All 26 Parliamentary debates in the Commons on 29th Apr 2024

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House of Commons

Monday 29th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Monday 29 April 2024
The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

Monday 29th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks 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]

Oral Answers to Questions

Monday 29th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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1. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
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5. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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7. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Stephen Morgan Portrait Stephen Morgan (Portsmouth South) (Lab)
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18. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Margaret Greenwood Portrait Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)
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21. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Gillian Keegan Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
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We will all know somebody with special educational needs or disabilities and understand how vital it is to get a child with special educational needs or disabilities the right support early on. In recent years, we have seen a massive increase in special educational needs in our country, which is why we have expanded funding to a record level—at £10.5 billion, up by 60% in the last five years—and why we are reforming the system to deal with the increase in demand, including the biggest investment in building special educational needs school places in our country’s history.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby
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Children in Lewisham are waiting on average two and a half years to get an autism diagnosis. This is wrong and unacceptable. It is also a national issue, but it is made worse by a shortage of clinical staff. The Government are failing to recognise the seriousness of the shortage of educational psychologists. Can the Secretary of State tell me why they have failed and what is being done to recruit more educational psychologists as well as to tackle education, health and care plan waiting times?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Around half of new EHCPs were issued within the statutory time limit of 20 weeks, and some local authorities are delivering over 90%, but of course we recognise that the system is under pressure, post both the pandemic and the massive rise in demand for special educational needs support. That is why we have increased the budget and put an improvement plan in place. With regard to her question about educational psychologists, we are training 400 more, which is a big increase.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle
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I have a constituent—it could be many of the constituents who come to me—who has a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and other severe learning difficulties. She had to wait an awful long time for an EHCP for her child and, in the end, the plan listed the very school that says it cannot cope with the needs of the child. This happens routinely—a school that says it cannot cope is still listed on the EHCP. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that councils and other people who do the EHCP are not just ignoring what the school says and are actually putting down the schools that can cope with the needs? My constituent’s child now has only one hour a week of education. That is surely not good enough.

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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We need to do all we can to support children with special educational needs; they are vulnerable and need the support as early as possible. We have programmes in place to support local authorities, but the biggest thing that we are doing is increasing the number of special educational needs school places. This will be the largest increase in a generation—60,000 more school places—and it is in stark contrast to when Labour was last in power, when the number of places reduced by 4,000. That is something we are very focused on doing. Many of those have already been delivered, some are work in progress and some will be in the hon. Member’s area.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern
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Far too many families know what a battle it can be to secure an EHCP assessment for their child, but for forces families this battle can become a recurring nightmare, as they are forced to restart the process all over again if required to move base before it completes. It cannot be right that those who sacrifice so much for our country are so let down by the current assessment system. How can we put this right?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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Of course, we are always looking to improve the system and we do have an improvement plan in place. I will take away the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about people who move around from place to place, but the most important and fundamental thing is that we have increased the budget, which has now gone up to £10.5 billion—a 60% increase in the last few years. We are also investing in building the right provision, the number of educational psychologists and the workforce. We have a thorough plan in place and we are working to deliver it.

Stephen Morgan Portrait Stephen Morgan
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Parents in Portsmouth are rightly concerned that fewer than half of the primary schoolchildren in the city are achieving the expected standards in reading, writing and maths, while, under the watch of the Lib Dem-run council, waiting lists for SEND support continue to rise. Does the Secretary of State agree that families in Portsmouth deserve better than a council that is failing children and failing families?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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Yes, and that is the Conservative Government.

Margaret Greenwood Portrait Margaret Greenwood
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The Royal College of Psychiatrists has found that autistic children are 28 times more likely to think about or attempt suicide than other children. Not getting the support they need can affect autistic children into their adult lives. This is a matter of extreme concern, as is the fact that more than 9,500 Wirral children were persistently absent from school in 2022-23, which is double the pre-pandemic figures. I note the Minister’s earlier comments, but what assessment have the Government made of the percentage of children in Wirral and across England who are missing from school and who have special educational needs and disabilities? What specific measures will the Government take to address their needs?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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The hon. Lady is right to identify the crossover between special educational needs and absence from schools. This can sometimes result in poor outcomes, which can lead to mental health issues later. That is why it is important that we get early help to children as quickly as possible. We have a special educational needs and alternative provision improvement plan, and in terms of workforce, which is the most important thing on top of the places, we are training more special educational needs co-ordinators; we have changed the training for new teachers; we are making sure that we invest in a new national professional qualification to upskill teachers; and we have more educational psychologists—400 more in training—and more speech and language therapists. There is a huge workforce element in the plan to improve our special educational needs offer.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Select Committee.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I welcome what Secretary State has just said about the workforce, and it is vital that we get that into place, but a week on from the publication of the Buckland review and two years on from the Education Committee’s call to bolster careers support for children with SEN, can she update us on what Ministers and the Department are doing to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to provide wider opportunities for young people with autism?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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We all know that most people with learning disabilities want to work, and with the right support they can work. The SEND code of practice is clear that all children and young people with special educational needs should be prepared for adulthood, including employment. We are investing £80 million in a supported internship programme, which is very successful, and we will be doubling this by March 2025. We are working with the DWP on a number of programmes and, following the Buckland review, the DWP is setting up a task group to consider all the recommendations.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
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With a 60% rise in complex needs funding over five years, reaching £10.5 billion in 2024-25, with £105 million of funding for special free schools in the spring Budget and with the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision plan to support everyone with needs and disabilities to age 25, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is this Conservative Government that are working hard for the life chances of every child in our country?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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Absolutely right. My hon. Friend is also right to say that we should take no lessons from the Opposition on supporting children with SEND: let us not forget that the number of children benefiting from being in special schools fell, probably because there was no specific high needs funding at all for local authorities to support people with special educational needs. In contrast, we are investing record funding and we are obviously building more places than we ever have in our country’s history. Only the Conservatives have a plan to support children with SEND.

Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)
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In all my years in teaching, before I came to this place, I experienced only one episode of violence at the hands of a student when they hurled a chair at me across the classroom. I was six months pregnant then. Only one episode in all those many, many years. But increasingly, teaching staff are telling me that this is becoming more and more commonplace. In fact, they expect it. My most recent conversation about this was on Saturday, when a teaching assistant said that they had finally been forced to retire because they could not cope with the stress any more. Some of this will be due to unmet or unrecognised special educational needs, and I thank the Secretary of State for outlining all the provisions that are being made—indeed, I have a new special school in my constituency—but some are not. Will she meet me to discuss some specific local concerns?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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Yes; I am sorry to hear about the situation of the teacher in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Of course, good behaviour is the bedrock of schools and school standards. We are investing more in behaviour hubs, which are helping schools that need help with the behaviour of children. We are also investing more in alternative provision schools. We are building 77 new ones; 51 are already open and the rest will be opening in the coming years.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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In Essex, it has been taking far too long for children to get their education health and care plans, so I was pleased to hear that the county council had just recruited 46 additional members of staff. It is also building new special schools, including two more in Chelmsford, but what can make a difference is specialist hubs within mainstream schools, helping children from that school and from neighbouring schools. Given that we have large numbers of schools being rebuilt in Essex due to reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—does the Secretary of State agree that this could provide an opportunity, and that we should look at all the schools that are due to be rebuilt and consider putting specialist hubs into those rebuilding programmes?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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My right hon. Friend mentions the considerable investment that is going into special educational needs and high needs budgets. There is also provision for capital to build new free schools and school places. As we look to rebuild some of the schools affected by RAAC, which has now all been identified—every school has its budget details—we urge local authorities to consider what will best meet the needs of young people in their area. There is flexibility on free school places as well: those schools look at what to come forward with as regards provision that is needed to address local need.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
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Coram’s 2024 childcare survey found that just 6% of local authorities are confident that they will have enough childcare places for disabled children. High-quality early years education is essential in ensuring that children’s needs are identified at the most important time for their development. The children’s Minister, the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston), did not give a clear answer on this last month and his statement last week made no reference to disabled children. Is the Secretary of State really confident that every eligible family with a disabled child has been able to access a childcare place as part of the April expansion—yes or no?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I will expand on the yes or no, as the hon. Lady wants a clear answer and obviously has not heard the clear answer that she been given before. Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide places for all children, including those with special educational needs, but we are working with organisations such as Dingley’s Promise to review special educational needs inclusion, and to see what more we can do to encourage providers to further consider what they can do to provide places. However, we will work with local authorities to make sure that we improve this.

Marie Rimmer Portrait Ms Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab)
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2. What assessment she has made of trends in the number of apprenticeship achievements.

Luke Hall Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Luke Hall)
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The proportion of apprentices who achieve their apprenticeship standard rose to 54.3% in 2022-23, which is up 2.9 percentage points on the year before. We are taking action to ensure that every apprentice has a high-quality experience. We are reviewing and improving standards where there are poor achievement rates; we are investing £7.5 million in the provider workforce development programme; and Ofsted will be inspecting all providers by 2025.

