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House of Commons

Monday 7 February 2011

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Sure Start

1. Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): What estimate he has made of the number of Sure Start children's centres that will offer a full service in 2014-15. [38218]

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): The Government have ensured that there is enough money in the system to maintain the network of Sure Start children's centres and have provided new investment for health visitors. Local authorities, in consultation with local communities, can determine the most effective way of delivering future services to meet local need. They have a duty to consult before opening, closing or significantly changing children's centres and to make sufficient provision.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Minister for that answer, but in my local authority area, Tameside, the early intervention grant that funds Sure Start faces a cut of 12%. Does she agree that such a cut could be a false economy, because one of Sure Start's great benefits is that it saves the state further expenditure down the line by improving outcomes for young people through early intervention? What studies are her Department carrying out to estimate the likely future costs of cutting early intervention now?

Sarah Teather: We have provided a flexible grant because that is what local authorities said they wanted. Obviously, that includes money for Sure Start, but it also includes money for other things. Local authorities are the best people to make these decisions on the ground. Localism is the right way forward regardless of the circumstances, but when finances are tight there is a particular requirement on us to ensure that decisions are taken closest to where the impact is felt, because we are much more likely to get high-quality decisions in that way.

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the early years provision plays a vital part in social mobility? How many two-year-olds does she expect will benefit from the programme to extend that to disadvantaged children?

Sarah Teather: I absolutely agree that the early years play a vital role in social mobility, which is precisely why the Government have chosen to prioritise funding in this way. Tomorrow, we will debate the Second Reading of the Education Bill, whose first clause provides the enabling powers for us to regulate so that we can help an extra 130,000 two-year-olds to experience high-quality early education by the end of the spending period.

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that there is an inherent contradiction in a policy that announces that the Government will protect the original local Sure Start programmes in the most deprived areas, which I was proud to develop from 1997, while, with the so-called "localism programme", saying, "It is entirely the fault of the local authorities," which have been denied the money to maintain those programmes in the first place?

Sarah Teather: The right hon. Gentleman is right to be proud of the Sure Start children's centres, which are an excellent programme. That is precisely why the
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Government have made sure that the money is there in the early intervention grant, and why we have built on that by providing extra money for health visitors, through the Department of Health, and more money for things such as the family-nurse partnerships, which we know work on the ground and are often delivered through children's centres. I believe that localism is the right way forward. Good local councils are thinking creatively about, for example, how to ensure that they can cluster their centres and merge their back offices, and how to prioritise outcomes for children-it is outcomes that matter.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend envisage opening up the assets of these underused children's centres to community groups to expand the big society?

Sarah Teather: In some areas, local authorities are very good at making full use of the assets, which are often fantastic buildings, but in other areas they are not as good. I hope that providing the flexible fund will mean that local authorities start to think more creatively about how they can join services together and perhaps provide support for older children. By providing that kind of flexibility we enable local authorities to make the right decisions for their areas.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): Recent research by the Daycare Trust and 4Children shows that, despite promises made by the Prime Minister and his deputy, 250 children's centres are expected to close within the year, with hundreds more at risk of closure or big cuts in the services they provide. Hundreds of thousands of parents across the country are deeply worried about this, but all we get from the Minister is glib indifference. I read this morning that the Secretary of State has announced that funding for music will be maintained, so, incidentally, the Government feel that that is worth ring-fencing whereas Sure Start is not. To paraphrase my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), does the Minister not think that parents deserve much more than having to listen to the Secretary of State playing his fiddle while Sure Start burns around him?

Sarah Teather: That was a long rant and I struggled slightly to find the question in it. The important thing to say about the survey that 4Children did is that it is about people's concerns and not about decisions that have been taken-decisions have not yet been taken. We are saying to local authorities that we want them to focus on outcomes for children and families. We are trying to encourage them to do that by holding back some money for payment by results and we are developing that scheme with the sector at the moment. Good local authorities that make sensible restructuring decisions will be able to benefit from that, but if they make decisions that jeopardise outcomes for children, they will not be able to benefit from it.

Discretionary Learner Support Fund

2. David Wright (Telford) (Lab): When he plans to inform colleges of the size of the discretionary learner support fund to replace the education maintenance allowance; and if he will make a statement. [38219]

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The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): We plan to allocate the new funding replacing the education maintenance allowance in line with the usual timetable for overall funding allocations for schools and colleges, which will be made in the spring.

David Wright: The real concern is about transitional arrangements. Will the Minister explain what discussions he has had with colleges about the transitional arrangements, particularly for students who have already started their course and want to continue receiving funding support while they carry on with it?

Mr Hayes: The hon. Gentleman is right that transitional arrangements are important. We are in discussions with colleges and their representative bodies to ensure that there is not the kind of problem that he identifies. We are determined to allocate these resources in the way that addresses disadvantage most cost-effectively and ensures that the worse-off are not still worse off as a result of the changes.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The previous Labour Government left 3.9 million children living below the poverty line. Can the Minister give an assurance that when the children abandoned by Labour eventually arrive at further education colleges, they will all receive a discretionary learner support fund grant?

Mr Hayes: As I have said, we will ensure that those who are worse off are not disadvantaged by the system. Redistributing advantage and ensuring that there is a change in the prospects and opportunities for those who begin worse off is at the heart of all this Government do. We are the champions of social justice-past, present and future.

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): In last month's debate on the education maintenance allowance, the Secretary of State pledged that any replacement scheme for EMA would cover the costs of transport and equipment and would support young people with special educational needs or learning disabilities as well as those with caring responsibilities, teenage parents and those who were eligible for free school meals when at school. Given that research from the House of Commons Library indicates that such pledges would have a first-year cost of £480 million and ongoing costs of £420 million a year, will the Minister confirm, on behalf of the Secretary of State, that this is the budget for EMA's successor and that he stands by the pledges he made to the House?

Mr Hayes: The hon. Gentleman is far too experienced as a Minister to expect me to make that kind of on-the-hoof promise. Equally, he knows that we are determined to amend this scheme to allow it to be targeted using the discretion to do the kind of things that he highlighted. After all, his own shadow Secretary of State has said:

Teaching Standards

3. John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): What plans he has to raise standards of the teaching profession; and if he will make a statement. [38220]

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The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): There is nothing more important to a child's education than the quality of their teachers, which is why I set out plans to raise the status and standards of the teaching profession in the White Paper "The Importance of Teaching". We will focus on recruiting the best candidates to become teachers, we will improve their training and we will create more opportunities for all teachers to learn from the best.

John Stevenson: Will the Secretary of State reassure pupils and parents in my constituency of Carlisle that the quality of science and maths-based teaching will not suffer as the academies programme continues successfully to expand?

Michael Gove: I am delighted to be able to reassure my fellow Aberdonian that the quality of education that children in Carlisle enjoy will continue to improve. I have had the opportunity to visit some of the superb academy provision in his constituency. I know, and I am sure that every right hon. and hon. Member will be pleased to know, that we will guarantee an enhanced level of support for graduates who are scientists or mathematicians who wish to enter teaching in order to ensure that the subjects that will help to equip our children for the 21st century are given the boost they need.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I know the Secretary of State will want to acknowledge that thanks to Labour's reforms we already have the best generation ever of teachers-that is according to Ofsted. He says in his White Paper that quality teacher training is vital, but he is allowing taxpayers' money to be used to employ unqualified individuals to teach children in his so-called free schools. If having well-qualified teachers is vital for some schoolchildren, why is it not essential for all?

Michael Gove: We are making sure that all children have access to improved quality of teaching by ensuring that we reform initial teacher training in a way that builds-yes-on some of the successes that we have seen in the past. We are also ensuring that new teaching schools are established. Many of these will be free schools and many higher education institutions, including the university of Cumbria, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), are playing a role in helping to improve teacher training. Thanks to the expansion of Teach First, which the previous Government-yes-supported, but not as generously as we are doing, there are more talented teachers everywhere. I was delighted to be able to share a platform and a room with the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on Friday, when we signalled that Teach First was expanding into the north-east of England, something that was never accomplished under the previous Government, but which, under this reforming and progressive Government-

Mr Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State will resume his seat. We are moving on to the next question.

Vocational Education

4. Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): What plans he has to improve vocational education; and if he will make a statement. [38221]

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The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): The Government are keen to make significant improvements to vocational education, its organisation, funding and target audience-for example, through university technical colleges. Professor Alison Wolf has been commissioned to produce a report which will be published in spring 2011 and her findings will inform our determination to reinvigorate vocational education.

Graham Evans: How will the Government boost the number of apprentices and ensure that those who complete their training will get the status and recognition that they deserve?

Mr Hayes: It was Dr. Johnson who said that a lack of manual dexterity constitutes a form of ignorance. The Government are determined to boost the number of apprenticeships, which is why we have put in place funding for 75,000 more adult apprenticeships and 30,000 more apprenticeships for young people. Today, in The Times-I know you will have seen it, Mr Speaker; others may not have done-we have for the first time celebrated the achievements of those who achieved higher apprenticeships in 2010. This ensures that apprentices and all those who aspire to and achieve vocational qualifications get the status and recognition that they deserve.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the Minister.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Can the Minister tell the House what evidence-the operative word is "evidence"-supports his decision to limit the curriculum so severely and thereby exclude many thousands of young people from accessing the curriculum successfully?

Mr Hayes: The evidence is that we have commissioned a report on vocational learning, we have put in place funding for apprenticeships, and we are determined to ensure that the status of those vocational courses is maintained and grown. The evidence is simply the evidence of the Government's commitment and record so far in office. That is good enough for me. It should be good enough for the hon. Lady.

University Technical Colleges

5. Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): What qualifications he expects to be required for pupils to gain entry to university technical colleges. [38222]

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): University technical colleges will be 14-to-19 institutions, with 14 being the normal age of entry. We do not expect pupils to be required to have any qualifications to gain entry to a university technical college.

