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House of Commons

Monday 10 February 2014

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Longer School Day

1. Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): What his policy is on the length of the school day; and if he will make a statement. [902468]

16. Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): What plans he has to extend the school day. [902484]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): I would like to see state schools offer a school day that is nine or even 10 hours long, enabling schools to provide character building, extra-curricular activities and homework sessions. I look forward to working with schools to ensure that they have access to the resources necessary to provide these activities.

Damian Collins: Does the Secretary of State agree that lengthening the school day in this way will give more children the chance to benefit from a greater breadth of studies—an opportunity that too often has fallen only to those who can afford to pay for it?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we need to do is close the unacceptable gap in attainment between those who are fortunate enough to have parents who can pay for them to be educated privately and those in the state sector. The very best state schools recognise that a longer school day with additional extra-curricular activities is just one way of ensuring that all our children can succeed.

Mr Raab: These plans would strengthen children’s education, ensure time for music, sport and other extra-curricular activities, ease the time pressure on teachers and help out working parents. I urge the Secretary of State not to allow the narrow vested interests of the unions to block the delivery of these plans.

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. These plans will ensure that a broader range of culturally enriching activities are available to young people. I am

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sure that the teaching unions will recognise that this is in their interests, and I hope they will embrace and support these changes.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I know the Secretary of State sees himself as a big beast at the Cabinet table championing educational reform, but is he aware that most of us who wish well for our education system want the big beast to be controlled by good information, good research and good evidence? What is the evidence for the longer school day?

Michael Gove: The evidence is there in the gap between, for example, the performance of independent fee-paying schools and state schools. If one looks at those children who get the best results at the end of primary school and what happens to those who go on to independent schools and those who stay in the state sector, one sees that at the moment those who go on to independent schools are more likely to get good GCSEs and A-levels. A longer school day is one of the ingredients that we believe will make a difference. Great state school heads—for example, Greg Martin at Durand academy—have already come out and explained why, in their schools, a longer school day definitely helps children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to catch up with their peers.

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op): I support the Secretary of State’s wish that school nurseries extend hours beyond the statutory 15 hours a week. Is he aware, however, that 21 local authorities, including my own in Manchester, already provide full-time nursery provision, but that this is being put at risk by funding changes from his Department? Is this not another example of his actions failing to match his words?

Michael Gove: I am delighted that so many schools and local authorities provide additional hours, and I work with schools to ensure that more can do so. Where local authorities experience difficulties in ensuring that parents receive the support they need, I want to ask tough questions about the leadership of those local authorities to make sure that they devote the same amount of care, attention and resource to helping disadvantaged children as my Department does.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): On the basis that there is more to education than the classroom, will the Secretary of State tell the House what discussions he has had with various organisations—scouts, guides, cadets and so on—on how a longer school day would impact on the out-of-school activities that our young people undertake?

Michael Gove: I would hope that our voluntary organisations will play a part in making sure that more young people can enjoy the sort of character-building activities that those organisations believe in. Many scout troops already work closely with schools, and cadets certainly are an integral part of the success of schools in the independent and state sectors. I want to do everything possible to ensure that children can enjoy those activities, and, in particular, that children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have not had the chance in the past, now have that opportunity.

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School Opening (Bad Weather)

2. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If he will take steps to ensure that schools stay open in adverse winter weather conditions. [902469]

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): Our Department’s clear view is that head teachers should keep schools open during adverse weather conditions unless it is really not possible to do so. Our advice to schools makes it clear that they now have a great deal of flexibility to work creatively; for example, bringing together classes with teachers and volunteers working together.

Mr Hollobone: When schools are closed owing to adverse weather conditions, that has a knock-on effect on other public sector provision, as well as on small businesses, as parents who are unable to arrange alternative child care are unable to go to work themselves. For local authority schools, will the Minister make clear whether it is the responsibility of head teachers or the local authority, or a combination of both, that schools remain open?

Mr Laws: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s views, and I know that he has taken a keen interest in this issue. It is a responsibility for all individual schools and head teachers to keep their schools open in adverse weather conditions. The Department has issued clear guidance. We are conscious that the unnecessary closure of schools causes disruption to children’s education, and to parents and to the economy.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I would like to thank the Minister—[Interruption.] No. 3, Mr Speaker. I was getting carried away.


3. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential of mindfulness to improve education outcomes. [902470]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): The new national curriculum sets out high expectations of what teachers should teach, but gives them much more flexibility over how to do it. Teachers have the freedom to try new approaches and do things differently in a way that benefits students. A longer school day would also enable schools to build confidence and resilience, as well as the core academic skills vital to success.

Mr Speaker: We can now enjoy the full benefit of the hon. Gentleman’s mindfulness.

Chris Ruane: I would like—once again—to thank the Minister for meeting me and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) last Monday to discuss mindfulness in education, and I would also like to pay tribute to the Prime Minister for the measurement of well-being, but what more can the Minister and her Department do to use mindfulness in education to raise educational attainment and improve student well-being?

Elizabeth Truss: I thank the hon. Gentleman for our excellent meeting last week, which I thought was very helpful. I have taken the research he put forward, and

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one of the Department’s education policy advisers is considering it in detail and examining the evidence. I note that 120 schools already participate in mindfulness programmes, and also that several Members of this House are using it to improve their performance.

Mr Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): The early-years foundation stage framework makes it clear that by the time children reach the reception class at primary school, the majority of the school day should be spent in teacher-led activities, rather than child-initiated play. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that the framework is correctly interpreted by schools and that we do not continue to see the dominance, particularly in weaker primary schools, of so-called free-flow methods, which delay children being taught to read and entrench the attainment gap between those from wealthy and those from poorer backgrounds?

Elizabeth Truss: My hon. Friend makes a good point. High-quality, teacher-led early-years education is vital to closing the gap between those on the lowest and those on the highest incomes. At the moment, when those children arrive at school, there is an 18-month vocabulary gap, which is why we are keen, and Ofsted has confirmed, that although there should be no decision about exactly what type of teaching takes place, it should be of a high quality and it should raise the attainment of children and close that gap before they arrive at school.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): When the Secretary of State opened the Krishna Avanti Hindu school in Leicester, he saw a room dedicated to yoga, meditation and mindfulness. Unfortunately, it was such a quick visit, he could not take advantage of its benefits. However, there is a proposal to open a secondary school, so would the Minister consider opening that school and perhaps making use of the benefits of such a room in any discussions that she or the Secretary of State might have with Ofsted?

Elizabeth Truss: That certainly sounds like an interesting invitation, although I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State is very mindful in the Department for Education. There are a number of free schools pioneering these types of approach, and that is one of the reasons we give schools autonomy over how to teach—so that they can explore new and innovative ideas and new ways of delivering high-quality education.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree it is vital that schools have the freedom to choose which external programmes they adopt and have the flexibility to try novel approaches they believe might benefit their pupils overall?

Elizabeth Truss: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the new national curriculum is much more flexible over how teachers teach. We want to see high attainment and high expectations. Also, a longer school day gives schools more freedom to explore different activities with children to help raise their resilience and confidence.

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Sixth-form Colleges (Funding)

4. Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): What comparative assessment he has made of funding for sixth-form colleges and school sixth forms. [902471]

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): The Government fund sixth-form colleges and school sixth forms using the same national funding formula—meaning that every child is treated the same—with extra support for the most disadvantaged.

Ian Swales: Most of the post-16 schooling for my constituents takes place at Prior Pursglove sixth-form college. I welcome the correction of the free school meal anomaly from this September, but will the Minister now correct the further anomaly that despite receiving significantly less funding, according to the Association of Colleges, sixth-form colleges are expected to pay VAT, but schools are not?

Matthew Hancock: Sixth-form colleges are funded on the same per pupil formula as every other school. They do pay VAT, and in return for that they have much more flexibility in their own borrowing. I recognise the campaign. Putting this anomaly right would cost £150 million, money that we do not have because of the enormous deficit left by Labour. I recognise the argument, but at present there is no money.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Given that money is short, why are the Government spending £63 million on around 1,500 students in nine 16 to 18 free schools—£40,000 per student—while cutting the money going to the 156,000 students in sixth-form colleges?

Matthew Hancock: The resource spending that supports sixth-formers is exactly the same per student in free schools, sixth-form colleges and school sixth forms. We have a national funding formula. Before this Government came to office, we did not have a national funding formula; we had different funding for different pupils. We think it is fairer to have the same funding per pupil for all students, and that is what we are doing.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The funding differential is being accentuated by very significant differences in funding grant around the country, negatively affecting the f40 authorities generally and the Cambridgeshire authority more than any other. How is my hon. Friend planning to put this right?

Matthew Hancock: That is exactly the sort of anomaly that we have put right by making sure that resource funding is exactly the same per student for 16 to 18-year-olds, no matter what type of institution or where in the country.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): One of the reasons for differential funding has been students who have experienced less education before they get to the sixth form than other students, perhaps because of illness, absence from school or being refugees, for example. The changes in funding for 18-year-olds in further education are hitting those people. What is the Minister going to do about it?

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Matthew Hancock: As part of the per pupil funding, there is extra support for the most disadvantaged—for instance, those with learning difficulties or those who are care leavers. On the changes to funding for 18-year-olds, the evidence is clear that they are on average no more disadvantaged than the totality of 16 to 18-year-olds.

Academies and Free Schools (Performance)

5. Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the performance of pupils in academies and free schools. [902472]

8. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the performance of pupils in academies and free schools. [902475]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): Results continue to improve more quickly in sponsored academies than in local authority maintained schools, at both primary and secondary level. Converter academies continue to outperform other schools and to achieve better inspection outcomes than maintained schools. Of the first wave of 24 free schools, three quarters have been rated outstanding or good.

