16 July 2014 : Column 257WH

16 July 2014 : Column 257WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 July 2014

[Martin Caton in the Chair]

Ofsted (14 to 17-year-olds)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)

9.30 am

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Caton. It is also a pleasure to welcome the new Minister of State for Skills, Enterprise and Equalities on his first full day at work. I hope this debate will be a memorable start to his tenure. He and I have worked closely together on various issues over the years, and I hope he brings the same sort of energy, commitment and good humour to this important subject. I hope we can work together to do everything we can for the 14 to 17-year-old group that we call pre-NEETs—for those unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for: not in employment, education or training. The idea is to catch those young people before they become proper NEETs and long-term youth unemployed, so I have called the debate to bring to the attention of the House some of the ideas we are developing in Nottingham to pre-empt the creation of those NEETs and long-term youth unemployed.

I have about 300 NEETs in my constituency. I will refer later to the fact that getting one of those young people into work will save the taxpayer an estimated £160,000. Imagine the benefits if we could get 300 of them into work; imagine the benefits if we could get my 1,200 or so long-term youth unemployed into work. So there is a human tale that I want to tell, but also a story that I hope will make the Chancellor salivate in terms of the savings we could afford the taxpayer and recycle some of that money into helping those young people make the best of themselves. We have a fair amount of time this morning. I will outline the positive ideas that we have in Nottingham and hope to get the support and encouragement of the Minister.

Ofsted is due to publish new guidance on that 14 to 17-year-old group this autumn, but it will be on inspecting the school provision for pre-NEETs. If we can follow it through locally with Ofsted, it should make it easier for schools to give this group of young people the structure that they need to thrive. I intend to bring lots of resources to bear on the pre-NEETs problem: first, the energy of the rebalancing the outer estates project in Nottingham North, of which I am the chairman-designate; secondly, our project bid for the youth engagement fund; and thirdly, a positive and productive relationship with all of those who are involved in educating these young people, especially Ofsted. I want to touch on each of those three resources that I think we need to direct at this problem.

I am leading the rebalancing the outer estates project with partners in my constituency of Nottingham North, and helping the 14 to 17-year-old pre-NEETs is one of our work streams. Rebalancing the outer city estates is a

16 July 2014 : Column 258WH

concept that local partners have developed over the past year in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Lord Heseltine, my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), the Big Lottery Fund, and lots of other partners, especially our superb local enterprise partnership, D2N2. We are putting that forward as part of the growth fund bid through the LEP.

I hope that, ultimately, the lessons learnt in Nottingham North can be taken to scale to help dozens of neglected and forgotten outer city estate-based constituencies throughout the UK. The Minister will know my record of starting things in Nottingham, trialling them, testing them and taking them to national scale, and this is no different. There are lessons, good and bad, from which we can hope to learn if we use the Nottingham North experience effectively, and it can work to the benefit of any Government that comes to power in the near future.

There are nine former council estates in my constituency. They illustrate the social and economic imbalance in the modern UK economy. They were visionary in their design—as in the garden city concept, there are no high rises or towers blocks. They were built to house those who worked in manufacturing, but those people have now lost their work-related identity following the loss of key employers. I am something of a microcosm: my father was a miner, but the mines have now gone; my mother was textile worker, but the factories have closed; my grandfather did 50 years at Raleigh bicycles, which has relocated to China; and some family members worked at Imperial Tobacco—John Player’s—which, sadly, has announced in the past few weeks that it too is closing.

One in five of the people in my constituency claim an out-of-work benefit, four out of six of my secondary schools are in special measures, and we have the lowest number of people going to university of any constituency in the United Kingdom. Our number of single parent households and free school meals is double the national average. However, I want to focus on employment and skills this morning. The number of unemployed claimants in Nottingham North is the ninth worst out of 650 constituencies in the UK. One in eight young people aged 18 to 24 are unemployed—1,190 on the last total. Nottingham North also has low levels of skills and qualifications. That is a poisonous combination. It is one of only 20 parliamentary constituencies in the UK that has more people with no qualifications than it has people with a degree level qualification. There seem to be particularly low levels of skill among the 25 to 29 age group. That is why there is merit in early intervention, going right back to the 14-year-olds and younger children to try to give them the skill base that is essential to their future development.

Using the evidence-based principles of the What Works centres, as well as Nottingham’s early intervention model, which has now been taken to scale in 20 different places with more to come across the UK, we are working closely with Government Departments to form a broad-based local partnership to develop and implement a rebalancing outer estates action plan. We have done a business plan, which has been submitted to the LEP and has got through all the hurdles so far, and we are looking for good news from it towards the end of the month. We believe that that can be taken to scale from the initial work that we do in Nottingham North.

16 July 2014 : Column 259WH

We are also working closely with central and local government to propose and trial flexibilities, discretions, innovations and freedoms. Note, Minister: I am not putting in a bid for money and asking, “Please can you help us out with some more dosh?” This is all about letting us get on and do what we know we can do best in our constituency, and tailoring the one-size-fits-all regulations that governments inevitably need to put forward at national level. We are seeking that local discretion and some discretion to use existing moneys—not additional moneys—in a more single pot concept so that we can spend it how we feel is appropriate, which I think will deliver greater value for money.

We have very good relationships with officials and Ministers not only in the Department for Education, but in the Cabinet Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Ministry of Justice. The Department for Communities and Local Government troubled families scheme is working with the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, which has been set up by DWP to facilitate data-sharing agreements between the local DWP, skills agencies and others, such as public health. That is quite central, because it will allow us to collect robust data, facilitate proper sharing between agencies and ultimately allow us to measure the impact of what we do. That is so important, because much of what we want to do in the longer term is about payment by results and social investment. Consequently, measuring outcomes so that they can be effectively monetised is a key part of this process.

Our aspiration is in our business plan and has the agreement of the LEP and others. It is that, emerging from this process, perhaps Nottingham North could help Her Majesty’s Government to explore the potential of our approach. We have suggested that it could be adopted in 12 cities within about three years, and perhaps in 24 cities during the next Parliament.

It is appropriate that I put on record my thanks to the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who took a great interest in what we are trying to do in Nottingham North. He was especially helpful in progressing the development of a new campus on our further education campus, which is part of New College Nottingham and is called the Basford Hall site. Anyone driving by there today will see builders demolishing the old campus and building the new campus in a £27 million development. We do not have many physical assets in the constituency, which consists of nine enormous council estates, but the catalyst in the middle is this redevelopment of the Basford Hall site, because we think it can be the hub for our local skills, including entrepreneurial skills, which we can use with our partners, community groups and social enterprises. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to go to a second phase of development. There is enough land on the site that we can dream about starter units for the young people who go to the FE college. Much of the current activity there is construction, plumbing, painting and decorating, but green technology and many other things will go on that site, and there is the potential to put in starter units, low-rental units and lots of other things, one of which I will go on to talk about.

16 July 2014 : Column 260WH

Our key ambition for our project is summed up as making every four-year-old school-ready and every teenager work-ready, and then carefully to craft a Nottingham North job offer for every individual on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. We will continue to explore with the DWP the possibility of a Nottingham North social investment bond because, as I mentioned earlier, just one NEET going back into productive life will save us £160,000. Given the number of NEETs and people in long-term unemployment that we have, that is a very large pot of money that we could bring to bear if we do this work properly.

Having talked about the rebalancing project, the second area to discuss is a slightly more specific one around the youth engagement fund. I do not want this to sound too much like a funeral, but I will put on record the support and assistance that I have received from the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd). I regret very much that he is no longer in the Government, given the work that he has done; it has been a pleasure working with him. He has encouraged people locally to apply for the youth engagement fund, so we have put a bid together. We really want to initiate a 20-year behaviour change programme—it is pointless doing starburst, flash-in-the-pan, one or two-year projects, thinking, “Let’s throw some money at it.” We have to set out our stall. That programme would go alongside our 20-year early intervention work plan, which we have in our city of Nottingham.

In making the bid, we have put together a package that we hope will reduce the flow rather than the stock—I will use those economic terms. We need to use our existing providers to do what we can with the existing individuals, but we want to turn the tap off and start a process that will feed through and produce an intergenerational change by giving these young people what they need far earlier and way more upstream than is the case now. At the moment, we are firefighting and throwing money at a problem that is deep-rooted. I suppose that our bid and our objective could be summed up as, “Every young person work-ready in Nottingham North.” We will work with all the people locally, including some brilliant partners, to complete an individual pathway for every young person. That is perfectly possible. I said that the number of young people involved is high—it is way too high—but it is not so high that it is not manageable to produce a personal programme for each one.

We will do two main things in our package. The first one, which I am trying to do, is have a work-readiness coach for every child in secondary school. I am up with the jargon, so I use that term rather than being old-fashioned and saying, “careers adviser”—I was familiar with careers advisers when I was at school, but you certainly would not be, Mr Caton, as you are too young. In the six secondary schools in my constituency, current provision is lumpy—let me put it that way—but a work-readiness coach could give training skills and work advice throughout an individual’s school life, but with a focus on the period from 14 to 17. There would be professional, human and proper guidance delivered by a trusted and committed friend at the correct age, and tailored to the individual and their background; in addition, it would be given face-to-face. Time and again in the project and throughout this debate, the need for a known individual has come up: having all sorts of stuff on tap or accessible

16 July 2014 : Column 261WH

via a computer is not enough; for this group of young people, a face and personal contact is needed. They need to be able to pick up the phone and speak to a person, or to go and see them, to develop a relationship that literally lasts for years, so that that person gets to know them and can guide them in the right way. I understand from the experts that the best time to start this process is at the age of 13, or at key stage 3, because that is when these young people are at their most open, and supportive one-to-one interviews can make a huge difference, not least if they are supplemented by work experience that is not hindered by health and safety red tape. In that way, we can get these young people to raise their aspirations and focus their academic progression.

That is the first thing—having a careers or work-readiness coach in every school, who is dedicated to this group of young people and known to them. The second is to create a state-of-the-art Nottingham North work-readiness centre for those 14 to 17-year-olds who are least likely to go on to education or training from school, to build their social and emotional skills to work-readiness standard, and taking them out of school between one and three days a week. We are lucky to be rich in excellent social enterprises and local providers, including Building Engineering Services Training Ltd or BEST, Right Track, Groundwork, Futures, Aspley community centre and New College Nottingham. Using high-quality new premises in the brand new Basford Hall further education redevelopment that I mentioned earlier, we will show that we value these youngsters as much as those who are studying full time in our smart rebuilt schools across the constituency.

As one of the national advocates of social investment, I strongly welcome that our bid has to take the form of a social impact bond. I am asking my council and my LEP to guarantee the required 20% local participation, but I will try to ensure that we bring in a wide range of partners, including our excellent police and crime commissioner, our clinical commissioning group and schools themselves, which are able to use the pupil premium, so that they can all take a stake in what we are trying to do, even if they are providing only a tiny amount of money. That way, they will have a financial stake as well as an educational or social stake in our bid.

We are partnering Social Finance Ltd, which I know very well, to raise the initial investment that is required to pay for the delivery of the programme, and we are engaging with a range of social investors, including the Private Equity Foundation, Big Society Capital and many others.

I think that we are doing more than our bit and now I need the Minister to try to encourage Ofsted, which has done a lot of good work, to come to the party. Ofsted can become a tremendous power for good for the 14 to 17-year-old pre-NEETs. There are lots of well intentioned sentiments in Ofsted’s school inspection handbook about pre-NEETs. It talks about

“the next stage of their education and training”

and employment; about

“an appropriate balance between academic and vocational courses”;


“timely independent information, advice and guidance to assist pupils on their next steps in training, education or employment”;

16 July 2014 : Column 262WH

and about lots of other good things. If Ofsted works with what we have done in Nottingham, as an exemplar of what can be done, I believe that we can turn those words into action. It is no good just having a framework and then not helping schools and young people through, and following through. That thread runs through this final passage of my speech.

