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House of Commons

Monday 22 April 2013

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Literacy and Mathematics

1. Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils attain basic levels of literacy and mathematics before leaving school. [152074]

5. Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils attain basic levels of literacy and mathematics before leaving school. [152078]

15. Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils attain basic levels of literacy and mathematics before leaving school. [152089]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): Before I answer the questions, may I say on behalf of the House that you, Mr Speaker, would want us to pass on our best wishes to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who has recently suffered an accident from which he is slowly recovering. We all miss him. He was a fantastic constituency MP and great scrutineer of education [Hon. Members: “He still is!”] He still is, and we look forward to him being restored to full health.

The new national curriculum includes more demanding content in English and mathematics. In line with high-performing south-east Asian countries, mathematics will have more emphasis on arithmetic, fractions and decimals. There will be a new professional development programme for mathematics teachers at key stage 3, which will help them teach fractions more effectively, with robust evaluation of the results. We are, of course, also reforming GCSEs and making changes to nursery education.

Caroline Dinenage: Given the evidence that parents who have lower levels of literacy and numeracy can be motivated to improve themselves in order to support

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their own children’s learning, will the Secretary of State explain what measures are being taken to support family learning programmes?

Michael Gove: It is absolutely right that if parents are given the opportunity to play a part in their child’s education and if they are given additional confidence in their own grasp of literacy and numeracy, the whole family can benefit from it. It is a commitment of myself and the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who has responsibility for skills and adult learning, to make sure that family learning programmes can be supported as effectively as possible.

Paul Uppal: A recent study has found that just under a quarter of residents in Wolverhampton have no formal qualifications, which is double the national average. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend make a commitment to ensure that learners of all ages have the necessary skills and qualifications to enter employment and bridge the skills gap?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to make sure, of course, that we intervene early to ensure that the next generation succeeds at a higher level than ever before, but we also need to ensure that older people who, for whatever reason, failed to benefit from the education on offer during their time, are given the chance to re-engage with the world of education to improve their literacy and numeracy.

Jonathan Lord: Last year, the CBI reported that two thirds of businesses were complaining that too many school leavers were struggling with basic literacy and numeracy and were unable to use a computer properly. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable to ask our employers to set up remedial classes in these most core basic skills?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No young person can confidently take their place in the world of work unless they are secure in literacy and numeracy. That means having secured a GCSE equivalent or better.

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State agree that teaching assistants play a vital role in raising standards in numeracy and literacy in many of our schools, especially those facing the most challenging circumstances? Can he therefore assure me that teaching assistants will not be the next target of his ever more regressive education policy?

Michael Gove: The only target for our education policy is to ensure that all children have a chance to succeed. Of course it is the case that teaching assistants and others can play a part, but the single most important person is the teacher. We need to make sure that the changes we have made to attract more talented people into teaching, building on the work done under the last Labour Government, continues.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): If the Secretary of State is to ensure that children attain basic levels in mathematics and since he is clearly in need of enough well-trained teachers to do the job, will he

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explain to my constituent, Stephanie, why she is unable to train as a maths teacher either through School Direct or the postgraduate certificate in education? With initial teacher training having moved out of higher education into schools, there is no capacity in Plymouth, so she has the choice of one school, which can take only one student. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain that?

Michael Gove: I will be happy to do everything possible to help the hon. Lady’s constituent to be a maths teacher. We should encourage that aspiration among all people, but it is the case that School Direct, the new programme that allows graduates to train in schools, has been hugely popular. It is also the case that a higher proportion of people with great degrees in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—are choosing to enter teaching.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): With the Secretary of State having given his support in principle to Labour’s concept of a technical baccalaureate, will he also support Labour’s requirement to ensure that, as part of the awarding of the tech bacc qualification, all students will have to study English and maths as a requirement?

Michael Gove: It is certainly the case—I am glad there is consensus on this from both Front-Bench teams—that students who have not secured a GCSE pass at English or maths at the age of 16 must carry on studying until they secure it. Anyone who wants to apply for the technical baccalaureate—a new and explicitly demanding measure of achievement—will have to go beyond that and secure a level 3 qualification, a technical term, in mathematics and produce an extended piece of writing showing that they command the literacy skills necessary for the modern world of work.

Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): The poet Ted Hughes said of children:

“When they know by heart fifteen pages of Robert Frost”

or

“Swift’s Modest Proposal… They have reefs, for the life of language to build and breed around. A ‘globe of precepts’ and a great sheet anchor in the maelstrom of linguistic turbulence”.

In the light of those words from the late poet laureate, will my right hon. Friend confirm—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. We have heard the words of Hughes, but I want to hear the words of Ruffley.

Mr Ruffley: Members of the Labour party, the enemies of rigour, want to shout down any defence of standards. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that he will ensure that there is a role for rote learning in the schools of tomorrow?

Michael Gove: It was Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York, who said that we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose. This Government, however, are governing in poetic terms—heroic couplets, in particular. With the help of Andrew Motion, another distinguished former poet laureate, we have organised a competition to ensure that children learn verse by heart and that, for all the days of their lives, the great works of English literature can be there, ready to be recalled and to illuminate every corner of their minds and lives.

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Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I am amazed that the Secretary of State thinks he can produce a nation of six-year-olds all of whom can spell Tuesday and know that there are two ways of spelling pear/pair. I think that even Hansard will have some problems with that! Is the Secretary of State not aware that pushing children to do things that they are not ready to do is totally counter-productive? In most European countries, they are not even at school at the age of six. Does the right hon. Gentleman not know that, according to the results of a UNICEF study, the one feeling that British seven-year-olds understood was how it felt to fail?

Michael Gove: I feel sorry for some seven-year-olds because they will have lived through years of Labour government when failure was all around them, but at last there is a Government who have high expectations for every child. I am sorry that the spirit of consensus that has prevailed so far has been shattered by the hon. Lady, because I had assumed that Labour was committed to ensuring that children in their earliest years had an opportunity to enjoy the very best teaching. It seems to me that it is not just in east Durham that there is a poverty of aspiration on the part of the Labour party.

Teachers and School Staff (Training)

2. Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of training for teachers and school staff on (a) autism and (b) fabricated or induced illness by carers. [152075]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): All teachers are teachers of children with special educational needs, including autism. It is for schools themselves to decide what training their staff require to meet their pupils’ needs. We have contracted the Autism Education Trust to provide training for education staff, and it is the responsibility of local safeguarding children boards to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of local training.

Greg Mulholland: Parents seeking a diagnosis of autism can be, and in some cases have been, subjected to unjustified child protection inquiries. Does the Minister agree that we need to look at the guidelines on fabricated and induced illness, and will he meet a family in my constituency who have suffered as a result of that very problem?

Mr Timpson: My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the value to teachers of being aware of the needs of children with autism. That is why we are funding the Autism Education Trust, and why we are continuing to support the national scholarship scheme, which has elements relating to special educational needs, and the training of more than 10,000 special educational needs co-ordinators as qualified teachers. However, my hon. Friend is right to continue to think about how we can improve the guidelines that are made available in relation to both autism and fabricated or induced illness. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has issued such guidelines, but I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss them further and see what more we can do.

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Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Has the Minister had an opportunity to attend a school that is participating in the Anderson Foundation schools challenge, which is encouraging pupils and teachers to complete 50 tasks to celebrate the 50 years in which the National Autistic Society has been raising awareness of autism?

Mr Timpson: I am aware of that schools challenge. I suspect that my hon. Friend’s question constitutes an invitation to visit Enfield, Southgate on some future date. I should be happy to learn more about the work that is taking place to support the National Autistic Society and many other autism charities for the great work they do, and I look forward to learning more with my hon. Friend’s support.

Education Funding (South Staffordshire)

3. Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): What assessment he has made of the level of education funding received by children in South Staffordshire; and if he will make a statement. [152076]

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): In 2013-14, the Department for Education allocated £4,310 per pupil for pupils in mainstream schools in Staffordshire, plus an additional £900 for each deprived pupil through the pupil premium.

Gavin Williamson: Our schools in South Staffordshire receive on average £695 less than schools in neighbouring Wolverhampton. Many of my constituents think that that is grossly unfair and want it to be rebalanced. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to rebalance it to ensure we get a fair deal for pupils in Staffordshire?

Mr Laws: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the last Government left us a funding formula for schools that allocates money across the country in an unfair and irrational way. That is why we intend to introduce a national funding formula, and in the meantime we are funding £20 million more to Staffordshire through the pupil premium.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con) rose—

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. The question covered Staffordshire, but not Worcestershire. We can let in Mr Fabricant.

Michael Fabricant: As you well know, Mr Speaker, Lichfield was, I like to think, the original capital of Staffordshire, and it was certainly the capital of Mercia and was the first place—even before Canterbury—to have an archbishop, but we digress. I am very relieved to hear that the funding formula, which is so unfair, will be addressed, but we heard that long ago from the Labour party when it was in government, so can my right hon. Friend the Minister give some indication of when it will actually happen?

Mr Laws: I will not comment on the earlier parts of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but what I can tell him is that this issue is at the top of not only my in-tray but that of the Secretary of State.

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Underperforming Teachers

4. Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): What steps he is taking to remove underperforming teachers from the classroom. [152077]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): We have introduced new appraisal and capability arrangements, which should make it easier for governing bodies and head teachers to tackle underperformance. These procedures are shorter and less complex than the previous ones, and make it possible, in some cases, for schools to dismiss incompetent teachers in about a term.

Graham Evans: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. What plans does his Department have to assess teachers, to prevent them from reaching that critical stage in the first place? Does he agree that failure in schools is often one of leadership and management, and is not necessarily the fault of the individual teachers?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. The sharper Ofsted framework, with its greater emphasis on teaching, leadership and, critically, performance management, should ensure that, although these procedures will take less time to execute, they need not be used in many circumstances because heads will have done exactly as he suggests, in that they will have moved quickly to deal with underperformance.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I beg the Secretary of State to stop giving the impression that he believes that all teachers are incompetent. There are some incompetent teachers, and they should be guided and managed properly, but too many people—both parents and teachers—think he is against teachers. Please will he start working with them, have confidence in them and energise them, in which case children and parents will be very happy?

