warfighting and what is happening in Ukraine, with the armed services and with industry, so that we know what capabilities will make the difference. To give one example, we have seen the extraordinary impact of uncrewed weapons in Ukraine. We have made assumptions about technologies in our equipment plan, which are probably far more expensive than those options. We need to look at this from a warfighting point of view. To support deterrence, the important thing is to back our armed forces. That is why we have our spending commitment, but it has to be balanced against the ability of the economy to support it and sustain it in the long term.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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The Times recently illustrated that the British Army will shrink in size to 67,000 within the next two years due to the current recruitment and retention crisis. Our senior and close allies, including the US, have expressed their grave concerns, and even senior Conservatives have conceded that our armed forces have been hollowed out since 2010. As threats to the UK increase, why have the Government shrunk our Army to its smallest size since Napoleon?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The hon. Gentleman talks about a crisis in recruitment but, as I said, January saw the highest number of applications to join the Army for six years. That is an important and positive development. On the size of the armed forces, we should talk about not just the number of soldiers, but the amount of accommodation to support them, and the platforms, the weapons and the capabilities. That is an extremely expensive undertaking. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is the right thing to do, he needs to lobby his colleagues on his own Front Bench, because they have not committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence, let alone 2.5%.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
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As a former Armed Forces Minister, I pay high tribute to His Majesty’s armed forces but not to His Majesty’s Treasury. The Red Book—the Budget Bible—shows clearly in tables 2.1 and 2.2 that next year’s core defence budget has been cut by £2.5 billion. That is true. It ill behoves any Government—let alone one that purports to call themselves Conservative—to use one-off payments to Ukraine or overspends in the nuclear budget from the consolidated fund and pretend that they are part of the defence budget, when everyone in this House knows that they are not. As the son of a D-day veteran, I say to the Government—if not to the Minister, for whom I have great regard—more in anger than in sorrow that what they have done is deeply dishonourable, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My right hon. Friend was a Defence Minister, and I respect his great passion about all things related to the armed forces, particularly because of his father. When we spend on the nuclear deterrent or on supporting Ukraine—purchasing weapons and providing ordnance, ultimately to help defend ourselves—that is legitimately described as defence expenditure. After all, how else are we to pay for that, and from which budget? Compared with last year, there is a real-terms increase of 1.8%, which if we spend what we expect will amount to £55.6 billion and 2.3% of GDP.

Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian) (Alba)
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Many citizens will be rightly concerned about the use of the phrase “pre-war world”. What requires clarification is not simply the scale of the British military in years to come, but where the armed forces are currently deployed, and what they are doing. Are British servicemen firing weaponry in Ukraine, as suggested by German ministerial sources? Are British forces assisting Israel in its genocide through the provision of military intelligence? Knowing the answer to those questions is fundamental to our security, and indeed to our knowing whether the UK is upholding international law, never mind it being a basic democratic right, and something that our citizens are entitled to know.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The hon. Gentleman knows that we do not comment on speculation, particularly on sensitive operational matters relating to the armed forces, and that is the right approach. Yes, we have a duty of candour, but we also have to protect those serving on the frontline.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
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The fighting in Ukraine proves that size matters. The Minister should reconstitute the Territorial Army, which demonstrated that, with economy, quantity had a quality all of its own.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My right hon. Friend has a quality all of his own, as shown in how he puts his questions. He makes a very good point. We tend to talk about the Regular Army, but we must remember our reserves. They are incredibly important and we pay tribute to them. Ukraine has shown that this country is able to make an extraordinary contribution. This is speculating, but it is likely that if it had not been for the contribution we made, Ukraine would not have been successful in repelling the Russians as far as it has done.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
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So there we have it: President Putin will be ordering his officers to stop sabre-rattling with the west because the British are changing their procurement rules! The reality is that the Minister cannot fight the war he wants to fight with the capability he has. He will be presented with the conflict that develops, and we need the capability and resilience to meet threats that emerge. What assessment has he made of the threats to the United Kingdom, and how will he meet those threats with the armed forces he has?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The hon. Gentleman’s rather trite comment on procurement is a total failure to understand how the military works. He wants to talk about the deterrent; everything from our nuclear submarines right down to small arms is part of the procurement system. They all have to be procured. My priority is ensuring that we have a procurement system that is agile, gets equipment to the frontline as fast as possible, and can engage with the latest technological developments; think of lasers and uncrewed systems. Technology is moving at an extraordinary pace. We have used technology to support Ukraine so far. We have provided 4,000 drones and will increase our support to around 10,000. We are doing everything possible to support Ukraine. All that is done through the procurement system—if I may say so, highly effectively.