The truth is that many heads of schools in disadvantaged areas with poor demographics will say privately that the education and inspection systems incentivise schools to place greater emphasis on those capable of getting five A to Cs than on those who cannot. The pre-NEETs group is often packaged and parked, destined to become expensive NEETs and long-term unemployed, although that is wasteful. With Ofsted, we can change that by attacking a number of issues together. I shall list a few.

First, there should be clarity about targets for pre-NEETs. We know that for a generation schools have been programmed to focus on their target of five A to Cs. There is a message sent strongly from the ground, including from my patch, from the people who are there. These people do not lack leadership and are not lazy; they get out of bed every morning to go to a difficult educational environment and are among some of the most courageous, capable people to be found in education. They deliver in all sorts of ways. Their strong message is that any additional activities relating to work-readiness for supporting the 14 to 17-year-olds need to be rigorously tested, inspected and, above all, targeted or that provision will be an afterthought.

Schools need to be targeted on where their pupils progress to: carrots for good progression to FE, work and apprenticeships and sticks for bad progression—NEETs, prison, etc. Then schools will not be penalised, but motivated, as they wish to be, to invest energy into work-readiness provision. Otherwise they will pay lip service or just will not be able to do it, however much they want to, given all the other pressures. We have to help them by setting that framework and letting them do what they know they would like to do anyway—to help that group rather than park it, sometimes, in training that is not as good as we would like. That will require Ofsted not merely to pronounce and inspect, but to encourage and guide—to be a bit more proactive— in a willing local partnership. That can be pioneered in Nottingham, if people are up for that and willing to do it.

Secondly, we need the right type of qualifications for demographies such as mine, which exist in dozens of constituencies. The DFE and Ofsted rightly acted to remove the over-reliance on equivalency qualifications, as they were called, that were seen as being used to boost overall GCSE figures. What was lost in that change was the fact that many pupils were following credible, well regulated courses that served their needs and aspirations. The pendulum has swung too far the other way, because by forcing schools down a more academic route, the needs of the 14-to-17 pre-NEETs are not being met.

Employers in the locality tell me that many of these pupils fundamentally lack employability skills: social and emotional capability; functional literacy and numeracy; a sense of responsibility about such issues as punctuality and attendance; and the chance to develop self-discipline, resilience and respect for authority. They lack achievable goals in relation to their aspirations and, most importantly,

16 July 2014 : Column 263WH

a sense of direction and progression that will give them life skills that will turn them into active, engaged citizens for life.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, not just for securing this debate but for the work that he has been doing in this area for some time. His list of issues affecting young people, particularly in hard-to-reach areas such as working -class estates, resonates, I am sure, with a number of hon. Members. Does he believe, as I do, that we need to ensure that best practice is replicated? Has he considered a template to be used throughout the United Kingdom, so that a new generation does not suffer the problems suffered by the generation that is out there now?

Mr Allen: I fully agree. If we can do this, even in one place, we can see what fails and what works. If we can have all the institutions working together in that one, tiny place—I do not want the Government to pass legislation and do something across the whole country—and prove, in the engineering sense, what can work, that will benefit everybody.

On the subject of capabilities, when I took Lord Heseltine to my constituency, we went to Right Track and met its chief executive, Stuart Bell, who said, “I’ve got 80 jobs available for any kid that walks through the door.” We both looked at each other and said, “No, don’t you mean you’ve got a job available and 80 kids are looking for it?” He said, “No, I’ve got the kids, but they haven’t got the wherewithal—the social and emotional capability—to work in retail and say, ‘Welcome, sir. Do you want a jacket or a tie today?’, ‘How are you?’ or ‘The weather’s nice’, or whatever.” That is the sort of basic capability and interaction they lacked. The vacancies were on the wall and Mr Bell was working with the kids to give them some of the basics that we would give our children, probably before the age of eight, at home in a normal environment, completely unconsciously.

That is what I mean when I say that measuring those kids on a five A to C basis is irrelevant. Measuring them on the demanding basis of what they should be attaining in terms of their own functional literacy and so on—a tough challenge—is exactly where they need to be. They will then attain and get self-respect and will, hopefully, spread that to their own children and raise good families of their own.

This is a complicated area—having looked at it for some time, I do not pretend to be an expert—and I certainly do not expect the Minister to be able to answer some of these questions on his first day. However, I hope that, when he has had a chance to get his feet under the table, he will consider whether he can work with us and Ofsted to review the balance on qualifications. Has the pendulum swung too far? Will he consider that, because it is quite urgent now? We need to get that balance right as this new Ofsted inspection comes in and, if we have the right qualifications going with it, the two things will be greater than the sum of the parts. We should ensure that there is a proper range on offer for demographies such as mine.

Thirdly, we should consider which roll children are on—the school roll or the FE roll—and all the complications that come with that. Schools are judged

16 July 2014 : Column 264WH

on how many pupils meet the requirement to achieve five A to Cs, including English and maths, and that judgment is based on all pupils in the year 11 cohort at census time. Pre-NEETS are therefore in danger of becoming victims of that system. Schools need flexible arrangements for these pupils, so they are able to develop through transitional arrangements to work and training.

Most of all, schools need to be freed somehow from the need to count all pupils in league tables as if they were all the same, because they are not. This means students at 14 onwards having a more sophisticated school roll, non-school roll allocation, so that they can benefit from a personally tailored vocational and functional skills programme. As schools receive funding for each student, there is an initial reluctance to have any more than a handful of their most difficult students offsite. I am not talking about the most difficult students, such as the young lads who might end up in a pupil referral unit; I am talking about the big chunk of those who will not get five A to Cs, who are not the really bad lads. That is a big chunk of the population.

As a result of the disincentive, every school tries to develop some sort of partial vocational provision or units on their campus and, for that reason, they cannot then work out block timetabling. Such timetabling would mean, for example, that my six schools could have a given period when those young people could go somewhere else together, forming a critical mass to make it work economically. With absolutely stringent, tested criteria, so that the system cannot be abused, schools need to be legally entitled to remove from their league table accountability pupils who are following certified programmes. By doing so, we will find meaningful progression for such pupils, many of whom could be characterised as white, working-class young people from former council estates.

At the moment, some of the provision is done under the table or with sleight of hand. We need to smoke the issue out, make it transparent and take action to make it clear that we are all working together. I do not pretend to have the issue buttoned down; I do not have a little policy document that I can hand to the Minister and say, “It has all been thought out and here it is,” but I know we can work together and find a much better way, so that we have a system that works for the kids I am talking about as well.

There are challenges. How can such kids be kept on the school roll, yet have a range of options externally? Who would be accountable for their outcomes, attendance, exam results and so on? Would the home school have to pay a premium for sending them to a further education institution? Many schools in special measures are facing financial difficulties. Would the student be removed from the home school roll? Many schools are struggling with falling rolls. If the Minister asks us to, we, working with Ofsted, would like to confront those challenges. With some flexibility and a little brainpower, we could trial that in my constituency, if the Minister felt it appropriate, as part of our rebalancing project.

“Destination outcomes” is a new phrase that we are using a lot these days. Post-16 progression routes need to be mapped for these learners, and we should aspire to put an offer in place for them to work towards at the start of a programme. A lot of the time, there is a sense of things being a package for a 14-year-old, moving on to a package for a 15-year-old, moving on to one for a

16 July 2014 : Column 265WH

16-year-old and then one for a 17-year-old, rather than a sense of, “You should be working towards this end goal.” The goal might change, but if there is a sense of direction on roughly where someone wants to go, that can be set out at the start; the sense of “pass the parcel”, which a lot of these kids and a lot of the people involved with them feel, would diminish.

What a young person does in the September after leaving school is important, but we should be even more interested in what happens six months after that. It is okay saying, “We have pushed our pre-NEETs levels down and everyone is properly accommodated”, but then it is, “Oh my goodness, look at the NEET figure! We do not know where that came from. It has just shot up suddenly.” We need to measure where those kids are six months after they leave. That test must be on whether they have managed to stick with their college course, apprenticeship or whatever. That is a much more accurate measure. Working together, we should be able to organise a watertight data track for those kids.

Destinations need to be better factored into Ofsted’s inspections, so that efforts with the group are acknowledged and rewarded. Schools in my constituency are buying in external services to support the career progression of their students. Ofsted needs to acknowledge the exceedingly low “not known” numbers, which are being forced down due to the innovation fund, the good links between employers and schools and the role of the voluntary sector in supporting young people. Ofsted needs to work with that and make it even more standard in what it does. If we can pilot these ideas, we could help create an ever more demanding, but ever more helpful, Ofsted regime, which gets head teachers and principals to where they want to be.

Relevant inspections are at the heart of these ideas. This is a plea, on the Minister’s first day, to track us on progress over the next 290 days before the election, and to track Ofsted and our partners on how we can innovate to build a more effective inspection service, for the benefit of our 14 to 17-year-olds, by pre-empting NEETs and youth unemployment. A smarter system for measuring young people with complex needs is required, rather than their being measured against a “norm” group. I repeat: alternative provision for work-readiness is fine, but if a school is then faced with the consequences of that in the exam profile on their cohort, it is self-defeating, because heads will not do that. We need to facilitate heads and principals to do what they know to be right. They know what they can deliver. This is not rocket science—they know they can help those kids, but we have to reduce the disincentives in that.

To their credit, the Government have recognised the problem and have scrapped the five A to C measure for summer 2015 onwards in favour of the new “Progress 8” measure, which gives a much more rounded picture of every child’s progress in a school. That significant breakthrough having been made, however, it has to be followed through by the Department and, above all, by the inspection regime.

Ofsted, too, deserves commendation for recognising the need to address the issues. It says it wishes to go further than it did last year. The progress last year was great, but it has now told the House of Commons Library, which asked it a question on my behalf:

“We are adding some increased reference to advice and guidance into the school inspection handbook for Sept 2014”—

16 July 2014 : Column 266WH

that is a couple of months away—

“which should increase the focus on the quality of advice offered to young people and their careers education. Schools will be assessed on whether they ‘provide timely independent information, advice and guidance to assist pupils on their next steps in training, education or employment.’ Inspectors will explore the extent to which the school has developed and implemented an effective strategy for ensuring that all pupils in years 8 to 13 receive career guidance; the impact of this guidance in helping young people to make informed choices about their next steps and how well what is provided is meeting the needs of all vulnerable groups of students, including reducing the numbers who do not continue to education, employment or training.”

There is more:

“There will also be references to destination measures as one of the factors for inspectors to consider. The extent of any NEETs will be taken into account, depending on the structure of education in a specific area.”

All those things are incredibly welcome, as are the drive, sentiment and good intentions behind them. I have publicly put on record, and repeat again, how good and positive that is from Ofsted’s point of view, but we now have to make it happen on the ground—in reality—so that it is more than just a question asked at an inspection that then disappears. If we are to tackle 14 to 17-year-old pre-NEETs, we have to have Ofsted as part of that team following through, encouraging and ensuring that the guidance is implemented, as well as inspecting.

One quibble is that the schools are about to break up for the summer holidays, and the new handbook, which I have just quoted parts from, courtesy of the Library, is not yet published. Will schools in my constituency or that of any Member have the time to take advantage of the good things in the new guidance and get them up and running for September, when the kids come back? I doubt very much that they will. I hope the Minister will facilitate getting that handbook, if only by a question, to Ofsted and into the hands of the heads and principals who can use it and put it to work. They can then talk to their local Ofsted inspectors to make it a reality.

I hope that the Minister has a little more success in reaching the Ofsted HQ team than I have had, although I must immediately say what wonderful people we have in local and regional Ofsted; they have been very supportive and encouraging. Given the chance in my area to co-operate with Ofsted and to demonstrate how we can help the inspection regime, we could make a real difference. I am thinking of our youth engagement fund, the rebalancing project, our schools and Ofsted working together, and great guidance. Let us make it work. We can do that.