Michael Gove: Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to repeat in this House what I say in every speech I give, which is that we are uniquely fortunate to have the best generation of young teachers in our schools, and that standards are higher to a significant extent because of the commitment they make. I am also delighted that so many changes that are happening in education—from the establishment of free schools to the way in which teacher training is changing—are being driven by teachers, who are working with us in a spirit of collaboration.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): While welcoming my right hon. Friend’s moves to give head teachers more power in this area, may I ask what he is doing, by way of balance, to attract the very brightest and best into the profession?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He is committed to helping ensure that there are more mathematicians of ability teaching in our schools, and as a result of the changes we have made, including working with organisations such as the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, more students with top degrees in science and mathematics subjects are now entering our schools, thus transforming the way in which those vital subjects are taught.

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Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Heads used to turn to the local education authorities for support in dealing with underperforming teachers. Under the Secretary of State’s new regime, who would he expect academies and free schools to turn to?

Michael Gove: As the hon. Lady knows, the Birmingham authority does not have a particularly good record, whether under Labour or the coalition, in providing an appropriate level of challenge. In Birmingham, it is head teachers who are providing the opportunity—people like Sir Christopher Stone are doing a fantastic job in making sure other schools improve—and the best school in Birmingham, Perry Beeches, has now opened a free school, which is showing the way. If we empower teachers in the spirit in which the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) suggests, we can do a lot more to raise standards than we ever did when we empowered bureaucrats.

Child Care and Early Intervention

6. Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): What plans he has for child care and early intervention provision; and if he will make a statement. [152079]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): There is consensus across the House that early intervention is both effective and necessary, and the Government are determined to build on that, with the Early Intervention Foundation, formally launched on 15 April, playing an important role in gathering information about what works. We already know how powerful high-quality education and child care can be as an early intervention tool, which is why we are extending early learning for two-year-olds from low-income families.

Paul Blomfield: In Education questions on 4 March, I asked the Secretary of State about the cut of 27%, or £6.8 million, to Sheffield’s early intervention grant, forcing the council to make deep cuts in early years provision. In his reply, he cited a grant of £25.2 million, describing it as an increase of 3.9%. I have since confirmed the position with council officers, who said that they could only—I quote—

“assume the Minister made an error on this. The £25.2 million refers to the current year. The figure of £6.8 million EIG reduction was the figure provided by DCLG. The cut in fact was £7.4 million when the Government confirmed the Council funding for 2013.”

Will the Secretary of State apologise and accept that he was in error and that my figures were right and, more importantly, apologise to the parents of Sheffield whose child care is being threatened?

Mr Timpson: The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State is always delighted to speak to people and professionals in Sheffield to see how the early intervention grant, which is rising from £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion, can be best spent in the Sheffield area. I am sure that is a discussion he will be happy to have.

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): In Blackpool North and Cleveleys, we eagerly anticipate the new statutory duty that will see 15 hours of early learning made available to two-year-olds from low-income

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backgrounds. Can the Minister speculate on the impact that should have on achievement levels for primary pupils in areas such as Blackpool and Cleveleys, which are deprived seaside towns?

Mr Timpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who highlights a key component of our early years intervention programme, which will see a rise from 20% to 40% in the number of two-year-olds from low-income families benefiting from the statutory duty. We anticipate that it will ensure that they get high quality care at a much younger age so that their future outcomes will be much more positive. That can only be a good thing for the people and children of Blackpool and across the country.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): First we had the pile ’em high, teach ’em cheap approach to child care, increasing ratios for child minders. Today, the children’s Minister was reported talking about chaos in nurseries for two-year-olds. Meanwhile, in my constituency, parents wait two and a half years for a place for their baby. What are the Government doing to increase the supply of child care for working parents?

Mr Timpson: I think what the hon. Lady said towards the end of her question is exactly why we need to push hard to create a high-quality child care system that is both affordable and flexible. Less than a third of nurseries currently employ graduate teachers, yet the importance of qualified staff is clear; it has a direct link to the quality of child care and therefore outcomes for children. The hon. Lady should welcome the moves we are making to increase flexibility and improve quality and affordability, so that more parents can have better child care.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Will my hon. Friend look at the early intervention situation for looked-after children, in particular the 28-day deadline that is being piloted in north Yorkshire? Will he give the House an assurance that where there are special circumstances, the 28-day rule will not be applied?

Mr Timpson: I will happily look at the point my hon. Friend raises. As we have done with the new “Working Together” statutory guidance document, we want to make sure that all children, whether they are in need or whether they require protection, are given the earliest possible help, so that the problems in their lives do not fester longer than they need to, but I am happy to look at what she says.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I hope that Ministers, especially the Minister responsible for child care, will set an example of the behaviour they clearly want to see from the nation’s toddlers, and that they will sit silently and listen and then answer politely. Professor Cathy Nutbrown is the latest expert commissioned by the Government to slam the Minister for her plans to loosen adult to child ratios, saying that they will

“shake the foundations of quality provision for young children.”

I know that the child care Minister has a touch of the Iron Lady about her—she might take that as a compliment—but will she ever be for turning on that?

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Will she or the Government ever listen to the experts they have commissioned and the tens of thousands of professionals and parents who disagree with her?

Mr Timpson: What I do know is that my hon. Friend is used to a maelstrom of linguistic turbulence coming from the Opposition, but I doubt whether that will turn her from her strong and well-evidenced reform programme, which ensures that ratios, which are not mandatory but which are, along with staff salaries, the lowest in Europe, are going to work towards our having higher quality child care which is more flexible and which parents can afford. The hon. Lady should welcome that and I hope she will listen attentively when the Minister with responsibility for child care makes that case in the future.

School Priority Building Programme

7. Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): What recent assessment he has made of the school priority building programme; and if he will make a statement. [152080]

17. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the school priority building programme; and if he will make a statement. [152091]

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): We are making good progress in delivering the first schools in the priority school building programme. Unlike previous programmes, we are tackling schools with the greatest needs first—those in the very worst condition and special schools. The first contracts for these schools have been let and building work is to start in the next few weeks.

Mr Thomas: In July last year Harrow council wrote to the Education Funding Agency seeking to secure some resources, in part from the priority school building programme, for the rebuilding and expansion of Vaughan and Marlborough schools in my constituency. Given that as of Friday, almost 10 months on, Harrow council had not received a reply to the letter, will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives from the schools to discuss how we might move the situation forward for Vaughan and Marlborough schools and secure the resources to facilitate their expansion?

Mr Laws: I note that Harrow council has welcomed the fact that eight of its schools are within the priority school building programme, but I can only apologise to the hon. Gentleman that the local council has not had a response from the EFA after such a long period. That is clearly not acceptable. I believe, though, that the council has met EFA officials on a couple of occasions. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a letter will be going out this week from the EFA, and I am delighted to meet him if he would like to do so, after he has seen the contents of that letter.

Kelvin Hopkins: The Minister may be aware that Luton has one of the highest proportions of school-age children in the whole country. Indeed, at one time a few years ago my constituency had the highest number of school-age children as a proportion. Will the Government

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continue to give serious consideration to Luton as a priority area, given that several of our schools are still bursting at the seams?

Mr Laws: Yes, Luton is a priority area. Some of the first batches of the privately financed priority schools will be in the hon. Gentleman’s area and we expect those, after proper approval, to be released this spring. We are currently carrying out a survey of the entire school estate and later this year, when we have that evidence, we will be able to prioritise in a sensible way future allocations of capital.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I thank the Minister and the Department for enabling a much-needed and long awaited investment in one of my schools, Marling school in my constituency. Does he agree that this is an example of a paced and sensible capital investment programme?

Mr Laws: My hon. Friend is exactly right. Compared with the Building Schools for the Future programme, this is a programme that is on time and on budget and is delivering extra investment in the schools in the country that need it most.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Minister join me in celebrating the fact that Kettering Science academy and Kettering Buccleuch academy both have a complete set of brand, spanking new buildings and that, together with the dynamic leadership of the heads and sponsoring organisations, this will help transform two of the worst performing schools in Kettering into two of the very best?

Mr Laws: I entirely agree. My hon. Friend will be aware of the additional capital announced by the Secretary of State at the beginning of March for all areas of the country, not only for new build, but to improve the existing school stock.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Thousands of parents are desperately anxious that their child still has no place at primary school next year, and others will be taught in larger classes further away from home. Will the Minister explain to those worried mums and dads why the Government are building two out of five of their flagship free schools in areas where there are already enough places?

Mr Laws: I am delighted to explain the priority school building programme. Unlike its predecessor programme, it prioritises those schools in the worst need, and I am proud that it is doing so, in contrast to the previous scheme, Building Schools for the Future, which did not do so. On the issue of primary places, I caution the hon. Gentleman not to lecture this Government when his Government ignored the warnings of the Office for National Statistics and eliminated 200,000 primary school places.

History Curriculum

8. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils gain a chronological understanding of British history. [152081]

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11. Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils gain a chronological understanding of British history. [152084]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): We believe that all pupils should be taught about the events that have shaped the history of these islands, and their understanding of that history is best developed when it is taught within a robust chronological framework. That is why we have published proposals for a new curriculum. Consultation on the draft closed on 16 April and we hope to publish a final version in the autumn.

Andrew Rosindell: The country will thank the Secretary of State for at last restoring British history to our schools, but will he also ensure that our pupils are taught about the proud history of our Commonwealth, the former British empire, and also the British territories?

Michael Gove: On the eve of St George’s day, my hon. Friend makes an important point, and it is the case that the new draft national history curriculum explains how Britain has interacted with the rest of the world, from Wolfe’s victory over Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, which ensured that Canada could remain British, to the influence of Britain on India. It is also the case that the period right up to the 20th century and the process of decolonisation that brought Jinnah, Nehru, Kenyatta and Nkrumah to power is in the national curriculum in detail that did not exist before.