John Baron Portrait Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)
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I join my hon. Friend in commending the professionalism of our armed forces, and in pointing out that Labour has not committed to an increase in defence spending, but may I remind him that the first duty of any Government is to ensure that defence spending primarily reflects the threat, rather than the ability to pay? We have a war in Europe. We have an increasingly belligerent Russia. I chair the defence committee of the 1922 committee. Conservative Back Benchers are very much behind the idea that we need to increase defence spending. What does the Minister think it will take to increase defence spending?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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First of all, we have increased defence spending. Crucially, the last spending review saw the largest allocation of spending to defence since the cold war. Yes, we have set an aspiration of 2.5%, and the answer to when that will happen is: when economic conditions allow. It would be imprudent to commit to such a level of spending if we did not think it could be sustained. The worst thing would be to have that spending for maybe one or two years, and then have to go backwards because we did not think it was sustainable. This is about balancing affordability against commitment, but we need to be absolutely clear that at over £50 billion, this is the most we have ever spent on defence. There is an extraordinary effort in support of Ukraine, and we have highly capable armed forces who are making an extraordinary contribution to NATO, including through the latest NATO exercise, and will continue to do so.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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I do not want to make too much play of your earlier remarks, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I was born on the night the House was bombed and this Chamber was burned out. As I have listened to the Minister, I have been saying to myself—I hope that he will recall this—that he represents the party of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, but now that the world is more dangerous than I can recall it being in all my years, we are not able to defend the country adequately. I say to Members on both sides of the House that this is a wake-up call; we must act now.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I pay respect to the hon. Gentleman’s longevity and seniority, and to the fact that on the day he was born, the House was bombed, during whichever war it was—I think it was the second world war. He said that we are unable to defend ourselves, and I totally and utterly reject that claim. If Putin had succeeded in his invasion of Ukraine, yes, we would have been looking at a situation similar to that in the late 1930s, but that invasion has not succeeded. The reason for that is the involvement of this Government, who took extraordinary steps to train Ukrainians; provided vital munitions, such as next-generation light anti-tank weapons, before the war started; ensured that we were the first country to provide tanks; and encouraged other nations to provide enormous amounts of arms. Without that, the world would be an even less safe place, but I accept that it is becoming more dangerous, which is why we are supporting our armed forces, and why we are playing such a massive role in NATO’s Steadfast Defender exercise.

Mark Pritchard Portrait Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con)
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The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) referred to Members on both sides of the House. Is there not a clear distinction between Members on either side of the House, namely that from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor downwards there is a commitment and an agreement to defence spending amounting to 2.5% of GDP, while in stark contrast Labour Members, while suggesting that they are a Government in waiting, are not prepared to commit themselves to 2.5%, or even to our current spending commitments? There is unity on the Conservative side, and complete disunity on the other.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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In my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I had the pleasure of visiting recently, there are many defence interests, and he has hit the nail on the head. We have heard all the theatrics, but the fact is that we have not a clue what the Opposition will spend on defence. Labour Members have not even confirmed that they will spend the existing 2.3%, let alone 2.5%.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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The conflict in Ukraine is a stark reminder of why we must take our defence incredibly seriously. The Minister has just said that the world is becoming a more dangerous place. Does he therefore agree that his Government’s decision to cut our UK troops to 10,000 was irresponsible, and will he commit himself to reversing those cuts and ensuring that the British Army is the requisite size to defend the United Kingdom and its allies?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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As I have said, we have just committed 40% of the land force personnel to the Steadfast Defender exercise. NATO is the key to the defence of this nation, and indeed the whole continent, in conventional terms. We should recognise the enormous contribution of our armed forces, and the fact that we have increased spending significantly. However, I hear what colleagues are saying, as does the Secretary of State. We have set out the case for 2.5%, but we want that 2.5% to be sustainable, so that the economy can afford it over the long term, and that will be possible through growth and sensible measures on fiscal policy.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)
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The Minister conceded earlier that funding for Ukraine and the escalating nuclear cost were at the expense of restoring the viability of our frontline readiness, but deterrence is a lot cheaper than war. Surely our support for Ukraine and the deterrent should be a charge on the general fund, rather than further hollowing out our conventional armed forces.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I do not believe I made that point about nuclear. The right hon. Gentleman has said that these factors are at the expense of the frontline, but nuclear is the frontline. We have had the continuous at-sea deterrent patrolling in defence of this country every year since 1969, as I recall. We have had it for a long time, and it is fundamental to our defence. The idea that that is not frontline spending is extraordinary.