Marie Rimmer Portrait Ms Rimmer
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Giving all young people a good education is key to levelling up our country, yet the number of apprenticeship starts has fallen by a third over the last decade and there are 3% fewer completions than three years ago. We have improved on last year, but we are not there yet. Why have the Government let the number of offered and available apprenticeships slide, and why does the Minister think that young people are not qualifying at the rate they were three years ago?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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We want all young people to have access to good, high-quality apprenticeships because they offer a valuable experience and an opportunity to upskill at the start of their career. We have seen a 4% increase in apprenticeship starts by young people under the age of 19 so far this year, and 57% of all starts have been by those aged under 25. Last year, we saw a 21% increase in apprenticeship achievements in the hon. Lady’s constituency. That is welcome news but, of course, there is always more to do. I am very happy to work with her on the issue.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)
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Is it not the case that apprenticeship achievements have gone up by 22% over the past year, that over 90% of apprentices who complete their apprenticeship get good jobs or good skills, and that starts are going up, too? Is it not also the case that we now have more than 690 quality apprenticeship standards in everything from aeronautics to zoology, and that any attempt to dilute the apprenticeship levy would not only destroy the number of starts but harm achievement? It is this side of the House that is building an apprenticeship and skills nation.

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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During his time as a Minister, my right hon. Friend helped to completely rebuild the apprenticeship system, introducing higher-quality standards. Apprenticeships are now longer, better and have more off-the-job training, with proper independent assessment at the end. They are more valued by employers and we have seen 5.8 million starts since 2010. He is an incredible advocate for further education. Following him in this role, I learnt very quickly that I had big shoes to fill. I look forward to working with him to ensure that we continue delivering in this area.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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The truth is that not only have apprenticeship starts plummeted since 2017, but new data shows that the overall achievement rate has dropped since 2020, with level 2 apprenticeships hit hardest. Almost half of apprentices do not complete their courses, which is simply not good enough. Employers are calling out for reform, but this Government have their head in the sand. Is this not yet more evidence that, far from tackling barriers to opportunity and boosting Britain’s skills, the Government are failing our young people and our businesses, and that only Labour has a plan to turn this around?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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We have made apprenticeships more rigorous. They are now more credible. They are designed by employers and have proper robust assessments. The only plan Labour has, without more funding, is to cut the number of apprenticeship starts in our country by 60%. Obviously, the hon. Member missed the figures published last week, which showed a 2.5% increase in level 2 attainment rates. We are delivering high-quality standards with more off-the-job training and that should be welcomed across the House.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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3. What recent assessment her Department has made of the adequacy of SEND provision.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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11. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of SEND provision.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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Having undertaken a review of the special educational needs system, we published our improvement plan last year. Provision is regularly reviewed through school and local area inspections by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. We also collect and review data on education, health and care plans, including on timeliness and volumes, and on capacity in special schools, SEND units and resourced provision.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt
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Last week, I met the chief executive of a chain of independent schools, which includes a lot of independent special schools—approximately 40% of the children there have special educational needs. She was concerned about any proposal to put VAT on school fees—she feels all this will do is put up school fees and a lot of parents who are just about managing to send their kids to independent special schools will take them out, putting more pressure on the state education SEND system. Does the Minister share my concern that, although people may think that this policy is smart politics, it may be people with special educational needs, including those on low incomes households, who pay the price for this short-sighted policy proposal?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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My hon. Friend is a great champion of children with SEN and he is absolutely right. Labour’s ideological obsession with private schools means that it will even charge children in an independent special school 20% VAT for their needs. That will make it harder for those families to afford the provision they need and drive up demand for places in state special schools. It is just another example of the mess Labour would make of our education system.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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The inequality in the funding formula is driving inequality for children with SEN. In York, we are seeing not only the lack of placements that are needed, but staff being laid off because of an inadequacy of funding. We know that the number of children with SEND is growing exponentially in York, so will the Minister not only review the funding formula to ensure that it is fair, but give local authorities the power and provision to provide for the future needs of our city?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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York is in our safety valve programme to provide support with the financial challenges it has. It has seen a 27% increase in per-head funding in the last three financial years. We review the funding formula every year. The biggest complaint people have is the historic factor, which is difficult to reduce quickly because there are children receiving that provision at the moment.

Mark Garnier Portrait Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con)
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Wyre Forest School, a special school in Kidderminster, has been doing a fantastic job for a number of years, but it has been running way past its maximum capacity for some time. There was potential for relief when its next-door neighbour, Baxter College, secured funding from a generous grant from the school rebuilding programme for a mutually beneficial rebuilding to expand capacity on both sides. However, with that project being in phase 3, Wyre Forest School and Baxter College may have to wait until 2032 before they can see any beneficial reliefs. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State meet me and the heads of the two schools to discuss how we can expedite getting this rebuilding programme under way?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan (North Shropshire) (LD)
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On Saturday, I met a lady who has moved within Shropshire but into North Shropshire, and it took 10 weeks for her year 9 son with SEN to be placed in a school. It is one without any one-to-one support, which is a big downgrade on his previous situation. His parents reported to me that all he has received from the school is detention for not completing his work fast enough. We are desperately short of SEN places in Shropshire. Can the Minister reassure me that the Government are looking at Shropshire and working to provide proper provision for those children, who are being so badly let down?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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Obviously, I cannot comment on that specific case, but I can tell the hon. Lady that we are in the process of creating 60,000 more special school places; there 108 schools already open and 92 approved to open.

Craig Tracey Portrait Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire) (Con)
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4. If her Department will make an assessment of the potential impact of sports and PE on mental resilience in young people.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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It is well and widely recognised that PE and sport support children and young people’s health and general wellbeing. The school sport and activity action plan update, published in July 2023, sets out how we will support all young people to participate in PE and sport in school.

Craig Tracey Portrait Craig Tracey
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I recently hosted an event here in Parliament with Nick Dougherty, the golfer, and the Golf Foundation to kick off their Unleash Your Drive programme, an amazing initiative providing young people with the life skills they need to survive in the modern world, including mental resilience. The scheme has been rolled out to over 500 schools since September last year, with fantastic results. Will the Minister meet me and the Golf Foundation to discuss this success and how we can encourage more schools to teach mental toughness skills through sport, as part of the school sport and activity action plan?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I know about the good work of the Golf Foundation, under the leadership of Brendon Pyle. I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss its work, specifically the Unleash Your Drive programme.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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Sport, PE and outdoor education have a huge impact on building resilience among young people, helping them to gain a love of learning as well as the outdoors, which can be great for them for their whole lives. Does the Minister agree that it is a great shame that just the other week the Welsh Senedd voted down by a single vote the Bill proposed by his colleague and my friend Sam Rowlands which would have made outdoor education an experience that every young person in Wales could access? Will the Minister go one further and back my equivalent Outdoor Education Bill, which will receive its Second Reading on 21 June, so that this place ensures that every young person in primary and secondary schools has the ability to access an outdoor education experience for free?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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The hon. Gentleman has been entirely consistent for some time in talking about the importance of outdoor education, about which I am happy to agree. I am not sure it is always necessarily a case for law, but it is certainly important for young people to get outdoors, to be in touch with nature and to see the countryside, as well as running around enjoying PE and sporting activities.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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8. What steps she is taking to support education on Israel and antisemitism in secondary schools.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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I have been horrified and appalled to see the rise in antisemitism in education since 7 October. It is unacceptable and it cannot be tolerated. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to all schools and colleges reminding them of their duties under Prevent, and we are investing £7 million to help tackle antisemitism across education.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
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My right hon. Friend is clearly right that the rise of antisemitism in schools—or anywhere—is absolutely unacceptable. One of the causes is the failure of schools to teach children about the history of Israel and the fact that Jewish people have occupied Israel for over 3,000 years. Indeed, the Balfour declaration set up the creation of the modern state of Israel. As that is not communicated, there is widespread ignorance and people do not believe that Jewish people have occupied that land for so long. Will my right hon. Friend conduct a review of the curriculum to ensure that young people are properly educated about the history of Israel?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I appreciate what my hon. Friend says. History is a very important subject for many reasons. Learning about Israel and the wider region can be covered in history, for example in the “challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world since 1901” theme. In general, we do not specify individual historical events in our national curriculum, with the sole exception of the holocaust, as he will know.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for his positive and helpful response. What discussions has he had with counterparts in the devolved nations, in particular in Northern Ireland, where the two different groups—the nationalists and the Unionists; the Protestants and the Catholics—have been able to develop an understanding on education? They are able to look at each other without the suspicion that may have been there 20 or 30 years ago. Has the Minister had a chance to talk to the devolved nations to ascertain whether introducing compulsory education on the importance of combatting antisemitism is possible, taking the Northern Ireland example as one that works?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I always value opportunities to speak to colleagues and counterparts in the devolved Administrations. I believe that we will have another opportunity relatively soon to speak to the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in Northern Ireland, and I have no doubt that that will be one thing that we will wish to talk about.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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It is right that young people can recognise and denounce antisemitism and it is also right that they know something of the history of the region, including the continued expansion of illegal settlements. But I hope the Minister agrees that right-wing rhetoric and Islamophobia also pose a threat to our young people. What steps are being taken to ensure that both antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate are treated with equal severity, especially given some of the Islamophobic remarks that have been made by Members and former Members of his own party?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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The hon. Lady is right to call out the wickedness of Islamophobia. There have been Islamophobic incidents in schools as well, and Tell MAMA is an important resource in that regard. We will not tolerate anti-Muslim hatred in any form and we will seek to stamp it out whenever and wheresoever it occurs.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Ms Anum Qaisar is not here to ask the next question, but will the Minister give an answer so that I can bring in the Opposition Front Bencher?