Mr Amess: Does my right hon. Friend welcome the comments of leading historians Niall Ferguson, David Starkey and Antony Beevor concerning his plans for the history curriculum, who all recognise that unless our children have a real understanding of British history, they cannot possibly know where we have been, where we are now, or where we might be heading in the future?

Michael Gove: I am absolutely delighted that high profile historians, along with academics from Cambridge, such as David Abulafia, Professor Robert Tombs and Professor Jonathan Clark, one of the most distinguished contemporary historians of our time, Professor Jeremy Black at the university of Exeter and others have said that our direction of travel is right, but I want to make sure that there is the maximum possible consensus behind this necessary reform.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I support the chronological teaching of British history. Is he sure that the split between primary and secondary is correct in the date lines that he is talking about? Will he ensure that we are not just talking about the dates of kings and queens, but about the history of working people in this country?

Michael Gove: I absolutely agree that we need to make sure that the division between primary and secondary is appropriate for both. As for the history of working people, this is the first draft of the national history curriculum that mentions not only the role of Annie Besant, who helped to lead the match girls’ strike in east London, but also the Tolpuddle Martyrs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, like me, would celebrate an understanding of labour history alongside economic, political and social history.

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Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Thirty A-level students from my constituency visited Parliament with their teachers recently, and they told me that they need a broad history curriculum for later on in life. They also told me that if the Secretary of State goes ahead with the kind of proposals that have been mentioned in the press recently, that will not be possible for them and he will see a sharp drop-off in the numbers taking A-level history.

Michael Gove: I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am reassured by the enthusiasm that has been shown by parents and students for a deeper immersion in British history. It is sadly the case that an insufficient number of students leave school with a proper knowledge of Britain’s past. I want them to know about the achievements of heroes and heroines so that they can take pride in what these islands have achieved.


Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Pursuant to that answer, may I invite my right hon. Friend to tell the nation how important it is that our children understand those great heroes of the past? For example, Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, a former Member of this House for this notable city of Westminster, not only captured 53 ships of the French flag when he commanded HMS Speedy, but went on to liberate Chile from Spanish rule and Brazil from Portuguese rule. As a result, in both those countries there is not a child who has not heard of Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, while there is not a child in this country who has.

Mr Speaker: I had a feeling that the hon. Gentleman might want an Adjournment debate on the subject—and then I realised that he has had one.

Michael Gove: Thank you, Mr Speaker. There are a number of British maritime heroes, and indeed heroines, of whom we should know more, from Grace Darling to Thomas Cochrane, and from Nelson to Mountbatten. We should be aware of the role that the Royal Navy, the merchant navy and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have played in ensuring that people are safe on the high seas and, critically, that nations can enjoy liberty now in the same way we have enjoyed it for generations.

Under-fives Provision

9. Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): What plans he has for the regulatory framework for under-fives provision. [152082]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): We are reforming the regulations for providers for under-fives in order to give greater freedom and flexibility to high-quality providers. New childminder agencies will provide additional support for childminders and more choice for parents. We are reforming the role of local authorities to focus more on disadvantaged children. On Friday, Michael Wilshaw announced that early years inspections will be improved through greater monitoring and that Ofsted will introduce clearer reporting on the qualifications of child care professionals.

Hugh Bayley: Those are laudable but contradictory ends. Last week the owner of a Montessori nursery in York told me that they believe that the dilution of

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staff-child ratios will lead to a two-tier system and result in fewer staff and lower standards for children from low-income households, yet we know that those are the children who need under-five provision most. What will the Government do to ensure that those children do not fall behind even before they start school?

Elizabeth Truss: At present, it is a sad fact that 33% of children arrive at school without the requisite communication and language skills to take part in school education. What Sir Michael Wilshaw has said, as well as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, is that the most important factor in early education is the qualifications of staff. At the moment, only a third of nurseries have a teacher-led structure. Good providers, such as the Durand academy, provide quality, structured learning from age three, which really benefits children later on. We want to give more high-quality providers that flexibility, but we will do so only where they hire highly qualified staff.

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): In the early years, all the evidence suggests that structured group activities led by qualified graduates tend to lead to better education outcomes, so may I encourage the Minister to stick to her guns and continue her drive to improve standards in our nurseries?

Elizabeth Truss: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. When we look at all the evidence from countries such as France, where there are much higher salaries and qualifications in the early years, we see higher quality provision, particularly for the under-threes. Every other country in Europe, including Ireland and Scotland, has higher child-staff ratios and higher staff salaries than we do.

Design and Technology Curriculum

10. Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): When he will announce the structure and content of the design and technology curriculum; and if he will make a statement. [152083]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): Following the national curriculum consultation period, which closed on 16 April, we are considering the responses received. We have been engaging with leading figures in industry, such as Dick Olver and Sir James Dyson, schools and academia to ensure that we have world-class design and technology education. We are also committed to providing a curriculum that ensures children receive high-quality cookery teaching and understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

Peter Luff: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the thoughtful and intelligent way she has engaged with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Design and Technology Association, and with Dick Olver, Sir James Dyson and others, in considering the new design and technology curriculum. May I encourage her to bring forward a curriculum for the 21st century that inspires young people, particularly girls, to understand the role of science, technology and engineering in solving the real problems of the modern world, environmental, social and economic?

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Elizabeth Truss: I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his excellent contribution to the Westminster Hall debate we had on this subject. I would also like to thank him for his views on the maths, science and computing curriculum. We are now working on ensuring that design and technology is more closely integrated with those curricula and that there is an inspiring technological education that crosses many different industry types and gives schools flexibility to teach design and technology in the best way for the next generation.

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): The Opposition believe in academic excellence, but we also believe in a syllabus that reflects the demands of the 21st century. Does the Minister share my concern about comments from the CBI last week, which damned the new design and technology curriculum as

“out of step with the needs of a modern economy.”

It stated that the curriculum

“lacks academic and technical rigour”

and

“risks reinforcing existing prejudices about applied subjects being second-rate.”

When will we have a proper focus from the Government on a rigorous and relevant curriculum?

Elizabeth Truss: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new position on the Front Bench. It is sad that we did not get to hear his views on the history curriculum earlier in the debate, but we will no doubt hear them at a later stage.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about the future of British manufacturing and engineering. We are working with leading figures in the industry to make sure that we have a world-leading curriculum that is in line with what we have in computing, physics and mathematics. I would also point to the technical baccalaureate that we are introducing, which will, for the first time in this country, provide a rigorous, high-quality technical education that is truly aspirational and will encourage many more young people to study subjects such as engineering.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): On a recent visit to the Corsham school, I saw the “making room”, which is staffed by a professional artist and is available to all curriculum areas. Ofsted says that it takes activity begun in the classroom and turns it into imaginative work, which extends learning. Does the Minister agree that making things reinforces lessons right across the curriculum?

Elizabeth Truss: I absolutely agree that it is very important that the practical and the academic line up to create a truly rigorous curriculum. We are also looking at the role of practicals in science to make sure that people get proper experience when they study chemistry and physics, as well as in the design and technology curriculum.

School Curriculum

12. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): What steps he plans to take to ensure that all children receive a broad and balanced education that includes the creative subjects. [152085]

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The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): All publicly funded schools must teach a broad and balanced curriculum, and Ofsted has a duty to inspect this. We have announced that maintained schools will continue to have a statutory requirement to teach music and art and design from the ages of five to 14. Curriculum entitlements are also in place at key stage 4. Funding agreements with academies and free schools also require them to teach a broad and balanced curriculum.

Andrew Stunell: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Bearing in mind how important the creative industries are as far as our exports are concerned—just to be pragmatic about this—will he give some assurance that music in particular will continue to play a part, and how will composition and other musical skills be developed at key stages 1 and 2?

Michael Gove: My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. First, I thank Darren Henley for his report on music education, which we have had a chance to implement and which has helped influence our own approach to the national curriculum in music. We want children to learn to appreciate, but also to create, which, of course, involves learning composition skills. We also want to make sure that that is done in harness with the new music hubs that are being created. “Hubs” is not a pretty word, but they are a beautiful thing, because they are bringing instrumental tuition to many more young people.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): Recently the Children’s Commissioner found that girls and boys too often do not know what a good relationship looks like, so, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum, why is the Secretary of State refusing to make sex and relationships education compulsory in our schools? Is he aware that this vacuum is currently being filled in some areas by extremist groups, which are targeting vulnerable young girls with racist literature that claims to keep them safe? If he is as horrified by that as I am, is it not time to act?

Michael Gove: I am absolutely horrified by the extremist activity that the hon. Lady alludes to and if she could share that material with me, we will make sure that action is taken.

22. [152097] Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware that his former Schools Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), looked into the rating of sex and relationship education in schools, particularly primary schools. At the moment this is an area that is completely unregulated and I know that the Government have been trying to make some moves to get the British Board of Film Classification to look at it. Does the Secretary of State plan to make some progress?

Michael Gove: Yes, we do. My hon. Friend makes an important point. As the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) pointed out, we need to make sure that children have the information they need in order to make confident choices. We also need to take account of the fact that technology is changing rapidly. We all know some of the challenges that young people face—as a parent, I

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know them myself—and it is vital, as my hon. Friend says, to make sure that we do everything we can to keep inappropriate material away from children.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Secretary of State knows that extended days are very important in getting quality education in the wider curriculum, so will he continue to back strongly Durand academy in its desire to have a boarding element in Stedham? Does he agree that this will be a wonderful opportunity to extend the academic achievement of those young people?

Michael Gove: I owe a debt to the hon. Lady, because it was she who first invited me to visit Durand academy in her constituency. To this day I am grateful, because it is an outstanding school with a wonderful team of teachers. The fact that it is thinking of opening boarding provision for children after the age of 11 is a bright ray of hope. It is a pity that some unfortunate words have been said—[Interruption.] All I can do is quote Cardinal Newman:

“Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom”.