Mr Wilson: The introduction of academies, free schools and university technical colleges into challenging areas in my constituency is lifting the performance of all secondary schools in those areas. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these schools perform well precisely because they have autonomy from local education authority control? Will he condemn any attempt to remove those freedoms?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is right. It is the case that education outcomes are improving in Reading as a result of this Government’s changes. That is why it is so worrying that the spokesman for the Opposition told The Sunday Times this weekend that they would halt the free school programme. It would be a terrible reversal of the improvement in our children’s education.

John Howell: Does my right hon. Friend agree that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in academies and free schools make better progress than their peers in local authority maintained schools?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is right. The statistics bear him out. It is important, of course, to acknowledge that across the board our schools are improving—local authority schools, academies and free schools—but it is critically important to recognise at the same time that, particularly for disadvantaged children, academies are seeing fantastic results.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me and the many Brighton teachers who have been in touch with me that all sorts of things affect performance in our schools, including pupil-teacher ratios, selection and financial resources? Following his recent announcement that state schools should be more like private schools, if he will not or cannot even up the resources, will he at least summon up the academic rigour to compare like with like? There is plenty of evidence that state schools outperform private schools in many cases.

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Michael Gove: The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and had she been fortunate enough to join me at the London Academy of Excellence last week she would have seen a free school that is outperforming an independent school. The next time I have the opportunity to visit an outstanding academy or free school, I hope she will come with me to see what the state sector is capable of achieving to outpace and outperform the private sector.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): The Lyndale school in south Wirral is a very small but excellent school. It is not currently an academy and it is under threat of closure. One of the options for saving it involves it becoming an academy, so if parents and I can find a way to keep the school sustainable, will the Secretary of State stand ready to help us?

Michael Gove: Absolutely; I very much enjoyed visiting the Wirral just two weeks ago, and I will do anything I can to work with the hon. Lady to help the children and teachers in that school.

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I wonder whether the Secretary of State read the article in The Times Educational Supplement last week which challenged the PISA evidence about the relationship between greater autonomy and educational improvement.

Michael Gove: I have not caught up with last week’s Times Educational Supplement, but I enjoy reading it and I will look at that article. The evidence from PISA—both the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and I agree on this—is very powerful in favour of greater autonomy for schools, but I shall look at any critique of that evidence in order to weigh it appropriately.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Given that he has previously been chastised by the UK Statistics Authority for abusing data, how confident is the Secretary of State that his claims about the improved performance of converter academies will stand up to independent scrutiny in future?

Michael Gove: I rely on the evidence with which I am presented by Ofsted, by league tables and by every possible measure, so I look forward to having the chance, whenever the hon. Gentleman wants to ask me again, to demonstrate how well these schools are doing. However, I note that when he came to the Dispatch Box, he did not disabuse the House of the view that it will have taken following the shadow Secretary of State’s statement to The Sunday Times—that Labour would halt the free school programme. I hope the hon. Gentleman will do so when he has the chance again.

Work Experience

6. Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effects of changes to work experience on employability. [902473]

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to answer this question in conjunction with Question 22. Over half of the—

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Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman ought to be starting to get to grips with parliamentary procedures by now. There is no scope for that grouping and it certainly should not be done on the hoof, as it were. It is a matter of agreement in advance, but the hon. Gentleman will learn and he will know not to make that mistake next time.

Matthew Hancock: I apologise if any mis-communication happened before these questions.

Over half of employers report that not enough young people leave education with work experience or having developed employability skills.

Julie Hilling: “Businesses and the Government need to put their shoulders to the wheel and get our young people job-ready.” So says the CBI head John Cridland. I absolutely agree, but sadly the Secretary of State does not. Is he proud of his record of scrapping work experience and being in complete disarray on careers guidance?

Matthew Hancock: We encourage, and have not scrapped, work experience. We want more work experience and we are putting policies in place to make that happen. For instance, the new study programmes, which started this September, encourage work experience and an all-round education to help people to acquire the skills they need to succeed.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): Barclays’ LifeSkills survey found that nine out of 10 young people believe that work experience should be mandatory, yet the number of schools offering placements for 14 to 16-year-olds in England has dropped by around 15% in the past three years. Instead of failing young people, will the Minister support Labour’s proposals to bring back compulsory work experience for 14 to 16-year-olds? Perhaps he could benefit from it himself.

Matthew Hancock: There never was compulsory work experience; there was compulsory work experience or “work-like activity”. As we know, young people can tell the difference very easily between real work experience and something that was cooked up in order to sound like a good headline.

Vocational Education

7. Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): What progress he has made on improving the quality of vocational education. [902474]

10. Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): What progress he has made on improving the quality of vocational education. [902477]

12. Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): What progress he has made on improving the quality of vocational education. [902480]

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): We are making the vocational education system more rigorous and more responsive to employers’ needs, removing thousands of qualifications that are not valued by employers and driving up the quality of apprenticeships.

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Mr Jones: I welcome the introduction of tech levels and the technical baccalaureate, which will provide a gold standard in vocational qualifications, but what is my hon. Friend doing to promote such courses, and to lift the overall standing of vocational qualifications and practical careers in, for instance, engineering and construction?

Matthew Hancock: We have a huge programme of work for that purpose. In my hon. Friend’s own constituency, for example, the number of apprenticeships has risen by 50% since 2010. By promoting tech levels and the technical baccalaureate, we are driving up standards in vocational qualifications, and supporting progression in order to show the value of vocational and technical education and hence increase support for it.

Eric Ollerenshaw: May I take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) about parity of esteem, which has always been the issue when it comes to vocational qualifications? Does the Minister think it is about time that employers associations, industrial associations, and perhaps even local chambers became involved in selling those qualifications?

Matthew Hancock: Absolutely. Tech levels need to be signed off by employers in order to be recognised by the Department. In the past, there were too many so-called vocational qualifications that did not help people to get on in an occupation. We are changing that by insisting that employers publish support for a qualification before it is recognised by us, so that when people embark on a vocational course they know that they will get something valuable out of it.

Peter Aldous: Lowestoft college is doing excellent work in providing young people with the necessary vocational skills for the many jobs that will be created in the energy sector, but the cut in funding for 18-year-olds will have a significant impact on that work. I should welcome an update from the Minister on what mitigating measures are being introduced.

Matthew Hancock: I strongly support Lowestoft college, and I particularly welcome the fact that the number of apprenticeships in my hon. Friend’s constituency has almost doubled since 2010. As he knows, we are looking into the allocations to individual colleges, and also looking into measures to mitigate the effects of the change we have had to make.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): During our last session of Education questions, I asked the Minister about a survey conducted by The Times Educational Supplement, which found that three quarters of young people had not received information about apprenticeships as part of their careers guidance. Does he still stand by the words of the Secretary of State, who said at a meeting of the Select Committee in December that he had no plans to review careers guidance?

Matthew Hancock: If I recall correctly, my right hon. Friend—my boss—said that we would shortly be publishing further statutory guidance, and we will.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): My Big Career is a charity that provides face-to-face careers advice in Hackney schools, and is already making great strides in improving the present position. It has also uncovered the fact that, as was pointed out by my

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hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), young people are not always pushed enough towards the right vocational training and qualifications. Will the Minister visit Hackney to observe the work that My Big Career is doing in schools, and see for himself the benefit of that face-to-face careers advice?

Matthew Hancock: Absolutely: I should love to visit Hackney with the hon. Lady. What is happening there is part of a wider drive to ensure that it is real employers who mentor and support young people and give them inspiration. It is part of a culture change that is starting to come about, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady in that connection.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Vocational education ought to be a genuinely dual system. May I invite the Minister never, ever to utter the sentence “It is for those who cannot attend university”? May I also urge him to realise that it is essential to tie in work experience with vocational training?

Matthew Hancock: I think that our minds are as one on this. I only wish that the hon. Lady had managed to convey the same message to her party’s Front Benchers when they were last in government. We strongly believe that it should become the norm in this country for young people to be able to enter either a university or an apprenticeship, that the choice should be theirs, and that our job is to provide excellent opportunities in both.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Last week the Edge Foundation published the results of a survey which showed that just 27% of parents thought that vocational education was a worthwhile route for their children to take. In the light of that, does the Minister agree with me, and with my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), that more needs to be done to promote understanding of the additional rigour that has been brought to vocational qualifications in general, and to apprenticeships in particular, under the present Government?

Matthew Hancock: I think it is not enough simply to exhort that technical and vocational education is important. We have to make sure we show that it is valued, and that it truly is valued by employers in order to change this perceptions gap, but I would also note that on the same day that that report was published evidence was published showing that applications to apprenticeships had gone up sharply again. This shows there is movement in this area—there is a culture change in this country—and support for technical and vocational education is on the rise.

Mathematics and English (Attainment Standards)

9. Mr Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve standards of attainment in English and mathematics. [902476]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): We know that English and maths are vital for young people’s life chances and employment prospects. Maths in particular provides the strongest link to future earnings and we are raising standards in both these subjects. It is good news that a record

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number of students are now taking maths A-level, and by 2020 we want the vast majority of students to be studying maths to 18.

Mr Holloway: What steps can the Minister take to encourage more students in Gravesham, particularly girls, to take up maths?

Elizabeth Truss: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The key to getting more students, and girls in particular, to take maths is the quality of teaching. That is why we are offering the highest bursaries and scholarships in mathematics, and we are also making it clear to girls and their parents that maths is vital whatever career they want to go into; whether it is fashion of farming, maths is important.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that when it comes to improving standards of attainment in English and mathematics a strong independent national inspectorate is vital, and that a strong independent national inspectorate has been the anchor of the British school system since the 19th century and the days of Matthew Arnold? Does she further agree that anything that undermines the inspectorate cannot be in the best interests of British schoolchildren?