Anum Qaisar Portrait Ms Anum Qaisar (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)
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9. What recent discussions she has had with her counterparts in the devolved Administrations on the potential merits of providing additional financial support to school pupils in the context of increases in the cost of living.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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Ministers normally meet colleagues from the devolved Governments, as we were just discussing a moment ago. The Education Ministers Council was due to be hosted by the Scottish Government in late 2023, but, although we have been watching our doormats, no invitation has arrived. The UK Government are providing £108 billion over 2022-23 to 2024-25 to help with the cost of living.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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On the cost of living, among concerns raised by parents in response to the most recent National Parents Survey by Parentkind, the cost of school uniforms, trips and food came up the most. Labour has a plan to cut the cost of school uniforms by limiting the number of branded items, and our free breakfast clubs in every primary school will put money back in parents’ pockets while improving attendance and attainment. We have done the Government’s homework, and they are still failing families. Will it take a Labour Government to give every child in this country the chances that they deserve?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I appreciate what the hon. Lady says, but I am afraid she needs to keep up: we have done the things that restrict the cost pressures on uniforms. We regularly survey how much uniforms are costing, and some of those results are encouraging. We also survey regularly the number of schools that have a second-hand uniform facility available, and I am pleased to report that that has improved. We are also very clear that, when a school trip is part of the national curriculum—an essential thing to do—there should be no charge. In addition to that, way many schools make sure that they are providing inclusivity for all pupils, and of course the pupil premium that we introduced shortly after 2010 is one of the things that facilitates that.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
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10. When she expects the proposed Hanwood Park Free School in Kettering constituency to open.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I thank him for his ongoing support for this new school, including his personal work to make sure that there is provision for boys and girls. We are working with his council and sponsoring trust to agree a provisional opening date for Hanwood Park Free School as soon as possible.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Hollobone
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The new Hanwood Park Free School is a key part of the future educational infrastructure in Kettering and will be located at the heart of the Hanwood Park development, which, with 5,500 houses, is one of the largest housing developments in the whole country. Will my right hon. Friend please facilitate a meeting in Kettering with the Department’s regional director for the east midlands, me, the local educational authority, the Orbis academy trust and the Hanwood Park developers so that together we can ensure that the school build is co-ordinated as best as possible?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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Again, I commend my hon. Friend for his work. I also appreciate the importance of the provision of local services—none is more important than education—where there is housing development. I would be very pleased to convene such a meeting as he requests.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
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12. What steps her Department has taken to improve standards of reading in schools.

Gillian Keegan Portrait The Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
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Since 2010, we have completely transformed how we teach reading in England, expanding the evidence-based methods of phonics across all of our schools. In the 2011-12 phonics screening checks, only 58% of our children met the expected standard of reading. Thanks to those reforms and the hard work of our brilliant teachers, not only is that number now 79%, but our primary schoolchildren have been ranked fourth best readers in the world. We are sticking to our plan, delivering higher reading standards across our schools.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett
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I thank my right hon. Friend for that very positive response. In 2011-12, only 63% of children in my borough of Bexley met the expected standard of reading. Now, after the evidence-based reforms from this Conservative Government, that number is 81%—a real achievement. There is still much more to be done, but does she share my disappointment that the Labour party opposed those reforms at every opportunity?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservatives’ plan to reform our reading standards completely and expand phonics across our schools has meant that our primary schoolchildren are now the fourth best readers in the world. What was Labour’s response? It said that phonics would not work, that our literacy drive was “dull”, and that free schools were “dangerous”. What is dangerous is the risk of a Labour Government who would collapse educational standards, as Labour has done in Wales.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
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13. What steps her Department is taking to encourage take-up of degree-level apprenticeships.

Luke Hall Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Luke Hall)
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We have seen year-on-year growth in degree-level apprenticeships. Starts at levels 6 and 7 increased by 5.8% this year. There are now more than 170 employer-designed degree-level apprenticeships, and we are providing an additional £40 million over two years to support providers to expand their offers.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson
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Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting Members of this House and representatives of industry and of the education sector to discuss how we could leverage the resources of the private sector to support further education through a lecturer reservist programme. I particularly thank the Minister and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), as well as Hayley Pells of the Institute of the Motor Industry, for all their hard work in making that meeting a reality and for their positive engagement. I would not be doing my job properly if I was not cheeky enough to ask whether the Minister would be willing to join us for our next meeting, when we will flesh out the proposals that we discussed.

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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I thought we had an excellent meeting last week. We had really positive discussions about the exciting lecturer reservist pilot that will run in the west midlands, bringing together regional employers, colleges and providers. I look forward to working closely with my hon. Friend as the pilot progresses, and not just to meeting him again but to visiting the pilot when it is up and running.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab)
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14. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of the plan 5 student loan repayment plan on levels of applications for university undergraduate courses.

Luke Hall Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Luke Hall)
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Our reforms make the student loan system more sustainable and fairer for graduates and taxpayers. Tuition fees have been frozen until 2024-25, and it was this Government who acted to cap the interest rate on student loans, because we believe that everybody in our country should have access to world-class higher education.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi
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In January, the number of applications to study nursing fell by 7.4%. The Royal College of Nursing said that that could be a direct threat to patient safety. Surely the Government should be doing everything they can to boost recruitment in nursing, but instead last September they introduced a tuition fee system that means that future nursing graduates will pay an extra £48 per month. Why is the Secretary of State penalising people who choose to work in our vital public services?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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The system that we introduced is a progressive one, because lifetime earnings now correlate with the amount that somebody contributes. The highest earners make the largest individual contributions, and the lowest earners contribute the least. For example, someone who leaves university in 2026 earning £26,000 a year will now pay just £7 a month repaying that loan. Crucially, the new interest rate is reduced from the retail prices index plus 3% to RPI plus 0%, which makes it more affordable too. It is a progressive system that we think is fairer for students and taxpayers.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
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I welcome the Minister to his place; it is good to see him in his new role. Of course, we miss the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) put it so eloquently, we are in real danger of dissuading and disenfranchising so many young people from getting into the sorts of careers in which they are interested, and particularly into roles such as nursing. I reiterate that point, because we have seen a 7.3% decline in the numbers of applications for nursing. At a time when we desperately need more in our health service, what is the Minister doing? Does he really think this system, which was introduced ahead of his joining the education team, is a fair one?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words welcoming me to my post. The point I would make is that the 2023 cycle shows numbers rebalancing and returning to a trend of normal growth in applications following the pandemic. He should also look at the big impact nursing apprenticeships and nursing degree apprenticeships are having on the system. I am always happy to meet him to discuss these issues, but we do think it is a fairer and more affordable system for both students and taxpayers, and will result in more people being able to access a world-class higher education in our country.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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15. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of SEND provision in schools in Bournemouth.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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Ofsted outcomes are strong for the five special schools in Bournemouth. Departmental officials continue to work with the council and other services to support rapid improvements, including £16.4 million of higher needs capital funding between 2022 and 2025. The funding allocation this year is £60.9 million, a 27% increase per head compared with 2021-22.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Ellwood
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I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. He speaks about increased funding, but there is growing anger from headteachers and parents alike in Bournemouth about the mismanagement of the dedicated schools grant over the past couple of years by Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council. School heads have now taken the unprecedented step of writing open letters of concern to the council. The council is not following the required guidance and is demanding unaffordable sums from schools which, if implemented, would see the loss of teaching assistants. I ask the Department for Education to investigate the council’s decision making, to ensure that correct guidelines are followed in the future and that the right levels of funding stay with the schools.

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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My right hon. Friend has done an excellent job of raising with me repeatedly the frustration of parents and headteachers in his constituency with BCP Council. I and officials continue to monitor that closely to ensure that schools and children in his area get the provision they deserve.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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How many children in schools in Bournemouth have relied on special educational needs and disability provision because they have had an acquired brain injury in the last five years? If the Minister does not know the answer—he might not know it today—will he be able to write to me? If his officials are not able to provide him with an answer, will he ensure that the Department establishes precisely how many children, in all our schools across the whole country, have had an acquired brain injury in the last five years?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I did not know the hon. Gentleman’s constituency was so close to Bournemouth. As he suggests, I do not have the precise answer to that question; I will write to him.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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16. What steps her Department is taking to accelerate the roll-out of the Language for Life programme for nursery and pre-school age children.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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Early language skills are vital for children to thrive. That is why we carried out landmark early education reforms, investing up to £180 million in training, qualifications and support and providing a range of evidence-based interventions, from home learning to working with local health services.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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There is growing evidence of how important it is to provide support for speech and language development in nurseries and for preschool-aged children. Programmes such as Language for Life, which is supported by St John’s Foundation in Bath, underpin the work that schools are doing. To demonstrate how well they are doing it, the percentage of children needing additional language support in schools that participated reduced from 84% to 29%. I am sure the Minister will want to congratulate the schools and St John’s Foundation on the work they are doing, but will the Government prioritise speech and language programmes such as Language for Life?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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What the hon. Lady sets out sounds very encouraging and I look forward to hearing more about the Language for Life programme. We have been very pleased with the findings of the Government-funded Nuffield Early Language Intervention, which is different, but has also focused on language development. The NELI has been found to help children to make four months’ additional development in their oral language skills, and disadvantaged children to make seven months’ additional progress.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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Will the Minister give us an update on this month’s delivery of the first phase of the free childcare entitlement, and may I urge him to ensure that we deliver phase 2 on time in September?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I am delighted to tell my right hon. Friend and the House that the first phase of the roll-out went very well indeed. Some 200,000 children are now benefiting from the first stage of the roll-out, which Labour Members doubted could happen—we have shown again that we have a plan while they have absolutely none.

Nadia Whittome Portrait Nadia Whittome (Nottingham East) (Lab)
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17. What assessment she has made of the impact of real-terms reductions to school budgets since 2010 on school children.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but I am afraid there is a flawed premise within it. School funding is, at £60.7 billion, the highest it has ever been in real terms per pupil. There has been a real-terms increase of 5.5% per pupil nationally compared with 2010-11.