The same spirit of that great pioneer of education is operating in Greg Martin’s Durand school. I hope that it will come to Sussex as well.

Primary School Places

13. Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the availability of primary school places; and if he will make a statement. [152086]

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): We anticipate that 382,000 new primary places and 35,000 new secondary places will be needed over this Parliament. The latest data show that new places are being created at a good rate and that local authorities are keeping up with demand.

Catherine McKinnell: Record numbers of children will be taught in class sizes of 31 or more from September, following the coalition’s decision to ditch Labour’s class size limits. The Lib Dem spokesperson for children’s services in Newcastle said in The Guardian that

“schools should be allowed to raise the number of pupils in each class as they saw fit.”

Are we going to see a return to the bad old days of overcrowded classrooms under this Tory-Lib Dem Government?

Mr Laws: We have not ditched the limit. We have almost tripled the investment in basic need compared with 2008-09, when the hon. Lady’s party was in power.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that between now and 2015, the Government will spend £5 billion on new school places, which is twice as much as was spent by the Labour party during a similar time frame, and that £1 billion of that is earmarked for areas that are under the greatest pressure?

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Mr Laws: I can confirm exactly that. I can confirm also that we would not have had to find that amount of capital had the Labour party not ignored the advice of the Office for National Statistics in 2003-04 about future trends in primary numbers.

Headteachers (Academies)

14. Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): How head teachers of academies can be removed if their schools fail to make the progress that can reasonably be expected. [152088]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): The responsibility for the performance of an academy rests with the academy trust. Academy trusts are free to set their own processes for managing the performance, and indeed any dismissal, of head teachers. They are free to adopt the procedures that apply in maintained schools, if they choose. If the Department has concerns about the leadership of an academy, we raise the matter with the academy trust.

Andrew Selous: Successful schools are vital to the well-being of the areas that they serve. Central Bedfordshire has many outstanding head teachers in academies and maintained schools. When an academy head teacher has not made the progress that could reasonably be expected, does the Secretary of State see that there is a role for the local authority in dealing with the issue?

Michael Gove: Local authorities certainly have an important role in championing vulnerable children in particular. If they feel that any school, whether it is a maintained school, an academy or a free school, has a principal who is not doing the right job for their children, they should raise it directly with the Department and we will together take action.

20. [152095] Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): Head teachers in Northumberland find it unacceptable that high local government pension scheme rates are set simply because a school decides to become an academy, and yet that is the policy of the county council. Does the Secretary of State agree that that policy is totally wrong and that head teachers who aspire for their schools to be academies should be encouraged and supported?

Michael Gove: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He has fought like a tiger for the schools in his constituency and across Northumberland. I have been working with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make progress.

Topical Questions

T1. [152099] Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): As was mentioned earlier in questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Skills and I today launched the new technical baccalaureate, which will make the recognition of vocational education even more demanding and aspirational. I am

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grateful to Lord Adonis for the work that he has done to shine a light on what is good in vocational and technical education.

Dr Coffey: I welcome the launch of the tech bacc today. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will not return powers from academies to local authorities, as the shadow Secretary of State seemed to recommend last week? Is that not a U-turn on what Tony Blair and the noble Lord Adonis said when they first set up academies?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was very worried when I read the latest issue of The House magazine. In an interview with the shadow Secretary of State that was generally quite nice—he is a nice chap—he nevertheless said that he had “great respect” for Lord Adonis but “differences of emphasis”. He wanted to put “less of an emphasis” on

“the independent governance that academies have”.

I am afraid that, once more, that is a retreat from reform. Unfortunately, if the Labour party were to return to power, reform would stop in its tracks.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): May I echo the Secretary of State’s earlier comments about the Chair of the Education Committee, and wish him a speedy recovery? I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), who is acting in the capacity of Chair.

Last October, the Leader of the Opposition set out Labour’s plans for a technical baccalaureate. Today, we have the Government’s plans. Our plan included high-quality work experience. Will work experience be integral to the Secretary of State’s technical baccalaureate?

Michael Gove: No, work experience is not integral to the technical baccalaureate. It is provided for by our changes to the funding mechanism for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds to ensure that rather than paying by the number of qualifications, which actually led to a prejudice against work experience, there can be a coherent programme of study for those who want to follow a vocational or technical path.

Stephen Twigg: I am disappointed but not surprised by that answer, because for the past three years the Secretary of State has undermined technical, practical and vocational education by abolishing statutory work experience, downgrading the engineering diploma, removing face-to-face careers advice and narrowing the curriculum so that skills are undermined. I want the tech bacc to succeed, but does he not agree that if that is to happen, he needs to reconsider all the other policies that I have listed?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his points, but I am afraid that in many areas he is quite wrong. Before the Government reformed academic qualifications, we asked Professor Alison Wolf to help reform technical and vocational qualifications. The Labour party said that it endorsed the proposals, but when we have put forward individual policies to implement her proposals, it has opposed them.

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We have not abolished work experience. It was an entirely different process that referred to key stage 4, and it was a recommendation of the Wolf report, which we implemented in full. The Opposition said they backed it, but now they U-turn on it. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s passion for vocational education will be credible only if he does his homework, which sadly he has failed to do so far.

T2. [152100] Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): It is disappointing that before Easter, the National Union of Teachers and the NASUWT announced plans for strike action in the summer term, which will achieve little except disrupting children’s education and ruining parents’ working arrangements. Will my right hon. Friend do his utmost to ensure that teachers are aware of the folly of industrial action in the classroom?

Michael Gove: I entirely agree. I meet more and more teachers who are in despair at how the NUT and the NASUWT affect to represent them. One thing worries me more, however—the principal party of opposition has not yet condemned the strikes and criticised those unions. When the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) had a platform at the NASUWT conference, he should have denounced its strike action, but I am afraid there was silence.

T3. [152101] Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): The Daycare Trust reports that just 20% of local authorities have enough places for two-year-olds in their area. Why, then, are the Government abolishing section 11 of the Childcare Act 2006, and with it the child care sufficiency report that local authorities have to publish?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): What we are doing is getting rid of unnecessary bureaucracy, but councils will still have responsibility for ensuring a sufficiency of child care in their area. In addition, we are creating childminder agencies, reforming provision and reforming the role of local authorities to ensure that it is easier for high-quality providers to expand, so there will be more places.

T4. [152102] Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): I am delighted that seven of the eight children’s centres in Hastings are rated good or outstanding, and that despite scaremongering by the Labour party, East Sussex county council has plans to expand the service. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating East Sussex county council on its focus on helping families at an early stage in children’s lives?

Michael Gove: I am certainly absolutely delighted that Conservative-led East Sussex county council is doing such a good job in the early years.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Last week, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children produced its report on child protection, in which it described child protection services as working in overdrive. It also estimated that for every child subject to a child protection plan or on the child protection register, another eight children have suffered maltreatment. Will the Secretary of State or one of his colleagues tell

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me what he is doing to ensure that children who are not on child protection plans but are clearly in need of services get help and support?

Michael Gove: The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), had the opportunity to speak at the NSPCC conference, and I had an opportunity to read the report, which I found thought-provoking and challenging. In our reform of social work practice, we are attempting to ensure that social workers can spend more time with families in need where there are children who are at risk or face neglect. We will make more announcements shortly about how we are enhancing the way the social work profession works with families that need its support.

T5. [152103] Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Brymore school, a state-funded boarding school for 13 to 17-year-olds in Somerset, specialises in rural technology and has its own its own farms, stock, greenhouses, workshops, foundry and forge. Although it delivers exactly what the Secretary of State wants—vocational excellence, great maths and English teaching, and a rapid rise in exam results, having moved from the bottom 9% to the top 3% of schools nationally when looking at value added over the past two years—no land-based subjects will be included in the performance measures from 2015. Will the Secretary of State consider the recognition of agriculture and horticulture in a farm bacc, and meet parents from my patch, and others, to discuss the issue?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills (Matthew Hancock): I am grateful for that question, because I am a fan of recognising high-quality vocational education, hence the tech bacc announced today. Agricultural and land-based qualifications will, of course, be eligible for inclusion in the tech bacc and for younger age groups. However, they must be of very high quality to ensure that we provide high-quality qualifications for those who take vocational routes. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Nursery providers in my constituency have expressed their approval of support received from the local authority in relation to good practice, providing support and raising standards. What guarantees can Ministers provide that such support will continue under the new regulatory regime?

Elizabeth Truss: I can confirm that Ofsted is currently recruiting more HMIs—Her Majesty’s inspectors—for the early years, and will increase the frequency of inspections of weaker providers. It will also give those providers support for improvement. Existing good quality support provided by local authorities will continue, provided that the providers agree. The issue is that such support is patchy across the country, and not necessarily the same in some local authority areas as in others.

T6. [152104] Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): Given the vital role that vocational education plays in delivering the skilled work force of the future, will the Minister explain how the technical baccalaureate will raise standards of vocational courses and attract more learners?

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Matthew Hancock: The tech bacc is intended to recognise high-quality vocational education, including written work and maths. The key thing is that the occupational qualifications included will be developed and signed off by employers, because employers are vital to ensure that when we teach people vocational skills, those skills can be put to good use.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Changes to AS and A-levels are planned for 2015, as well as changes to GCSEs. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of that conflagration of curriculum changes on young people, schools and colleges?

Michael Gove: It will raise standards.

T7. [152105] Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): In the interest of transparency and to provide information for schools and local authorities, will the Secretary of State ensure that all reports on the asbestos incident in Cwmcarn high school in Wales, including the final report from the Health and Safety Executive, are made publicly available? I note that the local council has decided to remove asbestos from the school on safety grounds.

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): I will look at this matter on behalf of my right hon. Friend. We are keen to ensure that policy on asbestos is evidence-based, and that there is clarity about the inquiry carried out by the HSE.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): The average age for leaving home is 24, yet currently only one in 20 foster children is able to stay with their foster carers beyond their 18th birthday. If the Secretary of State is as shocked as I am by that, will he lead and co-ordinate an urgent initiative aimed at ensuring that every foster child, like any child, can leave home when they are ready?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know takes a keen interest in this area. He will, I hope, be encouraged by the fact that I have written to every director of children’s services to re-emphasise the importance of the exact point he has just made. We have supported the “staying put” pilot, which continues in many local authorities, and I am looking at what more we can do to support care leavers, not only when they leave care, but also after they have left, so that they get all the support that they need and deserve.