I have a number of other issues to touch on briefly, because I consulted with people in my area and a number of suggestions were made. I want to put them on the record. First, family support, because we are not talking only about what happens at the school; the issue is about bringing all the other services together and ensuring early intervention with families and others to ensure that we support the child outside school as well. Secondly, schools staying open, so we need to ensure that in high-NEET areas they have the funding to operate on a 46-week year, not a 39-week year, to reinforce continuity and positive learning. Thirdly, employers—local chambers of commerce, local small and medium-sized enterprises and LEPs—should come to the party, bringing their capabilities to speak not simply formulaically because there is a little money in

16 July 2014 : Column 267WH

training, but with real passion: to get involved, to take on individuals and to work very closely with what we are trying to achieve.

Finally, there are a number of things around technology. Sometimes we look for new technology to be a shortcut and a cheaper way to get information to people, but that does not always work in a demography such as that in my constituency. We may be piloting particular proposals and schemes, but many young people in my area do not have access to iPhones or the internet. Moreover, they cannot use phones for conversations; many of the students in my area cannot be accessed when they run out of credit. Ofsted, the Department, the National Careers Service and others come forward with apparently great things that might work in other constituencies, but they need to have an eye to what will actually help NEETs and pre-NEETs.

To sum up, I am making an offer to the Minister and, through him, to Ofsted that Nottingham North’s rebalancing the outer estates project will work hand in hand with schools, Ofsted and all our local partners to pilot an exemplar of the new Ofsted framework. We will try to make that work, to show how far the envelope can be pushed and, I hope, to be an example to others. The project will be backed up by work-readiness coaches in every school, a work-readiness, purpose-built college funded by us through the youth engagement fund and, perhaps above all, an in-depth and wholehearted collaboration and partnership.

In that way, we can demonstrate how the pre-NEETs group can be removed from the bureaucratic, one-way conveyor belt to NEETs and long-term unemployment and on to a genuine pathway to work and self-motivation. It is a great prize, which will save the taxpayer millions of pounds otherwise spent on the costs of failure. More importantly, it will turn wasted lives into productive and happy citizens. The Minister has not had long in his new role, but if he works with me, as I hope he will, he will have long enough to make a real difference for the young people I have been discussing.

10.13 am

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). That was an extremely constructive, thorough and positive speech, and it boded well that he made no request for extra money—had he been part of the reshuffle yesterday, I am sure he would have done well. Furthermore, he recognised that one size does not fit all. Every single town and community has different challenges and different opportunities, and that shone through.

I was not intending to speak, but I was disappointed that the Chamber is not packed with lots of eager Members. We are debating a challenge in all our communities, and yet there are so many opportunities to shape ways in which we can make a real difference, so I am cobbling together some of my suggestions and will then be supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who has a huge amount of experience in this area. I want to concentrate on how Ofsted can focus on engagement, but not at the cost of the academic pursuit of the five A to C grades.

16 July 2014 : Column 268WH

Between us all, we are not asking for money or for huge amounts of change; we are only looking for some extras.

I welcome the new Minister of State for Skills, Enterprise and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). I hope he is “planning”—boom, boom!—a bright future for the development of young people; it is early in the morning, so apologies for that.

My interest arises because I went to a school at the bottom of the league tables. Many of my friends failed to engage and they took a very different path from me. Two of them spent time at Her Majesty’s pleasure, although it is fair to say that, when I phoned up my old headmaster to say, “I have made it into Parliament,” he suggested that that was possibly worse. Also, in Swindon we are proud that we will have one of the first university technical colleges opening in September. The UTC will focus on real, tangible skills and working with local employers. I am envious of that, because it was not something I had when I was growing up.

The crux of what I am asking for concerns utilising our fantastic school and community facilities. We have spent huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, rightly, on building brilliant schools, but right up and down the country, as soon as it gets to 4 o’clock, for use of the facilities we slap on a huge hire fee for community and sports groups and groups that want to engage constructively and positively. In a world of extremely busy families, it is incredibly difficult to find volunteers to contribute to society and to make a difference. Where we find them, however, we then say, “By the way, if you want to put on a football or street dance club or to provide scouts activities, we will charge you”—what a huge disincentive. We have already paid for the schools, they already exist, so it is simply a question of getting a caretaker to open them up.

I was a councillor for 10 years and we had precious little open space in my area, apart from in the schools, separated from us by huge fences. No wonder we have childhood obesity and children stood on street corners, not being engaged. I encourage, where possible, opening up those schools for sport, not only for the next potential draft for the World cup, after our disappointing performance this summer, but for the future coaches, treasurers and club secretaries, because the opportunity is for all to engage constructively. A huge number of careers can come about through sport, other than by being top-notch athletes.

Other obvious groups who might use the facilities include the St John Ambulance or the scouts. I have to pay credit to some of their work in the most challenging communities. Such groups have been given extra money to engage in those communities, and they have adapted their models. What might be offered in one community can be very different in another. Any group of parents who wish to engage with young people constructively should have access to our fantastic facilities without price being a barrier.

I also want to touch on the opportunity for young entrepreneurs. Many of the brightest entrepreneurs in this country, such as Lord Sugar and Richard Branson, left school without a single qualification between them. They found, however, that entrepreneurship engaged them. We already have fantastic organisations such as Young Entrepreneur, but we can go further.

16 July 2014 : Column 269WH

I organised a session with one of my local colleges, Swindon college. Rather than running something for a week, based in the main foyer and selling to their friends, the students were dispatched to Blunsdon market. For those who do not shop there regularly, I should point out that it is a really tough environment, where the customers are price sensitive and trade is hard to come by. The students were given a stall on a wet Wednesday afternoon, but all seven teams engaged positively. The best team set up a 1950s cake stall, after visiting the week before and recognising that the clientele was older. They tried to match the market and took £120. What happened after that session is key—the landlords and local business entrepreneurs offered to mentor one of the young entrepreneurs to take things forward. After she left, she set up her own bakery, which is doing well, and the good people of Swindon enjoy her produce. There is real opportunity in such engagement, whether after school or in the school holidays.

I am also a big fan of the National Citizen Service programme. I make six or seven visits to each of the processes in the summer holidays—it is the highlight of the summer recess. The key is the absolute transformation of the children. As its stands, we wait for children to engage proactively—generally, these schemes are advertised and it is the most proactive children who sign up. I would like the NCS programme to be expanded far more, using the long summer break to get children to do good things. For those not familiar with the NCS programme, aptly, there is a debate on it following this one. It involves sport, team work and charity and community work and places a huge emphasis on carrying on beyond the initial programme during the summer.

My final request concerns the battle in this country of youth services versus sport—the two, it seems, will never meet. Actually, those budgets should be merged. Again, if leisure centres are not being used in the evenings, let us open them up and use the facilities. Sport often captures the imagination. When I was a councillor, I was the lead member for leisure, and I remember the lead member for youth saying it was their job to engage with the youth. I said, “Well, I’m beating you, because on a Friday evening when we put the ice-skating disco on, I have 600 young people enjoying themselves. You should be parking your youth facilities outside our ice-skating disco and then you will actually engage with the public.”

When I first got elected, I tried to get in touch with young people by asking them whether we should expand youth clubs. They looked at me as if I was something from the ’80s—I probably was. We therefore need to merge youth and sport programmes and use them better. As with schools, we are not using our leisure centres on a Friday night at 10 o’clock, so let us open them up for constructive engagement if local parents want to put something on.

We have an extremely enthusiastic Minister. I would like every effort to be made to engage and inspire young people. They have only one opportunity. We cannot deliver one size fits all, but we can open up and provide fantastic facilities for positive and constructive engagement, and that will make a real difference.

10.21 am

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and to almost follow the hon. Member

16 July 2014 : Column 270WH

for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who, as my hon. Friend said, made a thoughtful and in-depth speech. I share my hon. Friend’s concern that there are not more people here. This is an important subject and should concern every Member of Parliament. I know that not every Member can attend every important debate, but it is sad that there are not more of us here today.

I will speak briefly about my own experience growing up, attending a proper comprehensive school and my time in the classroom as a schoolteacher, and then talk about some of the positive things that are happening in one of the local authorities in my constituency, North Lincolnshire.

I do not want to outdo my hon. Friend, but I went to the worst performing comprehensive in the worst performing local education authority in the country. Like him, I went to school with people who went down a range of different routes. Some of them unfortunately went to prison on more than one occasion—that was just from my class, and we were the top set. Some went into good old proper, traditional apprenticeships, which I am pleased to see this Government have reinvigorated and restored. A small number of us went on to university. It saddened me that in the years after we left, that route to university was taken less and less by those from my school. In the end, our school was closed down on two occasions—it was a cycle of decline. Unfortunately, a lot of this happened before we had the term “NEETs” and before anybody really seemed overly concerned about disengagement.

By the time I started teaching, there was a lot more emphasis on the issue, I am pleased to say, and there has since been a lot more emphasis on different ways of engaging young people. The point the hon. Member for Nottingham North was making throughout his speech is that we need not only a co-ordinated solution—and not a one-size-fits-all solution—but early intervention. We hear about that all the time. The statistics are quite appalling: if we cannot get to a kid by the time they have started school, it is often too late to recover them.

I saw that both as a secondary schoolteacher and then, up to the day I was elected to this place, as a primary schoolteacher. They are very different jobs, but doing both really convinced me of the case for early intervention. When I was a secondary schoolteacher, we would sometimes be thinking, “What have they done to them in primary school to result in us ending up with this?” I realised as a year 1 teacher that unfortunately the battle was often lost before children even got into primary school. I would strongly endorse any strategy that identifies—as indeed the troubled families initiative and others do—families whose children are at risk of failing pre-school.

In my own area, we have tried to address some of the problems connected to literacy and to get kids to sit down with their parents through launching a project called the imagination library. That project was started some time ago by Dolly Parton, who comes from a family in which illiteracy was normal. It was first launched in the UK in Rotherham; the Labour leader of Rotherham council, Roger—unfortunately I have forgotten his last name—was the first man to bring it here. I took the project to North Lincolnshire council, which agreed to fund it.

Every child under the age of five receives a book in the post every month, and the scheme is properly integrated into the children’s centres in the local authority—an

16 July 2014 : Column 271WH

excellent local authority that has not closed a single children’s centre and indeed has expanded some services such as library services. Everything, including the children’s services and library services, is tied in together. Every child is now getting a book in the post every month and getting support from the children’s centres, so that by the time children get to school they have some of the basics. That is really important for their progress through school, but more important is that parents are tied into their child’s educational attainment in literacy very early on.

In the part of my constituency covered by a different local authority, East Riding of Yorkshire council, we have unfortunately not been able to secure council funding, but I run the scheme in Goole myself and raise the money for it. In North Lincolnshire, over 7,000 kids are signed up now, but the number in Goole is unfortunately a bit smaller. After the scheme had been running for a year, we did a feedback survey; I got a letter from a parent of one the children saying that having the books in the post every month was really great because there was a focused thing every month when the family sat down and talked about books. She also said that her own reading had been pretty poor, but the scheme had really helped her and she felt confident that she could help her own children. That is just one example of how we can engage with families early on to ensure that they buy in properly to their children’s education. When I was teacher, we always used to say that the one thing worse than the children was the parents, but the saddest thing I used to see was the parents who never engaged.

Justin Tomlinson: My hon. Friend is as ever delivering a powerful speech. When I visited some of the more challenging schools in my constituency, they echoed that comment about parents not wishing to engage. That is a further reason for using school facilities during the summer, as it would allow children to be in a constructive environment rather than one in which they are simply abandoned in front of the television.