Nadia Whittome Portrait Nadia Whittome
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I thank the Minister for his response, but what he says about the state of school funding is not the full picture, and he knows it. Schools’ costs have increased much faster than funding. In fact, analysis by the National Education Union shows that every single school in Nottingham East had less real-terms funding last year than 14 years ago—that is £1,266 less per pupil on average. If the Government really cared about the future of children and young people, should they not be funding high-quality education instead of whipping up culture wars?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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We are funding high-quality education, and the quality of that education is seen in the results, be they the performance of 15-year-olds in mathematics, English and science, or the results of primary school children, which have improved dramatically since 2010. On the NEU “analysis”, I am afraid that it is flawed in multiple respects: it does not include a number for the high-needs budget, which has grown so much, and ultimately it does not use real numbers for 2010.

Harriett Baldwin Portrait Dame Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con)
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On the subject of school budgets, will the Minister join me in welcoming the letter that I received from Malvern College in Worcestershire this week? Not only is that independent school one of the largest employers in Worcestershire, but it contributes £28 million to the local economy, and if its 300-plus fee-paying pupils had to be educated in local schools, that would come at a huge cost to the public purse.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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My hon. Friend is exactly correct. If the Labour party got into government, there would be a hike in the cost of going to private schools, which would push a number of families out of that provision. We do not know how many, Labour does not know how many and nor does anybody else, but we do know that some— possibly very many—would come into the state-funded system, causing great strain and possibly cuts that would affect other children.

David Davis Portrait Sir David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (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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With your permission, Mr Speaker, I start by sending our thoughts and prayers to the whole school and the community in Ammanford in Wales.

With exams season nearly upon us, I wish all our students and teachers the very best of luck over the coming months. We should be very proud of all the progress that our students and teachers have made, with 90% of schools now rated “good” or “outstanding”—up from 68% under Labour. In the internationally renowned programme for international student assessment, our secondary school children have rocketed up the rankings from 27th and 25th in the world for maths and reading under Labour to 11th and 13th now. The establishment of the Education Endowment Foundation, which has conducted nearly 20% of all randomised control trials in education in the world, is adding to that success. That fantastic progress is testament to the hard work of our schools and the evidence-based reforms that we have undertaken since 2010.

David Davis Portrait Sir David Davis
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On a personal level, may I thank the Secretary of State for sponsoring my charity event yesterday for disabled children with SYNGAP1? Of course, I welcome the Government’s funding of 60,000 new school places for children with special educational needs, but we need a fairer funding formula for those resources, and we need a further £4.6 billion just to prevent the crisis in special needs from getting worse, so what steps are the Government taking to ensure that funding is allocated according to need, not postcode?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I thank my right hon. Friend, who is doing exceptional work to raise awareness of the impacts of SYNGAP1, and has so far raised over £29,000 to support vital research. As he has pointed out, we are investing record amounts in special educational needs and disability funding. We review that funding and look at the formula every year; it has gone up by 60% over the past five years—to £10.5 billion—but I am very happy to meet my right hon. Friend, and look forward to doing so. We said we would have a cup of tea to talk about this important topic, and I will get that date in the diary soon.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Bridget Phillipson Portrait Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab)
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I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments, and send my thoughts and best wishes to all those in the school community of Ammanford at this very difficult time.

“The extension does not achieve its primary aim or demonstrate value for money”.

That is a damning line from the National Audit Office’s report into the Government’s childcare expansion. For months, the Secretary of State has told parents and providers that they were wrong to be concerned, yet now we learn that even her own Department considers delivery to be “problematic”—her own failure exposed. Why has she not listened and got a serious plan in place, or is she simply waiting for Labour to publish ours so that she can steal it? [Laughter.]

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I do not think anyone in the country is waiting for Labour to publish its plan. This is serious, because of course we are ambitious; delivering the largest expansion of childcare in our country’s history is not an easy task, but that is the job of Government, and that is what we are doing. Thanks to the expansion, over 200,000 more children are getting childcare support. We are already delivering, and have put that deliverability into three phases to make sure we continue to deliver.

We know what we need—we need places, we need workforce, and we need the children—but Labour has absolutely no plan. First Labour Members criticised our childcare model, then they said they would scrap it, and now they are saying that it is not their job to have a plan. It is time for Labour to stop talking down our childcare sector and commit to supporting our plan, which is clearly working.

Bridget Phillipson Portrait Bridget Phillipson
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Nonsense, Mr Speaker. What people right across this country want is a general election, and it cannot come soon enough.

It is not only on childcare that the Secretary of State is in a total mess; school leaders, teachers and staff have been dismayed by her failure to reform Ofsted. She simply refuses to listen to staff, to the Education Committee, or indeed to parents. I am clear that under Labour, the days of one-word judgments will come to an end, so when can we expect the Secretary of State to follow Labour’s lead and commit to ending Ofsted’s headline grades?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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We will not follow Labour’s lead, because in 2010 only 68% of schools were rated “good” or “outstanding”; now, thanks to our reforms and hard work, that figure is up to 90%. We have already delivered a number of changes to improve the way Ofsted carries out its inspections, but the answer to these challenges is not to water down standards by abolishing Ofsted, as Labour has twice proposed to do. That accountability is one reason why 90% of our schools are “good” or “outstanding”—up from just 68% under Labour. In the past year alone, over 200,000 more children are attending “good” or “outstanding” schools because of the work that we do to improve standards, and Ofsted is an important part of that.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne  (New Forest West) (Con)
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T5. Are powers available to the Secretary of State where schools refuse to implement her guidance on social transitioning?

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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We expect that schools will follow the guidance, because it is guidance to help them carry out their existing statutory duties, including safeguarding. If they did not take those guidelines into account when delivering those duties, they would be at risk of breach.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We now come to the SNP spokesperson.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for mentioning exam season. I am sure she will include the Scottish young people sitting their exams, whose exams started last week—they are already in the throes of it.

Deepfake images and nudification apps pose massive threats to the mental health of girls in particular, and therefore their educational outcomes. I am pleased that the Government have taken steps to criminalise the creation of such images, but how is the Secretary of State working with Cabinet colleagues to put pressure on internet companies to take the radical action necessary to remove such images, which can have such an impact on girls’ education?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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The hon. Member is of course right that the lead is taken by a different Department, but we are very conscious of the pressures, including from social media, in relation to pornography, deepfake and nudification, as she rightly identifies, and we are working right across Government to make sure those pressures can be eased.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con)
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T6. Bearing out feedback from my two excellent local Conservative councils, a recent report from the organisation London Councils highlights a 4.3% drop in the number of pupils in schools in Hillingdon. At a time of falling numbers on rolls in outer London, will my hon. Friend commit to work with our schools and local authorities to promote the opportunities for more inclusion for SEND pupils in mainstream schools?

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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My hon. Friend makes two important points. There was a 6% decline in the number of nought to four-year-olds between 2015 and 2021, and we are providing £242 million in this financial year to support schools with managing that. He is also right that although some children will always need a special school place to have their needs met, many can have their needs met in a mainstream school. Through our SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, we are making sure that schools are inclusive and make that happen.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
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T2. The Secretary of State described special educational needs as “lose, lose, lose” when she was describing the process of parents appealing the judgments of education, health and care plans, which, as I said earlier, often lists a school that is inadequate. How does she expect parents to get the right school if they are not to appeal, and who has broken the system in the last 14 years? It was not like that before.

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I was actually referring to the fact that parents did not feel they were receiving the best service from the system, the schools did not feel they were giving the best service and the Government felt they were spending a lot more, which is why it was very important that we got a grip and fixed the system. Of course, we know that there has been a massive increase in demand over the last few years—not even 14 years—so we have had to put in place the special educational needs and alternative provision improvement plan, which is very thorough. I believe that the result of that plan will be: win, win, win.

Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer (Northampton South) (Con)
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T8. What steps is the Department taking to make apprenticeships in building trades more attractive to young people, and especially to women and girls?

Luke Hall Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Luke Hall)
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and for all of his work on this area. I know that he has been integral to the “I am a Housebuilder” campaign to encourage more women into the building sector. Our apprenticeship diversity champions network is supporting gender representation among employers, and it is good news that STEM starts continue to increase year on year—up 7.5% in the last year—but there is more to do, and I look forward to working closely with him on the issue.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba)
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T3. The Cass review has established that social transitioning is not a neutral act, and that it introduces significant risk of harm. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that when a new First Minister emerges in Scotland, they should commit to factual, science-based education in schools and implement the Cass review findings in full, so they do not suffer the same fate as their predecessor?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I would encourage our friends and colleagues in the Scottish Government, whoever they may be at the time, to pay close attention to Hilary Cass’s report. I think her work has injected some much-needed common sense into the debate, and we are very grateful to her. This Government will always put the safety of our children first, and that is why the gender questioning guidance we have produced in draft is underpinned by the important principle of parents always being involved in decisions about their children.

Alicia Kearns Portrait Alicia Kearns (Rutland and Melton) (Con)
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The Liberal Democrat-run council in Rutland has announced that it will close our specialist—and “outstanding” rated—SEND nursery, the Parks School. This comes with the further news that it is also going to close our only leisure centre. The community is rightly devastated, especially parents who want their children to get the best and most expert support. Does my hon. Friend agree that specialist provision must be protected and is absolutely vital, and that the need for this kind of provision is only going to increase?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I thank my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. We have been hearing negative things about Lib Dem councils from both sides of the House this afternoon, which, sadly, is not surprising. She is absolutely right to be championing the needs of those parents and children, and I hope the council will listen to her campaign and do the right thing.