T8. [152106] Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): May I draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am going through the process of becoming a board member of the new Free the Children charitable organisation in Britain? The Government’s National Citizen Service positively engages young people during their school holidays. Does my right hon. Friend agree that charitable organisations such as Free the Children, which now exists in Britain, add value to children’s primary and secondary education throughout the year, and are an excellent example of the big society in action?

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Michael Gove: Free the Children is a wonderful charity and I look forward to supporting it later this evening.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who has responsibility for children’s matters, is concerned about the high numbers of children placed in children’s homes some distance outside their local areas, the difficulty of supporting those children, and their vulnerability to child sexual exploitation. I am pleased that he is planning to make changes to tackle that problem, but will he update hon. Members on progress?

Mr Timpson: I once again express my gratitude to the hon. Lady for the serious and significant contribution she has made to the work my Department has done to try to tackle the important problem of children who are placed out of area in residential care—the number is almost 50%, which is far too high. That is why we have already made one change, whereby Ofsted must now report to police the location of all children’s homes. We will go further with changes to much of the regulatory framework to improve the “out of sight, out of mind” culture. I am happy to discuss with her in the coming weeks how we implement that, as I have discussed it with her in the past. An announcement will be made very shortly.

T9. [152107] Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I have recently participated in a cross-party inquiry into unwanted pregnancy. We found that there were gaping holes in understanding not only of the mechanics of sex, but of how relationships work. In a letter to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), admitted that academies are not required to teach sex education. Given the life-changing consequences of such ignorance, does the Secretary of State agree that sex and relationships education should be compulsory in all schools?

Michael Gove: All academies have the opportunity to depart from the national curriculum, which is entirely appropriate, but I do not think—[Interruption.] Honestly! This is a serious subject, and I am afraid the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is not doing it the service it deserves—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. We cannot have a debate while a question is being answered—[Interruption.] Order. The Secretary of State will respond to the question as he thinks fit, without a running commentary.

Michael Gove: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

One inference of the hon. Lady’s question is that head teachers or principals in academies will be neglectful of the welfare of children, particularly with respect to sex and relationships education. As I have said, this is a uniquely serious matter. Given changes in technology and family formation, it requires the attention of all us if we are to get it right. One thing my Department has done is conduct a survey of best practice. Sometimes, best practice occurs in faith schools and academies and not in maintained schools. Simply prescribing something in the national curriculum does not mean that best

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practice will result. I am afraid that the debate deserves more than the catcalls and superficial sloganising we get from some people.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): May I therefore ask the Secretary of State directly why he will introduce financial education as part of the compulsory national curriculum and yet denies that drug education, alcohol education and relationship education should have the same status?

Michael Gove: As the hon. Lady acknowledges, the changes to the citizenship curriculum have been widely supported. She draws a distinction between what happens in one national curriculum area and others—as the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) has pointed out, academies are not subject to the national curriculum. If we look at the national curriculum overall, we see that there is an absolute requirement in science to teach sex education, and sex and relationships education is part of the national curriculum expectation for all schools.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware of the problems still being caused by the private finance initiative building programme? Miltoncross school in Portsmouth has ambitions to become an academy, but cannot make progress owing to unresolved issues in its PFI contract. Will the Secretary of State meet me regarding that problem and assist in getting it resolved?

Michael Gove: Yes, I will.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): How does the Government’s rhetoric on supporting catch-up literacy match the ongoing closure of libraries up and down the country? Do his Government ever attempt to join up, or are they just extraordinarily bad at it?

Michael Gove: The hon. Lady again shows the devotion to partisanship that has characterised her time in the House. The truth is that some local authorities do a superb job in making library services more relevant and more effective, but others are not doing so effectively—as we are in an election season, it is probably worth pointing out that they are mainly Labour, whether, for example, it is Brent or Newham. If she is serious about

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raising standards in literacy and ensuring that children have the opportunity to enjoy great works of literature, perhaps she will throw her support behind the national curriculum reforms and the academy and free school reforms we are making. I fear that, once again, she will go into the default mode of Opposition Members, which is to make cheap sloganeering points rather than to care about children.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): Owing to the sudden, serious illness of a head teacher at a school in my constituency, the names of a number of children who were due to sit the level 6 SATs test were not submitted in time. Despite these exceptional circumstances, which the local authority supports, the Standards and Testing Agency will not make an exception. Will the Minister intervene in this rather silly bureaucracy and allow the children, who have worked very hard, to take the test?

Michael Gove: I am aware that this is a widespread issue; a number of colleagues have raised it with me. We will talk to the schools concerned to see what we can do, but it is difficult, when the STA gave appropriate notice, to necessarily make exceptions.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Following the Secretary of State’s visit to Stockton last week, does he expect any schools in the area, attended by children from my constituency, to close as a result of the creation of surplus places if a new free school is opened in the south of the borough?

Michael Gove: It was great to visit Stockton South. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) is an outstanding MP and people were saying to me, “If only there were more Conservatives in the north-east.” People were also saying to me that they need a new school because, apart from the free school that is being built, provision in the north of the constituency is not good enough. I am only sorry that Labour-led Stockton council has stood in the way of parents who are working with us, and with the Conservative MP, to improve education. [Interruption.] Once again, if the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) would only haud his whisht and listen to the parents, he would be of far better service to the children of Teesside.

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Point of Order

3.36 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may or may not be aware that there has been an break in electricity in Portcullis House, which means that there is no means of knowing if a Division is taking place. The Annunciator screens and computers are not working. The only things working are the lights. When we come to a Division, I wonder whether we might ensure that it is possible for everybody across the parliamentary estate to know when there is to be a vote.

Mr Speaker: I note what the hon. Gentleman has said. There is no Division expected for some time, but his point is taken on board by the Chair and I thank him for making it.

Public service pensions bill (programme) (No.2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Public Service Pensions Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 29 October 2012 (Public Service Pensions Bill (Programme)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.

2. The Lords Amendments shall be considered in the following order:

Lords amendments 78 and 79.

Lords amendment 9.

Lords amendments 1 to 8, 10 to 77, 80 to 128.

Subsequent stages

3. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

4. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Anne Milton.)

Question agreed to.

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Public Service Pensions Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

Mr Speaker: I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendments 18, 19, 22, 28, 29, 37 to 39, 45, 78, 79, 82, 114, 117, 119 and 127. If the House agrees to the amendments, I will cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.

Schedule 1

Persons in public service: definitions

3.38 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 78.

Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Lords amendment 79, and Government motion to disagree.

Sajid Javid: We return today to the Public Service Pensions Bill, which will put public service pensions on a fair and sustainable footing for generations to come. There was broad support from all parts of the House for this measure, and I am grateful to all those who have voiced an interest in the Bill for their co-operative approach. I would also like to draw the attention of the House to the progress the Bill has made in the other place.

First, when the Bill left this House, the Opposition were concerned about the wide scope of powers to make retrospective changes and to amend primary legislation. The Government understand that concern. Pensions are an important part of scheme members’ future income in retirement. We therefore tabled amendments in the other place to give members or their representatives a complete veto over any significant adverse retrospective change to their pensions and to restrict the powers to amend primary legislation. Furthermore, any Treasury orders for negative revaluation of scheme benefits will now need to be made by the affirmative Commons procedure.

Secondly, the Opposition sought further assurances on the governance elements of the legislation, particularly a requirement in the Bill for employee representatives on scheme boards. Again, I am pleased to report that the Government tabled amendments in the other place to require an equal balance of member and employer representatives, along with an explicit requirement for national scheme advisory boards.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): My hon. Friend is talking about some welcome changes that the Government have made, but there is another party to this contract on pensions. The taxpayer will foot the bill for the unfunded part of the obligations of public sector pensions. Will he assure me—

Mr Speaker: Order. Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat? I do not blame him, in the first instance, because the trouble, the mischief, was started, however

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inadvertently, by the Minister, who is looking at me with an innocent expression belied by the reality of what he was saying in the debate. This is not a generalised debate; these are narrowly defined matters, and we are considering the relevant amendment, to which, to put it kindly, the hon. Gentleman’s remarks were not altogether adjacent.

Sajid Javid: With your guidance, Mr Speaker, which I always take very seriously, I will move directly to Lords amendments 78 and 79.

The Lords amendments would give the civil servants in the MOD fire and police services a normal pension age of 60 in the new schemes. The Government do not believe that this is the correct way forward.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Is the Minister seriously stating that an MOD police or fire officer should be treated differently from a police or fire officer not employed by the MOD?

Sajid Javid: As I make progress and explain the Government’s position, I will come to that point.

The Government do not believe the amendments to be the correct way forward, either for the taxpayer or the forces themselves. I will briefly set out some of the key reasons for our position. Allow me first, however, to reassure both hon. Members and the work forces themselves that the Government understand their concerns. We have listened to the representations and reflected on the discussions in another place, and I want to make it absolutely clear that we recognise the unique position of these work forces and the important role that the defence fire and rescue service and the Ministry of Defence police play.

My colleague Lord Newby met DFRS and MDP officers to talk through their experiences on the ground and the demands of their roles. There is no doubt that these public services deliver a valuable service to the armed forces and the country more generally. The nature of the work they are called on to deliver is often very difficult and at times can be dangerous. On occasion, some members of these work forces might find themselves putting their lives at risk. No one in the House is suggesting otherwise, so let us not be distracted from this important discussion by cherry-picking anecdotes and citing emotive examples of the work involved, because that is not the issue being discussed today.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Like many people, I have met representatives of workers in the MOD scheme, and they have referred me to Lord Hutton’s comments that he was not aware of the anomaly and therefore did not address it in his report, but that he was sympathetic. I have seen both sides of the argument. Our noble friend Lord Newby said that he would reflect on the debate in the Lords. Have there been any further conversations with Lord Hutton? In general, my understanding is that the Government are seeking to implement Lord Hutton’s recommendations, but this issue has clearly slipped through the net.