Elizabeth Truss: I completely agree that it is very important to have a strong national inspectorate and that is what we have under Sir Michael Wilshaw, and I am working very closely with Ofsted, in particular on maths education, to make sure that we have the highest possible quality teaching going on in our schools. That is why this Government are establishing 30 maths hubs across the country that will look at the best practice in places such as Singapore and Shanghai and make sure that is in our schools.

Mr Speaker: I assume the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) calculated that Question 19 on Ofsted would not be reached. That is not of itself an excuse to shoehorn the matter into a question some considerable number of minutes earlier.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree with me that one of the best indicators to getting good attainment in maths and English is attendance at school? So what more can be done to ensure communities who do not always have a very good attendance record at school—sometimes the Traveller community, as in my constituency—are encouraged to make sure parents ensure their children attend school in settled fashion?

Elizabeth Truss: I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and under this Government persistent absence has reduced and we have given head teachers and teachers more power to make sure parents are ensuring their children are at school. Furthermore, we are consulting on the rules around the Gypsy-Roma Traveller community to make sure there is every encouragement for all children to get the vital education they need.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): The Government have targets for recruiting teachers of maths and physics, but School Direct in particular is falling well short. What action are the Government going to take to recover recruitment in these specialist subjects?

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Elizabeth Truss: I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Lady that we have recruited a record number of physics teachers this year and we have the highest bursaries and scholarships in mathematics and physics. Moreover, we are expanding professional development in maths and physics and technology to make sure all schools have access to the best possible teachers.

Safeguarding Policies (Independent Schools)

11. Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of safeguarding policies in independent schools; and if he will make a statement. [902479]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): Independent schools must follow the independent school standards and statutory guidance on safeguarding, as well as requirements on vetting checks for staff. The inspection and regulatory system is designed to ensure schools meet these standards and any failure to do so triggers a process designed to bring the school up to standard or ultimately be closed.

Meg Munn: Local safeguarding children boards are reporting increased problems in getting independent schools to co-operate with the requirements set out in guidance to provide information on their policies. Will the Minister look at this, and when does he plan to issue new guidance in relation to education and child protection issues?

Mr Timpson: First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who is not standing again at the next election? Throughout her time in Parliament, she has been a real stalwart and a supporter of children in care, particularly the most vulnerable. I know that many families, not only in Sheffield but across the country, will be grateful for the work she has done. We will issue the updated guidance shortly, and I reassure her that we will look specifically at how we can ensure that the information given to local safeguarding children boards by independent schools is provided properly; that will be made as clear as possible in the guidance that is to follow.

Mr Speaker: I call the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). [Interruption.] She has had one go; that is enough. May I say, however, that I echo entirely what the Minister has said? This House is losing far too many outstanding Members, and far too many outstanding female Members.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): There is a conflict of interest when abuse is alleged in independent and military fee-paying schools, in that the interests of children as possible victims are pitched against those of the schools, which want to protect their reputation in order to maintain fee income. Will the Minister look again at introducing mandatory reporting by staff who become aware of abuse allegations to a designated local authority officer, rather than simply requiring the reporting of abuse to a senior teacher or manager in the school?

Mr Timpson: The Working Together guidance, which was revised in 2013, makes abundantly clear the responsibility of all professionals who work with children to keep them safe. The evidence, internationally and

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from experts such as Eileen Munro, makes it clear that mandatory reporting does not necessarily make children safer and that it can have unintended consequences. We continue to look at the arguments, but at the moment the Government are not convinced that mandatory reporting is the way forward.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): What causes the Minister greater concern: the inadequate investigations into historical abuse at those schools and the lack of support for the victims, or the worry that the system he has just outlined is so full of holes that it is still possible for a dedicated abuser to carry on victimising children in those schools?

Mr Timpson: We need to be careful not to conflate the two issues of historical abuse and the robustness of the current system. When there has been abuse in the past, we need to investigate it and take the evidence where it leads. I am clear, however, that the Working Together guidance—along with all the other work we are doing to improve social work practice and to free people working on the front line to spend more time with families rather than sitting behind desks—is the way forward. We are building on the Laming and Munro reviews, and that is being reflected in the response not only that Ofsted is having through its inspections but from front-line practitioners themselves, who can see the sense in what we are doing to ensure that all children are kept safe, whatever the circumstances.

Teaching Profession

13. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to raise the status, professionalism and morale of the teaching profession. [902481]

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): Our reforms are making teaching a profession of choice for top graduates. Scholarships and bursaries are attracting the very best, and teaching is now the No. 1 destination for graduates from top universities such as Oxford.

Rosie Cooper: Surveys by YouGov have shown that teacher morale is plummeting under this Government. Why does the Minister think that that is happening?

Mr Laws: I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of teaching. If it were accurate, we would not see such huge numbers of people applying to become teachers or such an increase in the average university qualifications that teachers are getting. I would also point out that we now have the most generous system ever for funding disadvantaged young people in schools, which is giving teachers the resources to do their job effectively.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Am I correct in thinking that the Government are reforming teachers’ pay so as to give schools greater flexibility to pay the best teachers more and to reward good performance? Could anyone possibly be against teachers having the performance-related pay arrangements that apply in other professions? Can there be any possible justification for teachers taking industrial action in our schools?

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Mr Laws: My right hon. Friend is right to say that we are reforming teachers’ pay. We are ensuring that there are fair increases in their pay in these times of austerity, and that head teachers have the flexibility to reward good teachers, particularly in the most challenging schools. What the position of the other parties is on this matter I could not possibly say.

Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): The development of a royal college of teaching should rightly be led by teaching professionals, but will the Minister examine which functions from his Department relating to professional matters and standards could transfer to a royal college? Will he consider offering arm’s length financial support to help it get up and running?

Mr Laws: My hon. Friend rightly says that it would be a positive development if we were to have a royal college of teaching. Our Department is willing to play a constructive role in any discussions about the functions of such a body, which would particularly be in respect of professional development for teachers. We do not believe it would be right for our Department to seek to run such an organisation; we would want it to be independent of the Department for Education, but we are willing to do all we can to support such an initiative.

Young Carers

14. Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve support for young carers. [902482]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): On 8 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education issued a written ministerial statement announcing an amendment to the Children and Families Bill. For the first time, all young carers will have the right to an assessment of their needs for support, as part of the consideration of the needs of the whole family. This amendment will help achieve our aim of protecting young people from excessive or inappropriate caring roles.

Chloe Smith: I very much welcome those measures in the Children and Families Bill. I will meet Norfolk Young Carers Forum next week to, “Get it right in education”, as the forum puts it. These young carers tell me that there needs to be more awareness of young carers at schools and colleges, and in the workplace. What message would the Minister send the NYCF?

Mr Timpson: I commend my hon. Friend for taking up the challenge on behalf of young carers in her constituency. I know they have been particularly active in helping to design and commission many of the services across the country for young carers. To help raise awareness and to encourage good practice in schools, we are working with the Children’s Society and the Carers Trust to provide teachers with the tools—the training and guidance—they need to recognise and support young carers as early as possible.

Community Primary Schools

15. Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): How many applications for academy status from community primary schools have been declined by his Department. [902483][Official Report, 28 February 2014, Vol. 576, c. 1MC.]

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The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): Eighty.

Mr Slaughter: I thank the Secretary of State for that succinct answer. The reason I ask is that tonight Hammersmith and Fulham’s Conservative council is set to vote for the closure of Sulivan primary school in Fulham, which is rated in the top 2% in the country, in order to give its site to a free school. Sulivan’s last hope is the Secretary of State, so will he agree with the London Diocesan Board for Schools, which wants to take Sulivan into its family of schools as an academy, that it is

“unusual to close successful schools with growing rolls”,

and save Sulivan school?

Michael Gove: I admire good local authorities, and Hammersmith and Fulham’s is one of the best, so the decisions it quite properly takes outside the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) I would entirely support. As for creating a free school in Hammersmith and Fulham, why should a former public schoolboy such as the hon. Gentleman, who benefited from the independence of a great school such as Latymer upper, wish to deny such high standards to others? Is it that the hypocrisy—forgive me, the double standards—of the Labour Front-Bench team now extends to the Back Benchers, too?

Academies and Free Schools (Accountability)

17. Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): What steps he is taking to ensure that academies and free schools are accountable for their leadership and corporate governance. [902485]

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): Academies and free schools are subject to the same rigorous Ofsted inspection framework as maintained schools. Ofsted inspectors examine the impact of leaders at all levels and evaluate how effectively the school is governed and managed. The Education Funding Agency and our Department are also responsible for the oversight of academies and the free schools programme.

Duncan Hames: I thank the Minister for that response. Where both teaching staff and Ofsted, through these inspections, raise concerns about the management or governance of an academy or free school, what means are available to them to secure any necessary changes to both procedures and personnel?

Mr Laws: The first thing staff and others should do in those circumstances is to raise their concerns with the governing body. If they are not satisfied with that, they should not hesitate to raise concerns with either the EFA or our Department. We always take such matters extremely seriously. If my hon. Friend has any concerns about any cases in his constituency, he should feel free to raise them with me or other Ministers.

22. [902491] John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister assure the House that when a school that is currently under local authority control has more than one option for moving to academy status, that school and the community will have a genuine choice about which option to take?

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Mr Laws: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will seriously consider the local authority’s view, but we will ensure that the best possible sponsor is in place, and that is not always the sponsor identified by the local authority, especially if the authority itself has failed over a long period to raise standards in that school.

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Does the Minister think that spending £1 million on a free school for 30 children in my constituency is good value for money when we have surplus places and really good local schools that are crying out for investment?

Mr Laws: Free schools are being targeted at areas of basic need and where standards are low. We are trying to ensure that the free schools programme complements the Government’s work to provide school places and raise standards throughout the country.