Paula Barker Portrait Paula Barker (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
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T4. There is no doubt but that this Department has contributed to the chaos surrounding the opening of King’s Leadership Academy in my constituency. Parents and children find themselves in utter limbo, and this debacle has caused extra pressure on school places across Liverpool. In reply to me, Baroness Barran provided absolutely no explanation of why it took the Department until 1 February to apply for planning permission, despite having owned the site since last summer. When will this Department get a grip, end the blame game, and commit to exhausting every avenue in getting the school open in September?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I will look into the details of the case and write to the hon. Lady.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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Research by London Economics and the Association of Colleges highlights that in recent years there has been a significant drop in level 2 apprenticeship starts. Will my hon. Friend the Minister outline the specific work being carried out to reverse this decline in an area that is so vital in promoting social mobility and levelling up?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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At levels 2 and 3, apprenticeships make up 65% of all starts so far this year and there are almost 140 apprenticeships at level 2. We published data last week to show that level 2 apprenticeships rose by 2.5% in terms of attainment. We will do everything we can to make sure people have access to high-quality apprenticeships, and we have also invested £50 million over two years to boost starts in growth sectors including engineering and manufacturing. I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough)  (Lab)
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T7. Five years on from the approval of a new secondary school in my Middlesbrough constituency, not a brick has been laid and the children of Outwood Academy Riverside remain in an old Home Office block, and the next two years’ intake are going to be bused to Redcar to portacabins plonked on a field. Children are spending their entire secondary school years in temporary accommodation and it is just not good enough. Will the Secretary of State tell ministerial colleagues to get a grip and crack on with building the new school these students need and deserve?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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We have increased the amount of money going into condition funding. We are also, of course, rebuilding 500 schools under the school rebuilding programme. I will look into the specific case the hon. Gentleman mentions and come back to him.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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My hon. Friend will be aware of my campaign to improve literacy across the country by improving children’s access to libraries in their schools and communities. Much can also be done by parents, grandparents and carers in the years before children start school. What is the Department doing to improve access to books and audiobooks in particular, as well as other literary materials, for pre-school children?

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

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

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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As it happens, I am meeting the director of the Youth Endowment Fund in the morning. We have a quarterly meeting to review progress and make sure it is on track.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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In regard to the worrying topic raised earlier of antisemitism and Islamophobia in schools, will Ministers please bear in mind sections 406 and 407 of the Education Act 1996? The former bans political indoctrination in schools, and the latter says that when political subjects are brought to the attention of pupils, they must be presented in a fair and balanced way.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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My right hon. Friend issues a timely and important reminder and we are very clear on that with schools. We also, of course, part-fund Educate Against Hate, which has materials available, and I know that schools also seek to go to lengths in most cases to make sure that when tackling controversial current affairs, they are doing so in an entirely impartial way.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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T10. While it is welcome that Ministers are finally investing in childcare, the scheme just is not working, with local providers telling me it falls far short of what they need to meet demand, exacerbated by the especially low rate paid in central Bedfordshire. Will Ministers change course to make sure that central Bedfordshire families can finally access the childcare they need?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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Again, the first stage of this roll-out has gone incredibly well, with more than 200,000 children now benefiting. Labour MPs should spend less time criticising our roll-out and more in asking their Front Bench what their plan is, because it is supposed to be like the creation of the NHS.

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman (Fareham) (Con)
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St Francis School and Heathfield School are two excellent special educational needs schools in Fareham, supporting a variety of children with conditions ranging from Down’s syndrome to epilepsy, but around the country there are 95,000 children at independent special educational needs schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour’s misguided attack on independent schools will be harmful and punitive to vulnerable children all around the country?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. This is a policy to tickle the bellies of the left of the Labour party. The Opposition did not think it through, and they are now going to whack families trying to get the right support for their children with special educational needs with 20% more in fees.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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In 2024-25, Scottish students living away from home will be entitled to a minimum of £8,400 in student maintenance, whereas English students living outside London will only be getting a minimum of £4,767. Given the current cost of living crisis, which is undoubtedly a factor in the withdrawal of almost 16,000 undergraduate students in England last year, will the Government commit to providing the same encouragement and reinforcement to students in England as students in Scotland enjoy?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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We are trying to deliver a system that is fair not just to students, but to taxpayers, too. That is why we are taking action to support students with the cost of living in England, including freezing tuition fees. We have increased loans by 2.8%, and we have made sure that if someone’s family income falls by 15%, they can have their loans reassessed. It is also important that we support people from lower income households, which is why we have made a further £10 million available, including for hardship funding, in 2023-24. This system is fair not just to students, but to taxpayers more widely.

Caroline Johnson Portrait Dr Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
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The Sir Robert Pattinson Academy in my constituency is a great school providing an excellent education to children. However, it is struggling with the challenges of aged infrastructure, and an urgent bid for it to rectify the heating and wiring challenges has been refused. An urgent meeting on Friday with officials was unproductive, not least because the data they were looking at was out of date. Can I ask the Secretary of State to please ensure that the senior leadership team gets an urgent meeting with senior officials and that she personally ensures that this bid is looked at properly and quickly?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I will indeed do that. My hon. Friend has brought up this subject with me and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. There was that meeting with Mr Hardy on Friday. I know there are two separate cases around the condition improvement fund bid and the urgent capital support bid. We will continue to work with the school, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend gets that high-level meeting that she asks for.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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Among other cuts, the Department for Education has quietly slipped out the announcement that it is slashing funding for Now Teach, which has supported more than 1,000 people to switch careers and retrain as secondary teachers in shortage subjects such as science, maths and modern languages. Why on earth are the Government withdrawing funding when they are missing their teacher training targets by 50% in some of these subjects, and when Now Teach has had such a brilliant track record in getting people to retrain as teachers?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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First, I must say that the statistics the hon. Lady just gave on missing recruitment targets are incorrect. They are frequently repeated, but not right. We do think that career changes are an important part of people coming into this noble profession, and we are continuing with our career changes programme. We are not axing Now Teach; we are not re-procuring it, so we are not extending it again. To put it in perspective, it is roughly about 200 to 250 people in a typical year, out of about 7,000 career changes coming into teaching. We are reassessing the best way to attract more of them, because we want to grow the number of career changes coming into teaching and make sure that we go about it in the best and most productive way.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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The Secretary of State is well aware of the issues we have with Academies Enterprise Trust and Maltings Academy in Witham town. She will know of the stories of children missing out on school time because of exclusion and bullying. Some are even self-harming. What assurance can she give to pupils and their families, who have very little choice as to which schools they go to locally, that their concerns will be heard and that they will have greater educational choice over which school their children go to?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I know we have corresponded on this recently, and I know my right hon. Friend is taking a close personal interest and has been involved directly and personally in multiple cases. In my most recent letter—I am not sure if it will have arrived yet—I have said that we will as a Department work with her.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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I thank the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State for their comments about the incident at Ysgol Dyffryn Aman in my constituency last week. There is obviously now a criminal investigation ongoing and a charge of attempted murder, so it would not be wise to speculate, but as education is devolved in Wales, will the Secretary of State pledge to work with the Welsh Government to ensure safety measures, following the various investigations having completed their work?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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Yes, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am always willing and ready to work with anyone from the devolved Administrations.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)
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Businesses—those in manufacturing in particular—speak about the challenge in filling vacancies. The solution can often be in the existing workforce, but older workers can be reluctant to take up apprenticeships. What work are we doing to encourage more older workers into the apprenticeship system?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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Working with employers is central to success on that point. That is why we are delivering the local skills improvement plans to ensure that we are matching the needs of businesses and employers with the workforce they need. We are working with over 5,000 employers, with over 700 different occupations, including on skills bootcamps, which bring different demographics to the workforce, to ensure that we have intensive training where industries have those skills needs. Engagement with businesses is at the forefront of our mind on that point.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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This weekend, The Times reported that some Conservative MPs want to see graduate visas banned. Will the Minister ask the Home Secretary to quash that damaging rumour, given that international students provide the UK with a £42 billion boost?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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We are home to some of the world’s top universities, which benefit from strong international ties. We think it is right to try to prevent any potential abuse and to protect the integrity of our higher education system, but it is true that international students make significant economic and cultural contributions to our education. We believe it is possible to balance a fair and robust migration policy with maintaining our place as a top destination for students from around the world.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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I thank the Education Secretary for all the support that her Department is giving to Bracknell Forest, particularly the £16 million safety valve programme and other SEN initiatives. Given the high number of good and outstanding schools in Bracknell and the focus on apprenticeships and T-levels at Bracknell and Wokingham College, might I tempt her please to visit?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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A quick yes.

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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It is tempting. We are proud of the safety valve programme, which is being used across 38 local authorities, and I would love to see it in action as I know it is providing a lifeline to many councils.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Final question, Sir Edward Leigh.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
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For 14 long, weary years I have been arguing for an end of the faith cap, which is preventing the opening of new Catholic schools and has no proper effect. Does the Secretary of State think that I should keep campaigning and be patient for a bit longer?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I have also had an opportunity to speak to my right hon. Friend on occasions about this. The Catholic Church, the Church of England and other denominations play a central part in our education, typically having high-quality schools and typically being popular with parents. We are keen to extend our academies and free schools programme, which has underpinned the huge rise in quality and children’s results that we have seen since 2010. No doubt, before too long, we may wish to put the two things closer together.