Andrew Selous: I share the hope that university technical colleges will indeed bring poverty-busting structural change, and I look forward to the establishment of one in Houghton Regis in my constituency. I hope my hon. Friend can reassure me that university technical colleges will not seek to exclude those who are not predicted to get brilliant GCSEs, who may well have just the right attitude to shine in a university technical college.

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Mr Gibb: I am happy to provide that reassurance, and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his active support for the central Bedfordshire UTC proposals. UTCs will be required to adopt fair and open admission arrangements. They will give priority to the same statutory groups as maintained schools, children with a statement of special educational needs and children in care, and they will not be able to require that children have reached certain levels of attainment or that they have specific qualifications in order to qualify for admission. UTCs are for young people of all abilities.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I welcome the proposal because we have in this country almost a contempt for technical qualifications and for engineering. Turning that around will require giving orders to the professional organisations and increasing the role and status of people coming out of those courses. Perhaps we might have one or two members of the Cabinet who are thus qualified, even if their only engineering qualification is engineering their financial blind trust to hide where their money is.

Mr Gibb: The right hon. Gentleman is right to support this development. We intend to have 12 UTCs up and running by the end of the spending review period. He is also right to emphasise the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths, which the Government are committed to.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I share my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for UTCs, but is he confident that the English baccalaureate will not have a cramping impact on the power of innovation in institutions such as UTCs, so that we can ensure the most appropriate education for all their pupils?

Mr Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The English baccalaureate is designed to leave ample time in the curriculum for other subjects, including vocational subjects. In the countries around the world that have the best technical education systems, core academic subjects are taught alongside, not instead of, technical or vocational subjects until their students reach the age of 15 or 16. Subjects such as modern languages are critical for the technical and vocational success of young people.

Children's Homes

6. Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to reduce the incidence of children going missing from children's homes. [38223]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): All local authorities are required to have procedures and processes in place to minimise the risk of children in care going missing. In April, we will bring in revised national minimum standards for children's homes, which will strengthen the national guidance on this issue.

Ann Coffey: In Greater Manchester, more than half of all missing incidents involve children from children's homes. According to a recent Barnardo's report, many of those children are at risk from paedophile and criminal gangs. Will the Minister consider issuing statutory guidance
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to local safeguarding boards, asking them to monitor all incidents of children going missing and share that information with other agencies, such as Ofsted, so that action can be taken to reduce the number of children going missing and the risk to them?

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady makes a good point and I pay tribute to her work as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults. I am looking closely at the Barnardo's report with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). This is a serious issue, but, without bring complacent, the incidence of children running away from children's homes has been reducing over the past few years, and the figures are calculated on the basis of those who are missing for more than 24 hours, but in fact most children return within 48 hours. It is something that I will continue to look at.

Music Education

7. Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect on music education in schools of reductions in his Department's funding for music services. [38224]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): I am happy to inform the House that this morning we published Mr Darren Henley's review on music education, and I am hugely grateful to him for his in-depth consideration of the issues and for the realistic and practical measures he has put forward. Following that report, I can now confirm that funding for music education in 2011-12 will be the same as it was in 2010-11-£82.5 million. That is not a cut; it is a very good settlement for music services, which is consistent with our broader strategies for school autonomy and deficit reduction.

Diana Johnson: I, too, pay tribute to the work of Darren Henley, who has at heart the need to ensure that young people get a good music education. Labour's £332 million investment in school music helped children from poor and average backgrounds access good education in music. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the £82.5 million, although ring-fenced, is a real-terms cut? Local authorities are already slashing music services in their areas, so rather than blowing his own trumpet, should the Secretary of State not admit that this is really a cut, just as was his cut to school sport?

Michael Gove: Once again, we have had a superb pun: we had trumpets from the Back Benches and fiddles from the Front Bench, but what a pity they are not singing from the same hymn sheet as Darren Henley, local authorities and all those who care about music. From Alfie Boe the tenor, to Julian Lloyd Webber the cello player, everyone in the world of music is saying that today is good news for all children who want to learn more about music, including your own, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I am very grateful.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): Bedfordshire Orchestral Society has an enviable record of promoting music in schools, but it is reliant on funding from two local
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authorities. Even ahead of today's good news from the Secretary of State, Bedford borough council has committed funding, so will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging Central Bedfordshire council to do likewise?

Michael Gove: When Central Bedfordshire council hears that my hon. Friend and I are both on the case, I am sure that it will be only too happy to join in and become as one in harmony with us both.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Once again, there is a chasm between rhetoric and reality: the big announcement is a cash freeze, which in real terms is a cut. It is another example of confused decision making. The right hon. Gentleman promises to increase access to music, but the cuts mean that 60% of schools, as surveyed by the National Association of Music Educators, are cutting music provision this year. Does he accept that, unless music is protected and ring-fenced not just for one year but into the future, all his rhetoric will lead to is less music provision in deprived areas?

Michael Gove: There is a huge chasm between rhetoric and reality: the chasm between the apocalyptic rhetoric that we heard from the Opposition Front Benchers and their sock puppets elsewhere, and the reality of increased funding for those areas that need it most, and new funding for the teach music first scheme, ensuring that some of our most talented musicians from leading music schools and conservatoires work in our most challenging schools to ensure that every child has an opportunity, which I, like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), believe should be extended to all. It is only under this Government, with this announcement on school music and our pupil premium, that we are at last ensuring that money goes to those children who need it most, instead of being wasted on the quangos and bureaucrats that characterised the past 13 wasted years.

Early Years Education

8. Lorraine Fullbrook (South Ribble) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve the quality of the work force in early years education. [38225]

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): The Government are committed to taking steps to improve and invest in the quality of the early education and child care work force. We continue to invest in the work force by making funding available via the new early intervention grant, and by committing to fund the early years professional status and new leaders in early years programmes in 2011-12. We will publish proposals to support further improvement in the quality of the work force in the spring.

Lorraine Fullbrook: Last week, when opening the Hesketh Bank children's centre in my constituency, I saw at first hand how essential the excellent staff are in helping families and children in the local community. How will the new leaders programme and the early years professional status programme ensure that more talented and committed people work in early years education?

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Sarah Teather: I am very pleased to hear about the excellent work of the children's centre staff in Hesketh Bank. The two programmes to which my hon. Friend refers will focus specifically on professionalism in the early years work force. The early years professional status programme enables people who already work in the sector to have their experience acknowledged, their skills refreshed and their learning updated. The new leaders programme is based around the Teach First and Teach Next programmes and designed specifically to bring into the early years work force talented people, with the potential to be great leaders, who might not otherwise have thought about working in the sector.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister will be aware of several distressing cases recently of children in early years care being abused by staff. Will she commit, as part of that development, to ensure greater child protection training for early years workers, so that they not only know what is happening to children in the home, but can construct working practices that ensure such abuse cannot take place in the future?

Sarah Teather: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that matter, which has been very distressing to follow. She will be aware that no prosecutions have yet taken place, but I have asked Dame Clare Tickell to undertake a review for the Government of the early years foundation stage, and one of the things she is looking at is child protection and welfare.

Religious Education

9. Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): Whether he plans to include religious education in the humanities section of the English baccalaureate. [38226]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): Religious education did not count towards the humanities element of the English baccalaureate in the 2010 performance tables, because it is already a compulsory subject. One intention of the English baccalaureate is to encourage wider take-up of geography and history in addition to, rather than instead of, compulsory RE.

Caroline Nokes: I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but does he think that the exclusion of religious education from the English baccalaureate might dramatically reduce the number of students studying the RE full course at GCSE and have a knock-on and detrimental effect on the number of candidates for religious education teacher training?

Michael Gove: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making her point. We all recognise that high-quality religious education is a characteristic of the very best schools-faith schools and non-faith schools. But the decision to include geography and history in the humanities section of the English baccalaureate will mean that those subjects, which have seen a decline in the number of students pursuing them, will at last see an increase, alongside modern foreign languages. As the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) pointed out, the English baccalaureate is intended to be a suite of core academic qualifications, which every child can be expected to follow alongside other qualifications, whether vocational, RE or others.

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Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): Can the Secretary of State tell the House on what research or evidence he has based his selection of subjects in the new English baccalaureate?

Michael Gove: Yes. The research and evidence that I undertook was to look at what the highest performing education jurisdictions do. When the OECD published its table on how our country had been doing in education over the past 10 years, I was struck to see that under Labour's stewardship we had slipped in the international league tables for English, for mathematics and for science. I was also struck by the fact that the numbers of students studying modern foreign languages, history and geography were declining. I was particularly struck by the fact that only last week the Russell group said that these are the subjects which the best universities expect of students if they are to go on and prosper and achieve the level of social mobility that sadly eluded us when the right hon. Gentleman was in government.

Andy Burnham: The Secretary of State mentions the OECD, so let me quote from last year's PISA-programme for international student assessment-report, which says:

That is in direct contradiction to what he has just said. I support the right of every child to take these five GCSEs, but it is a narrow selection, and not right for everybody, and the way in which he has introduced it is restricting student choice right now. Many feel that it is not a fair way to judge all children and all schools, suggesting that some are second best. So is he really saying to young people and employers today that dead languages are more important than business studies, engineering, information and communications technology, music and RE? Will he not listen to the call from the Chair of the Select Committee, made just a few moments ago, to allow a broader and more flexible English baccalaureate?

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but these questions are becoming excessively long. I hope that we can have a pithy response, and I am sure we will, from the Secretary of State.