Developing Character and Resilience in Young People

18. Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): What assessment he has made of the potential role of schools in building character and resilience in young people. [902486]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): Schools play an important role in providing character-building activities for their pupils. Sports clubs, orchestras and choirs, school plays, cadet forces and debating competitions all help to build character and give children opportunities to flourish. Schools are best placed to determine the needs of their pupils and how best to meet them.

Damian Hinds: Given that welcome emphasis on character building for all, may I commend to the Minister—and subtly plug—a report out tomorrow on character and resilience by the all-party group on social mobility? Will he consider more ways to develop these crucial traits throughout childhood, and in and out of school?

Mr Speaker: Not that subtly.

Mr Timpson: The report has clearly moved to the top of my reading list. I will read it carefully and look at some of the lessons that we can learn from my hon. Friend’s work, to which I pay tribute. We have already spoken about the role that cadet forces can play in state schools, and we are working with the Ministry of Defence to improve that role. We are also removing unnecessary health and safety rules that prevent children from going on expeditions and seeking adventures, which I hope that the whole House will applaud.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Of course one of the ways of building resilience among pupils would be to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education. Fahma Mohamed, a 17-year-old student from Bristol, is spearheading a national campaign to end female genital mutilation. I understand that she has written to the Secretary of State to ask if he is prepared to meet her. Her petition has already attracted 167,000 signatures. Will the Minister ask his colleague whether he is prepared to meet Fahma, who is doing brilliant work through the campaign?

Mr Timpson: The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and the answer is yes.

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Leadership in Schools

19. Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the head of Ofsted on leadership in schools. [902487]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): Leadership and management are integral to the success of a school and, as such, feature regularly in my discussions with Her Majesty’s chief inspector.

Derek Twigg: What was it that brought the Secretary of State to the view that it was time to “refresh” the person in charge of Ofsted, Baroness Morgan, and to bring in a fresh perspective? What specifically concerned him about performance on school improvement to lead him to that conclusion?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to do in this House what I have done on other platforms and underline my debt to Baroness Morgan, who has led the Ofsted board in a superlative fashion. However, it is good corporate practice to ensure that the chair of any body—whether the Surrey Heath Conservative association or Ofsted—is refreshed from time to time.

Topical Questions

T1. [902493] Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): I had the opportunity last week to congratulate the nation’s teachers on the fantastic GCSE performance recorded in our league tables, which show that the number of students being educated in schools below floor standards at secondary level has diminished dramatically under this Government. I would like to take the opportunity once more to thank the nation’s teachers for the superb work that they do.

Annette Brooke: I echo the Secretary of State’s comment.

Following a unilateral decision by an academy upper school in my constituency to change the age of transfer from 13 to 11, assuming that the local authorities carry out a feasibility study and full consultation, and demonstrate that pupil outcomes will be improved, what assistance can the Government give towards capital expenditure for any reorganisation of the feeder schools, as that clearly is not in any plans?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend raises a very specific case, although I understand why she has brought it to my attention. I hope that we will have the opportunity to talk afterwards so that I can ensure that the Dorset local authority is provided with all the support it needs to make sure that children’s educational standards improve.

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): As my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Halton (Derek Twigg) have shown, the Opposition recognise the essential role that Ofsted plays in driving up standards in schools. I want to place on the record our continued support for Sir Michael Wilshaw. However, since we last met, the Secretary of State has, in the words of Sir Michael,

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unleashed a “smear campaign” against the chief inspector. He has also sacked Baroness Morgan as chair of Ofsted, despite the fact that the Minister for Schools thinks that she has done a “fantastic job”. Why is the Secretary of State so intent on undermining England’s independent school inspectorate system?

Michael Gove: I am sure that the chief inspector will be touched to hear the hon. Gentleman’s words of support, but I think that he will also be disturbed to hear that he is alleged to have uttered words that he did not utter. This is not the first time that the hon. Gentleman has sallied forth without being in secure possession of the facts. It has been the case beforehand that his facts have been wrong about the situation in the South Leeds academy, and it has been the case that his facts have been wrong, on broadcast, about the number of unqualified teachers in our schools. His facts are wrong again in the allegations he makes about the chief inspector. I hope that he will take this opportunity to ensure that the House knows that he has unfairly and wrongly put words in the chief inspector’s mouth that he did not utter.

Tristram Hunt: We see that the Secretary of State has refused to condemn the campaign against the chief inspector. Is not the truth of the matter this: Ofsted is inspecting his free schools without fear or favour, and he does not like it? The chief inspector wants to inspect academy chains, and he does not like it. On Friday the Al-Madinah secondary school closed, and on Sunday we learned of a new Ofsted purge. Surely the Secretary of State should focus on raising standards, not politicising our school inspectorate system.

Michael Gove: If the hon. Gentleman wants to be taken seriously, he must pay close attention to the facts. The facts are these: I have been zealous in ensuring that we apply a tighter and more rigorous inspection framework to all schools—free schools, academies and maintained schools—and in so doing I appointed Sir Michael Wilshaw and I appointed Sally Morgan. I have been the person who has been leading change in our schools. I have been the person who has been insistent that we hold our education system to the highest standards. I am the person now demanding once again that the hon. Gentleman withdraw his earlier statement when he put words into the mouth of Sir Michael Wilshaw that he did not utter. If he does not, we will draw the appropriate conclusion, as the New Statesman already has, which is that his policies are both “timid” and “incoherent”.

T3. [902496] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I recently visited Havering college in my constituency and Barking and Dagenham college just outside it. The Secretary of State will be pleased to know that we have excellent standards there, but one thing that is lacking is the importance of teaching our young people about the British constitution, our history, political affairs and so on. What do the Government intend to do to ensure greater awareness of those subjects among young people?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): From September, the new history curriculum will ensure that children understand the history of these islands as well as a coherent chronological

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narrative. In citizenship, they will learn about the United Kingdom’s constitution, about the precious liberties enjoyed by citizens of our country and about their role as citizens and how they can participate.

T2. [902494] Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Given the well documented problems that whistle- blowers encountered in reporting their experiences at Barnfield Federation to the Department for Education, will the Secretary of State commit to publishing all inquiry reports in full, including all the versions that have circulated outside the Departments involved?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that case. As we both know, very serious allegations have been made in connection with the Barnfield Federation. They are currently being investigated, and nothing I say, do or publish should prejudice those investigations. However, as has always been the case, whenever there is information that it is right we should share with those affected and with the public, we will share it in due course.

T4. [902497] Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): What action is the Minister taking to support parents and children in deprived areas, particular those in temporary accommodation and without access to IT facilities, to access and retain permanent school places, and is he willing to look at the system in place at Barnfield primary school in my constituency, with a view to seeing how the Government might encourage effective support in other schools?

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): I would be delighted to look at the situation in my hon. Friend’s constituency to see what we can learn from it. During this Parliament we have more than doubled the capital budget for basic need compared with the budget under the previous Labour Government, and that is helping us to deal with such pressures across the country.

T5. [902498] Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your earlier kind comments, and the Children’s Minister for the same. Given such warmth towards me today, perhaps the Secretary of State will tell me why, given that in 2007 the Prime Minister spoke of a new generation of Co-operative schools and said that they had been welcomed across the board, not one of the Ministers will agree to meet me to discuss these issues and the Bill that I put forward which would put Co-operative schools on a firmer footing.

Michael Gove: Any opportunity to spend time with the hon. Lady is one that I would rush to take. The cause of the Co-operative movement is very close to my heart, so I would be delighted to talk to her, perhaps over a cup of tea, before too long.

T6. [902499] Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): Will the Secretary of State make it 100% clear that he is totally supportive of teachers who want to use their judgment and common sense to apply discipline and punishments that are sensible and proportionate?

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Elizabeth Truss: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. A third of teachers do not feel they know exactly which sanctions they are able to use. That is why the Secretary of State outlined sanctions such as writing lines, running around the school playing field and picking up litter, so that proper discipline can be imposed. It is vital that students are able to learn and that there is an end to low-level disruption in the classroom.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): The Facebook drinking game Neknomination has gone viral, and very sadly young people have died as a result. What role do schools have in building resilience in our young people to resist peer pressure?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): The hon. Lady is right to be concerned about some of the ever-changing risks, as well as opportunities, for young people through the internet. That is why we have brought in the teaching of online safety at every key stage so that from the earliest opportunity children are getting the benefit of sound advice. It is also important that parents play their role so that children are getting a consistent message both at school and at home.

T7. [902500] Mike Thornton (Eastleigh) (LD): The 17.5% cuts in spending for 18-plus learning announced last year by the Education Funding Agency, the changes in the 16-to-19 funding formula and the unfair treatment of sixth-form colleges compared with schools regarding VAT have put sixth-form colleges under serious strain, with cuts to courses and staff. Will the Minister, or even the Secretary of State, meet me and the principal of the excellent Barton Peveril college in Eastleigh to discuss the impact of these cuts?

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the principal of his local sixth-form college to discuss how to make sure that in these tight spending times, which we all know exist, sixth-form colleges can maximise the flexibilities at their command in order to continue the excellent education that most deliver.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Many children who are entitled to free school meals do not receive that benefit, often because parental embarrassment or a lack of English mean that the application is not made. Will the Minister ensure that those children are passported through on the basis of benefit assessments already made in respect of those families?

Mr Laws: This is a very important issue, because take-up of free school meals is quite low in some parts of the country. We are working with local authorities to improve the identification of the children who are so entitled, with some considerable success. As we introduce universal infant free meals, we will also look at ways in which we can make this more automatic for all the pupils who are entitled to extra funding for free school meals and the pupil premium.