UK Armed Forces in Middle East

Monday 29th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks 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

15:42
John Healey Portrait John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the role of the UK armed forces in the middle east.

Leo Docherty Portrait The Minister for Armed Forces (Leo Docherty)
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The Prime Minister and Government Ministers have regularly provided updates in Parliament on the recent role of the armed forces in the middle east through written and oral statements, in addition to responding to written questions. As has been said previously, publicising operational activity to Parliament in advance could undermine the effectiveness of operations and risk the lives of armed forces personnel involved.

The UK has provided assistance to our allies and partners in the region. The Ministry of Defence has provided support to facilitate the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s response to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, and we continue to work with the FCDO. Our armed forces personnel have played a critical role in working to establish more routes for vital humanitarian aid to reach the people of Gaza and in the delivery of support, in co-ordination with the US and our international allies and partners. To date, the UK has conducted nine airdrops as part of the Jordanian-led mission, dropping more than 85 tonnes of vital humanitarian aid of prepackaged halal meals, water, flour, baby milk formula and rice to Gaza.

UK military planners have been embedded with the US operational team to jointly develop the safest and most effective maritime humanitarian aid route. RFA Cardigan Bay is sailing from Cyprus to support the US pier initiative to enable the delivery of significantly more lifesaving aid into Gaza. The UK Hydrographic Office has also shared analysis of the Gazan shore with US planners to support the initiative. The RAF also sent additional aircraft to the region to protect our allies and support de-escalation, culminating in the UK armed forces shooting down a number of Iranian attack drones. The House will understand that for operational security reasons, I cannot comment on the specifics of that activity.

As stated by the Prime Minister on 15 April,

“Our aim is to support stability and security because that is right for the region, and because although the middle east is thousands of miles away, it has a direct effect on our security and prosperity at home, so we are working urgently with our allies to de-escalate the situation and prevent further bloodshed.”—[Official Report, 15 April 2024; Vol. 748, c. 23.]

We are directing all our diplomatic efforts to that end. I will not comment on media leaks and speculation, but I can assure the House that the Government are taking all measures to support our allies and partners in the region. We are pressing for a sustainable ceasefire that will enable the release of hostages and provide the people of Gaza with the essential assistance and humanitarian aid that they need.

John Healey Portrait John Healey
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I welcome the Minister back to the Department in his new post. Of course, the Defence Secretary should be here; he has made only one oral statement on the middle east in more than two months.

As the Minister said, our UK armed forces are reinforcing regional stability, protecting international shipping, defending partner countries and delivering desperately needed aid to Gaza. We are proud of their professionalism, and across the House we pay tribute to their work, but the agonies of the Palestinians in Gaza are extreme. Children are starving, families are dying, and famine and disease are taking hold. Humanitarian help must flood into Palestinian hands, so we welcomed the ninth RAF airdrop last week, but why has there been only one sea shipment of UK aid in more than six months, and none this year? What are the Government doing to open up Ashdod port?

We welcome the new role for RFA Cardigan Bay in helping to build the temporary pier. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is demonstrating that it provides vital naval support. Is it protected from new civil service cuts? Have Ministers resolved the issue of the potential strike action? What is the Defence Secretary doing to raise rock-bottom morale in the RFA? Weekend reports suggest that UK troops could be deployed to deliver aid on the ground in Gaza. Will the Minister confirm those plans? How will the Defence Secretary report to the House, and ensure that Parliament has a say, on any such deployment?

The Defence Secretary seems to be doing the bare minimum on the diplomatic front. Why has he made only one visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 7 October? We need an immediate ceasefire now, hostages released now, and unimpeded aid now. We need a political route to securing a long-term two-state settlement. Where the Government pursue these aims, they will have Labour’s fullest support.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions and his warm welcome. He asked a series of pertinent questions, which I will seek to cover off. He asked about our efforts on maritime delivery. Clearly, the deployment of RFA Cardigan Bay is leaning into the prospect of a far greater flow of maritime aid through the Cyprus humanitarian corridor, which will seek to substantially uplift that delivered so far. That will have an important impact on the extent to which Ashdod can come into play. We make the point regularly to our Israeli colleagues that opening Ashdod would be a critical enabler of a dramatically increased flow of aid, which is seriously needed.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay. Colleagues will have noticed in last week’s statement to the House that there has been a very substantial uplift in defence funding. An additional £75 billion over the next six years means that morale across all three services and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary will be resilient, and higher than before. That uplift is a vote of confidence in our capabilities, of which we should all be proud—I certainly am.

I will not comment on speculation that there might be a ground role for UK forces. It would not be right for me to comment on speculation. We are very clear about the current remit. RFA Cardigan Bay is there to provide living support for the US troops involved in the construction and operational delivery of the JLOTS—joint logistics over the shore—platform.

The Defence Secretary will, as is his wont, continue to report frequently to this House, and to make oral and written statements. I am very pleased to hear that the right hon. Gentleman would like to see the Defence Secretary at the Dispatch Box more often. I will relay that desire to him when I see him. He is a busy man, but he knows that his first duty is to be in this House. His visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories was important; his is a global role. To categorise his one visit as disproportionate, or a lack of interest, is uncharitable to say the least.

In all earnestness, we share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that a far greater flow of aid and humanitarian support is contingent on a sustainable ceasefire. This House will know that we call on Hamas to lay down their arms and release the hostages; that is the surest route to finding that sustainable ceasefire.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Defence Committee.

Jeremy Quin Portrait Sir Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con)
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I commend the Government’s determination to get aid into Gaza, and I commend the work of the RAF, RFA Cardigan Bay, UK planners and the Hydrographic Office. As the Minister is aware, I would not expect him to comment on speculation, but some of the best laid and best intentioned plans can run into problems. Can he assure the House that we would only ever contemplate putting UK boots on the pier if appropriate force protection was in place?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee, who speaks with characteristic expertise. He is absolutely right that it would be improper for me, as a Government Minister, to comment on that speculation.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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Can the Minister confirm that the US maritime humanitarian aid corridor is required only because the Israeli Government will not allow the port of Ashdod to be used to receive the appropriate amount of aid for northern Gaza? Are the UK Government content with that stranglehold over the people of Gaza? The working assumption is that a nation will be driving trucks of aid across this American facility, but will that nation be the UK? If it is, what is the risk assessment if UK troops potentially step up for an operation that goes where American troops fear to tread? Getting aid into Gaza to alleviate the unspeakable torment of the Palestinians must be a good thing, and the professionalism and capability of UK troops is beyond question, but are Ministers seriously suggesting that the best that Euro-Atlantic allies can muster is British troops? Have Ministers forgotten how British forces operated in Palestine in the Arab rebellion of 1936? The Palestinians have not. Any risk calculation must command more robust analysis, rigour and humanitarian ambition, not simply UK Ministers’ ambitions for positive headlines.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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Well, Mr Speaker, that was a mixed bag of questions. I will answer in the spirit of sincere debate. We should say that we are leaning into the Cypriot and Jordanian humanitarian efforts. That is very important, because those efforts need to be grounded in the region. Solutions to the problems of the region lie in the region, but clearly we have a key enabling role, along with the US. The hon. Gentleman invites me to comment on speculation in the media, which I will not do. Nor will I dwell on his reference to the history lesson from 1936. We should be upbeat and proud of the way we have significantly leaned into the delivery of humanitarian aid. That is a key component of stabilisation, and of any prospect of peace in Gaza.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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One of the main strategic aims of Iran, Russia’s ally, in supporting what Hamas did in October last year was to suck western powers into the middle eastern theatre, thereby diverting them from Russia’s existential conflict with Ukraine. May I urge the Minister not to comment on the suggestion that we might have British boots on the ground in the Gaza strip, but to take the message back to the Secretary of State that this would be a completely insane idea? It would be far better to have moderate neighbouring Arab states deal with any distribution of aid that we have facilitated as a result of the viable RAF and sea power that we have rightly exercised.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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My right hon. Friend is right: the answers to the humanitarian and political challenges in the region lie within the region. I entirely agree with his analysis. He made a relevant and good point about the requirement for us to maintain focus on our efforts to support our Ukrainian friends in defending their sovereignty. That is why last week we announced an additional uplift in our annual support for Ukraine to the tune of £500 million, bringing this year’s support to £3 billion—a record amount.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab)
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From our work on the Defence Committee, I know that the armed forces are running hot. Obviously, the events in the middle east over the last six months or so have put much greater strain and pressure on our armed forces. What is the Minister doing to ensure that our armed forces get proper rest and recuperation, and that we improve the resilience of our assets?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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We are increasing funding for defence to record levels, which increases the armed forces’ capacity to train, rest, and attend to all the areas of their lives other than operations. That is a huge vote of confidence in the esprit de corps of our armed forces. We are taking defence investment to 2.5% of GDP by 2030. It is a tremendous boost, which will filter down and improve retention and effectiveness right across the board.