Michael Gove: I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has the brass neck to quote the PISA figures when they show that on his watch the standard of education which was offered to young people in this country declined relative to our international competitors. Literacy, down; numeracy, down; science, down: fail, fail, fail. I am surprised that he has the brass neck to stand here and to say that working-class children should not study modern foreign languages, should not study science, should not study history and should not study geography. If it is good enough for the likes of him, why should it not be good enough for working-class children elsewhere? Why is he pulling up the drawbridge on social mobility? Why is he saying that they are only fit to be hewers of wood and drawers of water rather than university graduates like you and me, Mr Speaker? Rank hypocrisy!

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): While I entirely accept the Secretary of State's point that RE is compulsory, it is not obligatory to
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sit the GCSE. Does he agree that the very many faith schools where RE is compulsory are thereby penalised in the calculation of their English baccalaureate achievement?

Michael Gove: I appreciate the care with which my hon. Friend puts his question. I also appreciate the fact that he has been a very strong advocate for faith schools in his own constituency, including St Mary's, whose cause he has championed with particular eloquence. I do appreciate that many schools will want to offer RE as a GCSE, and indeed we would encourage them to do so, but the core element of the English baccalaureate relates to five subjects which we believe are the essential academic knowledge that students should be able to master. The news from the Russell group of universities last week that the subjects that we have chosen for the English baccalaureate are the subjects that they expect students to have if they are to go on to leading universities ensures that there is an appropriate match between schools and universities in advancing social mobility rather than seeing it decline, as happened in the past 13 years.

Youth Services

10. Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): What steps he is taking to ensure the provision of good quality youth services. [38227]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): I should point out that the Department for Education does not have responsibility for the provision of youth services in Wales. However, we are working to modernise and improve the quality of services for young people in England with our stakeholders, including, of course, young people themselves. The early intervention grant is providing more than £2 billion per annum to local authorities' funding for early intervention services, including for young people. We secured £134 million in capital funding for the remaining myplace projects. The Government are also launching the national citizen service programme, which over time will offer all 16-year-olds a shared opportunity for personal and social development, community service and engagement.

Nick Smith: Youth services around the country are anticipating crisis as councils are forced to pass on savage cuts, and the Government seem unwilling to protect these vital services. Will the Minister confirm that the youth service, which provides services week in, week out, has a distinct and specialist role and will not be replaced by the national citizen service programme?

Tim Loughton: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of good quality youth services, particularly those that are focused on the people who will get the most from them. To reiterate the point made by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), it is the duty of local authorities to chose how best to spend their funds. National citizen service funding is a separate funding stream that was negotiated with the Treasury, and it does not impact on the funding for youth services from the Department for Education.

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Schools (Loughborough)

11. Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of school standards in Loughborough constituency. [38228]

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): In 2010, at key stage 2, 72% of pupils in Loughborough achieved level 4 or above in English and maths combined, compared with 73% in England as a whole. In 2010, at key stage 4, 56% of pupils in maintained schools in Loughborough achieved five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C, including English and maths, compared with 55% in maintained schools in England as a whole.

Nicky Morgan: I thank the Minister for that reply. The GCSE results in Loughborough for the past few years have consistently been below the English average. Locally, many people attribute that to the fact that pupils change school at 14 in Leicestershire, which unsettles pupils and is difficult for teachers. Is he aware that many people in my constituency would like that system to change? Will the Department listen to head teachers on that issue?

Mr Gibb: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in Loughborough. When she and I visited Humphrey Perkins high school and Loughborough Church of England primary school together before the election, it was clear that she was passionate about education and raising standards. I know that there is a widely held view in Loughborough that changing school at 14 can have a negative impact on GCSE results at 16. Improving standards must be the driver for local restructuring. I know that that is my hon. Friend's rationale for seeking to change the system in Loughborough. Lord Hill has a meeting with her and some teachers from Loughborough tomorrow-I mean literally tomorrow, not the parliamentary tomorrow-and I know that he will be keen to explore these issues in as helpful a way as possible.

Core Subjects

12. Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): What steps he plans to take to strengthen the teaching of core subjects in schools. [38229]

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): The White Paper "The Importance of Teaching" emphasises the importance of high quality teaching in the core subjects. We are introducing the English baccalaureate, which recognises achievement in the core subjects of English, maths, science, a humanity and a foreign language. It is intended to ensure that children receive a broad and balanced education, with time in the curriculum for vocational and creative subjects. We are taking steps to strengthen the teaching of reading through the use of systematic synthetic phonics.

Richard Harrington: I am sure the Minister is aware that in 2009, fewer than one in 25 children who were on free school meals took chemistry or physics, one in five took history, and fewer than 15% took geography or French. What plans does he have to ensure that children from poorer backgrounds get access to a proper academic education?

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Mr Gibb: I share my hon. Friend's concern. That is why we have introduced the English baccalaureate. We are concerned that the number of pupils who currently receive a broad education in core academic subjects is far too small. That is particularly the case for pupils in disadvantaged areas. The English baccalaureate is designed to recognise the success of pupils who gain GCSEs or International GCSEs at grades A* to C across a core of academic subjects: English, maths, a humanity, the sciences and a language. We want to encourage more people to study those core subjects and to give all pupils the opportunity to study them, regardless of the school.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): Many youngsters achieve good grades in GCSE maths without ever having studied algebra. That puts them at a disadvantage when they want to pursue mathematics beyond GCSE. Should algebra not be a vital part of GCSE maths?

Mr Gibb: Yet again, the hon. Gentleman says something with which I wholeheartedly agree. He is passionate about raising standards in our schools, as are we. That is why we recently announced the setting up of a review of the national curriculum. An expert advisory panel of head teachers from around the country will consider English, maths and science as the first part of the review.

Special Educational Needs

13. Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): How many applications his Department has received to establish free schools for children with special educational needs. [38230]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): My Department has received a number of proposals from groups and individuals interested in establishing free schools wholly or mainly catering for children with special educational needs. We have received more than 240 applications overall.

Stuart Andrew: It has been a pleasure of mine to work with two groups that are hoping to take advantage of the policy. One of them, the Lighthouse project in Leeds, this weekend submitted an excellent application to open a school for young people suffering with autism spectrum disorders. It is eager to do so in the autumn, but after what it has heard from the Department, it is concerned that there may be some delays. It does not want to lose momentum. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and representatives of that organisation to see what we can do to progress the application?

Michael Gove: I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the Lighthouse group. I have to stress that it is important to ensure that all the issues surrounding the establishment of any new school are successfully navigated. Opening any free school in September 2011 is a challenging timetable. Under the last Government it would take between five and 10 years for a new school to open, so it is remarkable that so many may open within a year. I will look closely at the matter, but I suspect that given the complexity of some of the issues involved we may not be able to open in September 2011. However, let us discuss it and ensure that we can support-

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Mr Speaker: Order. May I gently ask the Secretary of State to face the Chamber, so that I can be the full beneficiary of his eloquence?

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Secretary of State bear in mind the fact that successful special educational needs provision depends very much on integration with other schools? That was the finding of the former Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. We very much support good SEN provision, but it must be integrated with the local schools that take other kinds of children.

Michael Gove: I absolutely recognise that when we are talking about children with special educational needs, there is such a broad and complex spectrum that one solution will not fit all children. I had the opportunity to visit Redcar community college on Thursday, and I saw there an imaginative proposal to co-locate Kirkleatham Hall special school with that college. That seems to be the right solution there, but different solutions will apply elsewhere. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) for his impassioned advocacy of those two schools.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Further to the Secretary of State's answer, is he open to suggestions for replacing provision offered by pupil referral units in some parts of the country? Outcomes at such units are variable across the country.

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and one thing that the Education Bill will do is make it easier to ensure that we can have high quality provision for students who are excluded for whatever reason.

Home-to-school Travel

14. Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): Whom his Department plans to consult in its review of home-to-school travel; and when that review will be completed. [38231]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): My Department is reviewing home-to-school transport policy, which has remained largely unchanged since the Education Act 1944, when the social, economic and education landscape was very different. As part of our review, we are considering how best practice can be spread to all local authorities. We will make further announcements in due course.

Mrs Glindon: North Tyneside's Tory-led council is currently reviewing its home-to-school travel policy to include a proposal to stop free and subsidised travel for children who travel more than three miles to school. As that will affect more than 400 pupils who travel from across the borough to St Thomas More RC high school, which is the only faith school in North Tyneside, will the Secretary of State please make a statement to support my constituents and their children against that unfair proposal?

Michael Gove: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue. It is important that we support the exercising of school choice, and that we support faith schools and the great schools of North Tyneside, such as Whitley Bay high school, whose headmaster I had the opportunity to talk to on Thursday when I visited
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the north-east. I will look into the specific situation that the hon. Lady mentioned, but of course one thing that all local authorities are dealing with is the drastic economic inheritance bequeathed by the last Labour Government.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Will the Secretary of State, who I know is a friend of North Yorkshire and a frequent visitor, look carefully at the proposals that North Yorkshire county council is coming up with for a similar review, bearing in mind that the distances that children have to travel cannot be covered by anything other than either bus or car?

Michael Gove: I am very well aware of the specific challenges that North Yorkshire has in helping to ensure that children can exercise school choice and go to the most appropriate local school. I know that it is one of the most successful local authorities in terms of both value for money and school performance, so I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and the local authority to come to the right outcome.

School Discipline

15. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve school discipline in (a) Kettering constituency, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England. [38232]

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): Raising standards of behaviour in our schools is a key priority for the coalition Government. It goes to the root of how we raise standards, and it lies at the heart of our determination to close the attainment gap between those from poor and wealthier backgrounds. The Education Bill, which we will debate tomorrow, sets out reforms to tackle poor behaviour, making it easier to impose no-notice detentions, extending search powers for items that disrupt teachers and making it easier for heads to expel violent and persistently disruptive pupils.

Mr Hollobone: Will my hon. Friend ensure that, under this Government, badly behaved pupils who do not want to learn cannot damage the education of hard-working pupils who do?

Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is not just the rights of the pupils who disrupt the class that are important-although they are-but those of the overwhelming majority of students in class, which we must also protect.