T8. [902501] Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): I have recently had to deal with a number of bullying cases in my local schools. The root cause of that bullying appears to be very poor

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discipline. Too often, this indiscipline is caused not by bad teaching but by bad parenting. Will my right hon. Friend do something to improve the situation?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that parents and teachers need to work together in order to ensure very high standards of behaviour. It is often the case that what happens before children ever attend school—in the earliest years—matters. That is why the programme of work that the Government are undertaking, led by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and for Communities and Local Government to help troubled families is so important.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State confirm his support for the ban on smoking in cars with children present?

Michael Gove: Absolutely.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): University technical colleges are an increasingly important and positive part of our education system. Do Ministers share my dismay that, despite the Baker Dearing Trust making it very clear that one would be welcome in Leeds, Leeds city council refused to put one together for the important West Park centre site, which is now a pile of rubble?

Michael Gove: I am genuinely sorry to hear that and I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman in order to make sure that opportunities for children in Leeds are not thwarted by the Labour council.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Contrary to the information given earlier, the Secretary of State is well aware that the attainment gap between the wealthiest and the poorest children in this country grew in every region apart from London last year. Does he accept any responsibility for that?

Michael Gove: I absolutely do, but I think the hon. Lady is in error. As has been pointed out by Dr Becky Francis, among others, the attainment gap actually narrowed in primary schools, where our reforms have had more of an opportunity to have an effect on a percentage of children’s lives. At secondary level, of course the problem remains. That is why it is so disappointing that the Labour party is opposed to initiatives such as the free schools programme, which Andrew Adonis has greeted so warmly, but which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) would halt.

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): I and parents, teachers and local councils in my constituency are supporting a bid for a studio school at the site of the Grange school in Warmley. Will departmental representatives agree to meet me and a delegation to discuss the bid, which will be absolutely vital for raising standards in my constituency?

Michael Gove: I would be delighted to do everything I can to support that bid, not least given the fact that new school provision, studio schools and free schools are threatened by the Labour party’s ideological opposition to new provision.

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John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): At a time when there is overwhelming evidence about the value of physical activity to improving health outcomes and learning in classrooms, why on earth is the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), defending the right of teachers to use running around the playground as a punishment, rather than using the bully pulpit of the Dispatch Box to condemn such outmoded practices?

Michael Gove: As a great admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, I am happy to use whatever bully pulpits are available. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), on securing a sports premium in our primary schools, which ensures that more physical activity is available than ever before. I also thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for the work he has undertaken with me to bring an independent school into the state sector—using the free school programme—in order to give more children opportunities I am afraid his Front-Bench colleagues would, for ideological reasons, deny them. He is a good Blairite; they are the bad ones.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): School holidays are an important time when families can spend time together, but does the Secretary of State agree that there is a difference between legitimate travel companies making a profit and profiteering?

Michael Gove: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very acute point. One of the flexibilities we have given—not least to academies and free schools—is the ability to vary school holidays in order to make sure that holidays can be cheaper and parents can take them off-peak. That is another school freedom that, for ideological reasons, I am afraid Labour Front Benchers would deny. I do not understand why they are so keen to make holidays more expensive for hard-working families.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I am rather perplexed. Are Government Front Benchers able to help me? A written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said that there was no idea how much it cost to create 138 new sixth forms in schools. Given that we want value for money, I found that very difficult to understand.

Matthew Hancock: The point I was making is that the amount of resource spending for each pupil aged 16 to 19 is the same, with an additional amount for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those studying more high-cost programmes like engineering, our support for which is vital for our national economy.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware of the sentence handed out in Amersham Crown court last week to the former head teacher of the Caldicott preparatory school after years of abuse of children in his care. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to my constituent Mr Tom Perry, who was brave enough to speak out about his own abuse? Will he agree to meet Mr Perry and me to discuss the possibility of mandatory reporting, as Mr Perry believes it would better protect our children in the future?

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Michael Gove: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and Mr Perry for their leadership on this issue. I would like to invite him to the Department to discuss exactly what we can do in the future to ensure that this sort of horrific abuse does not happen again.

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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but we must move on.

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3.35 pm

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make a statement on the Government’s recent response to the flooding in Somerset, and to clarify his comments this weekend accusing the Environment Agency of giving poor advice.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): As evident from the dark skies outside, we continue to face extraordinary and sustained wet weather. Cobra has met every day since my oral statement on Thursday, with all Departments working closely together, including my comrades from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We have made it clear again that every resource is available to local communities affected. We will keep providing whatever immediate practical support and assistance is needed, whether extra pumps and sandbags, military support on the ground, or emergency funds from the severe weather assistance fund for local councils.

The Somerset moors and levels have been some of the areas hardest hit by the weather, with 65 million cubic metres of floodwater on the land. The Rivers Tone and Parrett have been particularly affected by the continuous rainfall, leading to heightened river levels. In total, people in 150 properties across the Somerset levels, where there is a threat of severe flooding, have been advised to leave their homes. A rest centre has been established in Bridgwater. Military personnel have been tasked to work alongside local authorities, and are currently filling sandbags for deployment. Pumping continues, but it is a challenge to keep at the correct pace with the inflow from the latest rainfall, and levels are increasing in some areas. It is likely to take weeks to remove the sheer volume of floodwater, once there is a significant break in the weather.

Across the Thames valley and Surrey, the River Thames is rising and bursting its banks at certain locations. A sandbag programme is in place at key points of vulnerability. A multi-agency gold command has been set up in Croydon to co-ordinate the response locally, and a major incident has been declared. There is a high risk that the Thames, the Severn and the Wye will flood in the middle of next week. Local residents are actively engaged in planning and preparation.

As I told the House on Thursday, I commend the hard work of the emergency services, local authorities, the armed services and the staff of the Environment Agency on the ground. As I have said, there are lessons to be learned, including about its policy on dredging and how its £1.2 billion budget is spent.

I note that the issue of international development funding was touched on over the weekend. Let me say this: just as it is a false choice to cast town versus country, it is also wrong to pit helping the victims of flooding at home against helping those suffering abroad. We can and should do both—to help the plight of those facing the awfulness of flooded homes in Britain, just as we take action to help malnourished children dying from dirty water abroad. But I believe that taxpayers’ money should be well spent, and this applies just as much to quangos as it does to the international aid

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budget. By spending money wisely, we can better meet our moral obligations, first to Britain and then to the world, but the first and primary obligation of Her Majesty’s Government is the defence of the realm—urban and rural, city and county—and that is exactly what we are doing.

Maria Eagle: I thank the Secretary of State for his update.

I have no doubt that those who are being affected by the severe flooding in Somerset and now in the Thames valley welcome the assistance that they are now receiving. It is a considerable relief to those who are living and farming on the Somerset levels that the Army has been made available to assist in the efforts to protect homes, farms and other businesses. That news, combined with the efforts of the fire and rescue services, the police, Environment Agency staff and the many volunteers, shows that there is finally a concerted effort to respond to the floods.

Does the Secretary of State understand people’s anger and frustration that it took so long for the Government to organise that level of response, considering that many of them have been dealing with rising water levels since before Christmas? Will he ensure that it does not take so long to help those in the Thames valley who face flooding today? Why did the Prime Minister remain so disengaged from what was clearly a worsening crisis for so long, in sharp contrast to his predecessor in 2007? What lessons have been learned to ensure that we never again see flooded communities left abandoned for weeks? Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the same level of assistance will be made available to those in Berkshire and Surrey, where severe flood warnings are in place?

Will the Secretary of State provide an update on the work to restore vital rail connectivity to Devon and Cornwall? Have Ministers formally asked Network Rail to present options for a long-term solution to the vulnerability of the line, including the option of re-routing?

On the Environment Agency, does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that

“This is a time for everyone to get on with the jobs that they have… This is not the time to change personnel, this is the time to get on and do everything we can to help people. I back the Environment Agency. I back the work they are doing.”?

If so, why did the Secretary of State go to such lengths yesterday to give the opposite impression as he toured the TV studios? Does he believe that

“the Environment Agency has been remarkably good in giving good, accurate information”?

Those are the words that he used on “The World at One” last Wednesday. Will he explain what changed his mind about the quality of the advice from the Environment Agency in the following 48 hours, other than the fact that he spotted a convenient scapegoat to distract attention from the Government’s failure?

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Prime Minister has been unable to deny that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been forced to write a letter objecting to the attack on one of his Department’s agencies by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? Does he accept, in hindsight, that it was wrong to launch such a direct attack on the staff of the Environment Agency,

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and will he take this opportunity to apologise? Does he really believe that the cut of £97 million or 17% in real terms to the annual funding of the Environment Agency, which was required by Ministers, did not impact on the agency’s ability to prevent the flooding that we have seen?

In the House last Thursday, I asked the Secretary of State about the Pitt review, which was commissioned by the last Government after the 2007 floods. He was unable to answer my questions and instead commented that,

“The hon. Lady asked why we have not updated the Pitt review. She will recall that we set up the Flood Forecasting Centre… Perhaps she should spend a little less time in the television studios and more time with Google.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 447.]

Of course, a quick search using Google would have informed the right hon. Gentleman that the Flood Forecasting Centre was set up by the previous Government and opened by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) in 2009. I hope that he is better informed today.

Will the Secretary of State explain why the Government stopped producing progress reports on the implementation of the 92 recommendations of the Pitt review in January 2012, despite 46 of them being labelled “on-going”? Is it still the case that none of the recommendations under

“Knowing where and when it will flood”

has been implemented in full? What has happened to the six recommendations on reducing the risk of flooding, the 10 on being rescued and cared for during an emergency and the seven on maintaining power supplies that had not been implemented in full? How many of those have still not been completed by Ministers? Will he explain why the Government axed the Cabinet Committee on improving the country’s ability to deal with flooding and the national resilience forum, both of which were recommended in the Pitt review and established by the last Government? Finally, will the Secretary of State reconsider his refusal to agree to our request that regular progress reports on the implementation of the Pitt review be restarted? Will he commit to presenting the first update to the House by the end of this month?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady seems to be obsessed by process. We are much more concerned with making a concerted effort to deal with the problem of flooding.