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
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Looking at the figures for resource and capital departmental expenditure limits, it looks like there is a 7%—£2.5 billion —cut for this coming year. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that defence spending will be flat as a share of GDP. With Russia’s expenditure on its military at 40% of its total economy, why did the Secretary of State accept the reduction from the Chancellor and the Prime Minister?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I have explained why we do not believe that there has been a reduction; we believe that there will be a 1.8% increase in real terms. The hon. Gentleman says that spending as a percentage of GDP is flat. I point out that in 2019, it was 2.08%—just under 2.1%. We believe that if we spend everything we expect to in the next financial year, that will be 2.3%, which is a significant increase.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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I am sure that the Procurement Minister is aware of Survitec in my constituency, which has provided equipment to the armed forces for decades. He will acknowledge that the last few years have taught us the importance of having secure UK supply chains, and of getting good jobs to the whole country through the power of procurement. I invite him to come and speak to Survitec, so that he can hear directly from the company about its frustrations with the procurement process.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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Before I was injured playing football for Parliament versus the Army, I always used to enjoy playing five-a-side with the hon. Gentleman. I would be delighted to accept his invitation to visit, because small and medium-sized enterprises and businesses are absolutely critical. As the Minister for Defence Procurement, and having run an SME, I believe that we have to have an environment that encourages investment in defence and supports our domestic supply chain. A key part of that is exportability. I look forward to discussing these matters with the company that he mentions.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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The shocking state of Army accommodation is a big driver of the recruitment and retention challenges that we face, so it will not come as a surprise to hear that I am yet again raising the issue of the shocking standard of accommodation at the Chicksands base. When I catch up with serving personnel over a pint or two at our local pub in Shefford, there is a growing sense of resignation about the future of the base, but there is real concern that its planned closure will mean that the situation goes unadjusted, and that really poor accommodation units are not improved. To do right by those personnel, will the Minister commit to revisiting the Government’s decision not to upgrade either of the two service bases in my constituency, where hundreds of beds fall into grades 3 or 4?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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We engaged with this issue in the hon. Gentleman’s Westminster Hall debate on accommodation, in which I announced our plans for Chicksands. I entirely accept that this is a matter on which there should be engagement with the local community, and that there will be a range of views. I emphasise that we have put an extra £400 million into accommodation, which has allowed us to deliver our winter plan highly effectively. There has been a massive increase in the number of properties in the defence estate benefiting from damp and mould packages, but also from new doors and so on, to deal with long-standing issues in the estate, and I am keen to do more.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Finally, I call Jim Shannon.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for his answers to the questions posed to him. There can be no doubt that the Government must do more to increase defence spending, given that a large portion of our defence budget has rightly been spent on assisting Ukraine. However, we must ensure that other issues are not left behind. Unfortunately, there was no mention in last week’s Budget of an additional funding increase for our armed forces. Will the Minister increase our defence budget, so that we can ensure that our actions speak louder than words, and so that promises are kept, and our armed forces can keep us safe?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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As ever, we have saved the best till last. I think the hon. Gentleman has attended every urgent question or statement I have ever been involved in, and I pay tribute to him for that, and for the way that he represents his constituents in Northern Ireland, particularly those who serve in the armed forces. They have always been a huge part of our British military story. I have always paid tribute to them and the industry—for example, Thales—for their contribution. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting representatives of a brilliant SME from Northern Ireland that is supporting the Royal Air Force. I have been clear that we had the largest increase in defence spending since the cold war at the last spending review, further funding in the Budget thereafter, and a commitment to spending 2.5% of GDP when the economy can support that.