Education Maintenance Allowance

16. Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the savings to accrue from terminating education maintenance allowance payments in September 2011 for students who are already part of the way through a two-year programme of study. [38233]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): The cost of continuing to pay EMA from September 2011 for a further year to all students currently receiving it is estimated at £300 million, excluding the costs of administration.

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Hugh Bayley: York college tells me that, last September, on the Secretary of State's watch, 650 students started two-year courses in the expectation of getting an education maintenance allowance for two years. To continue it would cost less than £500,000. Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider?

Michael Gove: I am very grateful for the moderate and considered way in which the hon. Gentleman puts his point-I know how passionate he is about further education. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. Hon. Gentlemen should not yell from a sedentary position. I want to hear the Secretary of State's answer, and I hope that the House does, too.

Michael Gove: Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is ironic that we were just discussing poor behaviour and people in class disrupting those who want to learn. I am keen to work with the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), and college principals in particular, to ensure that our new, enhanced learner support fund can help all those vulnerable young people who need support to stay in education and learning.

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): When the Secretary of State assesses the size of the discretionary learner support to be made available to each college, will he consider at least making one of the criteria the number of second-year students who currently receive EMA, to assist colleges and students in the transition to the new system?

Michael Gove: That is a constructive suggestion, which I will consider as part of the review.

Topical Questions

T1. [38243] Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): I am pleased to announce that, on 1 February, more than another 30 schools converted to academy status, meaning that there are now more than 440 academies. Tomorrow we will debate the Education Bill, which will give all Members an opportunity to consider the further advance of the movement, which gives all head teachers more autonomy, and promises all children the raising of standards. The Education Bill will also provide all Members with an opportunity to vote for measures that will ensure better discipline and higher standards in every school.

Mr Slaughter: The Schools Minister, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), is fond of saying that there is adequate money in the early intervention grant to fund the network of children's centres. An education authority such as Hammersmith and Fulham is cutting by half in one year the children's centre budget, closing nine out of 15 centres, including phase 1 centres in deprived areas, and sacking 50 staff-does that give the Secretary of State and the Minister pause for thought? If so, what will they do about education authorities that are wrecking children's centres?

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The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): The hon. Gentleman has expressed his concern to me about the position in his area, and we discussed it last week. I will say what I said in answer to other hon. Members: good local authorities are restructuring with care, and looking at methods of clustering centres to merge back-office functions, because they know that that is the way to benefit from the Government's work on payment by results.

T3. [38245] Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): One of my local head teachers said to me last year that it can take up to a year to move a teacher who is not up to their particular responsibilities. Given that that could be a critical year for the children concerned, what steps can my right hon. Friend take to speed up that process?

Michael Gove: No one is served when people who should not be in the classroom continue there. It increases the burden on other professionals and deprives children of the highest quality education. We are reviewing the professional standards for all teachers to make it easier for head teachers to ensure that staff who underperform are given the support that they need to improve or to move on.

T6. [38248] Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Given that the cuts in EMA will affect more than 2,600 low-paid families in my constituency, is the Minister not ashamed of that policy? What will he do to increase the top-up learner funds to help at least some of those families?

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): I have made it clear that we are absolutely determined to ensure that the worst-off are not disadvantaged by the new arrangements. However, I believe that there is a strong case for greater discretion to target some of things that Opposition Front Benchers identified as salient in helping people to achieve their best.

T4. [38246] Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of getting more capital into free schools would be to enable them to obtain it on the open market by allowing them the freedom to make a profit, as they can in Sweden? When will my right hon. Friend have the courage of his convictions and enable free schools to have the same freedoms as they have in Sweden?

Michael Gove: It is always a pleasure to hear the radical proposals of my hon. Friend, whose stewardship of money when he was a councillor in Wandsworth and a Minister in a previous Conservative Government is a model to all. I shall look carefully at the case he makes, but the one thing that is clear is that we already know that our programme ensures that more new school places are being provided more cheaply than was the case under the previous Labour Government.

T7. [38249] Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): Today is the first day of national apprenticeships week. We know that one of the most significant barriers to young people taking up apprenticeships is getting the right advice at school. In fact, there is now a confused
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situation, because the Government want to end Connexions and introduce an all-age service. Will the Minister explain what extra funds will be available to schools to procure advice for young people?

Mr Hayes: The hon. Lady is right to champion apprenticeships week. Indeed, she has personally championed apprenticeships in her constituency, and she knows that the Government are having ongoing discussions to see how we can help with that. It is critical that people get good, empirical, independent advice and guidance on vocational options such as apprenticeships. In the Education Bill, which the House is about to consider, we will make it a duty for schools to secure that independent, impartial advice on vocational learning.

T5. [38247] Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Cambridgeshire gets less school funding per pupil than almost anywhere in the country. If we received the per pupil average across England, we would have some £34 million more for education. Can the Secretary of State explain why pupils in Cambridgeshire deserve so much less money, and will he review that?

Michael Gove: They deserve to be treated like every other student. We are reviewing funding and will be publishing a paper in the spring to try to ensure greater equity in the allocation of schools funding.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): All 19 of the children's centres in Sefton are under review. Does the Minister stand by her statement that local authorities have a legal duty to maintain a sufficient network of children's centres? If she does, how many of Sefton council's 19 children's centres should it keep open to meet those legal duties?

Sarah Teather: The hon. Gentleman and I discussed this matter in detail when he introduced an Adjournment debate last week. I stand by my statement. Similarly, the council has a legal duty to consult before closing, opening or restructuring in its area. I am sure that it is in the middle of that consultation at the moment, and that parents will make their views very clear.

T8. [38250] Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Can the Secretary of State assure me that changes to education maintenance allowance will not leave college students disadvantaged compared with school sixth-formers, who will still be entitled to free school meals?

Michael Gove: That point is well made by my hon. Friend. We have an anomaly at the moment, whereby the position of those in colleges and those in schools is not the same. The whole thrust of our policy making has been to try to ensure a level playing field between schools and colleges. The point he makes with respect to EMA weighs heavily with my colleagues and me.

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): Staff at the Independent Safeguarding Authority in Darlington learned from The Daily Telegraph on Saturday that the vetting and barring scheme is to be significantly scaled back. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary about the reduction of that scheme, which is likely to affect child protection?

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Michael Gove: I had the opportunity to visit the hon. Lady's constituency on Thursday, when I spoke to staff at Mowden Hall, the Department for Education headquarters in Darlington. I am pleased to say that I am the first Secretary of State to visit Darlington and Mowden Hall since the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), which is indicative of this Government's commitment to the north-east, which was sadly not shared by the previous Administration.

A response to the Government's review of vetting and barring will be made. The House will be informed of the details first. The one thing that we know is that the bureaucratic burden on the voluntary sector will be lifted. We will not only have a more proportionate system, but more children will be kept safe. Above all, we will ensure that volunteers and those who do so much to help in our society are given the trust that they need in order to carry on doing the wonderful work that they do.

T9. [38251] Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Will Ministers be prepared to look again at the rather puzzling exclusion of classical civilisation from the list of humanities scored in the English baccalaureate? Is classical civilisation not a humanity?

Michael Gove: I am tempted to reply, "Timeo danaos et dona ferentes," which, broadly translated, means, "Beware of geeks bearing gifts." However, my hon. Friend is an impassioned champion of both Latin and Greek and the wider application of the classics in state schools. Latin is now on offer in more state schools than independent, fee-paying schools, and Latin and Greek are included in the English baccalaureate, along with modern foreign languages. His impassioned advocacy of classical civilisation certainly weighs with me.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I recently met some of the 229 students at Lewisham college in receipt of education maintenance allowance who told me that they had spent hundreds of pounds on equipment, IT and books. The Minister knows that there is a difference between the aspiration to be at college and sustaining attendance over a two-year period. Will he guarantee that no student in that situation will be forced to discontinue their second year because of lack of financial assistance?

Mr Hayes: The right hon. Lady is a champion of Lewisham college, which I have visited twice-I have laid bricks at Lewisham college, by the way, although not with any great skill. I can assure her that the places of college students, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, will not be put at risk by changes we make, and we will certainly take full account of representations from her and others on that point.

T10. [38252] Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): When will the Minister announce further details of the learner support fund, including the amounts and time scales of such support to colleges across the country?

Mr Hayes: My hon. Friend makes a strong case for colleges. Perhaps it is time that I put on record the fact that this Government believe that further education colleges are the unheralded triumph of the English
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education system. Furthermore, we will continue to give them greater discretion, greater opportunity and greater freedoms in order to allow those with the tastes and talents to pursue vocational and other kinds of learning to fulfil their potential.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Has the Secretary of State had a look at the letter from the headmaster of Tibshelf school explaining the difficulties of having to deal with the split school site in Bolsover and North East Derbyshire? Has he also received a letter from the Derby building company Tomlinson and Sons which expected to build the school, or does he have the same disease as the Deputy Prime Minister and stop dealing with his Red Box after 3 o'clock?

Michael Gove: I am grateful for that well-crafted question from the eloquent, grammar-school-educated Member for Bolsover. I am well aware that Derbyshire county council, under many years of Labour rule, did not secure value for money for the taxpayer. I am pleased that the incredibly wasteful Building Schools for the Future scheme is being replaced with a more effective way of ensuring that money goes to the front line, and I look forward in due course to visiting Bolsover and North East Derbyshire with him and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) in order to salute what a coalition Government are doing for a generation betrayed by Labour.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): I know that the Secretary of State is a strong supporter of our state boarding schools, such as Wymondham college in my constituency, which is doing excellent work pioneering special needs and academy schooling in the area. As he may know, Wymondham college was recently awarded academy status in order to pursue that work. Today, however, I received a letter from the college saying that the decision has been inexplicably reversed by officials in his Department. Will he agree to meet me and a delegation of Norfolk MPs to discuss the matter?