Andrew Percy: Absolutely—I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. There are some parents who, if they have not achieved at school or school was a particularly bad place for them, remain intimidated by teachers or by school. In some cases, there is a sort of embarrassment—I have seen this myself—because they feel as if they are going to be tested and they know their own reading and literacy skills are really poor. Consequently there are some who are almost embarrassed if their children do better than them and so are disengaged from their children’s education. That is one of the saddest things to see. I entirely endorse anything that means we can bring parents in so that the school buildings become their buildings—for example, by putting on adult literacy and numeracy courses, as happens in a lot of places. Whatever, it is all for the better.

Moving up to secondary school, I agree entirely with the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham North on the changes around equivalency. I taught in a really tough school in Hull, and I was appalled that, despite my protestations, which saw me dragged into the head teacher’s office, we went down the route that I call the GNVQ fiddle. That is exactly what it is. I had

16 July 2014 : Column 272WH

children who wanted to do my subject, history, at GCSE but were told they could not because they were not going to achieve a C, and consequently they were forced on to GNVQ media studies. Now, I do not disparage GNVQs at all, and perhaps GNVQ media studies was an entirely appropriate course for some young people, but when it was not their course of choice, and these things were done purely to get the figures up, something is seriously wrong with the system.

What happened when we started allowing the GNVQ fiddle? The school’s figures went through the roof, but as soon as the measure changed again, they plummeted—I think we recorded a pass rate of about 60% one year, but that plummeted to 15% or 16% when the measure changed. We were therefore absolutely right to remove what was clearly a way of fiddling the league tables. However, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that the pendulum should not swing too far the other way so that we concentrate only on traditional academic subjects. That was my concern about the EBacc when it was first introduced—that it would become the primary measure, whatever statements were made at the time.

This is not about not having aspirations for young people, but about what is best for their futures. I always give the example of foreign languages in the school I taught in. When I taught at Kingswood, in Bransholme, in Hull, the French department was above my classroom—I certainly knew it was, because of the way my projector used to shake. A lot of people could not engage in French language classes because they lacked the basic literacy skills to engage in English, let alone a foreign language. Often, the message that came back from home was, “Why do you need to learn French? It’s no use round here. Everyone should speak English.” Unfortunately, those children were instantly set up to fail. It would be lovely if they could all achieve at Latin, but unfortunately some of the changes we have seen set some young people up to fail. We need flexibility so that we have proper child-centred education—I know that is a bit of a cliché—and a curriculum that is appropriate for every child.

We are quite right to change how we measure achievement in schools—equivalence and the rest of it—and to want the best for every child. However, what I also saw in my school was that children were written off if they were going to deliver more than five GCSEs at grade C or above for the school. There is a balance to be struck, and something needs to be done to push those children too. There were problems at both ends, and we need to make sure that we do not, as the hon. Gentleman said, allow the pendulum to swing too far.

I want to talk now about a couple of things happening in North Lincolnshire. I am pleased the NEETs figure has been going in the right direction for the past few years. Obviously, North Lincolnshire forms part of the Humber region, which unfortunately has a very low skills base. That is one of the biggest risk factors on the local enterprise partnership’s risk register in terms of bringing in new investment. New investment is coming from Siemens, and one of the company’s big concerns has been about the local skills base. The Humber has some wealthy areas, but also some very challenging areas in places such as Hull, Scunthorpe, Goole and Grimsby. There is a job of work to be done in north Lincolnshire, and I want to talk about a couple of projects.

16 July 2014 : Column 273WH

One thing the local authority has done, which I am very pleased about, is to completely reform and reinvest in youth services. It is not often that local authorities spend more on youth services. It was a painful process to go through, and the Labour opposition was, unfortunately, very anti the proposal to spend more money. The Conservative council reversed the previous council’s cuts of £137,000 to youth services and has actually increased the youth service budget by £200,000.

We also moved away from the traditional in-house model. One of the biggest opponents of the changes said that that model had worked for 40 years, but that defence tells us everything we need to know about why the system was not working—it had not changed for 40 years. It was bizarre that people protested at the council spending more on something, but we got through that. We now have a range of different providers, targeted at every young person but especially trying to engage those who are most at risk of becoming NEETs. We have got Streetbeat in, we have street sport and we have theatre groups. We still have all our youth centres, and not a single one will be closed, because they still have a role to play. We need fixed places, but we need something flexible too. The number of young people engaging with the youth service has increased substantially. The change may not have been popular with the youth workers we had at the time, but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

In North Lincolnshire, the employability skills framework has been launched. The scheme targets young people to make sure that they have the CBI’s seven essential skills. There is also the raising aspirations project—it is in the Barton area for now—under which primary schools develop their curriculum to include a real focus on enterprise. We also have the September guarantee and the engagement panel, and business links are improving. The local authority is also providing free careers advice and guidance to most vulnerable young people, which chimes with what the hon. Gentleman said. Most schools buy in additional services.

There is plenty more I could say, but I am aware of the pressure on time. I would just add that external careers guidance is really important, and we need to look at how we require schools—or do not require them—to buy it in. There is a risk of conflict where schools expand to include sixth forms, as is happening in my area. I entirely agree with such moves, because it is important that young people can continue their education in the place most appropriate to them, but there is a risk that too many young people will be pushed in a particular direction, so we must have a real emphasis on proper external careers advice that gives young people a full range of options.

I should add that people in my area are delighted to have a university technical college coming to Scunthorpe. We hope that that will not only regenerate the town centre, but transform the choices available locally for young people.

Finally, I welcome the Minister to his post. I forgot to do so at the beginning, which was terribly rude of me.

10.37 am

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I welcome the Skills Minister to his new role. This is a

16 July 2014 : Column 274WH

vital debate, and I hope it will inspire him to charge ahead and make the difference. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) so powerfully highlighted, that is desperately needed by young people who fall into the NEET category, which has rapidly come to be talked about very pejoratively.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he has been doing for many years. About seven or eight years ago, when I worked at the Young Foundation, he came to pitch his ideas. His work was inspirational then, and it remains inspirational now. The need to tackle the challenges he highlighted is something we should all identify with if we want to create a socially mobile, highly skilled, strong economy and to maximise the economic potential of all young people, and especially NEETs.

My hon. Friend identified the need for pre-emptive, targeted intervention. As his work has shown, that needs to happen not only in education, but from the very early years—from early childhood. That should be done by supporting child care and through interventions inside and outside school. Other hon. Members have mentioned that issue, which I will come to later.

The latest figures show that 975,000 young people fall into the NEETs category. Although there has been some progress in getting some of them back into training and employment, that is not enough, and the situation is not satisfactory for any of us, whichever side of the House we are on. If we look at European comparisons, we find that about 14% of young people in the UK are classified as NEETs, but the proportion is as low as 4% in the Netherlands and 7% in Denmark. That shows that we should aim much higher, because we can achieve similar figures. We should aim to beat those countries and be a leader in tackling such youth inactivity and unemployment.

My hon. Friend talked about early intervention and powerfully highlighted the possible economic gains. I was struck by research that found that if we fail to engage 120,000 young people who are aged 13 today and who are at risk of becoming NEETs, they will collectively lose £6.4 billion in lifetime earnings. The argument is not only about fairness; it is about economic benefits, as has been noted.

Clearly, we need to identify and improve mechanisms to find out who is likely to fall into the categories in question, and track them. More work needs to be done through the agencies, including schools and further education colleges, as well as charitable organisations, which play a vital role, as hon. Members have said, in supporting those who are at risk. Youth offending teams are also among those whose work is relevant. We need more collective working across Departments to address the challenges for young people who are likely to be at risk, who could be diverted through the interventions—in school or as part of the work-readiness or other programmes—discussed by my hon. Friend.

I was encouraged by the remarks of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) about the need for pre-school support. My party supports an increase in child care hours and I hope that the Government will match that. The hon. Gentleman also talked about troubled families. The previous Labour Government introduced the relevant programme and I am glad that he supports it. He mentioned pupil referral units. They are important, and successive Governments have at best

16 July 2014 : Column 275WH

done minimal work on them, and at worst neglected them. Often, talented young people are excluded; I saw that in my work, before I was elected to Parliament. We need to do more to make sure that they can get access to the sorts of opportunities that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North described, in programmes such as those he is developing in Nottingham, which I hope could be scaled up for other parts of the country.

We need to consider suggestions such as those that my hon. Friend made about work-readiness. There are great examples around the country involving many organisations, including City Gateway in London. I was involved in setting up a programme called Fastlaners, which works with 16 to 18-year-olds and is currently working with Jobcentre Plus and JP Morgan. Another programme supports graduates who lack employability skills; that is a lack that exists throughout the system and it is significantly related to disadvantage, social class differences and the lack of social capital. The Minister has done a great deal of work on those issues in his previous life, and I know that he will understand how serious they are, particularly for young people who get free school meals and who are disadvantaged by lack of connections, whether to employers or to people with a professional background who could mentor and support them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North talked about the importance of careers information and guidance. We have made it clear how damaging the situation is, and I hope that the Minister, in his new role, will address some of the major concerns of the CBI, which described careers information guidance and advice as being on “life support”.

Concerns were also raised by the Select Committee on Education, as well as by Ofsted, about the need to deal quickly with the situation. I hope that the Minister will make it an urgent priority that schools should provide proper guidance and advice, which should be independent. It should also be much more creative, as hon. Members have discussed—linking with employers but not expecting them to be a substitute for independent guidance and support. The work should also involve the further education sector, among the other institutions that can play a vital role in careers guidance.

A related issue is work experience. Since it was, in effect, scrapped, 15% of young people cannot obtain a placement. There is a social class effect, in that the families of well connected young people can arrange work experience for them, while the rest are left high and dry. I hope that the Minister will attend to that, because there is a link to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North made about indirect disadvantage and discrimination, which kick in, often, on the basis of class. I know that the Minister will be concerned about that and want to rectify it.

I was particularly struck by something that the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) said about taking over school and other public buildings to provide facilities, which resonates with programmes introduced by my party through extended schools. He made a powerful point about the need to make sure that those facilities are available without charge. I hope that

16 July 2014 : Column 276WH

the Minister will look into that, because there are huge gains to be made if we can open those facilities up and maximise the potential for work with the group that we are now considering, in particular—but also with young people more generally.

That is very much what has been done by programmes such as Futureversity—a national charity that I was involved in setting up. It worked with universities and schools, and took over the facilities, helping to raise aspiration. It also worked with young people at risk, and a famous alumnus is Dizzee Rascal, who was excluded from a school in Bow. His tutor identified that he had musical talent and put him in touch with the organisation; he could then develop his talents. That goes to show what is possible for young people who are totally at risk. Dizzee Rascal has said that he could have ended up in the criminal justice system. With early intervention, and if there are facilities, and mentors and inspirational people available to give support, someone’s life can be transformed. That is what we are interested in; that is what we are in the business of.

I hope that the Minister will consider the key issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North raised and the innovative projects and programmes, in Nottingham in particular, but also in other constituencies, where many in Parliament do impressive hands-on work on improving the life chances of young people—both in the category we are considering and more generally. I hope that the Government will listen, and learn from those examples, and consider how they can use their influence, power and resources. I do not necessarily mean, as others have said, investing more; I hope that they will use resources effectively to address the challenge of getting young people who do not now receive the support they need into work and meaningful activity, and into making a contribution to society.

If we pull together and organise our resources—our connections with the world of work—and leverage our support with Government resources and local employment partnerships, as my hon. Friend powerfully described, there is no reason why this country cannot compete with other countries that have reduced the number of people who fall into the appalling category that we should all, whatever party we belong to, be ashamed to have in our country.

We should make a united, collective effort to agree on interventions that work, and make sure that the Government can scale them up. I know that the Minister will be interested in new ideas as part of his new brief. I look forward to working with him and my hon. Friends to make sure, once and for all, that we have a long-term plan that is rapid and immediate in ensuring that we can abolish the terrible category of young people defined as NEETs. It is degrading and demeaning, and not fit for a society that is one of the largest economies in the world. We can do better if we work together on that important issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said.