Gibraltar: UK-EU Negotiations

Monday 11th March 2024

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

16:14
William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)
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(Urgent Question): Will the Minister make a statement on UK negotiations with the EU in respect of Gibraltar?

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (David Rutley)
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The Minister for Europe, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), is currently in Gibraltar, where he is meeting the Chief Minister to continue our joint efforts to conclude a treaty with the European Union. With the Government of Gibraltar, he will also be assessing contingency plans in the case of a non-negotiated outcome. His visit is also an opportunity to reiterate once again the UK’s steadfast commitment to Gibraltar.

In December 2020, the UK, with Gibraltar and Spain, agreed a political framework on how a future agreement between the UK and the European Union in respect of Gibraltar would function in the interests of all parties. This represented the first stage of a two-part process whereby the EU would examine a request from Spain in agreement with the UK to initiate the procedure for the negotiation of a separate UK-EU agreement in respect of Gibraltar. The key objective of the political framework is to safeguard Gibraltar’s prosperity by ensuring that people and goods can move easily between Gibraltar and the surrounding communities. This is important for the whole region’s economy.

The UK-EU negotiations began in October 2021, and 17 rounds of formal negotiations have taken place in Brussels and London. These have been supported by numerous technical sessions as well as official and ministerial engagements. The Foreign Secretary has met Commission Vice-President Šefčovič and, separately, Spanish Foreign Minister Albares, and underlined the UK’s commitment to concluding a UK-EU treaty. The UK is steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty. While negotiations have been technically and politically complex, significant progress has been made, and both the UK and EU have presented texts throughout the negotiations.

Agreement can only be achieved by respecting the balance of the political framework. Throughout this process the UK Government have worked side by side with the Government of Gibraltar. Throughout our negotiations with the EU, the Government of Gibraltar have formed part of our negotiating team. Alongside our joint efforts to conclude negotiations, the Foreign Secretary and the Chief Minister agreed that it remained prudent to continue working together to ensure that robust plans were in place for all scenarios, including a non-negotiated outcome. Alongside the UK-EU negotiations, the UK, with Gibraltar, has maintained a regular dialogue with Spain. It is in everyone’s interest to conclude a UK-EU treaty to help secure future prosperity for Gibraltar and the surrounding region. This can be done without prejudice to our respective positions on sovereignty and jurisdiction.

As I mentioned, the Minister for Europe is in Gibraltar today meeting the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar. This is a continuation of the close working relationship between our two Governments, both in our efforts to conclude an agreement and to ensure that robust contingency plans are in place. We are unable to provide a running commentary on the negotiations, but I can assure the whole House that the UK’s position remains as it has been throughout: we will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty. The UK stands steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and in ensuring that its sovereignty is safeguarded.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash
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On Friday, the Minister for Europe wrote to me as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. He is in Gibraltar today and, following the granting of this urgent question, and to prove its value, I received an urgent letter two hours ago from the Chief Minister of Gibraltar proposing a meeting with my Committee next Wednesday. The Rock was not covered by the Brexit withdrawal agreement or the trade and co-operation agreement, at the insistence of the European Commission. Temporary arrangements have persisted since, based around a political framework agreed between the UK and Spanish Governments in December 2020. The Government have exclusive competence to negotiate a treaty with the EU on the question of Gibraltar as an overseas territory. My Committee travelled to the Rock in 2022 and had meetings with the Chief Minister and his colleagues in Gibraltar.

I was disturbed to hear from the Minister that what appears to have been agreed in principle between the UK and the EU with regard to Gibraltar’s future would include EU Schengen border checks being performed on Gibraltar; Gibraltar aligning with EU rules to ensure a so-called level playing field; and joint UK-Spanish management of Gibraltar’s airport and, therefore, defence issues. If so, what the Government have agreed crosses their own negotiating red lines, as first set out to my Committee in September 2021. This risks setting a dangerous precedent for the UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies, allowing a foreign power to set the rules of our engagement and diminishing the constitutionally entrusted role that the UK plays.