On readiness, we understand that as the week progresses, there will be increased flooding along the Thames valley. The substantial gravel layers in the valley will make it more difficult to put barriers up. Nevertheless, we have continued to ensure that demountables are available and the enormous help from the military will continue. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] Forgive me, but I thought that I was answering about flooding, not some peculiar problem with regard to procedure.

Today I was in Croydon looking at a water station that ensures there is clean water for 47,000 properties. I looked at the magnificent work of the Environment Agency and of local gold command, which is putting together a team for action to ensure that properties are not flooded and that clean water is available.

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On the Environment Agency, it is entirely wrong for the hon. Lady to suggest for one moment that I have issued even the slightest criticism of its marvellous work force. My admiration for the work of the Environment Agency exceeds no one’s, and I believe it is time for us all to start to work together, not to make silly party political points. I am confident that with the help of the Environment Agency, the armed forces and the good work of local councils, that is exactly what we will do.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I believe that we need a period of calm in the House because those who have been flooded, and those who are on the verge of being flooded, look to us to give some leadership. May we look at what is required to be done now in terms of clean water and sanitation to avoid a public health issue for those who have been unable to use their own facilities for a period of time? I welcome what the Prime Minister told the House last week, which was that everything that has happened under that Government, this Government, or any Government, will be looked at anew. We need leadership; the Environment Agency will do whatever its political masters ask it to do, and I think it has done that to the best of its ability. In future we can look at what lessons can be learned from this episode, but we are in the middle of an emergency and must allow the emergency services, including the Environment Agency, to do their work.

Mr Pickles: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Her knowledge of matters relating to the environment, and particularly flooding because of the peculiar circumstances of her own constituency, is considerable. She is absolutely right, and it is a matter of some priority to ensure that those strategic sites, pumping stations, gas stations and those relating to electricity, are protected and can withstand the rigours of this terrible weather.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I cannot remember a more complacent or inadequate response from a Cabinet Minister to a serious matter in this House. Last year, after last winter’s floods and the travel disruption in the south-west, the Government announced £31 million of new money for improved rail resilience in the south-west. That money has still not materialised. Why should anybody believe any of the new promises the Secretary of State is making when he has failed to deliver on any of them in the past?

Mr Pickles: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman seems to resort to petty insults across the Chamber. There are people right now risking their lives and working on the railways to get them running and get a proper price worked out, and frankly, to play this rather pathetic game of who is to blame—[Interruption.] There will be a time when we will look closely into the causes of the floods and the reaction of the Government, but right now we should get on with the job.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): On behalf of the people of Somerset may I say a big thank you to all those who have been working in the here and now, dealing with our emergency? I particularly welcome some of the biggest pumps that I have ever seen arriving on the levels over the weekend. There will come a time when we have to look at the emergency response, and

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also at long-term policies and the advice that we in Somerset have given to successive Governments and agencies over 20 years. Will the Secretary of State look at the funding stream available to local authorities, not just to deal with emergencies but to enable us to maintain these delicate structures far into the future?

Mr Pickles: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. It is perhaps good to make the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) cannot be with us today—he is down there dealing with flooding matters. I am sure he would have made similar points.

I felt it was about time somebody apologised to the people of Somerset and I was happy to do so. The Prime Minister has endorsed that apology. It is true that the advice was solidly given, and that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last autumn started some preliminary dredging on the two rivers. That was due to start up again, and it will do so, but in a more enhanced role. That decision was taken by the wisdom of the Secretary of State.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): Today we have had a summary of the short-term, overdue measures that the Government are taking, but what about the long-term implications? What about climate change? Will Cobra, when it meets, look not only at adaptation, but at mitigation? Will the right hon. Gentleman speak to the Chancellor and ensure that we implement the fourth carbon budget review?

Mr Pickles: Of course, we take climate change into consideration in all the modelling we do with regard to flooding, but the hon. Lady will accept that the weather patterns we have had have been truly remarkable—nothing like them have been seen since the latter part of the 18th century. I will ensure that her remarks on flooding are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): As the two main A roads from my constituency into Reading have been closed by floods, and as many homes, businesses and gardens have been inundated, sometimes with foul as well as surface water, will my right hon. Friend assure me that, in future, the £1,200 million budget and the near £100 million cash that the Environment Agency started the year with will be available for schemes that I and others recommend which could stop that water in future? Is it not about time that we had the promise of some action from the Environment Agency?

Mr Pickles: We need to deal with the short-term effects of the floods given what is likely to happen over the next few weeks, but my right hon. Friend makes a reasonable point—it is not just the size of the Environment Agency budget, but what it does with it and what priorities it has. I am sure that, as the water recedes, there will be a lot of discussion between the Government and the Environment Agency.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I suggest to the Secretary of State that, instead of engaging in this arrogant bluster, he answers the questions put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) from the Opposition Front Bench, and by colleagues who, along with their constituents, have

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experienced the terrible impacts of the flooding? He ought to apologise instead of continuously passing the buck and saying that it is everybody else’s responsibility but not the Government’s.

Mr Pickles: For me, sorry is not the hardest word. I have been criticised for saying sorry to the people of Somerset, and the Prime Minister has said sorry to them. The problem with Labour Members, who talk of hubris and arrogance, is that they are never prepared to admit that they have done anything wrong and go around defending bad practice. The Government are prepared to say that we got it wrong, along with the Environment Agency, with regard to dredging. Had it not been for the campaigning efforts of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that dredging would not have started.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): We have had some flooding in Old Amersham and Chalfont St Peter. I praise the fire service and the local authorities, and the Environment Agency and its subcontractors, which have been pumping and saving buildings from flooding by the River Misbourne. Will the Secretary of State look very carefully at the Government’s spending priorities? I believe that the Government should protect our existing transport infrastructure, our towns and our countryside before spending money on new shiny projects that have a disgraceful cost-benefit ratio compared with the 1:8 cost- benefit ratio imposed on the Environment Agency?

Mr Pickles: The House has grown to appreciate my right hon. Friend’s doughty defence of her constituents and her dislike of high-speed rail. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) has just come back from Marlow, where he examined the state of preparedness, and he reports the fantastic work of local firefighters, working alongside Environment Agency staff and the local police. No doubt my right hon. Friend will be calling him very soon to offer them some moral support.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I met Fire Brigade Union representatives, representing firefighters in the south-west, last week, and they report that firefighters are working extremely hard for long hours. I pay tribute to them. But they asked me to make the point that they are being hampered by job cuts—2,000 firefighters over the last 18 months. In addition, although there has been an improvement in equipment, the Government still have not decided to establish a statutory duty on fire authorities to deal with flooding, which would protect investment in equipment in the future.

Mr Pickles: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would also like to thank the thousands of retained firefighters for working hard on behalf of their local communities. I, too, had the opportunity to speak to firefighters this morning in Croydon. I was remarkably impressed by their dedication, hard work, cheerfulness and adaptability in ensuring that an important water pumping station remains open. We will ensure that firefighters have the best possible equipment to deal with this issue, and we

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have a strategic reserve of high-volume pumps that are being used extensively throughout the Thames valley and the Somerset levels.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I would like to use this time to talk about Somerset and the decision that I took there, but I feel I must talk about my constituents, many of whom have had an utterly miserable week and have tough times ahead. Rivers such as the Kennet, which I have known for all my 53 years, have never been dredged and never should be dredged, because it would mean that the water would flow very fast through my constituency and end up in Reading and beyond. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we give false hope to certain communities if the question comes down to the binary decision—to dredge or not to dredge? Getting it right has to be right for that catchment.

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend was a very distinguished environment Minister and he is 100% correct. What works in the Somerset levels might not be appropriate elsewhere. I represent an Essex constituency where several fields are regularly flooded, offering enormous protection to communities along the coast. His point about the Kennet is correct. It is the same problem when pumping out—the need to ensure that the flow is not so fast that it just creates additional flooding.

I do not think that my hon. Friend made a bad decision: I think that I would have made the same decision on the information that was available. He should not ascribe any blame to himself.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I am glad that the Secretary of State is in a mood for apologies, because he might like to apologise to the Environment Agency, instead of engaging in a blame game that helps nobody. Sustainable urban drainage systems can play a key role in managing surface water flooding, and the Government’s statement that they will implement schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 for new housing developments is long overdue. Does he agree that people in existing housing should benefit from the cost-effective flood protection provided by sustainable urban drainage schemes, and will he agree to a comprehensive retrofit programme so that they can do so?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady’s question is based on a false premise. I have not criticised the Environment Agency, whose staff are doing an excellent job. Merely expressing doubts about one aspect of the agency’s approach in the Somerset levels hardly qualifies as a criticism. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), informs me that the very regulations that she seeks will be laid in April, and I hope that she will volunteer to serve on the relevant Delegated Legislation Committee.

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Cornwall faces a repair bill in the tens of millions of pounds, and it will take months to put right the damage that the storms have caused. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that when claims are made under the Bellwin scheme, they will be expedited as quickly as possible?

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Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the battering that the coast of Cornwall has received. The decision I announced last week on the changes to the Bellwin formula—the first time in 30 years that we have changed the threshold—was made specifically to help Cornwall. I look forward to working with him and the county council to ensure it is compensated for the enormous effort it has put in.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): For every £1 spent on flood defence, there is an £8 return. In the last year of the Labour Government, capital flood defence spending was £371 million. The following year, it was cut by this Government by £87 million, then £115 million, £94 million, £53 million and £35 million. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise to the people of Rhyl, St Asaph, Somerset levels, Dawlish and the Thames valley for the £400 million of costly capital cuts that have totally backfired and will cost this country billions?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady—[Laughter.] I would never mistake the hon. Gentleman for a lady. I am so sorry.