10.49 am

The Minister of State for Skills, Enterprise and Equalities (Nick Boles): It is a great pleasure, Mr Caton, to serve under your chairmanship in this first debate to which I have been invited to respond in my new job. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)—he

16 July 2014 : Column 277WH

is an old friend only because we have been friends for a long time and not for any other reason—on securing this debate and bringing to it his customary insight, passion and wisdom.

We have heard from three Members who are the very models of modern Members of Parliament and are not content just to respond to casework and to make speeches in Parliament, but seek a deep understanding of the issues affecting their constituents and think creatively about long-term solutions to those problems. They do not stop there, but devise programmes and initiatives in their constituencies to bring partners, businesses, charities and public sector agencies together. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said, they even raise money personally to fund some projects. That is what being a Member of Parliament is about, and I wish I could claim to be nearly as good a one as my hon. Friends.

There are many phrases and much jargon that a newly appointed Minister must get to grips with. We have heard some jargon this morning—work readiness—which I do not like any more than I like any other jargon. I feel peculiarly un-work-ready this morning, having had less than 24 hours to get my head around the issues. Nevertheless, I have the advantage of the superb work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who properly earned the respect of colleagues in the House for his indefatigable energy, enthusiasm and drive.

I join hon. Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), the former Minister for Civil Society, who is one of the most decent and honourable men in politics. I regret that he is no longer in his role, but I know that he will continue to work hard to support the charitable sector and to help turn society around through the good work of people in that sector.

My understanding, which is high level and brief, is that when the Government came to office in 2010, we inherited a system in which there were brave intentions, but fundamental dishonesty. The fundamental dishonesty lay in the fact that we said to many young people that if they studied a range of courses and collected qualification confetti, they too would be able to share in the benefits of our growing economy. That was not true. It was not true in 2010 when the economy was not growing and it was not even true in 2007, 2006 and 2005, when our economy had been growing for a very long time, but a huge number of people—for all their GNVQs and other qualifications—were not able to share fully in the benefits of it. That fundamental dishonesty is the key challenge that we have tried to face with the help of the fantastic Alison Wolf and others. We have tried to identify the core skills that are essential for every young person to acquire if they are to have a chance to share in that economic prosperity.

In my previous job, my simple mission was to get more houses built so that young people could have a chance to own their own home, as my generation and previous ones have done. In this job, I have an equally simple mission to ensure that every young person acquires the skills they will need to share in our economic recovery. We have made substantial progress even while coming out of one of the deepest recessions for several generations, but we have not made enough and we are

16 July 2014 : Column 278WH

not satisfied. We will not rest, and the work will continue right up to election day and long afterwards to ensure that that mission is fulfilled.

I believe that we were right, as hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise, to scrap some of what my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole described as the GNVQ fiddle and some of the qualifications that purported to give people the equipment to get a job, but did not. We were perpetrating a fraud and it was entirely right that we got rid of that fraud. However, I have heard clearly from the hon. Member for Nottingham North and my hon. Friend that perhaps that reform has gone too far. I am not saying yet whether I agree with them, but I promise to talk to them and other hon. Members—and to the Chairman of the Select Committee, who may have similar concerns—and to understand where that concern lies and consider how we can preserve the massive gains we have made while dealing with any issues.

The other important thing we have done is to revive, restore and re-inspire the apprenticeship concept. It had become a low currency in our education and training system and I am glad to say that that is no longer the case. We are on track to deliver 2 million apprenticeships over this Parliament—not just 2 million in number, but 2 million high-quality, long-term apprenticeships that people who run businesses and other organisations value and that provide real ways of getting young people into good, long-term employment.

In the few minutes remaining, I want to deal with some of the specific points raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham North and others. On performance measures, the hon. Gentleman was good enough, as he always is, to acknowledge that the progress 8 measure is an important step forward in addressing some of his concerns. I will be very happy to explore with him whether that measure is absolutely the best answer, the only answer and the complete answer. I am glad that he welcomes it and I look forward to talking to him further about that.

The hon. Gentleman talked about a desire to engage with Ofsted at national level, having rightly and properly praised Ofsted in his own area. I will be straightforward with him. I will secure him a meeting with officials at national level at Ofsted and I hope that he will then meet me to discuss the outcome. I cannot promise always to agree with him, but I promise to engage with him and to talk to him as he makes progress.

I want to refer to a couple of the programmes to which my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) referred because they are tremendously important. They have new university technical colleges opening in their constituencies, and that is a superb initiative. Like most good Government initiatives, it was invented by a previous Government, developed by a later Government and is now being further developed by the present Government. I strongly welcome it and I am delighted that those two communities have benefited from it.

The National Citizen Service initiative is important, and I am proud to claim a small portion of the authorship. In opposition, I was responsible for developing that policy and for creating Charity Challenge, which is now the leading provider of the National Citizen Service. I am particularly delighted that the Labour party is an enthusiastic supporter of the National Citizen Service

16 July 2014 : Column 279WH

and look forward to it being developed and offered to all teenagers as they reach the appropriate stage, whoever is in government.

I acknowledge the important work of the Imagination Library. I did not know about it, but I am even more keen on it now that I know that Dolly Parton had something to do with it. It is a fantastic project, and it is fantastic that my hon. Friends are being so constructive in supporting it and ensuring that they can offer it to their constituents.

I am tremendously privileged, lucky and happy to have been given this job. Like poor Manuel, I know nothing at the moment, but I am keen to learn and this debate has been the most fantastic tutorial that a new Minister could possibly have. It would be hard to find four Members of Parliament with more passion, commitment and knowledge. I look forward to learning from them and working with them. I hope that together, we will ensure that young people have the skills they need to share in our economic recovery.

Mr Allen: Will the Minister come to Nottingham to see the work we are doing?

Nick Boles: I will be delighted to do so.

Martin Caton(in the Chair): We will now move on to our next debate, which happens to be on the National Citizen Service.

16 July 2014 : Column 280WH

National Citizen Service

11 am

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, just as it was to hear part of the last exchange between hon. Members and the new Minister of State for Skills, Enterprise and Equalities, whom I know well. He knows that I know him well, and I hope that we will be working more closely together in future, given my interest in skills and through my chairmanship of the Skills Commission. Of course, I must also welcome the Minister for Civil Society, the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), who will be replying to this short debate of ours. I know him well, as do most of us in the House, and we are delighted to see him in his new position.

Anything that I say today about the National Citizen Service is not a criticism of what we have; it is an appeal to do more and to make it more thoroughgoing and rigorous. In a recent question to the Prime Minister, followed up by an article published last Saturday in the Yorkshire Post, I argued for people to realise that 100 years ago this August, a war started that led to the deaths of 16 million mainly young men, all over the world.

I was recently in France, overlooking a hill where 300,000 young men died during the first world war. Seventy hectares are still in a red zone and no one can go there. Any of us who think this year about that war and the casualties do not want that ever to happen again. We had a second world war, with—not many people know this—even more casualties worldwide, because of the sophistication of the weaponry used. We perhaps take it a bit for granted that there has not been a conflagration of that size since, although there have been, and still are, conflagrations, wars, and dreadful civil unrest and unhappiness across the world; I am thinking this morning about Gaza, Israel, Syria and so on. There is an extensive list.

I suppose I sound a bit like Colonel Blimp when I say that probably the best trainers ever in this country were the armed services. I have done a lot of work looking at the history of training in this country. The armed services, when we had national conscription and national service, took every young man who could see and walk into national service and made something of them. All the research shows that the experience was dramatic, certainly for young men in our inner cities and in our big towns, who would rarely move off their local estate or out of their local neighbourhood. National service took those young men and not only gave them a skill, a trade, a routine and much else, but sent them all over the world and all over the United Kingdom. They met people whom they would not otherwise have met, and many of them married them, so we had a real opportunity for mobility and change.

It is interesting that the young people who are able to travel, to see the world and to meet other people from other places are the sort of children who most of us in this room have—who I have. I have four children who have done their gap years in exotic places, some of which I have never been to. These young people have travelled and gone to university, well away from home, so there is mobility for them, but that mobility is not shared, particularly in the most deprived communities in our land.

16 July 2014 : Column 281WH

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): May I be the first Member on this side of the House to congratulate the Minister on his new role? I look forward to working with him. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing the debate. I particularly enjoy working with him on a cross-party basis, as we are both co-chairs of the Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group. I welcome how he is framing his remarks.

Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. This is an intervention, not a speech.

Chris White: As chair of the all-party group on the National Citizen Service and volunteering, I would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support. Does he not think that this issue would also benefit from cross-party consensus?

Mr Sheerman: As the hon. Gentleman said, he works well with me and I hope he can work with me on the much more ambitious programme that I am going to talk about today. Nothing I am going to say today is negative about the existing National Citizen Service programme, but I want to finish my analysis. I believe that we have become a very different country. More and more people are living in cities and towns, with fewer people living in the countryside. There are real problems with the mobility of young people—getting off their estates, travelling, and getting away from their sometimes troubled environments.

I would like to see an open discussion about the possibility of having a much more powerful National Citizen Service, because we are in a time when democracy is under threat. When I asked that particular question of the Prime Minister, the other thing I said was that, 10 days before, only 36% of people voted in the European elections and even fewer voted in the local elections. Interestingly, if we look at Europe, even countries that are so keen on getting democracy had levels of involvement of 19%.

It is worrying for Europe and for our country that there is a disengagement from politics. All of us, when we are out canvassing, or in different parts of the country—in my case, trying to persuade the people of Scotland to stay in the Union—hear too often that the perception is that democracy does not make any difference because we are all the same. I think we need citizenship, because it will get to the root of that kind of attitude.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has my absolute support for his passion on the subject, and I have seen the complete transformation of young people who engage in the NCS programme. They all go on to become constructive and proud members of our local communities.

Mr Sheerman: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I shall point us to the direction I want to go in. There is complacency about our democracy. From studying history, we know that when we become complacent about our history and learning its lessons, problems emerge—extremist politics of various kinds. If there is a vacuum, there is a danger, historically, that something will fill it.

Perhaps we do not have anything like the extremes of left or right that we had in the Europe in the 1930s, which Michael Oakeshott wrote so vividly about at that time, but we have a serious problem of engagement, and

16 July 2014 : Column 282WH

we also have much higher migration than we used to. It is true—it would be nonsense for Opposition Members to deny and not address this fact—that many people come to this country. They want to learn about the country, be good citizens and be absorbed into the culture of this country, and they get very few opportunities to learn.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s ambition. As one of the architects of the National Citizen Service, which I thought he was talking about, I wonder whether he acknowledges that the NCS, which this year will, hopefully, take 90,000 kids through its programme, has a much higher proportion of children from free school meals and deprived backgrounds, and from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and is providing just that degree of social mix? There can be a kid from Eton on one end of a rope and a kid from the youth justice system, from east London, on the other end, and, as I have seen with my own eyes, they are entirely reliant on each other. In other circumstances, they would never have come together, and that is what is being achieved.

Mr Sheerman: This is becoming embarrassing, Mr Caton. There are all these Members from across the House whom I have become accustomed to working with closely on various issues. I agree with that point, too.

I come to the nub of what I am saying. I am not criticising the existing service, but we are a bit complacent, in that we think it is enough. I do not think that it is enough. I go to many university campuses and talk to students. Everyone thinks that if people enter higher education, if they go to college, they learn something about this country, but all the evidence is that very often they do not. They might go to study physics, architecture, design or foreign languages, but my experience is that, even in the higher education sector, very little time is spent talking about the culture and nature of this country, the nature of democracy and the nature of a parliamentary democracy in particular.