There are limited avenues for the people of Gibraltar to hold the UK Government to account and, given the Government’s apparent eagerness to agree a legal text, I am concerned that what has been announced will not allow those who hold blue residency cards to cross into Spain relatively unhindered as they have done in the past. Schengen border controls on Gibraltar’s soil could mean that blue card holders become subject to the EU’s 90/180-day rule and, soon, the EU’s entry/exit system.

There are some serious questions. On sovereignty and defence, will the Government rule out agreeing to Schengen border checks on Gibraltar’s soil, ceding UK control of Gibraltar’s airport and aligning with EU rules? What are the Government doing to ensure the rights of Gibraltar’s blue card holders? Do the Government intend to do all this through primary legislation? If not, why not? Finally, will the people of Gibraltar be offered a domestic referendum, as they were in 2002 and 2006?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I reassure the House that the Government’s position with respect to Gibraltar has not changed. We will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty. We continue to work side by side with the Government of Gibraltar, and we will only agree to terms with which the Government of Gibraltar are content.

I know that the Chief Minister has appeared before the European Scrutiny Committee and has provided evidence in respect of our proposed arrangement with the Schengen area. Our approach has not changed. The 2020 political framework notes that that there will be a “level playing field” provision in the treaty to agree mutual standards on matters such as labour, the environment and taxation, which are relatively normal elements of trade agreements with the EU or anyone else.

On Gibraltar’s airport, we are prepared to explore practical and technical options to facilitate flights between Gibraltar and the EU. The UK will only agree to terms with which the Government of Gibraltar are content, and we will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty.

It is worth highlighting that, in his letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the Chief Minister said that

“the UK and Gibraltar have never worked more closely together in delivering the outcome that the People of Gibraltar want.”

That is how it should be.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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I thank the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for securing this urgent question. I draw attention to my declaration as a shadow Minister and a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar.

Let me be clear that Labour’s commitment to Gibraltar and, indeed, our wider family of overseas territories is unwavering. Since I have been in this role, I have had the pleasure to meet Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and his Ministers, and with other Gibraltarian parliamentarians. I have visited the Rock and the Campo, and I have discussed these matters in Madrid, too.

Gibraltar is integral to the UK’s history and future, and it has robust democratic institutions and a dynamic economy. It also remains an important base for UK forces, so I make it clear that there would be no change if there were a new Government in the UK. The sovereignty and self-determination of Gibraltar are not up for debate. We believe in the right of the people of Gibraltar to choose their own future, as they have made clear, and this must be the bedrock of any negotiations with Spain, which is equally a close friend and ally of the UK. It is also a critical partner in NATO and in many other respects, so we hope and believe that an agreement can be reached to the mutual benefit of Gibraltar, Spain, the UK and the EU.

These negotiations have gone on longer than anticipated, and it is critical that the Government now work hard to get a good deal over the line that provides the people, businesses and communities on both sides of the border with the clarity and stability they need.

I have a few short questions. Can the Minister explain in a little more detail where the negotiations are on some of the key issues in relation to the movement of goods, law enforcement and citizens’ right? Secondly, can he give us a little more detail on the Europe Minister’s visit to Gibraltar today, and indeed on any recent discussions he has had with Spain and the EU on outstanding matters? It would be helpful if the Europe Minister made a statement on his return from Gibraltar.