We need to look at the straightforward arithmetic. In their last five years the Labour Government spent £2.7 billion. We will be spending £3.1 billion—a lot more money. They had added to it in 2007, so theirs is a boosted figure that is well below ours.

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The misery of the current floods is confined to one region of the country, but the fear of flooding extends to all regions of the country, particularly those that have suffered floods before. My right hon. Friend is right to commend and make the most of the emergency services and the help being given by them. It is, however, undoubtedly true that the best way to deal with flooding is prevention, not cure. For example, it will cost £200 million to £300 million to reinstall the Humber defences. That sounds like a lot of money until the day after a storm surge or major flood, so will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the Treasury that, unlike the previous Government, it should not go in for being penny wise and pound foolish?

Mr Pickles: I am very familiar with the area to which my right hon. Friend refers, which has a sizeable proportion of holdings below sea level. I know the nature of the river and the historic floods that have taken place around Beverley and across to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) towards York. People have suffered from flooding there in the past and he is right that there is a fear of floods. For years afterwards, people who have been flooded worry every time it rains. It is almost like being burgled: it is not just cleaning up the mess, but the psychological damage. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that residents are kept dry and that we do all we can to alleviate flooding. As my right hon. Friend rightly points out, we were playing, very heavily, catch-up.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State now answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and tell us what assessment he has

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made of making flood attendance a statutory duty on fire services? If he has not made that assessment, will he do so and then report back to the House?

Mr Pickles: That is contained within the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, with the local resilience forum. With enormous respect to the hon. Gentleman, I saw in Croydon what I have seen at all major incidents: a number of services working together very well. The local resilience forum, as I saw today in Croydon, is an exemplar of the way to do things. Making this a statutory duty would not help anything and would not make a single community safer.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): As my right hon. Friend wisely reflected, it is the exceptional weather that is responsible for flooding. Does he agree that, in the end, the forces of unstoppable nature humble us all, as we have faced the wettest January since 1767? As he rightly says, the time for review will come later, but does he agree that one lesson, as outlined wisely by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), is that land management needs to be looked at again in the different areas where floods have taken place?

Mr Pickles: As always, my right hon. Friend is correct. We cannot have conventional orthodoxy, and neither should we replace one inflexible orthodoxy with another. We have only to stand close to these rivers, some of which were previously gentle and meandering, or to see that monstrous gap in Brunel’s railway to see the sheer strength of nature. Conventional orthodoxy has to be re-examined, and instead we need bespoke solutions for each area of the country.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): When he got the job, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs removed from his Department’s list of priorities an intention

“to prepare for and manage risk from flood and other environmental emergencies”.

Does the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government agree that this was a terrible error of judgment on the part of his colleague?

Mr Pickles: My right hon. Friend replaced an enormous, overbearing bureaucratic system with an emphasis on some key issues, one of which was flood defences. As a consequence, we are spending more on this than the Labour party did in its last five years in office, and no matter how much the Opposition huff and puff, they cannot get away from that basic fact.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Will the Secretary of State reconsider his comments about overseas aid? When natural disasters take place in other parts of the world, the Government are quick to provide financial assistance to people who suffer, yet it appears that the provision of financial assistance to people in this country has been much slower. At a time when money is tight, the overseas aid budget is the only one not under financial pressure. If people need help and aid, should the aid budget not be there to support them? The Government should not treat people abroad more favourably than people at home.

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Mr Pickles: The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that we will spend and do whatever it takes to ensure that our communities feel safe from flooding. I recognise that my hon. Friend has a distinguished record on this matter, but I do not agree with him—I hope he will forgive me—on this occasion. I think it is possible to deal with overseas problems. I do not think that this great island nation achieved anything by looking inwards.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Last year, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in response to a question from me about whether the Thames barrier could be overwhelmed in 100 years or 10 years, said:

“We have begun preliminary investigations of the prospects of long-term flooding.”—[Official Report, 16 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 781.]

Have those preliminary investigations come to any conclusions, and what will be done about it, given the threat to the Thames barrier from climate change and other issues?

Mr Pickles: We have deployed the Thames barrier several times in recent weeks, and it has proved remarkably effective at protecting London and some of the islands in the upper Thames. We are confident that it will continue to play a massively important part in the defence of London well beyond the foreseeable future.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The hearts of those of us whose homes, communities and constituencies have not been flooded go out to those of our neighbours whose homes or constituencies have been. In the interests of community solidarity, could the Government not take the lead in setting up a charitable fund to which we and our constituents can contribute to support those who are under-insured, uninsured or in some other difficulty? We could thereby show some solidarity and deal with these personal, human tragedies, rather than using this occasion, as some are, to score points?

Mr Pickles: That is exactly the kind of attitude that makes the Chamber a worthwhile place, rising above petty politics. A number of charities are offering help. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), met a number of co-ordinating groups, but I accept the criticism—perhaps I should apologise again—that we have not done enough to signpost them. We will ensure that there are good signposts to these excellent voluntary organisations to help people in distress.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): May I invite the Secretary of State, if he has not already done so, to view Friday’s edition of “Newsnight”, which showed the powerful impact of the flooding in Somerset on individuals? When will he give us a report on the impact of climate change on these events? That is an important determinant of present policy, and we must assess the impact of present policy on the future.

Mr Pickles: Sadly, I missed Friday’s “Newsnight”, but I will do my best to pick it up on iPlayer. With regard to climate change, the best advice I have received is that the flooding probably has something to do with climate change. That is not necessarily the case—some

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of it may be the result of changing patterns—but the effects that we have to deal with are the same. I have no doubt that as part of the process of looking at how we can improve the response of the Government and the Environment Agency, we will consider that and give the hon. Gentleman, who asks a very sensible question, that kind of outlook.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): The Prime Minister has shown decisive leadership in dealing with the here and now. Will my right hon. Friend do the same by calling on BT and other phone companies to ensure that they provide a priority service to reconnect vulnerable elderly people who live alone and whose lives depend on their having a working phone?

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. I will make those representations. Looking at the local resilience forum, I have noticed that people have a good idea where those who are vulnerable live, and I saw examples of people working together to make sure that someone who has not been about for a few days is checked up on, but that in no way diminishes my hon. Friend’s point, and I will pass on her remarks to BT and other telephone providers.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Support for individuals and families is vital when they are at risk of flooding or they have been flooded. In Hull in 2007 the National Flood Forum charity did excellent work, providing practical assistance both before and after families found themselves flooded out. Is there any additional money for the National Flood Forum to provide such assistance on the huge scale that it faces now?

Mr Pickles: We are working closely with the forum. As the hon. Lady suggests, it is doing a terrific job. I do not know about levels of funding, but clearly, if it is taking on additional work for us, we do not want it to be out of pocket.

Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): What plans do the Government have to provide an assessment of local authorities’ plans for flood prevention in the years to come, particularly asking Hertfordshire what plans it has to stop the River Colne flooding and causing disruption to my constituents?

Mr Pickles: Local plans are fed in through the local resilience forum to our teams. One thing that has been clear in dealing with all these emergencies is that there have been pretty well worked out plans. We have found it a lot easier when we are dealing with the worries about the Thames valley that a well established pattern is in place. For example, a number of authorities have what they call flood ambassadors, who will liaise individually with individual houses and offer them support. But I will look specifically at my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Much of the land on which this Parliament is seated is reclaimed land. Indeed, King Canute was the first king to build anything here at all, so would it not be a fine tribute to parliamentary tradition if we were all to unite around building full

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resilience for the future, rather than permanently bickering every two or three years about what happened last week?

Mr Pickles: I knew it would happen at some stage in my parliamentary career, but it came a little sooner than I thought: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): The Environment Agency staff, some brand new flood defences and, indeed, those on loan from Bristol city council were a welcome presence in Bradford-on-Avon this weekend. We would like to record our thanks to them. Will the Minister show the same resolve as we have seen in learning the lessons from the floods at Christmas time in taking preventive measures in all the locations that have been affected by floods this week, not just those on the levels?

Mr Pickles: Of course, and I am very happy that the beautiful town of Bradford-on-Avon has received those additional flood prevention measures. The number of demountables that we have been able to get out has been something of a record, and I have seen them in operation and how effective they are. Of course it is right that we must learn from the past, not be frightened to apologise and ensure that communities are protected from flood water, even though these have been exceptional events.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Why on this problem, as with all others, do the Government first blame the last Government, then the European Union and then the civil service? Will the Secretary of State tell us on what precise date the Government will take responsibility for their own conduct and cuts? When will he answer the claim by the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority that last week they fiddled the figures?

Mr Pickles: It is certainly not those on the Government Benches who are seeking to make political capital from this or engage in some kind of blame game. I am not entirely sure what we got out of this afternoon, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there are a lot of people working extremely hard right now to keep him and his constituents warm and dry.

Sir Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): When it comes to advice on flooding from the Environment Agency, is not the real problem that it has too often been ignored by local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate, leading to inappropriate development that makes flooding worse?

Mr Pickles: I know that my hon. Friend has had some particular problems. I looked carefully at the figures for building where there was an acute risk of flooding, and I am delighted to tell him that the number of buildings in high-risk areas is at an all-time low. I am also pleased to say that where there have been objections from, say, the Environment Agency, they have been adhered to on 99.3% of occasions.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): As the former chair of Flood Risk Management Wales, charged with adapting Wales to climate change in respect of flood risk management and flood systems, may I ask

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the Secretary of State why he has failed to apply for EU solidarity funding, which gave this country £162 million in 2007 and has given another 23 countries £3.5 billion since 2002? Is it because he is against European money because he is prejudiced or is it because he thinks there is a greater priority for investment than flood risk management for devastated communities? They are upset in Somerset—very upset.