Michael Gove: I have to confess myself perplexed by what my hon. Friend tells me, but of course I would be delighted to meet him. I know what impassioned advocates he and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) have been for Wymondham college.

Natascha Engel: Children, parents and their teachers were delighted last month that the Government changed their minds about scrapping school sports partnerships. Unfortunately, however, the Secretary of State forgot to reinstate the money for them. I know that he is a very busy man and it was just an oversight, but will he take this opportunity to reassure the House that he will give school sports partnerships their money back?

Michael Gove: I am overjoyed that in all my meetings with Baroness Campbell, the head of the Youth Sports
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Trust, since the announcement, she has expressed her delight that the funding that we have made available will be sufficient to ensure that the good work continues. I am reassured by her enthusiasm for this proposal, and I hope that the hon. Lady will be reassured too.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): As Ministers review policy for young people and the youth services, will they ensure that they engage with local authorities, young people themselves and the voluntary sector to ensure that no local authority withdraws youth services where, with a bit of imagination, alternatives are available?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the importance of youth services, particularly of local authorities speaking to the people for whom those youth services are intended-young people. Not only has my Department set up a group from the voluntary sector dealing with youth issues, but a group of young people representing many of those organisations will be meeting me shortly to discuss the impact of the current situation on the charities and services in their areas.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): The Minister responsible for children's centres repeats the claim that good local authorities will merge their back-room functions and protect front-line services. Flagship Conservative council Westminster is merging back-room functions with Hammersmith, yet we expect children's centres to face a significant reduction in staff, in the range of services and in outreach facilities, which are anticipated to fall by 40%. Is Westminster a good council?

Sarah Teather: I repeat that we are encouraging local authorities to focus in particular on outcomes, rather than on inputs. That is why we are beginning the process of payment by results. Local authorities will need to ensure that their services are structured in such a way that they improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children and families, otherwise they will not benefit.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend investigate the activities of the Anti Academies Alliance, which is threatening a series of political strikes against any school seeking academy status?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House's attention to the activities of the Anti Academies Alliance, a group that is sponsored by, among others, the Socialist Workers party. There are a number of politically motivated strikes that some have been contemplating. I hope that Members in every part of the House will condemn any politically motivated strike action that makes children a political plaything. I also look forward to hearing from the Opposition Front Bench a clear and unequivocal condemnation of such activity.

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EU Council and North Africa

3.31 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on last week's European Council and comment on today's review by the Cabinet Secretary of the papers relating to the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, which was published at 1pm today.

The Council discussed three principal issues: first, the continuing efforts to tackle instability in the eurozone; secondly, the role of energy and innovation in delivering a comprehensive growth strategy for the EU; and, thirdly, the situation in Egypt. Let me take each in turn.

Eurozone members are quite rightly looking at ways to resolve some of the underlying problems of the euro crisis, including by strengthening economic co-ordination arrangements. My job is to protect and promote Britain's interests. As I have said before, it is in our interests that the eurozone sorts out its problems. A strong and stable eurozone is in Britain's interests, but in my view there are three absolute essentials for Britain.

First, we should retain our national currency and our ability to set our own monetary policy, in the UK and for the UK. Secondly, we should ensure that we are not dragged into a new mechanism for bailing out eurozone countries in future. As I described when reporting back from the last European Council, we have achieved that. Thirdly, and most complex, although we should not prevent eurozone countries from coming together to deal with the problems that they face, we must ensure that this does not compromise the single market, which is an important British success story in Europe and should remain one of our key interests. There is a danger that, in developing stronger co-ordination, eurozone countries start affecting things that are more properly part of the single market for all EU members. I made sure that this point was recognised at the Council, and I secured specific assurances to protect the single market. The statement by the eurozone countries, which will be available to Members and which we all debated, makes that clear.

Extending the single market to energy has been a long-held objective of recent Governments of all parties. Achieving that could add up to 0.8% of European GDP and mean another 5 million jobs across Europe by 2020. If we make a 20% improvement on energy efficiency by 2020, that could significantly reduce the pressure on household bills. A single market in energy is good for jobs, competition and energy security, so practical co-operation and competition with the rest of Europe on this is firmly in our national interest. The Council agreed that

and that

We also agreed that

Britain should strongly support that, not least as we plan for the North sea offshore super-grid. The conclusions on innovation are also completely in line with what Britain supports and has been trying to achieve. Innovation and energy policy should be part of the growth strategy
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that we are arguing for in Europe. We will publish our own proposals before the next European Council in March, which will specifically be discussing that subject.

Next, let me turn to Egypt. I was determined that the Council would not produce one of its heavily "caveated" and sometimes rather unclear statements, and I think the declaration that we agreed is strong. First, we agreed that the Egyptian authorities should

Secondly, it is clear that a transition is needed to broad-based democratic government, and the declaration is emphatic that

The European Council was also clear that this should involve the building blocks of free and open societies and democratic institutions, such as freedom of assembly, the rule of law, freedom of speech and free and fair elections.

I believe that there is a strong case-the European statement reflects this-that the EU needs to look hard at its role in that region. We have spent billons of euros of taxpayers' money in Egypt and neighbouring countries, with carefully crafted association agreements and action plans. We have offered funds, access to our markets and other assistance in exchange for progress on the rule of law, democracy and human rights. In Egypt, however, there has been little or no progress on torture, the judiciary, democracy or ending the state of emergency that has now lasted for 30 years. I believe that it is time for Europe to take a more hard-headed approach whereby the conditions on which we give money are real and insisted upon. I reaffirmed that message in a call at lunchtime today to Vice-President Suleiman, and urged him to take bold and credible steps to show that the transition that they are talking about in Egypt is irreversible, urgent and real.

Finally, let me say a word about the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, and the report that has been released today by the Cabinet Secretary. I have not altered my view, which I expressed at the time, that releasing Mr Megrahi was a very bad decision. He was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history and, in my view, he should have died in jail. It was a bad decision, and the last Government should have condemned it rather than going along with it.

I commissioned this report during my visit to Washington last year. At the time, there was renewed controversy around the decision, a congressional inquiry into it, and calls for a bigger UK inquiry. Concerns were also being put forward, quite forcefully, in America and elsewhere that the whole release might have come about as a result of pressure by BP on the British Government to pressure the Scottish Government to make it happen. I do not believe that that is true, and this report shows that it is not true. It was a decision taken by the Scottish Government-the wrong decision, but their decision none the less. But in view of the continuing speculation in the UK and the US, I thought it right that all the British Government paperwork should be re-examined to assess whether more should be published, and I asked the Cabinet Secretary to do just that.

That is what Sir Gus O'Donnell has now done. In order to address the concerns that were being expressed, he was asked to look at three specific areas. First,
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whether there was any new evidence that the British Government directly or indirectly pressured or lobbied the Scottish Government for the release of Megrahi. Secondly, whether there was pressure placed on the Scottish Government by BP for the release of Megrahi. And, thirdly, whether the Libyans were told that there were linkages between BP's investment and the release of Megrahi, either under the prisoner transfer agreement or on compassionate grounds.

The report and all the paperwork, running to 140 pages, have been placed in the Library of the House. All decisions on the declassification and publication of papers belonging to the previous Administration were of course taken independently by the Cabinet Secretary. Under the convention covering papers of a previous Administration, he has consulted the appropriate former Ministers and the former Prime Minister. Sir Gus was assisted by the former Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, to provide an independent validation. He saw all the paperwork, redacted and un-redacted, and his job was to advise the Cabinet Secretary on whether his report and the documents now being published were consistent with the materials that were reviewed. He was also tasked with determining whether this was a fair and accurate account of events. He is content on both counts.

The Cabinet Secretary concludes that the former Government were clear that any decision on Mr Megrahi's release or transfer under the prisoner transfer agreement was one for the Scottish Government alone to take. He finds that none of the material he reviewed contradicts anything contained within the former Foreign Secretary's statement to the House in October 2009. He makes the same finding with respect to the current Foreign Secretary's letter to Senator Kerry in July last year and with respect to statements made by the former Prime Minister on this matter. He notes that it is evident that the Libyans made explicit links between progress on UK commercial interests in Libya and the removal of any clause on the prisoner transfer agreement whose effect would be to exclude Megrahi from it. He notes that after Megrahi had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in September 2008, the then Government's policy was based on an assessment that UK interests would be damaged if Megrahi were to die in a UK jail.

The Cabinet Secretary finds-and this is a key point:

One of the Foreign Office papers released today makes it plain that

Another Foreign Office paper from January 2009 states:

Frankly, I believe this tells us something that was not made clear at the time. It goes further than the account that the former Prime Minister and the former Foreign Secretary gave, as we were not told about facilitating an appeal, facilitating contact or a game plan. Indeed, the Cabinet Secretary's report says:

Hon. Members will be able to study the paperwork and consider these issues for themselves. My view is clear: we have learned some new information, particularly about what we were told by Ministers, but I do not believe that these papers justify calls for a new inquiry. What they do provide is further evidence that this was, in my view, a flawed decision by the Scottish Executive, which we already knew; and I believe they point to some broader lessons from this affair.

It is clear from these papers that the last Government badly underestimated-in fact, failed seriously even to consider except as an issue to be managed-the reaction both in Britain and in the United States to the release of Mr Megrahi, above all among many of the families who lost loved ones. The key point that emerges to me from reading the paperwork is that insufficient consideration was given to the most basic question of all: was it really right for the British Government to "facilitate" an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government in the case of an individual who was convicted of murdering 270 people, including 43 British citizens, 190 Americans and 19 other nationalities? That, for me, is the biggest lesson of this entire affair. For my part, I repeat: I believe it was profoundly wrong. The fact that, 18 months later, the Lockerbie bomber is living at liberty in Tripoli serves only to underline that. I commend this statement to the House.