What also worries me is that when, as Chair of the former Select Committee on Education and Skills, I looked at the way in which citizenship was taught in schools, I found that it was not very good at all. We visited many schools, and too often that was the situation with citizenship, despite all the brave efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and all the other efforts that were made. What we found on the ground was the old story of the PE teacher who does not have a heavy timetable being asked to teach citizenship. There was no training, no back-up and no real curriculum. We found that it was very lacking.

The one exception—the one bright star—was the Blue school in Bath and Wells. It had innovated and created the Learning to Lead campaign. We were so keen on the Learning to Lead campaign that I persuaded the Edge Foundation to give it £100,000, and I believe that it is now in nearly 150 schools. It really works, because it changes and suffuses the nature of the school and teaches people about how democracy works.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): The view expressed at the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was so traditional that I thought he might be crossing the

16 July 2014 : Column 283WH

Floor to join all his positive colleagues on the Government side of the House. If he would like reassurance about how widely drawn and diverse the youngsters are who take part in the National Citizen Service, he should please come and see Lincolnshire and Rutland’s, which is most professionally run by Elaine Lilley and her colleagues.

Mr Sheerman: I appreciate that intervention as well, but I am not going to be doing what the hon. Gentleman thought; let me just finish now. I believe that there is a complacency outside the House about citizenship. I believe that citizenship teaching should be much more rigorous. I believe that it would fit into another radical scheme that I propose, because I do not believe that anyone under the age of 25 in this country should be unemployed. We looked at that in the former Select Committee.

The fact is that it is a terrible waste of talent, money and everything else if a young person becomes unemployed before the age of 25. In my view—I have said this very clearly in the House many times—every young person should be in employment with training, in education, in training or getting high-quality job experience. The leader of the Labour party was misquoted recently on this. No young person should be allowed to be living on the margins of society on a little bit of benefit, a little bit of housing benefit and so on. Too many lives are destroyed by that dependency that develops up to the age of 25—

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Sheerman: No. My citizenship programme would build on the excellent citizenship programme that has been so innovative and has grown. I have looked at the current programme and I think that it is good, but it is still small. I believe that there is a cost of £50; it certainly was that the last time I looked. As I said, the programme is small. It will have engaged 100,000 people this year, but I want to build on that experience. It has been a good learning process, but I want my hon. Friends on my side of the House and my friends of a different type on the other side of the House to come together on this. I do not think that there should be a political—

Jason McCartney: Will the hon. Gentleman give way to one of his friends?

Mr Sheerman: Very quickly.

Jason McCartney: I thank the hon. Gentleman, my near constituency neighbour, for giving way and I welcome the Minister to his post. May I clarify what the hon. Gentleman is saying? I get where he is coming from. Attending National Citizen Service events at the John Smith’s stadium in Huddersfield and at Huddersfield town hall, we saw the wonder of the teamwork. People were away from home and working together in self-reliance. Is there not a fear that burdening the scheme with the citizenship training provided by local colleges, such as Huddersfield New college and Kirklees college, could

16 July 2014 : Column 284WH

take away the sense of adventure, self-reliance and teamwork that our young people are getting from this fantastic scheme?

Mr Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, but that is not what I am saying. I do not want to touch that scheme. It can carry on—it can improve and we can learn from it. However, I think that there is a deeper lesson: we need a more thoroughgoing programme of inducting people into our society.

Personally, I do not believe that such a programme should be voluntary. I think that every young person in this country should do it. It should be equivalent to a year’s commitment; they should be able to do it full-time or part-time over a longer period. It should be applicable to the college and university student, as well as the young person coming out of school who does not yet have a job. It is a radical programme that I want and it builds on what already exists.

I have found that certain Conservative Ministers are rather jealous of me, because I studied at the London School of Economics with the well known Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who believed in the pursuit of intimations—not picking up wonderful policies of the left or right, which was the cure-all for everything, but learning from experience and edging forward. I have become much fonder of that kind of attitude as I have got older.

What we can learn from what we have done in the citizenship programme is that there is a real need. Disturbingly, we have found in Birmingham schools and in some in Bradford that there are things going on that we need to find a positive alternative to, rather than just getting into a frenzy when we pick up on something like that. There is also the very worrying experience that I had when I was Chair of the Select Committee of increasingly seeing people withdrawing children from school and saying that they were being home educated. We then lost track of them.

There are some real problems in our society. It would be silly of any political party to sweep them under the carpet. I think that a thoroughgoing one-year commitment to a national citizenship service, learning from the excellent work being done in the voluntary programme, is the way forward. I will continue pressing for that with the new Minister and with my colleagues on the Opposition and Government sides.

11.17 am

The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Brooks Newmark): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this important debate and I thank all hon. Members for their extremely constructive contributions. There are lessons that we can learn. Individuals and Members from both sides of the House have come to the realisation that this is something that it is extremely important to do. The hon. Gentleman, in looking back to national service—those of us who had parents who did national service have heard the stories of that and what they got from it—brings us forward to what the National Citizen Service is really about.

The issue of citizenship goes to the heart of my values and beliefs as a father, as a politician, and now as the Minister for Civil Society. Just last month, I visited

16 July 2014 : Column 285WH

a project in Peckham called Leaders of Tomorrow, which to me was an exemplar of what national citizen service is about. When I was invited by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday to take on this role, I was thrilled by the opportunity, because it gives me the chance to pursue an interest of mine—something that I have taken outside the realm of being a Member of Parliament. It is the bread and butter of what I do every week, not just as a Member of Parliament but as someone who has a huge interest in the importance of social action. I have spent the past eight years going to Rwanda on something called Project Umubano, which is a social action project. We in the Conservative party take a group of 50, 60 or sometimes 70 people to Rwanda to work on five or so different social action projects.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I am glad to have the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. On that point, does he agree that the citizenship programme is a key part of social action? Just this weekend, I saw some fantastic work being done by Cornwall college, which is really engaging young people in social action, and I am sure there will be a legacy for the rest of their lives.

Mr Newmark: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. From a standing start, the programme of national citizenship now engages 10% of young people in the relevant age bracket. As someone who has five children between the ages of 16 and 25, I know that engaging young people for three weeks of their summer is a challenge. Most have the attention span of what they see on their iPhones or whatever digital devices they play with. The fact that the Government are now engaging 10% of our young people every summer represents a huge success.

I saw at first hand the value of bringing together young people from different backgrounds and supporting them in giving back to their communities. Each and every one of us sees many examples in our constituencies of youth organisations that bring together groups of young kids from different backgrounds to work together. It is vital that we encourage all our young people to participate. That is why His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was right to create the “Step Up to Serve” campaign, which is supported by all three main party leaders, with the ambition of increasing the proportion of young people taking part in social action in our country to 50% by the end of the decade. That is a tremendous ambition, and as Minister I am committed to working as hard as I can with community groups to try to engage our young boys and girls. It is right that the National Citizen Service, which is delivered by the independent NCS Trust, should be part of that vital cross-party campaign.

The NCS grew out of the recognition of a need to equip our young people with the skills and confidence they require to transition into adulthood, to re-engage them into a cohesive society and to utilise their energy and passion to improve their local communities. NCS is delivering against each of those needs. The 2012 independent evaluation of the programme found that 92% of participants thought that NCS gave them the chance to develop skills that would be useful in the future, and 95% said that NCS gave them a chance to

16 July 2014 : Column 286WH

get to know people with whom they would not normally mix. Two or three Government Members made that point.

NCS participants so far have given some 2 million hours to serving their communities, taken part in more than 50,000 social action projects and raised almost £750,000 for charities around the country. That is a tremendous achievement for the initiative from a standing start. Since 2011, nearly 80,000 young people have benefited from their involvement in NCS, and the programme is on track to have its 100,000th graduate this summer. The NCS started in England and spread to Northern Ireland, and I am delighted that it will soon be launched in Wales as well.

NCS is a special opportunity for our young people at a critical point in their lives, but social action is a habit that evolves over a lifetime. Across our country, there are many fantastic examples of organisations helping our young people to give something back. The Government have granted up to £11 million through two youth social action funds to encourage more young people to take part in social action and support high-quality programmes across England. A further £3 million will be granted through the vulnerable and disengaged young people fund for social action programmes working with vulnerable young people, including those in care and young offenders. As a result of our support and the efforts of charities and community groups across the country, 2012-13 saw the highest levels of informal and formal volunteering in England among 16 to 25-year-olds since 2008-09.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to his new position. I know that some work has been done on this, but is he aware of any further work on progression routes for those who graduate from the NCS? That is an area that could benefit from his attention in his new brief.

Mr Newmark: I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. She is exactly right, and I have been talking about precisely that topic this morning. How can we engage local businesses? If someone gets a certificate to state that they have graduated from the NCS, will local businesses in our communities recognise the certificate and say, “I will give this person a job opportunity,” whether that be a summer job, a temporary job or a full-time job? The hon. Lady makes an excellent point.

Karl McCartney: I welcome the Minister to his new post. I assure the hon. Member for Huddersfield that Government Members were not ganging up on him earlier; we were very supportive. On the point that the Minister just mentioned, career academies offer some business engagement with young people at the ages of 15, 16 and 17. I recently set one up in Lincoln, which is a good model. The Minister, in his new role, might like to look at such academies.

On the NCS, the hon. Member for Huddersfield made a point towards the end of his speech that needs to be looked at. He mentioned those who are home educated, who might miss out on the opportunities that the NCS offers. When I was out with my NCS team in Boultham park recently doing some clean-ups, one home educating mother came up to us and asked whether her nine-year-old daughter could join in. Her daughter

16 July 2014 : Column 287WH

was a little bit too young for the NCS, but there is a need and a desire among parents for their children to be included.

Mr Newmark: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We want to get more people involved, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield urged us to. That means committing resources to engage positively with parents, and I will be using part of our resources to do just that. Many people still do not know about the programme, so it is important that we try to market this great opportunity to young people.

The hon. Gentleman talked about national service and the skills that young people learned there. I remember hearing when I was younger from my stepfather, who went through national service, about the mix of people he encountered. All sorts of people from all sorts of background got together, and many people found when they left national service that they had a greater sense of social mobility than they had had when they entered.

We are not simply talking about skills. The hon. Gentleman described engaging with people, trying to create a cohesive society, encouraging individual responsibility and developing a responsible society. Those are all the hallmarks of NCS. He said that not enough is being done, and I am sympathetic to that. Like him, I would love every young person to be engaged in some form of community work or social action. I would draw the line—he did not really cross this line—at making such work compulsory, because I do not think that it is necessary to do so. If people engage with us voluntarily, they will be engaged with their communities for life. That is the sort of sense of social responsibility that we want to create from the NCS programme.

I conclude by returning to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He talked about Professor Oakeshott, and about the concept of learning from our experience. We are engaged in an iterative process, and we will continue to learn from it, continue to grow and continue to engage people, particularly young people. I am told that nearly 300 young people are expected to take part in the NCS in Huddersfield and the surrounding area this summer. I was pleased to note the hon. Gentleman’s tweet on meeting some of the NCS participants last September:

“Inspirational young people @NationalCitizensService in Huddersfield Town Hall if these guys are the future we’re OK!”

I could not agree more.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

16 July 2014 : Column 288WH

Relocation Scheme (Syrians)

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak about the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Like many others in Britain, I have watched with horror as the situation in Syria has developed. I have friends with relatives trapped in Syria, and the pictures of people streaming out of that country have been almost too shocking for me to watch.

Last November, in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on refugees, I travelled to Jordan to witness for myself the conditions in which Syrian refugees are living, to hear their stories and to see first hand the strain that supporting more than half a million extra people is putting on local communities in countries across the region. The details of that visit are, of course, recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Jordan is a relatively small country with a population, before the refugee crisis, of some 6.5 million people, but that figure includes more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees and tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees, all in what is considered to be one of the world’s 10 most water scarce countries—a country with an economy that has struggled greatly in recent years.