Mr Pickles: I answered this the last time I appeared in the House. The reason is that there is a threshold of €3.7 billion to get over, and even should we get over the excitement of getting over the threshold to get the EU money, the way the system works means we would have to pay most of it back.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): My constituency has experienced some river flooding, but it has not been as severe as that in other areas. However, there are particular problems with surface water flooding in the local villages, including the very unpleasant effects of foul water and overflowing sewerage systems. A substantial amount of new housing is proposed in those areas, at a level that local authorities consider to be unsustainable. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in setting housing numbers, local authorities will be able to take into account the adequacy of the infrastructure to support new housing, so that the current problems do not become worse in the future?

Mr Pickles: My right hon. Friend has conducted a long campaign in this regard, and he has made a number of very reasonable points. I think that such decisions must be made on the basis of scientific fact. The rising level of groundwater will continue to cause problems in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, my constituency and, indeed, most constituencies until well into June, even if from now on things start to shine.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The Environment Agency says that last year it allocated £400,000 for dredging in the Somerset levels, which is the maximum level that Treasury rules permit, but that other Government agencies and partner bodies such as local authorities were not able to “match contribute” towards the £4 million total cost of the scheme. Given the Secretary of State’s leadership role in local government, may I ask when he was made aware of its inability to contribute? May I also ask what representations he made to the Chancellor with the aim of bringing about a change in the Treasury rules?

Mr Pickles: That is why I apologised to the people of Somerset, and that is why the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), insisted on starting the dredging last autumn in order to demonstrate its efficacy. Sadly, however, the turbulent weather arrived before that excellent study could be completed, but we now know that we shall start to dredge, and we shall start to dredge in earnest.

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the last Government stripped the “hold the line” flood defence systems criteria

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from 10 to five in 2009? Will he please look into that, in order to prevent more flooding in coastal areas such as my constituency?

Mr Pickles: I did note that, but I did not want this to be a partisan exchange, which is not the attitude of the Labour party—I did not want to criticise the Labour party. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has just reminded me that we will look at bespoke patterns of support that will enable us to ameliorate the effects of flooding, and to ensure that people feel safe in their own homes.

Mr Speaker: Mr Wayne David.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Thank you for the sigh of confidence that you gave before calling me, Mr Speaker.

Everyone in the House would agree that we need a united Government response to this crisis. How does the Secretary of State respond to suggestions that there is a damaging Cabinet rift between him and the Environment Secretary?

Mr Pickles: I think that you spoke for the whole House with that sigh, Mr Speaker. Let me make it absolutely clear that the Environment Secretary and I are two peas in a pod. We are two brothers from a different mother. We speak on a regular basis. I am the mere custodian of his wishes, and I look forward fervently to the day when he stands at this Dispatch Box and responds to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Devon contains a longer road network than any other local authority area in the country, and anyone travelling there will see the devastation that the flood waters are causing. Will the Secretary of State recognise that later this week, and give extra assistance to Devon?

Mr Pickles: We are offering extra assistance, and we will continue to do so. I think that we must accept, because of the nature of the weather, that we will see exceptional turbulence and disruption to transport in the region. Obviously we need to repair the rail system and make it safe, but we also need to provide alternative ways of getting about, which is why we have laid on extra coaches and the like. Once it stops raining, Devon will be a terrific place to visit, and a terrific place in which to set up a business.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Obviously the immediate priority has got to be to help the people in Somerset and elsewhere who are living in an absolutely desperate situation at the moment, but in the longer term—and following on from the very interesting answer the Secretary of State gave to the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames)—how will the Government use the common agricultural policy direct payments budget and the Environment Agency’s maintenance budget to ensure long-term flood protection and to look at things like land management issues?

Mr Pickles: I cannot tell the hon. Lady when the consultation finishes, but we are in the middle of the process of doing exactly that. If the hon. Lady wants to make a contribution she could write to the Under-Secretary

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of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, and that will be taken into consideration in the review and consultation.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): As I keep reminding the House, when the Rivers Aire, Ouse and Trent and the Dutch river and the Humber estuary flooded hundreds of my constituents’ homes in December, due to international events we may not have got the media attention, but at least we avoided becoming a political football. At that time we were very well supported by some very dedicated Environment Agency staff. That said, however, local farmers and the drainage boards are desperate for a change in the way in which we manage river catchments in this country so that we can have more localised solutions. May I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that happens after this flooding is finished?

Mr Pickles: I know from my discussions with the Environment Secretary that he has very strong views about this matter, because often local people know and understand individual culverts and watercourses better than other authorities, albeit that that authority might be benign, efficient and full of very good people. The point my hon. Friend highlights must be taken into consideration in the long-term review.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Communities in my constituency, particularly along the Penarth coastline, have also been affected by these unprecedented events in recent weeks, albeit not, thankfully, to the extent we have seen elsewhere in Wales or, indeed, in the south-west and the Thames valley. Can the Secretary of State please assure the House that he has, and will continue to have, close co-operation with Welsh Ministers, Welsh local authorities and Natural Resources Wales given that climate change, wind, waves and rain respect no boundaries?

Mr Pickles: Absolutely. Of course, our great nations are joined together and what happens on the River Severn has a very big impact. I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance unequivocally.

Mr Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware that in addition to high rainfall, the people of Pagham in my constituency also face problems from the sea, where the growth of the Pagham harbour spit has led to massive erosion of the shingle beach fronting hundreds of properties. Will he ask one of the Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come to Pagham to see the very real danger this is presenting and to help us secure the funding and the permissions we need to cut a channel through the spit before it leads to the loss of people’s homes?

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend is talking about a very beautiful part of the world. I am sure DEFRA Ministers will come and visit, but I was rather hoping in the not too distant future to come and visit myself, because he raises an important matter. The amount of shingle and the like that has gone is truly breathtaking.

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Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State is right to focus on the areas he has discussed, but may I inform him that when I left my constituency this morning three of the four roads into the town of Tewkesbury were cut off, and with further heavy rainfall expected this week we expect that, sadly, a number of houses may be flooded, so will he bear us in mind as well as all the other areas he understandably has to concentrate on?

Mr Pickles: I certainly will. As I said to my hon. Friend the last time I spoke at the Dispatch Box, I remember very vividly a visit to his constituency in the summer floods of 2007, I think, and the devastating effect on local businesses and a local public house. He more than anybody understands the effect repeated flooding has on communities and the psychological damage it does. Indeed, the fate of Tewkesbury and neighbouring communities bears heavily on the mind of the Government.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): The European Union Commissioner responsible for these matters has made it clear that regional disaster funding is available, with no minimum limit. The Government can define the size of the affected region, and the funding can be made available provided that serious and lasting damage has occurred, that there have been repercussions for economic stability and living conditions in the region and that 50% of people living there are affected. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that Somerset clearly qualifies for such funding, and will he ask his colleagues at DEFRA to apply for it without delay?

Mr Pickles: The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, has just volunteered to meet the hon. Lady, and I am sure that—

Mr Speaker: Order. We wish to see the Secretary of State’s face, looking at us all fully rather than just at those on his own Benches. He has a habit of gyrating around; let us see the man’s face.

Mr Pickles: I apologise. I have always felt that those on my own Benches scrubbed up rather well, and it is uplifting to the spirit to look at them.

As I have said, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has agreed to meet the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) to discuss that matter, and I am sure that those deliberations will be worth while.

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I understand that the Secretary of State will be in touch with my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) shortly. The Secretary of State will be aware that a bankrupt country would find it much more difficult to defend itself, and it is to this Government’s credit that they managed marginally to increase flood defence funding on coming into office. However, the long-term investment strategy put out by the Environment Agency in 2009 made it clear that we were going to have to almost double our investment in flood defences. Will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues make that point forcefully to the Treasury?

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Mr Pickles: The Treasury is taking an enormous interest in the promises that Ministers are making from the Dispatch Box. Even when representatives of the Treasury are not physically in the room, their presence is always felt.

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): Will the Secretary of State ensure that local Environment Agency workers have the ability to team up with farmers, particularly to work on catchment area solutions such as tree planting? Will he also ensure that the agency takes some of the reported £2.4 million that it has spent on public relations services and puts it into the Rossendale valley to prevent flooding on the River Irwell, the River Darwen and the River Ogden?

Mr Pickles: Many hon. Members have made that point about local solutions. We are looking for an integrated approach from local drainage boards, local authorities and the Environment Agency to deal with these problems. It is often the people on the ground who understand the problems better.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): The flooding on the Somerset levels during the past six weeks has destroyed homes, farmland and wildlife habitat, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to look into dredging. For 20 years, successive Governments have not done so, and have not dealt with the problem.

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate of dredging, and that was the principal reason why I felt it was appropriate to apologise to the people of Somerset for us ignoring their views. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, however, there is no single solution that fits everywhere. Dredging there would be a sensible thing to do, for example, but dredging on the River Kennet would not be sensible. We are therefore looking for bespoke solutions in particular areas.

Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his robust management of this crisis, and on focusing on what matters—namely, helping those people who are knee-deep in water. Given that the River Parrett has not been dredged since 2005, does he not find the response from those on the Opposition Benches a bit hypocritical?

Mr Pickles: I am never surprised by those on the Labour Benches. It is true that I take a robust view on this and sometimes may have erred on the wrong side of robust, but I believe that the things I say in public should be those that I believe in private. I certainly believe that someone whose house is flooded, someone who is worried about their future employment or someone who is worried about their communities wants to know whether the Government are going to get on and deal with the job, or are they going to bicker on pointless procedural points.