Finally, what support are the Government giving to Gibraltar on NNO contingency planning? However much we do not want to see a non-negotiated outcome, it is important that we are prepared for all outcomes. Gibraltar has a distinctive and proud place in British history, and I hope the Government and all parties can get a deal that works for Gibraltar’s people.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We agree that we need to stand steadfast in our support for Gibraltar. I say again that we will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty. It is important that today’s conversations are taking place between the Minister for Europe and the Chief Minister, setting out the future discussions and looking at what might be—we hope not—a non-negotiated outcome. We will be working closely with the Government in Gibraltar and we will continue to see what support they might need in any scenario that might arise, but we are working in good faith towards a deal.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as chair of the all-party group on Gibraltar. Does the Minister recognise that our group has visited Gibraltar not once but repeatedly since the Brexit process and has kept in regular touch with the people on the Rock, their businesses and the Government of Gibraltar? Does he also agree that, ultimately, the only people who are best placed to judge what is in the interests of Gibraltar are its British people and that the first duty of a British Government must be to protect their interests at all times? Does he also agree that the very close co-operation between His Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom and that of Gibraltar is recognised on both sides and that in no circumstances are either side prepared to cross any red lines, but that a pragmatic solution, recognising Gibraltar’s unique geographical position, is necessary and achievable? Will he commit to the Government’s renewed determination to achieve that within those proper principles that we all stand by?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I recognise the important work of the all-party group under my hon. Friend’s stewardship as chair and the important work that he has done in engaging with the people of Gibraltar and the Government there. He rightly says that there are opportunities not just to protect sovereignty but to ensure future prosperity for Gibraltar and its people. I restate that, as was made clear in the letter sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the UK Government and Gibraltar have

“never worked more closely together”.

That is entirely right, given the seriousness of, and where we are in, the negotiating process.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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I am delighted to hear the cross-party outbreak of support for nations choosing their own future, as that is unusual in this place. In recent years, the UK has managed to trash its international reputation. Will the Minister let us know how much Brexit has cost Gibraltar so far? Will he promise this House that the Government will this time stick to their agreements, the statements they made to the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Stone and those positions that they held, and negotiate in the interests of the people of Gibraltar and not in those of ideological power trips?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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We continue to work hard in these negotiations. As I said, we are working in good faith, and to uphold sovereignty and to work towards future prosperity, which is vital for the people of Gibraltar and for the region more widely. We are optimistic about those prospects, but we are planning for all scenarios.

Michael Ellis Portrait Sir Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con)
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Will the Minister assure this House that the UK Government will not agree to any treaty that compromises UK sovereignty and will remain steadfast in their support for Gibraltar? There is a large Jewish community in Gibraltar and significant antisemitism from the Spanish Government, which has led to a recall of diplomatic personnel only three months ago. Does he agree that it is important that in our negotiations with the EU and anyone else the sovereignty of all of the people of Gibraltar is respected?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I absolutely agree that we need to respect that sovereignty. I stand shoulder to shoulder with my right hon. and learned Friend in saying that antisemitism has no place in our society.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
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I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I agree with the Minister that we cannot compromise on the sovereignty issues that Gibraltarians hold so close to their hearts. He was right to point out the practical and technical options in respect of the airport, which also serves as RAF Gibraltar, but will he outline more about the options he is thinking about?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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The point I made about practical and technical options is in relation to facilitating flights between Gibraltar and the EU more widely. The UK will only agree to terms that the Government of Gibraltar are content with and will not agree to anything that compromises Gibraltar’s sovereignty.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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Can the Minister explain to us his assessment of the attitude of the European Union towards the continuing sovereignty of Gibraltar, bearing in mind Spain’s long-standing ambition to infringe that sovereignty?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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Our negotiations are with the EU. We continue to take those negotiations forward and will do, as I have said repeatedly, with the sovereignty of the people of Gibraltar at the front of our minds.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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I thank the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for securing this urgent question. Alongside supporting the sovereignty of the people of Gibraltar and their right to self-determination, we need to recognise that 96% of them did not vote for Brexit. When he talks about giving them a voice, perhaps he needs to listen to why they need that voice. I am struck by what the Minister said about the value of a level playing field and the concept of an alignment of trade, economic rights and standards encompassing that level playing field. For the avoidance of doubt, will he clarify that there is no conflict between supporting sovereignty and supporting alignment? That might have lessons for other negotiations coming forward in this field.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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Level playing field provisions are normal elements of trade agreements with the EU, or anyone else. In line with what the UK agreed with the EU under the trade and co-operation agreement, commitments should be bilateral and reciprocal, not based on the rules of either party.