On my first day in Jordan, I visited the Zaatari refugee camp with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which I thank for organising the visit. The Zaatari refugee camp is just a few miles from the Syrian border. At the time of my visit, the camp had a population of around 100,000 Syrians, which made it one of the largest settlements in Jordan.

The UNHCR showed me the route that newly arrived refugees from Syria take when they arrive at the camp, and we began by going to a large tent in which several families were gathered. The families were still recovering from their overnight journey and were yet to go through the formal process for registering as a refugee. Via an interpreter, they told about the journeys they had taken to get to the camp. If they were lucky, the journey had taken several days, but in most cases the journey had taken weeks—weeks across desert, weeks of having to find food and shelter where they could. For much of the journey, they were terrified that the planes they could hear overhead would spot them en route.

When I visited the region, the Jordanian Government had all but closed the border crossing closest to the camp. Most of the families I met at Zaatari had come from Daraa in the south of Syria, not far from the camp itself. The closing of the border crossing forced people to cross hundreds of miles of desert. At best, it took two weeks to reach the only open crossing, which is up in the corner with the Iraqi border.

We heard about families who had endured days out in the rain without shelter, with freezing conditions at night. They were finally picked up in no man’s land between the Syrian and Jordanian borders by the Jordanian army and driven through the night back to Zaatari camp, arriving in the early hours of the morning. Most arrived at Zaatari with very little, perhaps only the

16 July 2014 : Column 289WH

clothes on their backs, having fled their farms and villages with what they could carry and having discarded belongings along the route. They were all tired, hungry and covered in dust from the journey.

A short sleep and a shower awaited them on arrival at the camp before they began the registration process with the UNHCR, which entitles refugees to a mattress, some emergency provisions and a tent that will be their home during their time in the camp. It is a meagre existence for families who have typically spent their lives living in first-world conditions not dissimilar to our own, with all the luxuries that we would expect. When we see pictures on the television, it is worth reminding ourselves that most of the people we see have been living in conditions not dissimilar to what we consider to be normal.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She has outlined some of the horrific and awful conditions that face those 500,000 people. Does she agree that we need a strategic international resolution to the issue before those people are affected not only by the oncoming winter but the regional problems that will emerge if the situation is not resolved?

Sarah Teather: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The situation in Iraq is only making the plight of people in Syria worse, because many of them have fled into Iraq. As it happens, many of those people are travelling up to Kurdistan. Even so, the sheer movement of people in the region is worrying, and it puts extra strain on the countries that are taking the bulk of the refugees. I will return to that point in a moment.

During my visit to Zaatari camp, I met Doctors of the World and Save the Children to see their work supporting refugees. I pay tribute to their work, and I place on the record my admiration for the many people who support those very vulnerable people—they are usually separated from their own family and friends, living a long way away. Despite the hard work of many, conditions in the camp are extremely difficult due to the lack of privacy, the cold of living in a tent and the shared toilet facilities, which have provoked persistent allegations of sexual harassment. That makes it a difficult life for anyone to bear.

Overall, it is the children who stay most in my mind. I was shown some of the provision in the camp, including a football pitch built with funding from South Korea, a playground with swings and a slide, and a project run by Save the Children that does excellent work giving the camp’s children space to learn, play and speak about their traumas, but that is not what stays most in my mind. What stays most in my mind is the sight of children working, as I saw most children doing.

Refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan, yet many are desperate to supplement the small levels of support they receive, so their children work. Children digging are a common sight in the camp, and it took me a minute to notice what they were doing, as at first sight I thought they were playing. When I looked a bit closer and talked to staff in the camp, I realised that they were actually making cement. The Jordanian authorities have banned cement from being brought into Zaatari, so instead the residents of the camp make their own.

16 July 2014 : Column 290WH

Groups of children dig through sand and dirt for many hours in the sun to get at the finer material needed to make cement.

Conditions in the camp are so difficult that many choose to leave and take their chances living in neighbouring villages or, if they are lucky, Amman, where they may have friends and relatives. They get more privacy that way, but the conditions for those living outside the camp are also terrible, and it requires raising further funds to support housing costs. Child labour is therefore endemic. In Jordan’s capital, Amman, I visited a team from the Jesuit Refugee Service, which goes out to visit families that are almost invariably living in cold, damp and unfurnished apartments.

None of the children from those families is in school. Instead, many of them are out working to pay the rent for the property in which they live, including a 10-year-old boy I met called Bashir. He is the sole bread winner for his family of six, whose lives are particularly difficult because two of the children have severe disabilities. Bashir sells vegetables on the streets from 8 am until 10 pm. He has no time for school or play, and he is not the only child I saw on that street doing exactly the same thing. That is the reality for refugees in Jordan, and it is a reality mirrored in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): I visited Lebanon with the support of World Vision, as I have declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The difference there is that there are no established camps in Lebanon and the nearly 1 million people are dispersed. Only 23% of the international community’s funding commitment has been delivered in 2014, which makes it difficult for the agencies to provide support to register people quickly. That is often a huge blockage.

Has the hon. Lady observed similar problems? Does she agree that our Government need to take a stronger line on encouraging our international partners to ensure that the funding commitment is honoured urgently?

Sarah Teather: I did see similar things. There is one set of difficulties for refugees living in camps and another for refugees living in communities. The thing that really bothers refugees living in camps is the lack of privacy and the shared toilet facilities. Most of them are living in tents, although the UNHCR has gradually been trying to replace the tents with more permanent caravans. The lives of people living in camps are extremely hard, and many get to a point at which they can no longer cope. That is when they move out into the community. However, in the community, they are not having their housing costs paid, so they find that they run out of money. Some people cycle between one and the other as they try desperately to find a bearable situation. It is quite obvious that a lot of agencies are not reaching people living in communities. Those who are living in the cities and have been picked up by an agency are luckier than others.

I do not want to go too far into the question of aid, because I am trying to outline some of the conditions before moving on to talk about the relocation scheme, but I hope that the hon. Lady finds the opportunity for a detailed debate on the issues relating to aid in Lebanon and other countries, because they are very important.

16 July 2014 : Column 291WH

I was talking about the five countries—Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt—that currently host 2.8 million refugees. I am going to say that figure again because it is really important: when we talk about the numbers in this country, it is worth bearing in mind that there are 2.8 million refugees, half of whom are children. Of those children, six in 10 are not enrolled in school. Of all households, one in four is headed by women, who face a lone fight for survival. It is extremely difficult for them.

Despite the conditions I saw, nearly every refugee I spoke to was desperate to return home. They consider the phase they are in to be temporary and are desperate for peace to begin so that they can start their lives all over again. However, with no end in sight to the conflict in Syria and with the crisis in Iraq growing bloodier by the day, as we discussed a moment ago, the pressure on neighbouring countries to cope with the constant influx of refugees continues to mount and the prospects for safe return to Syria continue to diminish.

By contrast to Syria’s neighbours, Europe has been relatively unaffected by the refugee crisis. Excluding Turkey from the figures, only 4% of all Syrians who have fled their homeland have sought asylum in Europe. That is a total of 123,600, of whom a mere 4,084 have applied for asylum in the UK. I am going to repeat the number I cited a minute ago: 2.8 million. Of 2.8 million refugees, 4,084 have applied for asylum in the UK. That is a drop in the ocean.

Last September, the UNHCR called on countries to admit 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission or other programmes by the end of 2014. That 30,000 sounds like a big number, unless we keep repeating 2.8 million. We then remember that it is a really small number. In February, with the refugee crisis growing by the day, the UNHCR expanded its call, seeking an extra 100,000 places in 2015 and 2016. So far, 31,817 resettlement places have been offered by European countries, including Germany offering 20,000, Austria 1,500, Sweden 1,000 and Norway 1,000. The USA has an open-ended number of available places.

What about the UK? The British Government have been among the most generous donors to the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and I want to place on the record my congratulations to them on their strong leadership. However, they have been much slower to move on resettlement issues. In the words of the UNHCR representative to the UK, Roland Schilling:

“this is an extraordinary crisis requiring extraordinary measures”.

He also said:

“International solidarity and burden sharing is now an imperative if we want to ease the suffering of Syrian refugees, assist the neighbouring counties and avoid further destabilization of the region.”

Back in January, I was delighted that the Government announced that the UK would set up the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, which would run in parallel to the UNHCR’s resettlement scheme. The Government were late to make that decision, and it took concerted effort and leadership from the UNHCR, the Refugee Council and Amnesty International, among many others, to persuade them to make it, along with strong advocacy from MPs from across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, the Government did make that very welcome announcement.

16 July 2014 : Column 292WH

I was not concerned that the Government were running their own scheme in co-operation with the UNHCR rather than as part of the UNHCR scheme; what is important is that those vulnerable refugees for whom returning home is nigh on impossible—for example, those who have suffered sexual violence, or who would face persecution or need specialised medical care—are offered resettlement in the UK. However, I am extremely concerned that, six months on, very little seems to have come of that announcement.

Answers to parliamentary questions show that so far only 50 refugees have been resettled through the Government’s scheme, although perhaps the Minister will correct me if I have the wrong figure; if it is out of date, he can update us. When the scheme was announced, the Government said that there would be no quota but that those who were deemed the most vulnerable would be prioritised. However, despite the Government’s not providing a quota, it was suggested that the scheme would support

“several hundred people over the next three years”.

Will the Minister explain why the number of people who have managed to come here has so far been so very low? Assurances were given to the House that the Government were committed to the scheme. What has happened to delay the resettlement of refugees? Why has the take-up been so slow?

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on her outstanding work as chairman of the all-party group on refugees. We will miss her hugely when she leaves the House next May.

One important element might be the involvement of the diaspora community in this country. I have been approached by so many members of the Arab diaspora, including Syrians who have been settled here for many years, who want to help the Government and to assist in bringing more people over. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important to include members of the diaspora? They might be able to help to increase the numbers from the very low figures we currently have.

Sarah Teather: The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. There are obviously going to be some sensitivities relating to why a person is so vulnerable that they need to be resettled, but there are certainly areas of the country with a significant Syrian diaspora population and the Government should encourage councils in those areas to work to ensure that support systems are in place. I encourage the diaspora to pressure the Government and councils to take part in the scheme and try to increase the number of people we are able to resettle.

I return to the questions I was asking a moment ago. Will the Minister comment on how the figure of “several hundred people” was reached? The VPR scheme appears to be based on need, and that need is obviously increasing, as shown by the UNHCR’s call for more resettlement places. Has the Minister considered re-evaluating that “several hundred” figure upwards? If not, why not? What are the Government doing to ensure that their commitment is delivered and is not just an announcement?

It is worth re-rehearsing the reasons for beginning the scheme in the first place. In the run-up to agreeing to the VPR scheme, Ministers argued that it was more

16 July 2014 : Column 293WH

favourable for Syrian refugees to remain in the region and for us to supply aid rather than resettlement places. I and many others made the point that it was not an either/or but a both/and situation; doing one does not preclude the possibility of doing the other well in a targeted and effective way. Both are necessary to cope with the ongoing crisis and to support those countries in the region that are supporting by far the brunt of the refugee population.

The scheme was necessary for the following reasons: first, because some refugees simply cannot adequately be resettled in the region because of their particular vulnerability, as recognised by the name of the scheme; secondly, because, as Roland Schilling hinted at in the quote I read out, there is an acute need to show political solidarity with the countries most affected by the refugee crisis—if we are going to argue that they must keep open their borders so that refugees have a chance at life, we must do something to demonstrate our equal commitment; and thirdly, because if we do not provide safe routes for refugees to travel, they will find unsafe routes, as we are already seeing.