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. I want to start, because of their importance, with the European Council conclusions on Egypt. I believe that the Egyptian people are continuing to show enormous courage and consistency in their desire for fundamental and lasting change. As I said last week, we support the call for a clear, credible and transparent path towards transition as soon as possible.

May I join the Prime Minister and his fellow leaders of the European Union in condemning any attacks on peaceful demonstrators and urge the authorities to allow the people of Egypt to continue to exercise their right to free and peaceful protests? The Prime Minister spoke to Vice-President Suleiman today, so will he update the House on his view of the current talks between the Vice-President and the Opposition parties and tell us whether he thinks these might lay the ground for the transition? Will he also offer the latest thinking of the EU and allies on the difficult issue of the role of President Mubarak during the transition?

Does the Prime Minister agree that the transition must include not just the provision of free and fair elections but other democratic structures, from a free press and diverse political parties to an independent judiciary? Will he also take the opportunity to update us on the steps he has taken since last week to ensure the safety of British nationals in Egypt during the current turbulence?

Let me deal with the other matters discussed at last Friday's European Council. On energy policy, we welcome the Council's conclusions on the internal market in gas and electricity and on the North sea grid. We also
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welcome the Council's plans for improvement of Europe's energy infrastructure. Such action can make us more resilient in the face of potential supply disruptions, as we saw in 2008-09 during the dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

Let me ask the Prime Minister two questions about the way in which our policy at home relates to the discussions in Europe. First, we note the Council's conclusions on the importance of renewable energy. May I ask the Prime Minister to update the House on the implementation of the renewable heat incentive, which is a crucial part of his renewable energy strategy? It was due to come into force in April this year, but has now been delayed. Can the Prime Minister tell us when it will be introduced?

Secondly, given that the financing of energy investment is a big issue across Europe, which the Council rightly flags up, may I ask the Prime Minister to update the House on progress in regard to the green investment bank? He has committed himself to building on our plans. Can he tell us whether he intends this to be a fully fledged bank, as many have argued that it should be?

I welcome the Council's conclusions on the wider economy, including the eurozone. May I ask what discussions took place on the prospects for European growth next year? The summit has concluded that

but I have to say that that is not how it will seem to many families in the United Kingdom. Did the Prime Minister share the recent experience of the United Kingdom with the Council, and did he warn his colleagues that cutting budget deficits too far and too fast could have damaging effects on growth and employment?

Let me now turn to the case of Mr Megrahi. The Lockerbie bombing was a terrible atrocity, destroying hundreds of lives and scarring the families left behind. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, has conducted a serious and thorough report on the papers relating to Mr Megrahi's release, and we will study it in detail.

Sir Gus's report makes three significant conclusions that pertain to Mr Megrahi's eventual release. First, it concludes that the United Kingdom Government were worried about the impact on British interests of Mr Megrahi's dying in jail. That is precisely what the former Foreign Secretary said in a statement to the House on 12 October 2009. Secondly, the report makes it clear that there is no evidence that

Indeed, Sir Gus went on to conclude that

their view. Thirdly, he concluded:

So the message of today's report is that Mr Megrahi's release was not influenced by the United Kingdom Government. Perhaps the Prime Minister will tell us whether he agrees with that.

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Above all, what today's report should remind us is that the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 must live in the memories of this country and the United States. We must take all possible steps to ensure that it never happens again.

The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and questions. I think that he is right about the response of the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States to events in Egypt. While, in my view, one can never be certain that every statement made by the European Union is being listened to that carefully, I believe that in regard to its statement that the Egyptian Government must choose reform and not repression, the recent behaviour of the army in Egypt has been encouraging.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the current talks would be good enough to lead to transition. That is an extremely difficult question to answer. The point that I made to Vice-President Suleiman was that the more that the Egyptian Government could do to demonstrate that, for instance, they were bringing some opposition leaders into a transitional Government, the more they would be able to convince people that they were trying to reform, change, and deal with the constitutional issues. We have advised them to try to get ahead of events rather than taking a series of incremental steps, which I do not think are doing enough to respond to the aspirations of the Egyptian people. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, the transition is not just about the date of an election; it is about those building blocks of democracy that I mentioned earlier.

All United Kingdom citizens who wanted to leave have been able to do so. We will continue to keep travel advice under review, including advice on travel to the Sinai peninsula.

The right hon. Gentleman asked two very good questions about the renewable heat incentive, which is an absolutely vital initiative that we are taking, and about the green investment bank. Both projects are moving ahead. The Government have published structural reform plans with dates for implementation, so one thing that others can do is hold us to account when things do not happen during the week in which they are meant to happen, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will do that.

On the economy, the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned sitting round the European Council table and talking about the impact of cutting budgets. My overwhelming impression was listening-we had to listen at some length-to reports from Greece, Portugal and Spain about their economies. Having seen what they have had to cut and the difficulties that they are in, the warning that I take from that is, "Do not go back into the danger zone, where those countries still are."

On al-Megrahi, I set it out as best I could in my statement. It is clear to me that those who think that a conspiracy was cooked up between BP, the British Government and the Scots to release al-Megrahi are not right. It was a Scottish decision by the Scottish Government-in my view, it was mistaken. As I have said, we have learned something today about what we were told in this House by Ministers. When hon. Members look at what was said in this House and what we have seen in these papers, I think that they will agree with me-I am trying to be very reasonable about this-that we were not given a complete picture.

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): As the then Secretary of State for Scotland, I had to visit Lockerbie on the night of that disaster, when I saw the terrible consequences that flowed from it. I have always been appalled by the release of the convicted murderer. The Prime Minister has drawn attention to the Cabinet Secretary's conclusion, in which the Cabinet Secretary states that the previous Government wished to do all within their power to facilitate the release of Mr Megrahi. Do not the documents released today show that, in pursuit of that objective, a Foreign Office Minister met his Libyan ministerial counterpart, offered to send details of how release on compassionate grounds might be obtained and wrote to his ministerial colleague on 18 October 2008? Does that not confirm that the previous Government were up to their neck in this shoddy business, that they were desperate to see the release of Mr Megrahi and that they must therefore share responsibility with the Scottish Government for one of the most foolish and shameful decisions of recent years?

The Prime Minister: As ever, my right hon. and learned Friend brings a mixture of experience and precision to this issue. We were told by the previous Government what they did not want, which was the death of al-Megrahi in a Scottish prison, but we were not told by the previous Government what they did want, which was the facilitation of his release. That comes over, time and again. The most powerful point that my right hon. and learned Friend makes is this: in the end, that man was convicted of the largest mass murder in British history, which should have been the thought coursing through ministerial veins and brains when Ministers wrote those memos and made those speeches.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): I fully understand the Prime Minister's concern and that of colleagues on both sides of the House about the timing and circumstances of the release of Mr Megrahi. However, having read the Cabinet Secretary's report in full, which I have here, may I say that it was wrong of the Prime Minister to elide quotations from the Cabinet Secretary's conclusions with his own gloss, implying that those were indeed the conclusions? As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has spelt out, and contrary to the implication that the Prime Minister has given to the House, the Cabinet Secretary concluded that nothing in the material that he reviewed contradicts anything that my right hon. Friend the former Foreign Secretary told this House on 12 October in a detailed statement or anything that my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister has said at any time on this issue. The conclusions back up the continued assertion made by the former Prime Minister, the former Foreign Secretary and me, as the Prime Minister has finally admitted through gritted teeth, that there was no pressure from BP on the Scottish Government, that we acted properly at all times and, moreover, that at no stage did we ever suggest to the Scottish Government what decision they should take.

On so-called facilitation, let me read to the House the very next sentence. It

which was in hand anyway,

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That was all known before and does not contradict what my right hon. Friend the former Foreign Secretary said at the time.

The Prime Minister: Let me make two points gently to the right hon. Gentleman. First, although the Cabinet Secretary rightly, in my view, finds that nothing in this report contradicts what the then Foreign Secretary did say, my point is purely this: this is about what was not in that statement. That is because when you look at what is in the report, you find that it is very clear that there were all sorts of things-facilitations and game plans-that we were not made aware of.

I do not want, in any way, to misquote what Gus O'Donnell has done in a very good report. The conclusions in paragraph 34 state:

All right hon. and hon. Members will be able to make up their mind whether what we were told by the previous Government was a full and complete picture. Everyone can make up their mind and I am pretty sure what a reasonable person will come to.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): The emphasis in these matters has always been on Mr Megrahi's condition, but, respectfully, it seems to me that other issues have to be taken into account as well. The first is the nature of the crime, the second is the consequences of the crime and the third is the sentence imposed by the court. Had the British Government at the time taken proper account of those factors, I doubt very much whether they would have reached the conclusion that they did and sought to "assist", to put it neutrally, the Libyan Government. But, equally, if Mr MacAskill had taken proper account of the nature of the crime, the consequences of the crime and the sentence imposed, he would surely have found those as being factors that far outweighed any question of compassion.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman puts it extremely clearly. The fact is that al-Megrahi was allowed to go home and die with his relatives, but that is not a luxury he afforded to anyone who was on that jet, and you have to take into account the nature and the consequences of a crime when you think about your actions. As I say, when we get away from all the detail of the report and just stand back and think about the big picture-as I say, the lesson to be drawn is that we have to keep focusing on the big picture-which is the heinous crime that was committed, the lives that were taken and the families that were wrecked, we have to think that someone has to suffer the consequences of that.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: Order. Just because three of the most glittering stars in the parliamentary sky have asked very full questions, that does not, in any way, oblige right hon. and hon. Members to follow suit. On the whole, I would rather that they did not.

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Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): What discussions took place at the EU Council about events in Egypt lending added urgency to breaking the impasse in the middle east peace process? What is the Prime Minister personally doing to break that impasse?