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Sajid Javid: My right hon. Friend is right to raise Lord Hutton’s contribution to these pension reforms. He has done an excellent job overall, which the Government, including me, have put on record a number of times, although I am happy to do so again today. As my right hon. Friend says, Lord Hutton made clear his views on this issue in the debate in the other place. Since then Lord Newby has engaged with a number of stakeholders. I will provide a further update on that as I progress.

3.45 pm

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Lord Newby said in the House of Lords debate that these amendments would

“fundamentally alter the status of these individuals and that should not be carried out lightly.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 571, c. 743.]

How does the Minister respond to those points and will he say what those alterations would be?

Sajid Javid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that the general pension reforms in this Bill should not be carried out lightly. As I progress and we have this debate, I hope he will be reassured that the Government have taken this issue seriously and will set out their case carefully.

The issue at hand is the appropriate treatment of those work forces’ pensions. The amendments would actively reduce the normal pension age for individuals joining them. It would not be a minor reduction, but a reduction of five years from the pension age put in place for those work forces by the Labour Government in 2007. It would also be a reduction of seven years from the pension age that they would otherwise see when the new scheme comes into force in 2015. That approach would run counter to the need to control the risks associated with increased longevity, which all parties agree must be addressed. I believe that all parties in this House support the aim of controlling those risks. The amendments would make those work forces unique in the public sector, with their pension age falling at a time when everyone else’s is rising.

In response to the issue being highlighted, the Government have taken measured and appropriate action. Rather than making a knee-jerk response to fit with the legislative time scale of the Public Service Pensions Bill, the Ministry of Defence has written to the forces. Its letter states that the MOD is willing to consider how the current pension age of 65 might be maintained for those individuals when the new pension schemes are introduced in 2015. I believe that is a reasonable offer by the Government, and we will of course stand by it. It is our duty as parliamentarians to look at the whole picture. Pensions are only one part of the remuneration and employment package of those work forces.

Sir Bob Russell: The Minister is saying that the retirement age of a current Ministry of Defence police officer would remain at 65. So that I can better understand, what would the retirement age for a constable in the Essex police be?

Sajid Javid: To be clear, what I have said is that the Ministry of Defence is willing to consider keeping the age at 65. It has not yet made that decision, which would require further engagement, although it has set

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out how it intends to engage. As I think my hon. Friend knows, under these proposals the answer to his question about a police officer would be 60, as opposed to 65 for civil servant pension schemes.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): When the Minister complains that agreeing to these Lords amendments would create a unique circumstance, is he not really admitting that the unique characteristic of this particular class of MOD firefighter and MOD police officer is that they are the outliers? They are the only ones who will have to work all those extra years, whereas other police officers and firefighters in comparable roles will retire at 60. That is essentially what he is saying.

Sajid Javid: During the Bill’s passage through Parliament, the Opposition spokesman has raised mostly constructive issues and, as we shall see during this debate, the Government have accepted many of them. This is one issue, however, on which he and his party have little credibility. He says that the current retirement age for MOD police and fire service workers is higher than that of their civilian counterparts, but that situation was created by the Government whom he supported, so he really does not have much credibility on the issue.

Chris Leslie rose—

Sajid Javid: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman again. Perhaps he will now tell me whether the previous Government considered these issues when they changed the retirement age from 60 to 65 for MOD fire service workers and policemen.

Chris Leslie: I was not part of the Government at that time, but the key point is that, as he knows and as we have heard throughout the debates that have been quoted in interventions today, even Lord Hutton did not spot this anomaly. Lord Hutton says that, if he had known about it, he would of course have corrected it and aligned the MOD firefighters with all the other firefighters. I am prepared to say that the last Government overlooked this issue; it was an error. It was a mistake, and we should be big enough to admit that. Is the Minister now big enough to throw away his Treasury brief, which simply tells him to resist all changes, and to act for himself and do the right thing by treating all firefighters the same?

Sajid Javid: I am very comfortable that the Government are doing the right thing by resisting the amendments. As the debate progresses, I hope that more hon. Members will be persuaded that we have taken the right approach to this complex issue. I shall explain further as the debate progresses.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Will the Minister explain the nature of the offer? I just want to know what the process will involve, following consultation. Will it require primary legislation, or will it be dealt with through delegated legislation? How will it be implemented? What sort of time scale is he considering?

Sajid Javid: The hon. Gentleman is asking those questions for all the right reasons. I still have a few more minutes in which to set out the Government’s case, and

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I hope that I shall answer them in the process. If anything remains unclear, however, I hope that he will come back to me. I will be happy to add to the information that I am giving the House.

Richard Fuller: Labour has accepted that it completely forgot about those workers when it was in government. Its spokesman has been noble enough to admit that it did not find the 350 people in the fire service and 3,000 people in the military police. Given that my hon. Friend the Minister now understands that fact, can he tell me why the workers did not bring the issue to the attention of the then Government? Were the unions involved in any negotiations at the time, or has this just become an issue now?

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend raises a good point. I cannot answer on behalf of the previous Government, but I can say that the change was carried out by ministerial order. There was no open, ongoing debate on the matter like the one we are having today. A written ministerial statement was issued by the then Minister for the East Midlands, Gillian Merron, on 26 July 2007, and I can find no record of any Labour MP complaining about the change at that time. If my hon. Friend is making the point that the Opposition’s credibility is severely damaged because of this, he is making it very well.

Sir Bob Russell: It was not connected to the pensions issue, but I raised with Labour Ministers at the time the stupidity of cutting the size of the MOD police, whose numbers in my constituency have been reduced from 33 to one.

Sajid Javid: We all know that my hon. Friend is an assiduous Member of Parliament, and that he reviews all legislation carefully. I thank him for making that point. He will no doubt have looked at these matters closely at the time, and I welcome his looking at the legislation today.

Ian Paisley: The party political spat is incredibly interesting to observers—and the employees are the people who count most here. Will the Minister set out for me—he has been able to travel some way in his contributions to date—where the terms and conditions of employment set for Ministry of Defence personnel are materially and significantly different from those of ordinary Home Office fire services and police officers across the rest of the UK? If he set that out clearly, it might help me to come over to his side on this issue.

Sajid Javid: The hon. Gentleman may already know that MOD fire workers and police are classed as part of the civil service and, as such, are part of the principal civil service pension scheme. That is why the changes I referred to, which were made by the then Government back in 2007, affected those employees. As I plough on through my speech, I hope I will be able to answer some of his concerns.

Ian Paisley: I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way again. It is the material condition of their work that counts. What is significantly different between an officer who dons a hat with an MOD badge putting out a fire and one who does so but dons a hat with his

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regional service cap? I simply do not get it, and I think that many Members do not get it either, while those who do not get it the most are the fire service men.

Sajid Javid: Clearly, there is some difference in the roles they carry out, but I readily accept that the physical attributes required and the difficulty of the job are similar in each case. That is why I said at the outset that there is no point in trying to debate the difficulties, for example, of one job in the civil fire service in comparison with those in the MOD fire service, but significant differences have developed over time between the pay and conditions, including the pensions, of the civil and the MOD work forces. The hon. Gentleman will see, as I have outlined, that the MOD has committed to consider the issue. My main point is that this Bill deals with approximately 12 million employees and their pensions in the public sector, and that this is not the right occasion for looking at individual terms and conditions in each scheme for each particular work force. There is a time and a place for that—but it is not the debate on this Bill. I do not believe that it is the job of Members here or in the other place to look at the individual terms of each scheme. Rather, we should ensure that the Bill we pass has sufficient flexibilities to ensure that if the NPAs—normal pension ages—or other terms and conditions in the pensions for particular work forces need to be changed at some point in the future, that can be accommodated.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): Will the Minister tell us how many meetings he has had with Defence Ministers to discuss the implications for the MOD and how many he has held with the MOD police and fire service trade unions?

Sajid Javid: I can tell the hon. Lady that I am not the only Minister in the Treasury working on this issue, as there is a whole team of Ministers, including my noble Friend Lord Newby. Treasury Ministers have had meetings with representatives of the respective work forces and other stakeholders. I would like to plough on—

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Sajid Javid: I promise that I will in a few moments.

It is our duty as parliamentarians to look at the whole picture of pensions, which are only one part of the remuneration and employment packages for these particular work forces. We should not simplify the issue by making stark comparisons out of context. Simply comparing these forces to their local authority counterparts achieves no useful purpose beyond critical grandstanding. Differences between these forces’ terms of employment are of long standing. If these issues are to be reopened, they should be considered in the round, with proper consultation between employer and employees.

As well as having different retirement ages from local authority, fire and police personnel, the MOD employees have different contribution rates and levels of pay. Unlike their local authority counterparts, they also have access to benefits such as the civil service compensation scheme. To pluck out their pensions from the wider

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package would be short-sighted, and potentially damaging to the efforts of both employers and employees to get the package right.

4 pm

Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous.

We are not just legislating on people’s terms and conditions, and it is important for us not to legislate and get it wrong. What about people’s capability to do the job? Are people over 60 expected to go into a burning building in the same way as they did when they were 26? John Hutton clearly does not think that they should do so if they work for a local authority, and the same should apply in this context. We should think not only about the person who is running into the building, but about the person who is inside waiting for him. That is why the Minister should change his mind.

Sajid Javid: The hon. Gentleman has made a good point, and made it well. It is important to consider the capability of each work force, especially in view of increased longevity, and to ensure that the retirement age is appropriate. That is what I expect the MOD to do, and that is what it is doing, but it should do it in the context of the particular scheme for each work force, rather than by becoming involved in the details of each work force that are affected by the broad changes introduced by the Bill.