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman (Fareham) (Con)
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I was in Israel earlier this year and met senior Israel Defence Forces personnel, who assured me that they are doing everything in their power, and are working with allies, to increase aid to Gaza. It is the right thing to do, and we must continue those efforts, but it is patent that Hamas are obstructing the distribution of aid within Gaza—another reason why we need to support Israel in defeating Hamas. Will the Minister assure the House that if and when Israel goes into Rafah, where several Hamas battalions remain, and where senior Hamas operatives and the hostages are based, UK support will remain resolute and steadfast, as we support Israel in finishing the job and eliminating Hamas?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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We are clear-eyed in our assessment of Hamas: we regard them as a terrorist organisation that has prosecuted an atrocity. We call on them to lay down their arms and to release the hostages. That is the precondition for any kind of meaningful and sustainable ceasefire.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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The Government have so far resisted having a proper debate and a vote on British military engagement in the middle east this year. The engagement of the British Army in Bosnia in the 1990s started out as being for the purposes of humanitarian aid, but was subject to mission creep as British soldiers were attacked by the warring parties. In 2006, John Reid said:

“We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”.

Will the Minister assure us that if the Government proposed using British troops on the ground in Gaza, they would first grant this House a debate and a vote on the matter?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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The lessons of Bosnia are interesting, and are not lost on Government Members. The hon. Gentleman should have no doubt that Ministers and the Government will remain fully accountable to this House.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Ind)
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May I declare an interest? Members of my close family have been, and are, involved in military operations in the middle east.

Bearing in mind my experience in Northern Ireland—seven tours—I am slightly worried that if our armed forces open fire in the middle east, which they have done, a foreign country will, at some future date, put them before an international court and charge them. I hope the Minister will declare that such a thing will never happen.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I am grateful to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman for his questions; he speaks from a position of knowledge. He should be assured, as should the House, that our forces in the region operate with the full force of the law behind them on the basis of collective self-defence.

Zarah Sultana Portrait Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) (Lab)
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Israeli media are reporting that the International Criminal Court could be about to issue an arrest warrant for Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials for the litany of war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. It is further reported that the United States Government are working to prevent justice from being done and to stop the ICC issuing arrest warrants. Does the Minister agree, after more than 34,000 Palestinians—women, men and children —have been slaughtered in Gaza and Israeli bombings have obliterated and decimated entire Palestinian neighbourhoods, that Benjamin Netanyahu should be held to account for his horrific crimes?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. We have to be careful: the question is quite framed. I am sure the Minister might want to pick part of that to answer.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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Yes; I regard that as out of scope.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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No, I think I do that—anyway, I call Robert Jenrick.

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con)
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Hamas are a terrorist organisation that hate the United Kingdom and everything that we stand for. It would therefore be deeply unwise for the UK to commit British servicemen and women, whether on the ground or on the pier in Gaza. It is for precisely that reason that the White House has categorically ruled this out. Will the Minister take the opportunity to do the same, so that we can reassure our constituents that we do not make an inadvertent mistake, and that British troops will continue doing what they should be doing, which is facilitating the complete eradication of Hamas?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend’s analysis and his comments about Hamas. Other than that, of course I will not comment on speculation in the media.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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What discussions has the Minister had regarding UN security forces accompanying trucks to enable them to move into Gaza in the light of the impediments they are facing, and also rebuilding infrastructure so that trucks can travel across the country to deliver crucial medical and other humanitarian aid?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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A great deal of energy from Ministers and officials is going into the ongoing discussion about how to operationalise the greater flow rate of humanitarian aid going into Gaza, so the hon. Lady asks a relevant question.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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The Minister is rightly reluctant to discuss the roles, dispositions and locations of British forces in the middle east, but could he again confirm to the House that the requisite force protection will be factored into all operational level planning, and also that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the UN could be coerced into taking a more active role in Gaza?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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My hon. Friend also asks a relevant question, and I can give him that assurance in relation to the deployment of RFA Cardigan Bay.

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)
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Some 34,000 people are already dead in Gaza, many are dying now in Rafah from wholly preventable conditions such as measles because of a lack of sanitation and medical care, and the Israeli bombardment is still going on. That is the biggest problem for getting aid in. What pressure is the Minister putting on the Israeli Government to cease the bombardment of Gaza, to ensure the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and to ensure that we will not be deploying British troops anywhere on the on the ground in Gaza, the west bank or any other part of the region and that instead we will search for peace and for justice for the people of Palestine?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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The right hon. Gentleman asks about the protection of civilians. We continue to make the point to our Israeli friends that they must seek to protect civilian lives, but of course the root cause of this is the atrocity committed by Hamas. For peace to be secured, all that would have to happen is for Hamas to lay down their arms and release the hostages.

Stephen Crabb Portrait Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
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Iran continues to present one of the most pressing and dangerous threats to the middle east and to global stability. With the increasing emphasis on the need for an integrated defence strategy comprising different nations of the region, does my hon. Friend agree that there is an ongoing, vital role for British forces to play, as they did so ably on the night of 13 and 14 April?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I wholeheartedly agree, and we should pay tribute to those who courageously played an active role in that defence of our collective security. Undoubtedly, British armed forces have a sustained and hugely important role to play in bringing peace and stability right across the region.

Nadia Whittome Portrait Nadia Whittome (Nottingham East) (Lab)
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The UN reports that 80% of all those in the world facing imminent famine are located in Gaza. With over 200 humanitarian workers killed by Israeli forces since October, a ceasefire is essential for the effective delivery of aid and for preventing famine in both the short term and the long term. How can the Government justify their continued refusal to back calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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The hon. Lady is correct that a ceasefire is needed, as it is the way to assure the flow of aid that Gazans need. The precondition of that ceasefire is for Hamas to lay down their arms and to release the hostages.

Andrew Percy Portrait Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con)
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I was in Israel on the night of the Iran attacks, and I saw the jets in the sky, David’s Sling and Iron Dome dealing with the ballistic missiles as they came in. I felt very proud to know that our forces were involved, and the Israelis were very grateful for our activity.

One group of people in Gaza who are not being provided with aid or proper medical checks are, of course, the hostages. Last Monday, I spoke to the parent of 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was last seen on 7 October being bundled into the back of a truck with his arm and hand missing, having had a grenade thrown into his shelter. A video was released on Wednesday, and it was the first sight of him. He looked in a very distressed state. Can the Minister assure me that we will continue to do everything we can, militarily and through intelligence, to help Israel to locate these hostages?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I can, of course, give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is a highly sensitive subject, and if he would care to raise the case with me individually, we will do what we can to follow up.

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
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Two months ago, the House passed Labour’s motion calling for an immediate ceasefire. We believe that Hamas must immediately release their hostages, but Israel must also look at releasing its prisoners. There has to be an immediate and unimpeded supply of aid into Gaza, but I am really concerned about UK forces getting involved. We should rely absolutely on aid being delivered by the charities and voluntary organisations on the ground. What is the Defence Secretary doing with our allies and regional partners to secure an immediate ceasefire?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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We continue to make the point that Hamas must lay down their arms and release the hostages. That is the precondition for peace.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)
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The key problem, as my hon. Friend will know, is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are appropriating aid meant for the Palestinians. What steps are our armed forces taking to ensure that aid gets to those who really need it, not the terrorist networks? What steps are they taking against Hamas’s terrorist tunnels under the Egyptian border? British armed forces could play a significant role in working with Israel to dismantle the tunnel networks.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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My right hon. Friend asks a very good question, and a huge amount of effort is going into this. We are energetically leaning into the prospect of a greater degree of aid flowing through the Cypriot and Jordanian humanitarian corridors, and the JLOTS temporary pier capability could be an absolute game changer.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Ind)
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The Government continue to provide huge sums of taxpayers’ money for arms and weapons for Ukraine, but minimal funding for humanitarian aid for Gaza. Does the Minister believe that the UK public share the Government’s spending priorities?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I believe they do, yes.

Mark Logan Portrait Mark Logan (Bolton North East) (Con)
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Despite some positive noises coming out of the middle east about a truce, for my constituents in Bolton it is deeply worrying to see reports of an increasingly likely ground offensive in the southern city of Rafah. The Minister spoke about not wanting to see any more bloodshed, but if there is a ground offensive, more blood will be shed. What are our Government, the Ministry of Defence in particular, doing to avoid bloodshed happening in Rafah and to prepare for different scenarios?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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We always make the point to our Israeli colleagues that the protection of civilian life is imperative. We acknowledge that Israel has an absolute right to self-defence, and we hope that Hamas will recognise that the path to peace lies in laying down their arms and releasing the hostages.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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My understanding is that the British Government do not support the ground offensive by the Israeli military in Rafah. Will they therefore use all the leverage at their disposal, including withdrawing arms export licences, if the Israeli Government act against British policy?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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We have one of the world’s toughest arms export regimes, of which we should be very proud.

James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
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On the middle east, it is a decade since this House voted to support the UK’s joining the global coalition against Daesh. Although territory has been liberated, does not the recent strike by the RAF against a rocket launcher being used to target coalition forces underline the need for a sustained, long-term commitment to defeat and destroy terrorism?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and we should be grateful for the role played by the RAF. It is a reminder that the price of peace is eternal vigilance.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for his responses. I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement last week about the extra defence spending. It is important that we support innocent victims who cannot protect themselves. The UK’s role in the middle east is much appreciated, acclaimed and respected. Does the Minister agree that in response to recent increased Iranian threats, for instance with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps being responsible for Hamas terrorist attacks across Gaza and the broader middle east, we must do whatever we can within our budget to encourage de-escalation and to try to prevent further attacks by Iran and its supporters?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he rightly says that putting in 2.5% of GDP by 2030 will provide that boost and ensure that we have the operational capability to achieve that global response that we need to keep our country safe.