David Jones Portrait Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con)
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By my reckoning, my hon. Friend has said no fewer than five times that the British Government will not agree to anything that compromises British sovereignty. However, it is clear from the letter from the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), that travellers arriving in Gibraltar will have to pass through Schengen immigration arrangements. How can it be the case that British travellers, arriving in British territory, will have to deliver their passports for inspection to a foreign border official and that not be incompatible with British sovereignty?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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We are seeking a mobility arrangement with the Schengen area to facilitate flow at the Gibraltar-Spain border. The arrangement would remove checks from the Gibraltar-Spain border. Instead, those arriving in Gibraltar would pass through Gibraltar immigration, followed by Schengen immigration. [Interruption.] The exact details of arrangements form part of the ongoing negotiation. In line with the December 2020 political framework, as a default those travelling to Gibraltar would undergo both Gibraltar immigration controls and Schengen entry checks.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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During my visits to Gibraltar, including recently with the excellent armed forces parliamentary scheme, I appreciated not merely that Gibraltar is an incredible place, but also the firm commitment of Gibraltarians to uphold their sovereignty. What assessment has the Minister made of the ongoing impact of the uncertainty on the economy of the Rock? What steps are being taken to catalyse growth in the region?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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That is why we are taking forward these negotiations, which are about future prosperity and protecting sovereignty. That is fundamental and the Government in Gibraltar are keen to work with us on that. They have said that they are working in good faith and feel that our relationship is stronger than ever.

Andrew Percy Portrait Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con)
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As the House will be aware, Goole is twinned with Gibraltar—the Minister looks shocked; I am sure he realises that it is a match made in heaven. I was in Gibraltar on Friday, visiting the Parliament and meeting the Mayor, Carmen Gomez. The very clear message sent to me on this issue was the importance of a resolution, not least because of the large number of Spanish workers who make their living in Gibraltar. That is a point worth emphasising in the negotiations. Will the Minister confirm that any arrangement will not make any difference to the rights of a British national to live and work in Gibraltar?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I do not know why I looked shocked, because it is pretty obvious from my hon. Friend’s hard work that where Goole leads, the rest of the UK follows. As I said, we are working hard on the border issues at the airport and more widely. The aim is to reduce the friction that will take place.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for his answers and the clear commitment that he has given. We have always had a great relationship with Gibraltar. I am a big supporter of that, as are others in the Chamber. It is so important that our relationship is maintained with strength and pride, as we are able to work better together. With the Minister ensure that all efforts are made to continue our much-valued relationship with Gibraltar, and that we do all that we can to support it, as a British overseas territory, with the same rights as everywhere else?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to Gibraltar, and that of most people in the Chamber. A huge amount of work is done, not least by Mr Speaker, to foster the relationship, which we are very proud of. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will continue work in that way. The best feedback that we received today from the Chief Minister was that the Government of Gibraltar believe that they have a good working relationship with us—probably the best that we have had. We will continue to work together in their interests on that basis.

Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con)
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What is my hon. Friend’s assessment of the joint declaration signed with the British overseas territories? Does it provide, in his view, the right basis to work with them more closely in future, including Gibraltar? Given the threats faced by Britain and her allies around the world, does he agree that our overseas territories are more important than ever?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I completely agree on the latter point—no question. The joint declaration sets out a more modern framework for our relationship with the overseas territories. We will set out a strategy for the overseas territories with the overseas territories over the months ahead. Then we will move on to partnership compacts. We need a more modern relationship where the accountabilities are clear, not just between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the overseas territories, but across the whole width of Whitehall. Members on both sides of the House want to see that. It is entirely appropriate in the world that we work in today.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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Having spent two and a half years engaged with Gibraltar in the Department for Exiting the European Union, and chairing the joint ministerial council for the overseas territories in that process, I was very glad to hear the Minister confirm that a Minister is in Gibraltar talking to the Chief Minister directly. Does he agree that, as well as reiterating our position on sovereignty, it is important that we show respect for the views of the people of Gibraltar, both in their determination to remain British and in electing their own Government? We must continue, as the Chief Minister said, to work hand in glove with the Chief Minister and the Government of Gibraltar.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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Understood. Given his experience, my hon. Friend knows that these matters are very important, very technical and have taken time. We absolutely need to work hand in glove and shoulder to shoulder with our friends in Gibraltar to make further progress, as we seem to be right now, although we prepare for all eventualities.