The Prime Minister: I did have discussions with Baroness Ashton about this, it was also discussed around the table and I had a very good meeting with Hillary Clinton in Munich. Obviously, there are concerns that instability in Egypt will make progress on the middle east peace process more difficult, but I strongly believe that we should not take our eye off the ball and that we should keep the pressure up-that means pressure on both sides. It means pressure on Israel to make progress on issues such as settlements and pressure on the Palestinians to return to meaningful talks. Britain will play a very key role in this, and I commend Baroness Ashton for her work.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Trade between the United Kingdom and north African countries has historically been lamentable; we are way down the list on bilateral trade compared with our European partners. Will the Prime Minister do more to make sure that UK Trade & Investment plays a leading role in helping British companies to increase trade with countries such as Tunisia and Egypt to support democracy there?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point and the Foreign Secretary will be going to Tunisia later today. We want to have good trading relationships with those countries, but that should never be bought at the price of trading off our values. We should have had a clearer red line about what was and was not appropriate, but Britain has to trade itself out of recession and links with fast-growing countries all over the world are absolutely what we are trying to put together.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Fine words have been said by the Prime Minister, the President of the United States and other western leaders about the very brave demonstrators in Egypt. Is it not possible that those demonstrators are asking-this is an interesting question-why the western powers have been so silent over the past 25 or 30 years about what has been happening in their country, including the authoritarian rule, the denial of liberty and the sadistic tortures that have been taking place in prisons? Those sorts of questions should be asked not only in Egypt but elsewhere.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As I said in my statement, the EU has leverage over those countries in terms of the aid it gives and it should be tougher in asking for conditions in return for that aid. In terms of the situation we face today, I just do not accept that there is only, on the one hand, an Islamist regime or, on the other, standing up for the tough man-the dictator. We must encourage those countries not necessarily to have free elections just like that, at the flick of a switch, but to put in place the building blocks of genuinely free countries and open societies that will make sure that they have lasting democracies when they reach that goal.

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Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): The conclusion by Sir Gus O'Donnell that the previous Government did "all it could" to facilitate the release of Mr Megrahi is bad enough, but it is also inconsistent with the impression created by the previous Government. Has the Prime Minister made any assessment of the motive for such behaviour?

The Prime Minister: It is for Ministers to explain what they said and what they did not say. Clearly, they can rely on what is in the report about not being contradicted, but I think they have to look-and I hope they will do it fairly-and ask themselves, "Given that I was receiving memos about a game plan of facilitating contact and given that I was signing off those memos, shouldn't I have really said to the House of Commons and elsewhere that it was not just that we didn't want this man to die in a Scottish jail but that we were working actively with the Libyans to try to secure his release?" I think they should have said something more along those lines. I have genuinely tried to approach this by asking what is fair in terms of what we should have been told when those questions were asked.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I do not think that trade should ever be the sole determinant when it comes to our foreign policy, which is why I hope to persuade the Prime Minister to adopt more of his muscular liberalism, to coin a phrase, in relation to the Russian Federation. Sergei Magnitsky was tortured and murdered in a Russian jail when he was working for a British company in Russia. The United States Congress is now considering banning from the USA anyone who was involved either in the corruption he uncovered or in his torture and murder. Will the Prime Minister consider doing the same here and will he make sure that those views are expressed to Foreign Minister Lavrov when he visits next week?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I am glad that the phrase "muscular liberalism" is catching on. That is exactly the approach we have taken with Russia and we do raise questions such as those that the hon. Gentleman asked when we hold meetings with President Medvedev, as I have done, or with Foreign Minister Lavrov, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done, and we will go on raising those issues. Some countries have not taken that approach, but we think it is the right approach.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Bearing in mind that several of the key moderate figures in Egypt have made pledges to have a referendum on the long-standing peace treaty with Israel, will my right hon. Friend, in pursuit of the excellent answer he gave to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) earlier, agree that a key factor in determining whether we get a good outcome in Egypt will be whether the current Israeli Government are willing to stop building more settlements and be serious about coming to the peace table?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but we should also be clear with reformers and opposition figures in Egypt that we see progress on the peace process as being absolutely vital for the stability and prosperity of that region. This is where the European
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Union has some leverage because in those association agreements we should be making sure that just as there is money in return for progress on things we care about internally, they should also be about standing by agreements that have been entered into, including in the peace process.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I am grateful for an advance copy of the statement. The Prime Minister has long taken a different view on compassionate release from the Scottish Government or international observers such as Nelson Mandela. What is new, however, is that these official UK documents prove that as of autumn 2008, UK Labour Ministers supported Mr Megrahi being released to Libya, so they were saying one thing in public and the opposite in private. Is that not rank hypocrisy?

The Prime Minister: I have made my view clear and I tried to state it in a calm and reasonable way, because I do not believe that there was some conspiracy cooked up between a Scottish National party Government and a Labour Government. They find it hard enough to communicate with each other at the best of times. I see a few prominent Scottish MPs nodding. I think Ministers will want to look back at what they said and ask, "Could I have said more to give a complete picture?"

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I welcome the European Council's strong position of support for the Egyptian people, particularly with regard to assistance with the transition to democracy. However, building new Government structures is not straightforward and should not be rushed, and that is why it needs to start now. Will the Prime Minister ensure that in providing assistance, the EU draws on the expertise of organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, both of which have a wealth of expertise in supporting fledgling democracies and working in Egypt?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady makes a good point about civil society organisations here that can work with civil society organisations in Egypt. The point that I would make about transition starting now is that precisely because the Egyptians say that there are all sorts of problems with amending their constitution and doing it quickly, they should be examining what they can do to build confidence among people on the streets of Cairo that they are genuinely changing. That is where I think considering including Opposition members in a transitional Government and giving some visible, clear and irreversible signs of what their intentions are would make a big difference.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I think we heard two statements today, and they should have been separated. On al-Megrahi, does the Prime Minister recall that many of us had to hold our nose as IRA killers and terrorists were let out for the greater good of peace and stability? On his statement, can he say something about Tunisia? That is a small country, with only 10 million people, secular, highly educated, looking to Europe for help. May I ask him to ask the Foreign Office-he will probably be knocking at an open door-to see what we can do with economic and political investment in Tunisia to bring it, particularly as it is much smaller and more manageable than Egypt, closer to Europe?

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The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is one of the reasons why the Foreign Secretary is getting on an aeroplane this afternoon, going to Tunisia and talking to the Tunisians about helping to put in place the building blocks of a free and open society. One of the problems in these countries is the massive level of corruption. It was that which angered their populations so much, and we need to work with them. Going back to the issue of Libya and Northern Ireland, of course everyone had to hold their nose and talk to people we did not want to talk to and deal with people we did not want to deal with, but Governments were pretty frank about what we were doing and why we were doing it. That is my point.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): It is important that we do nothing to talk up the prospect of wider instability in north Africa and the Maghreb. Does my right hon. Friend share my dismay at less than forensic reports in the western press that seek to conflate inherently unstable countries such as Egypt and Tunisia with countries such as Morocco, which have a far more enlightened order economically, socially and politically?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We should not assume that those countries are all the same. Genuine stability should be based on the progressive realisation of the goal of a more open society and the building blocks of the sort of civil society that we recognise. We cannot pretend, as neo-conservatives did, that we solve the problems in one go simply by holding an election. We should be clear, as people who believe in those rights at home, that we should be trying to achieve them progressively elsewhere.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister referred, rightly, to the efforts and the work of Baroness Ashton. He also said that he had had discussions with Hillary Clinton. In that context, what is his understanding of the United States' attitude to the changes going on in Egypt? Is it US policy to support Mr Wisner's view that President Mubarak should stay, or to support the EU view that there should be an early transition?

The Prime Minister: That was a well-put question, which I will try not to glide around too diplomatically. The US and the UK are absolutely aligned on this; I spoke to President Obama over the weekend, and we are pushing for the same things. We want transition, we want it to be real and we want it to start now. We believe that it should include some of the things we have been discussing today, like bringing opposition figures into the Government, having dates for a road map for elections and making sure that they deal with some of the abuses of the past. In terms of what Mr Wisner said, I do not think that the way he put his words was a full reflection of the US Government's view, as I think has been made clear.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Given my right hon. Friend's important speech over the weekend, does he not agree that the previous Government's facilitation of the release of al-Megrahi sent entirely the wrong signal to dictators, Islamists and terrorists right across the globe and represents a considerable setback to those who oppose such things? Will he take steps to ensure that as a United Kingdom we are never faced with such a situation again?

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The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is that when this happened a very bad message was sent about what we stand for in the UK and our views in terms of the response to such a heinous crime. It is important to bear that in mind, and as I said in my statement, I do not think that enough thought was given to that, which in the end is the most precious of all judgments that Ministers should make.

David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): As the Minister of State in the Scotland Office at the time, and as Mr Megrahi's constituency MP, I strongly agree with the Prime Minister that Mr Megrahi should have spent the rest of his natural life in prison. Does he agree with me that however ill-considered and ill-judged phrases like "our game plan on Megrahi" may be-had anyone approached me with such a game plan, I would have told them where they could put it-it must not obscure the central fact that it was a decision that was taken, and could only ever have been taken, by Scottish Government Ministers? There was no collusion, no cover-up and no conspiracy, just a bad decision by the SNP.

The Prime Minister: I go a long way with the hon. Gentleman, who I think made the right judgment about the release of Megrahi. The problem, and this comes out in the report, is that memos submitted to Ministers in the Foreign Office included things like,

and that submission was subsequently agreed by the Minister. That is the point. The language about facilitating contacts that was put into memos was subsequently agreed by Ministers, including the former Foreign Secretary, and we were not told about that in the House of Commons. That is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): One fifth-20%-of the Egyptian population are Christians, mostly Copts and some Catholics. Does my right hon. Friend agree that pluralism and human rights need to be at the centre of any dialogue on the future of Egypt and that the litmus test for whether Egypt is going forward into the 21st century or backwards will be the treatment of minorities, such as Christians, in the weeks and months ahead?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. When you consider how much money the EU has put into a country like Egypt-something like €500 million over the last three years-those are exactly the sorts of things that we should be insisting on, which I think are tests of a civilised society.