We have a responsibility to look rationally at the costs of the proposed changes. The additional costs may appear small in comparison with the savings that the Government are making through their overall programme of pension reforms, but the Government consider them to be both unnecessary and significant. They are unnecessary because those concerned will continue to have access to the civil service pension scheme, which is an excellent scheme that many in the private sector, including those doing the most arduous or specialist work, would envy. They are significant because some early indications suggest that they could be as high as £10 million a year for the lifetime of the schemes. This expenditure would take money away from front-line servicemen and women, and from other important defence priorities.

Those who support the amendments may believe that the members should pay the cost of the reduced retirement age themselves. That would imply increased employee contributions and a potential average take-home pay cut of over 8%—although it would depend on the exact terms—which might not necessarily be welcomed by members of the forces.

As politicians, we should not be trying to set the fine detail of public servants' pension schemes on the Floor of the House. Rushing at it might lead to mistakes. As I hope I have made clear, I acknowledge that the issue deserves further consideration allowing time for discussions between employer and employee. We owe it to the DFRS and the MDP to get this right.

Simon Hughes: What the Minister has just said is very helpful, provided that the Treasury too will be helpful if the negotiations between the unions and the MOD produce a different package. I understand the financial point, and I also understand that this is not just about

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retirement ages but about all the other benefits, which may be better than they are under the present arrangement. Can the Minister confirm that, if the MOD picks up the baton, the Treasury will not walk away and say “Nothing to do with us, guv”, but will continue to take an interest in the resolution of this outstanding bit of business?

Sajid Javid: What I can confirm is that the Treasury and the MOD are in exactly the same place. The MOD agrees with the terms that I am presenting today, and, as I have said, has made it clear that it will think about the issue. It has already written about it to members of the forces, as I would expect it to do in its capacity as the employer of these vital groups of workers.

The Government have not dismissed the claims of the DFRS or the MDP; far from it. The MOD has acknowledged in writing that there is a case for looking at their pension age to check that it is still appropriate.

Finally, there is a technical reason why the Government cannot accept these amendments as they currently stand. They would—unintentionally, I assume—confer powers on the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to make schemes for these civil servants. That would give new functions to devolved Administrations, without any proper consultation or consideration of whether that is the appropriate framework for managing the interests of these specialised work forces.

In summary, this is a complicated and inevitably emotive issue, and one that we have discussed at some length. I am sure I will not have persuaded all Members present today.

Mr Anderson: The Minister has made two clear points: this issue has not been resolved and needs to be resolved; and there is an issue to do with the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments. Therefore, is not the genuine thing to do to withdraw the Bill today, until those points can be put right?

Sajid Javid: I have to disagree. Of course that is not the right thing to do. This Bill is about 12 million workers in the public sector and their pensions, and about the settlement between those employees, their employers and the taxpayer, and it is vital that we make this reform so we can get the public finances on a sounder footing. I think the hon. Gentleman knows that, but I do not blame him for trying.

I hope hon. Members at least understand why we are taking this position on these amendments. I have explained why we have to resist the amendments, citing the financial privileges of this House on this occasion. I therefore urge hon. Members to disagree with this group of amendments.


Chris Leslie: Although the Minister had quite a long preamble, not necessarily on these amendments, all I would say is that, clearly, with life expectancies increasing, it is in general reasonable to ask people to work for longer before retirement. There is no disagreement on that general principle. We need to adjust the public service pension schemes so that they remain sustainable, which is why we support so many of the changes Lord Hutton recommended. However, as hon. Members know, there are certain categories of workers for whom having longer careers is not realistic because of the physical

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demands of their professions. There are some physical tasks that it is not reasonable to expect a 67 or 68-year-old to undertake.

The Bill acknowledges that in part, by excluding three categories of worker— firefighters, police officers and members of the armed forces—and fixing their normal pension age at 60. That is a rational position, but there are other professions that we believe the Government should keep under review because they also can be exceptionally physically demanding, such as NHS paramedics and care workers. There is clearly a need for some flexibility to accommodate scheme-specific capability reviews for these associated professions, and it is a great shame that the Government have not allowed the latitude for that in the Bill. We debated that in Committee.

Lords amendments 78 and 79 are aimed at correcting what most people thought to be an oversight: the fact that, for some bizarre reason, Ministry of Defence firefighters and MOD police officers are excluded from the definitions of firefighters and police officers in the Bill. There are about 2,000 MOD police and 1,000 or so MOD fire and rescue scheme workers who essentially carry out the same crucial, but onerous, tasks as police and fire service workers under the auspices of the police authorities and the Home Office.

Sir Bob Russell: In addition to the point the hon. Gentleman has just made, does he agree that, particularly with regard to Faslane and the nuclear submarines and installations there, MOD firefighers and police officers carry out duties that the civilian police and firefighters do not have to do?

Chris Leslie: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because I think that is indeed the case, but my general point is about the physical demands on these individuals. Today we are debating whether their retirement age should be, as the Minister thinks, 67 or above, or whether it should be at 60—the same age as for other firefighters, police officers and members of the armed forces. It is a simple proposition and the House has the power to make a judgment on it today.

Richard Fuller: The hon. Gentleman makes the case on physicality for those three classes of public sector employees, but the crucial issue is that those people put their lives at risk, which other public sector workers do not. Can he advise the House why the issue was not raised, and why those people were missed, in earlier pension scheme reforms?

Chris Leslie: That is a very pertinent question. We heard from the Minister that 12 million people were affected by the various public service and civil service pension schemes. We heard that even Lord Hutton, in his detailed inquiry, was not aware of the 350 or so affected individuals, because it was a new scheme that started in 2007, and only some MOD firefighters and police will come into the age bracket. Given the complexity of pensions, it is not surprising that some issues were not spotted; apparently even some employee representatives and others were not aware of the anomaly at the time.

These things happen. Mistakes can be made, but it is really important that when a mistake is pointed out, people assess whether they are big enough to accept

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that it needs to be corrected and justice is done, or whether their pride is such—whether or not this applies to the civil service—that they try to retrofit their arguments to justify a clearly unjustifiable anomaly. That is what the question boils down to.

The only reason I can see for different treatment for those groups is that one set happens to be employed by the Ministry of Defence and the other is in the public service at large. It is such an evident anomaly that the House of Lords, when made aware of the lacuna, correctly sought to repair the fault in the Bill, but incredibly we heard from the Economic Secretary—I am delighted that he has been joined by the Chief Secretary; perhaps he can be lent on by more enlightened colleagues—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) says he will have a go, but he does not have much time as the question will be put shortly. [Interruption.] Anyway, Ministers are not particularly interested in listening to the debate, so it might be useful if the hon. Gentleman could text the Economic Secretary to suggest that he pays attention.

In essence, the Economic Secretary said that the Government were too proud to admit that they had got it wrong. They are still defending the indefensible, but the arguments for admitting the error are overwhelming.

Alison Seabeck: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that if the Government do not accept some of the changes, some people—albeit a small number—who cannot carry out normal duties will be unable to do the job for which they are being paid? Therefore fewer people will be able to fight fires or to respond in the most physical of circumstances. How does my hon. Friend see the future for those employees?

Chris Leslie: Quite a few of those employees already retire before the normal retirement age because of issues of physicality—the sheer effort involved in undertaking such physical tasks. It is entirely unreasonable and unfair that there is such a discrepancy between public service workers who carry out the same job. They are all called on to put their lives on the line. The burden of justifying the anomaly now rests with the Government, but other than some rather unconvincing arguments, which the Minister barely touched on, they have failed to discharge their burden and to illustrate why MOD firefighters and police are so different. The Minister took interventions from many colleagues and on a number of occasions he said, “Oh well, I’ll come to it in my speech,” but amazingly he never did.

Simon Hughes: Given that neither the Labour Government nor Lord Hutton spotted the issue, and it has now been raised with this Government, does the hon. Gentleman not think that a reasonable way forward is what the Minister suggested at the end of his speech? We should allow the MOD and the unions to see if they can negotiate a proposal that could be implemented under the broad remit of the Bill. That must be the reasonable, sensible, grown-up way forward.

4.15 pm

Chris Leslie: At this eleventh hour, no, because the issue has been familiar to the Government for many months. The Minister said that there was not even a

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proposal on the table. We are able to judge, as Lord Hutton was able to judge, as suggested by the quotes from the House of Lords debate, the definitions of firefighter, police officer and armed forces, for whom the Bill categorically specifies the normal pension age as 60. The right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that some sort of negotiation is needed about whether those individuals are indeed firefighters or police officers of the same class. I disagree with him, if he is naive enough to think that the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence do not need to be pushed on the issue. Today is the opportunity to vote on it. I know he will listen to the debate and I hope he will vote in the right way and not try to find some excuse for kicking the issue into the long grass, hoping that people will forget about it yet again. We have the opportunity to deal with it now. Let us have a bit of gumption and deal with it in the way that we can do.

Simon Hughes: May I tell the hon. Gentleman respectfully why I disagree with that? This is not just about age. It is about a whole package of benefits, some of which are much more advantageous to people in the civil service than they would be to someone in a parallel position in local government. I am not in a position, and even those on the Labour Benches who represent unions are not in a position, to do a deal here on their behalf. If Government are committed to a deal being done, it must be right to remit the issue to the employer and the unions to negotiate an outcome.

Chris Leslie: I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman’s true colours have come through in that way. He is clearly not going to support the move to reduce the retirement age to 60. He should, and I will tell him why. The key question was put by Lord Eatwell in the other place, who asked about the different treatment and whether the Government could justify it. He asked:

“In what way is it less onerous, when they”—

that is, the MOD firefighters—

“have to work on military establishments”—

as the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) said—

“dealing on occasion with extremely dangerous materials, and occasionally also in war zones? How is their job less onerous?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 743, c. 568.]