Flick Drummond Portrait Mrs Flick Drummond (Meon Valley) (Con)
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We talk about 500 trucks a day because that was the pre-war number, but that was when Gaza had a relatively functioning economy and an agricultural sector to back it up. Therefore, more than 400 trucks will be needed, by land and sea, and so I thank the armed forces for their help in delivering aid and in helping to build the pier. What pressure are we putting on Israel to get more aid quickly delivered by land, which is the best and quickest way of doing it, and on the use of UNRWA in northern Gaza, as it has the most effective system to get aid to the right places quickly?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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My hon. Friend is correct: we do need to increase that flow. What would be a game changer is opening the port of Ashdod, and we continue to make that point forcefully to our colleagues.

Michael Ellis Portrait Sir Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that His Majesty’s armed forces could be providing any humanitarian support, now or in the future, only with Israel’s total co-operation and that it should be recognised for that? Has he noted also that Israel’s Iron Dome and Arrow 3 defensive systems, among other things, would, in effect, be part of the protection of His Majesty’s and other allied forces? Does he agree that that makes even more nonsense of the anti-Israel interests’ call for an arms embargo against Israel, because if allied forces, including His Majesty’s forces, were to be acting in the region, they would be looking for support from Israel itself?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point.

Checks on Goods Entering UK

Monday 29th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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16:09
Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will make a statement on the introduction of checks on goods entering the UK under the border target operating model due to be live on 30 April 2024.

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Sir Mark Spencer)
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Under the border target operating model, tomorrow the Government are introducing documentary and risk-based identity and physical checks on medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin imported from the EU. Checks on high-risk products, currently conducted at destination, are moving from destination to border control posts and control points. Recent media reports suggesting that the introduction of these controls will be delayed are incorrect.

Documentary checks will happen at all risk levels. Physical checks will initially focus on the highest-risk goods, with some also taking place on medium-risk commodities. We will build up to full check rates to both protect biosecurity and minimise disruption. We will continually review our enforcement approach as we track compliance and trade flow, and will adjust our approach accordingly. This pragmatic approach will support traders as they adjust to the new regime.

The Government have worked closely with industry, inspection agencies and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, known as APHA, to ensure we are ready for the introduction of these controls. We are confident that border control post infrastructure has sufficient capacity and capability to handle the volume of checks expected under the border target operating model. We are confident that our systems are robust, dynamic and effective, and that the inspection authorities are appropriately staffed and trained.

I close by emphasising that the introduction of these biosecurity controls is not optional. Now that we have moved away from the EU’s rigid biosecurity surveillance and reporting systems, we are responsible for protecting our own biosecurity against threats such as African swine fever.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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Let us start by saying this is not about Brexit because, whether Members supported or opposed Brexit, nothing proposed here is inevitable or unavoidable. Having left the EU, we need border controls, but what is proposed will not be controlled—it will be chaos.

The EU brought in checks in 2021, but this Government have delayed doing that five times. In that time, they could have negotiated a sanitary and phytosanitary deal to avoid the mess that is about to happen. Instead, from Wednesday, for the first time, 2.7 million lorries will need to be stopped at Dover so their contents can be checked, and another 4 million will require a health certificate for the animal products they carry. On top of that, 5 million of them will have to pay a common user charge for the privilege of importing goods deemed medium or high risk, whether or not they are inspected. The costs to business, which we know will be passed on to consumers, are horrendous and chaotic, and the charges were confirmed only on 18 April.

The Government have admitted that the checks will cause inflation, but they claim it is only £300 million—0.2%—over three years. Independent analysis shows it will be 10 times that amount, or £8 a month on the average food shop. If the Minister wants to dispute that figure, will he finally publish the modelling that the Government have refused to disclose so we can see how they have come to their numbers? We know their numbers are wrong because, while they have confirmed that the common user charge—the direct cost to each lorry—will be about £145 a time, they admit they have not calculated how much the new veterinary checks will cost, with some running to hundreds of pounds. They cannot make those calculations because they told European countries to set their own standards and charges, so how can Ministers tell us we can be confident when we do not know what will be passed to be healthy in Hungary, Germany or here?

If food standards matter to people, they will be disappointed because the Minister has just admitted that only “some” checks will happen on medium-risk goods from Wednesday. Will he put a number on how many checks will happen from Wednesday? Medium-risk goods are anything of animal origin that are not alive, but could also be beetroot or sweetcorn. What a mess.

Small businesses are going to be clobbered for a fee for a service they will not even get. On top of that, Sevington has not even been declared a border control post to carry out any of the checks. Where will goods coming into Dover be checked on Wednesday, especially if they are high risk? What about the other ports around the UK that can set their own charges? And who is going to enforce any of this? The Government told industry to be prepared, but there will not be any checks after 7 pm, so people can say goodbye to those just-in-time supply chains for perishable goods. People coming back from holiday have no idea what their “personal use” is, so they could be stopped for carrying gorgonzola.

With 36 hours to go, we need some straight answers. Our constituents cannot eat the paperwork or afford the price rises these checks will create. Corner shops, delis and restaurants will go bust and our ports will be bunged up. I say to the Minister that there is still time to cancel the Brexit border tax, so will he please listen to concerns from across the House and do so?

Mark Spencer Portrait Sir Mark Spencer
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The hon. Lady either chooses not to understand what is happening, or deliberately tries to inflame a situation that will be of great benefit to the UK moving forward. She deliberately picked the highest figure available. For low-risk goods, there is a £10 charge for products, capped at a maximum of five products, so the maximum amount that can be charged on a lorry load of low-risk goods would be £50.

The hon. Lady is right that we have calculated that over three years that will lead to an additional 0.2% on food inflation. In comparison, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease cost this country £12 billion, not taking into account the impact on international trade and our reputation as a country, so these checks are a small price to pay for ensuring we are safe and protected for phytosanitary and sanitary goods coming into the UK.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Sir Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
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Obviously, as part of the European Union and the single market, we could not impose checks to ensure that diseases such as African swine fever did not come into the country. The Minister has said that there will be a graduated approach to the introduction of the checks. What is the timescale for ramping them up to a level that he believes will be satisfactory? If consignments are diverted to Sevington, what measures will be in place to ensure that those trucks or vans actually arrive at Sevington and people do not dump what is on board in a layby or transfer it to another vehicle?

Mark Spencer Portrait Sir Mark Spencer
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for the scrutiny that his Select Committee has undertaken.

It is important to distinguish between those goods that come into the country through approved routes, via approved importers on traditional lines, and those people who may seek to import goods into the UK illegally or without that documentation. There will still be border control checks by Border Force at the port of Dover to catch those who are trying to do something illegal, but those who are operating within the system will move to Sevington. To stop halfway and avoid those checks would be a criminal act and those goods would not be able to be sold within the UK marketplace.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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We recognise the need to ensure the UK’s biosecurity, but I echo the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). What a mess. It is 29 April and the new checks are being introduced tomorrow, but the businesses involved are unclear about how the system is supposed to operate—and that is after the five delays that we have heard about and huge sums wasted on border control points. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how much has been wasted on Portsmouth, for instance.

We want these checks to work. I have been to the London and the Dover port health authorities and been extremely impressed by the work that they do, but it is baffling that, in the battle against Asian swine flu, at Dover, the Minister is taking away vital funding, as the Government move the checks 22 miles up the road to Sevington. Can he tell the House how food vehicles will be controlled on that journey, as Dover Port Health Authority tells me clearly that they won’t?

The Government have admitted that the cost will be an extra £330 million annually. Others say it will be more. What definitive figures can the Minister provide for the inflationary impact that this Government’s border measures will create for food supplies in the UK? What assessment has been made of the savings and efficiency that would be made if we were to achieve a better veterinary agreement with the EU?

In conclusion, the British chambers of commerce says that DEFRA has failed to listen to industry over these changes. Others say the same. Many businesses are exasperated by the endless delays and the repeated and continual lack of clarity and certainty in the implementation of the new system. Why have the Government left businesses and even border chiefs in a position where they simply cannot plan properly and are left in the dark, as one put it, at one minute to midnight in terms of being told about the essential features of the new system? What is the Minister going to do to sort out the mess?

Mark Spencer Portrait Sir Mark Spencer
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I thank the shadow Minister for his questions and his interest in this topic. What is clear is that there is a distinction between those goods that are coming into the country illegally, which will still be inspected at the port of Dover by Border Force, and those that are coming in via legitimate routes, by legitimate trade links, from areas that have been inspected by their own country’s equivalent of the Food Standards Agency to make sure that those port goods are safe to come into the UK with the correct documentation. Those goods will go to Sevington. But if someone tries to do something illegal, they will be picked up by Border Force at the port of Dover, via inspection, including intelligence-led inspection. [Interruption.] The shadow Minister says that there is no money, but we are in conversation with Port of Dover to resolve that.

The other challenge that the shadow Minister put to us was that we have delayed this a number of times. That has happened because we have been in conversation with those people and hauliers who have had comments on how to improve the system. We have listened to those concerns and now have the model that will operate, given the advice and liaison we have had with those companies.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
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As a veterinary surgeon, I am passionate about biosecurity. I am reassured that our Conservative Government are taking this matter very seriously indeed. I thank the Animal and Plant Health Agency and everyone at our borders who do so much in this regard. Prior to leaving the EU, we did not have the opportunity systematically to check animal and plant products coming into the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we now have the opportunity to strengthen our biosecurity and that the introduction of the border target operator model will protect animal, plant and, ultimately, human health in the UK moving forward?

Mark Spencer Portrait Sir Mark Spencer
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this area and his expertise in it. Moving forward, we will be in a much stronger place in terms of our phytosanitary and sanitary protections. That is the right outcome. We will continue to ensure that we are safe in the UK and that we protect our borders proportionately.