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): May I tell the Prime Minister that the 17 member states of the eurozone will be quite comfortable in dealing with safeguarding the euro into the future? He was right to refer to the single market in his speech in Davos last week, as 60% of our trade is with the European Union, but I urge him not to treat the EU as à la carte, only with trade; it must also cover the environment, immigration and energy security-that is to say, menu fixe.

The Prime Minister: I do not entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman: 50% of our trade is with the EU, and 44% with eurozone members. We want a healthy eurozone, but if a menu fixe means that we have to join everything, including the single currency, frankly count me out.

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Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Is it not terrific that we now have a Prime Minister who goes to Europe and puts Britain's interests first? Would he clarify just one point? He said that we will not be dragged into a mechanism to bail out the eurozone countries, but that we could of course opt in to such a mechanism. Are we just ruling a mechanism out, or are we not going to join a mechanism that will help bail out the euro?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend asks a very good question that requires quite a complicated answer. Because of the previous Government's decisions at the time of the general election, we are still at risk of the European financial mechanism, which was set up at that time and used in part to help Ireland, happening again, as it is decided by qualified majority voting. What we have achieved, in terms of the treaty change being proposed for the future, is to make sure that the UK cannot be pulled into a future mechanism for doing those things. That is the position we have managed to secure, and, as I say, in Europe once you have secured these things, you have to make sure that you damn well continue securing them for the future.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The Prime Minister said in his statement, "It is time for Europe to take a more hard-headed approach where the conditions on which we give money are real and insisted upon." At the Security Conference in Munich, Baroness Ashton, when asked whether the European Union will continue to assist on conditionality for its aid, would not give a clear answer. Did the UK insist on that approach and Europe not agree, or did Baroness Ashton just fail to give us a precise answer?

The Prime Minister: What we discussed at the European Council was a specific declaration on Egypt, and I made sure that in that declaration there was some language about the association agreements that we entered into and making sure that they were real and tangible. I have the language in the folder before me; perhaps I can repeat it in a minute, because it does seem to me important. I am sure that Baroness Ashton, in looking at the conclusions that we reached, will recognise that we did all agree that that should be the case.

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Could the Prime Minister tell us whether the EU Council took note that Morocco, which has embraced and is embracing a human rights and democracy agenda, has not suffered from outbreaks of civil unrest? Does he agree that we could do more to help that country and everyone in the region if we encouraged other nations in the area to take part in negotiations over a referendum on the future of Western Sahara?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. In our relations with those countries, we want to look at all the things that will help to encourage stability, progress and peace rather than strife.

In terms of the association agreement with Egypt, the declaration on Egypt says very specifically that we agreed:

So the European leaders agreed that statement, and I think it is important for the future.

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Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Were there any discussions at the European Council concerning Yemen? The Prime Minister will be aware of how important that country is in the fight against terrorism, and of the excellent talks between the Foreign Secretary and the Yemeni Foreign Secretary last week. Is the Prime Minister satisfied with the package of measures put forward by President Ali Abdullah Saleh? Is not the stability of Yemen absolutely vital in the area? If the Yemeni Government fall, al-Qaeda will be the winner.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that Yemen is vital to the security not just of that region, but frankly of our world, because there has been such a lot of al-Qaeda activity in that part of the Arabian peninsula. Yemen was mentioned at the European Council. In terms of the action that President Saleh has taken, clearly we want to see it in detail and see it put in place. There is a something of wake-up call in Yemen because of the incredible stresses and problems that that country faces, and we need to work with it. I have met President Saleh and spoken to him on the telephone, and the Foreign Secretary has had meetings, as the right hon. Gentleman says. We need to help Yemen with its reform programme, not just so that it becomes more stable, but so that it is able to deal with the cancer of al-Qaeda which is in its own country.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister believe it to be a coincidence that, despite numerous assurances from the then Labour Government that Mr Ronnie Biggs would remain in prison until he died, the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), conducted a U-turn and released Mr Biggs on compassionate grounds-mysteriously just weeks before Mr Megrahi was released on the same grounds?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is pulling me into territory where I should not go, but it does seem to me to be a pretty good medical record that people released from prison, normally on the brink of keeling over, then last for a very, very long time.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister mentioned that he wants to see a strong and secure eurozone. On a day when our papers are still full of stories about the predicament of British banks, which are vulnerable to loans that they made over recent years, and at the same time full of stories about bankers' bonuses, can the Prime Minister tell us whether there was a discussion about the still perilous state of our banking system throughout Europe, and the fact that bankers' bonuses are still paid out at such levels?

The Prime Minister: Of course we did discuss what lies at the heart of the eurozone crisis, part of which is about banks that were hopelessly over-leveraged, over-extended and all the rest of it. Here in the UK, we are having a serious conversation with the banks whereby we try to sort out what we want to see. I want to see them paying more tax, I want to see them doing more lending, particularly to small businesses, and I want to see a smaller bonus pool than last year. I am confident that we will be able to achieve those things in this country.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I know that the Prime Minister has to use diplomatic language, but we all know that the truth is that if al-Megrahi had come from a non-oil rich, non-strategic country, he would still be in prison. So imagine the pain today of the mothers and fathers, the sons and daughters, of those killed on this flight. Can the Prime Minister somehow, on behalf of the British people, say sorry, apologise and articulate the view that never again will we appease murderous dictators in the interests of realpolitik?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend puts the point very powerfully. I would say to all those who lost loved ones in that appalling terrorist act that we are profoundly sorry for their loss and for how they have suffered. When one of them said, "I'm not able to spend Christmas at home with my loved ones in the way that this man is", I think they spoke for everybody. We have to understand that when a crime like that is committed, it is not some un-violent sense of retribution just to say that that person should not be released from prison. They have basically committed a life sentence on all those families who are never going to see their loved ones again. Not to understand that is to fail in the duty of a Minister.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): This further step towards our long-held goal of a single market for energy should open doors for areas like mine to forge ahead with offshore wind. Will the Prime Minister recognise and address legitimate concerns over the weakness of his policies for growth so that jobs are created here in the in the UK and small businesses can properly apply for and get jobs in the supply chain?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. At a European level, this is going to be helpful for the onshore and offshore wind industry and other renewable industries in this country. Also, here in the UK we have provided specific grants to ports to update their infrastructure so that large manufacturers can come here and manufacture wind turbines and provide offshore wind. I have spoken personally to companies that are coming to do that in parts of the UK. We will go on supporting the growth of this very important renewables sector.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): The Prime Minister has highlighted some significant inconsistencies between what the previous Administration stated publicly and what was released by Sir Gus O'Donnell earlier today. Obviously, the focus should be on the victims of this horrendous crime, but what assessment has the Prime Minister made of the effects on the relationship with some parts of the US Administration?

The Prime Minister: The relationship is extremely good, and I think it will go on being good. I discussed this issue with Hillary Clinton when we met at the weekend. I think that the Administration have been grateful for the very strong and clear view that the Government have taken about the events surrounding the release of al-Megrahi and the fact that it was wrong. This point also goes back to what was said earlier. Of course, we want to have good relations not just with America but with Libya and with other countries, but we have to have some pretty clear lines in our minds
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about what is going to be part of that relationship and what is not. Frankly, I think it is perfectly possible to have good relations if we are clear about those things.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I was fortunate enough to work briefly with one of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing who was so tragically taken from us in 1988. I am sure that the families of these victims will be very interested to read the report that was issued today. Is my right hon. Friend aware of whether any previous Ministers from the former Government are planning to meet the groups of families who represent these victims to explain the policy that has so obviously come to light today?

The Prime Minister: I know that a number of victims' families will obviously be interested in the report, and some will be seeking meetings either with the Government or with others. To be frank with my hon. Friend, not all the victims' families take the same view about al-Megrahi and what happened and whether he was responsible, and all the rest of it. We have to be clear that he was convicted after a properly constituted and thorough trial. He then had an appeal, which was quashed. On that basis, the decisions that were made were clearly wrong decisions.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): In the Cabinet Secretary's report, he notes that the former Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw),

to release al-Megrahi. Does the Prime Minister agree that that was an odd thing to contemplate if it was clear that there was a Government policy not to put any pressure on the Scottish Executive?

7 Feb 2011 : Column 40

The Prime Minister: To be fair to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is not here-although it is not my job to defend him-the report states that he considered making contact with the Scottish Executive and then decided not to. That piece of evidence suggests that there was not the great conspiracy that some people felt there might have been, in particular the American Senators I met who represent victims' families. It is easy to understand why they thought that might have happened. They were looking at a country overseas, and were hearing what BP was saying, what the Government were doing and what the Scottish Executive were doing. However, I do not think that that is how the evidence stacks up. There was no conspiracy-it was a Scottish decision. As I said, the report highlights some issues about what we were told and how we were told it.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Greece is responsible for an extremely leaky part of the EU's external border. Its asylum system was recently condemned as being unfit. The problem for the UK is that should economic migrants make their way into the EU to claim asylum and end up in Britain, we cannot send them back to Greece. Was that issue discussed at the Council? How can we get the Greeks to secure their part of the EU frontier?

The Prime Minister: We did not discuss the EU migration issue at this Council, but we discuss it often. Greece and Italy tend to be voluble about it because they are often the door through which so many migrants come. I will make two points. First, we need to ensure that we can return people. The arrangements between Britain and France are extremely good. Secondly, one reason why we should not have a common immigration policy is that I do not want our population to be dependent on decisions made at the border of other countries. That is why I think we should keep this as an area of national competence.

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