Unfortunately, my noble Friend did not receive a satisfactory answer to the question, so I repeat it now to the Minister: what reason is there for that different treatment? Do not Ministry of Defence police officers have to stay fit, remain physically alert and intervene in events of great physical danger? Do not Ministry of Defence firefighters have to be ready to run the gauntlet, endure the exertions of search and rescue in extreme circumstances, take intense risks, prove their stamina and make sure that they can rise to the most testing of circumstances? The arguments that justify excluding the police and fire and rescue workers from the link between state pension age and normal pension age apply equally to the MOD police and the MOD firefighters. Just because they are a tiny number of workers should not mean that Ministers can just turn a blind eye and ignore the issue. We cannot allow it to be swept under

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the carpet. There is no reason for the difference, and the Government have no justification for opposing the amendments.

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): This is a difficult amendment owing to its emotive nature, with a small number of people feeling almost as though they have been victimised. If the Government reject the amendment, can the hon. Gentleman offer those workers some hope that if Labour formed a Government in 2015, it would do as the Lords amendments say?

Chris Leslie: I am amazed that hon. Members who are in government refuse to take responsibility for the offices that they hold and for the decisions that they have in their grasp. I said that it is important to admit that a mistake has been made for these 350-odd MOD firefighters and police. Why on earth cannot Members on the Government Benches say the same? [Interruption.] If the Minister wishes to correct me, I shall be delighted to hear.

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: Another Liberal Democrat. Yes.

Mr Reid: It was a legitimate question from the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). Labour is seeking to form the next Government. The next election is only two years away. Surely the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) should answer questions about what his party will do if it is in power?

Chris Leslie: How much more of an answer can I give than the actions that we will take in the Division Lobby today? Instead of the party political games that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are playing today, it is a responsible thing to do to try to help—[Interruption.] They laugh, but this is not a laughing matter. They expect these firefighters and police officers to work up to the age of 67 or above, and that is not the right thing to do.

Richard Fuller: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: I have given way enough to Conservative Members and I want to make some progress because it is important to bottom out these specious arguments that the Minister can barely grasp.

Lord Hutton said that the reasons for giving uniformed forces a lower normal pension age is the

“simple argument that the nature of their service is unique and should be reflected in the pension arrangements that we make for them. ”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 743, c. 520.]

In his report he recommended that the Government set a new normal pension age of 60 across the “uniformed services”. That was the phrase that he used. He did not refer to the type of pension they were in; instead he referred to “uniformed services”, and argued that they deserved to be singled out because of the nature of their work. The spirit of Lord Hutton’s recommendation clearly applies to MOD firefighters and police officers. Lord Hutton said:

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“The nature of the work the uniformed services perform is unique and this needs to be reflected in their Normal Pension Ages. The modernised firefighters scheme has struck a balance between recognising these changes in life expectancy, but also recognising the unique nature of the service provided by scheme members. The Commission’s view is that the Normal Pension Age in this scheme, 60, should be seen as setting a benchmark for the uniformed services as a whole.”

We agree with Lord Hutton’s reasoning that the amendment was merely intended to correct an oversight that has occurred in drawing up the Bill. He supports the amendment and the reform is based on his idea. He said that

“if, during the course of my inquiry, I had known about the unique circumstances of the MOD firefighters, I would have referred specifically to them in my report…Sadly, this issue was not drawn to my attention, so it did not make any specific recommendations about the MOD firefighters or the MOD police. If I had known about it, I certainly would have done so.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 February 2013; Vol. 743, c. 570.]

It is important to mention this. We are towards the end of the Bill’s passage and we have not had much opportunity to debate it. This has been brought to my attention during the course of turning the pages on the detail of this pension legislation. The Opposition say the same as Lord Hutton. This is just one of those anomalies that we should be big enough to admit was wrongly overlooked in previous reforms.

It is true that the last Government raised the normal pension age for the civil service to 65 for post-2007 entrants, and that included Ministry of Defence staff. However, I am now convinced that had we known then about the small group of firefighters and police officers who are technically on the civil service payroll rather than employed by police or fire authorities, we would have taken account of these groups, and an exception could have been carved out. There should be no embarrassment inside the Treasury in admitting that this was an oversight. Regarding this previous change, even the Defence Police Federation said that the

“Council of Civil Service Unions did not consult the DPF, and we did not have the opportunity to make the above points about the physical demands of being an MDP officer”.

The issue was not raised or considered when it should have been. Those staff should not be punished because of that particular oversight. If Lord Hutton is able to admit the oversight and if Opposition Members in this Chamber are able to admit the oversight, the Economic Secretary should be big enough now to do the same. Rather than just read out the brief provided to him, he should engage his brain, use his own judgment and discretion, and do the right thing. If he engaged the brain of the Chief Secretary, who is sitting alongside him, that might go some way towards a solution.

There is the cost to the public purse argument, but as I understand it, only 56 people have joined the Ministry of Defence police, and fewer than 300 have joined the defence fire and rescue service since 2007. So the anomaly could be easily corrected by bringing a small minority of pensioners back into line with the pre-2007 entrants’ normal pension age of 60. We are not talking about a large number of firefighters or police officers here. Sadly, we have had to get to the Floor of the House of Commons to put the pressure on the Government. What the Government have tried to present as a cost is in reality a reduction in the predicted saving from this overall package of changes. They overestimated the

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savings to be made by overlooking the existence of this particular group of fire and police officers and failed to include them in the definition of uniformed services.

The Minister might put up various arguments, but the question of physical burden cannot be overlooked. A worker for the Ministry of Defence police may be required to wear 11 stone-worth of kit, and a normal shift will involve wearing 5 or 6 stone-worth of equipment for up to 11 hours. Workers in the Ministry of Defence fire service carry out the already difficult and dangerous job of firefighters, but do so in war zones and other extremely hazardous conditions around the world.

The fact that these workers are labelled civil servants should not blind us to the reality of what their jobs entail. Along with the police and the armed forces, they are the only public service workers who have to undergo regular fitness tests. In fact, the majority retire before 60 because they are unable to meet the high demands their jobs entail. They are also recognised as uniformed forces in the civil service pension scheme, and there is a small reflection of that already. Unlike civilian police forces, there is no option in the MOD police for officers to move to unarmed work if they struggle to cope physically. Even when mainstream police officers are armed, they are not expected routinely to carry guns around beyond the age of 55.

Another point that has been brought to my attention today—I imagine that this is something none of us is massively familiar with—is that many MOD firefighters have to work alongside colleagues who will qualify for retirement at 60. Royal Air Force firefighters—I think that they are called Trade Group 8—will often be on similar operations with service colleagues, working in the field together. One colleague will retire at 60, whereas another standing next to him will be required to work to 65, 66, 67 or beyond. The same applies to Royal Navy firefighters, who are regarded in their classification as armed forces. This is riddled with anomalies, and it would be very simple for Ministers to overcome them. They really ought not to have allowed this to become such a large point of debate.

Ian Paisley: It should also be pointed out that many of those personnel also serve in war zones, are deployed overseas and have been decorated for their service, which I think sets them apart, with regard to the changes that the Government are refusing to make.

Chris Leslie: Absolutely. Sadly, there is also an argument that the Government, by holding out in this way, are letting down those serving in our armed forces. They are giving the impression that they think they can sweep the issue under the carpet and let it ride. There are already concerns that they might be increasing the risk to national security by cutting the number of MOD police officers—from 3,600 to 2,400 by April 2016—and in many ways a feeling of betrayal is starting to accumulate.

This matter might be an irritant for the Minister, whom we know is looking for a pat on the head from his betters higher up the food chain, but it would be nice if he, rather than trying to deliver a neat and perfect Bill with no loose ends by resisting any issues that annoyingly come up in the course of debate, used his position to take account of the important questions that come up.

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I have encountered a number of such issues in my time at the Opposition Dispatch Box and as a Minister, and it is quite plain that at some point in the next few weeks Ministers will have to put their hands up and admit that they will back down. It would be far neater and quicker, and to the Minister’s credit, if he said so now.

This matter needs to be resolved. Telling MOD firefighters and police officers to stop rocking the boat and to accept a half-baked assurance that the Government might enter into some negotiations on whether the pension age should be 65 gives them no way to protect their situation beyond the short duration of the Minister’s tenure in office. We need to correct that glaring error in the Bill. I commend Lords amendments 78 and 79 and urge the House not to disagree with them.

Mr Reid: I am disappointed that the Government have not accepted Lords amendments 78 and 79. I support the rest of the Bill, which I think contains good proposals for tackling the issue of people living longer, but I think that that one part is an anomaly and an oversight, as Lord Hutton has admitted. It will leave MOD police and fire personnel in an anomalous position as the only uniformed personnel who will not retire at 60.

Many of my constituents who work as police and firefighters at Faslane and Coulport will be affected. As has been said, their counterparts in local authority fire services and other police forces will retire at 60, and I believe that they, not other civil servants, are the correct comparison for defence police and firefighters.

4.30 pm

I am pleased that the Government have moved from their starting position of retiring at the state pension age, which will rise to 68 eventually, and have proposed a retirement age of 65, but that still means that 65-year-olds will have to fight fires or tackle terrorists, and I simply do not think that that is sensible.

Today has been historic, because the Labour party has admitted that it made a mistake when in government. I hope it will make similar admissions in future. The 2007 decision to increase the retirement age to 65 for new recruits was imposed on the unions without any negotiation and it was a mistake.

The Government have faithfully implemented Lord Hutton’s recommendations, one of which was that those in occupations for which the normal pension age was under 60 should retire at 60. This applies to the other uniformed services: police, fire and the armed forces. However, Lord Hutton has subsequently said that he was not aware of the unique circumstances of defence police and firefighters, and that if he had been he would have recommended that they be treated the same as other uniformed services, with a retirement age of 60. I would have hoped that the Government had taken on board Lord Hutton’s admission that he made a mistake.

The number of personnel involved is very small—fewer than 5,000 in total out of a civil service work force of about 700,000. Defence police and firefighters do a vital job. It involves putting themselves in dangerous situations and requires a very high level of fitness. Fighting a fire on a vessel at sea requires an extremely high level of fitness. The same is true of police officers who have to wear body armour and carry a heavy weapon.