Neighbouring countries are struggling to cope with the numbers, resulting in increased numbers of refugees making dangerous journeys to Europe to seek safety. In 2013, the number of people who arrived in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean sea reached nearly 60,000—almost three times the number who arrived the previous year. That increase has been driven at least in part by the ever-increasing numbers of Syrians taking to boats in the Mediterranean, mostly departing from Libya, Egypt and Turkey. For example, last year Syrians were the No. 1 nationality arriving by sea, with one in four arrivals being Syrian or Palestinians from Syria. Many of them were children, with more than 3,600 Syrian children arriving in Italy last year alone, including 1,224 who were unaccompanied.

This year, the trend has continued. During the first six months of the year, 60,000 people arrived by sea in Italy alone: a fourfold increase on the same period in 2013. Those are not journeys that people choose to take lightly. They are the actions of people who are desperate and see no other option.

In December, some parliamentary colleagues and I boarded a migrant boat on the Thames outside Parliament for international migrants day. It was a tiny boat that had brought around 30 migrants into Lampedusa from Libya. We were given permission to have just eight on board after modifications for safety, and on a fine day on the Thames the boat rocked in ways that gave me a real insight into the dangers that people face travelling on an ocean in an overcrowded boat.

Resettlement programmes offer safe and legal routes for refugees to find safety in Europe. Each year, the UK takes around 750 resettled refugees through the gateway protection programme, something that we as a country should rightly be proud of. We cannot watch the tragedies happening in the ocean around Lampedusa and pretend that it does not have any relevance to us and that we bear no responsibility. Unless we are prepared to offer safe routes into Europe, we bear responsibility for some of those people who drown in the Mediterranean.

I want the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme to be something we can be proud of, like the gateway protection programme. For that to be the case, the Government need to be bolder and more ambitious.

16 July 2014 : Column 294WH

The UNHCR now predicts there will be 4.1 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year. Through the vulnerable persons relocation scheme we are on course to have offered only 100 resettlement places by the end of this year. That is 0.002% of all Syrian refugees. We have to do better than that.

We have a proud history of offering sanctuary to those fleeing violence, and we have shown real leadership on humanitarian aid. It is time we lived up to that reputation here and resettled more refugees.

2.51 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) and thank her for all the hard work she does. I also thank her for her presentation to Westminster Hall today and for setting the scene for all of us here. No one present today will not support the hon. Lady’s argument; I am convinced of that. All of us have compassion and interest in others, and that is why we are here—to convey that through this debate. I was disappointed when the debate was postponed from last week, but at least we can revisit it today. Given the continuing violence in Syria, it is a matter of the highest importance, and it is good to make a contribution.

Each day, we read of the atrocities taking place in Syria, and a particular concern of mine is the despicable persecution of Christians in particular that is being carried out by ISIS. Syria continues to rise in the world watch list. The civil war has seen an increase in violence in general across the whole of Syria, but a rise in Islamist extremism is putting even greater pressure on Christians in Syria at the present time. Syria’s Christian minority, which primarily resides in the capital city, Damascus, is generally respected. That has been the case for many years. Christians make up 6.3% of the population, and they enjoy freedom and stability—at least they did—unparalleled throughout the middle east. Although there is freedom to worship, if Christians evangelise Muslims and share their faith openly, overt persecution is a possibility, but since the conflict began three years ago, the freedoms that Christians enjoyed have ceased to exist, and with increasing Islamising, Christians have faced some of the worst persecution.

I want to put the issue into perspective, because it very much ties in with the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Killing of Christians in Syria more than doubled in 2013, with the charity group Open Doors confirming the figures as 2,123 compared with 1,201 in 2012. The head of research for Open Doors claimed that this was a minimum number, confirmed by media reports and its own research. The thought that that is just the minimum number of people who have been murdered because of what they believe is truly horrifying. The murder and killing of those in Syria who would benefit from the relocation scheme is something I want to highlight. The figures are testament to the need for us—I use “us” in the general sense, as the UK Government—to act.

It therefore should not come as a surprise that I welcome the relocation scheme and wish to see it extended and promoted, with more people getting the advantage of it. With sky-rocketing food prices and a shortage of water and other essentials, many Christians are facing malnutrition, as are others in Syria. Access to water, electricity and communications is very limited. It is

16 July 2014 : Column 295WH

perhaps the traumatised children of Christian families who suffer the greatest hardships. The hon. Member for Brent Central referred to the children in her speech, and we always see the children’s faces in any conflict. Whatever the war and whatever the reasons for it might be, it is the children, the women and mothers who suffer the most, and that is of great concern to all of us. Many face great danger, since rebel forces have even targeted Christian schools.

Terrorist groups have focused on people with Christian beliefs. They believe that Christians are westernised and are therefore supported by the United Kingdom and the USA, which is not the case. They are simply following their faith, as they should. An estimated 600,000 Christians have fled the country or lost their lives as a result of the civil war, and there are fears that Christianity will soon cease to exist in Syria. That is the magnitude of what has taken place. There is a massive humanitarian crisis taking place. The hon. Lady referred to the countries around Syria that are taking many of the refugees. That is having an impact upon those countries’ ability to look after not only their own people, but those who come to the country. That must be addressed. Although it might not be his direct responsibility, I am sure the Minister can indicate what help can be given in relation to health and hygiene and the prevailing issues of fresh water and sanitation.

For those reasons I fully support the scheme, although I recognise the importance of conducting appropriate and necessary checks to identify those who are most at risk, as well as working alongside migration and local authorities to ensure that our border control remains a priority. We understand the need for border control, but there is also a need to be compassionate and understanding towards those who are under direct pressure and who need help now. Again, I hope the Minister will be able to address the issue. I have no doubt that he will, but I would like to hear a wee bit more about what the Government are doing.

The UNHCR representative to the UK, Roland Schilling, stated:

“Humanitarian admissions and resettlement are part of our protection strategy for Syrian refugees.”

There is a clear role being played. He continued:

“As much as they provide solutions for vulnerable individuals and families, these efforts are also a concrete gesture of solidarity and burden sharing with countries in the region currently hosting more than two and a half million Syrian refugees.”

It is important that we all take a direct interest in how we can help the Syrian refugees. Any man of a compassionate hue recognises those who are less well off and in need of help, and, without a doubt, our country, the United Kingdom, is one of the most generous countries in the world in terms of both the aid and support that it provides to those in need around the world. It is always good to know that we have kept our commitment. The Government and the Department for International Development have kept their commitments and sent aid to other countries. Christian Aid is grateful and supportive of that as well.

The first group of Syrians have arrived in the United Kingdom, and I trust that the Government and local authorities will do all that they can to integrate them into the community. I am pleased that the families who

16 July 2014 : Column 296WH

have suffered so greatly will now experience both peace and the freedoms that they have been denied. It is important that we as a country help those people to integrate into society here. I know that MPs will always support that, but I urge everyone, including our constituents, to support those people and make sure they are made very much at home.

Critics of the scheme—and there are critics—need not fear that the UK will be inundated with Syrian migrants, because the latest figures have proved that that is not the case. If the figures in TheGuardian are correct—the Minister will confirm the figures or not—only 24 Syrians have come to the UK under the vulnerable persons scheme. Many of the critics are simply trying to spread fear in the same way they did when we opened our borders to Romanians earlier this year. There is no comparison between the two countries. I always despair when people do not see the real issues of those who most need help.

Latest figures suggest that Sweden and Germany have received the highest number of asylum applications, with just over 24,000 and 23,000 applications respectively, compared to the figure for the UK that the hon. Lady referred to—3,947 applications. Given that 2.8 million Syrians have fled the country since the war began three years ago, these numbers are small indeed and it is time that we as a country helped more, or at least considered the need to increase the number of applications to the UK. I know that Opposition and Government Members are keen to see the Government expand that number, and I would also like to see it expanded.

The Minister himself has noted previously that our country has a proud history of granting protection to those who need it; he is on record as saying that and I support his comments entirely. We in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have provided nearly £600 million in relief efforts, and to conclude today I will say that the greatest contribution that we can now make is to provide safe homes and environments for those who are most at risk. I am delighted to support this scheme and I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate on it and giving us a chance to contribute. I look forward to the responses of both the shadow Minister and the Minister. Like others in this House, I will continue to seek assurances about the protection of Christians and those who are most at risk in Syria, and indeed across the whole world.

3.1 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I do not want to bring a discordant note to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on all the superb work that she has done for refugees; she will be a loss to this House when she goes. However, she mentioned the proud tradition of this country in rising to the challenge of refugees, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just echoed her. To be frank, there is not a proud tradition; I do not accept the claim that there is. The one time that this country was asked to respond to the biggest refugee crisis in Europe was in 1939-40 and we failed to respond. As a result, large numbers of Jewish families, including their children, went to the gas chambers. I thought that we had learned the lesson then; I thought that we had learned that when there is an international crisis such as this one in Syria, our response is not only about providing

16 July 2014 : Column 297WH

financial help but about providing refuge. And to be frank, it is shaming of this country that among the European countries our performance is possibly the worst.

Here are the numbers. First, 50 families have been received here. And the other figures from the House of Commons Library that have been quoted today are absolutely staggering. The figures that the hon. Lady set out are just horrendous. Also, we can look at what the countries surrounding Syria have to face. There are 1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey; 400,000 in Iraq, which itself is in crisis; and 800,000 in Jordan, which has a population of 6.3 million, so a sixth of the country’s population now are refugees; and in Lebanon, there are 1.6 million refugees in a population of 4.5 million.

Here we are, a country of 60 million or 65 million people, and we accept 50 refugees. That is shaming—absolutely shaming. Providing financial assistance of £600 million is welcome, but what people are desperate for—we are talking about the most vulnerable groups within this category of those seeking asylum—is safety, and it is clearly not being provided, either within Syria or outside it. There are now 6.5 million Syrians who are internally displaced, and there were 2.4 million Syrians who had fled abroad but we think that the figure is now 2.8 million, of whom 2 million are children who cannot even go to school as a result of their displacement.

What those people want is somewhere to be safe and in many ways that means leaving the region, because it looks as though the accommodation and provisions within the surrounding countries are so overwhelmed that those countries cannot even provide basic shelter, education and—in some instances—supplies of food. So it is no wonder that people are desperately trying to get across the Mediterranean, risking their own lives and those of their family and children in boats. And yes, I was there on that boat that the hon. Lady referred to. In fact, it was relatively seaworthy in comparison with what we know of the boats that have been used to try and cross the Mediterranean.

It is no wonder that these people are desperate, yet we provide—so far—50 places. Some of the people who have already applied and who are being considered in the figures up to 4,000 are people who are already here and who cannot return to Syria, so that is not exactly “receiving” people either. I do not understand why we have responded in so small a way. I just wonder: is there a figure that the Government are willing to go to? Antonio Guterres set the goal at 30,000. Is the figure that we are going to accept 10,000? Or is it our objective to accept a higher goal? And have we taken only 50 people because of processing issues, or are there other obstacles that have so far restricted the number of people who can take up the opportunity to come to this country? What is the problem? Is there a target figure? If there is, let us hear it, and if there is not, what is preventing us from receiving more people? This situation is a disgrace. When people are absolutely desperate, this is a disgrace and we need to look at the system that is failing to enable people to come here and find the refuge that they seek.

As I say, our performance is absolutely shaming. This is not a party political point; this is a point that, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, has been made across the House in previous debates. We have been willing to

16 July 2014 : Column 298WH

say that we want to do more. If there is an administrative problem let us sort it out, but if it is a policy issue then let us have that out in a debate out in the open. At least let us confront the issue rather than letting the situation drag on, because these people are absolutely desperate and this level of refuge and support that we, the sixth or seventh richest country in the world, are providing by way of direct assistance and by allowing people to come here, is just not acceptable. It is not civilised behaviour. As a result of the performance of the programmes that we are considering, we are not meeting our obligations to fellow human beings.

I would welcome hearing the Government’s response to the question: what are we going to do about it? What sort of numbers do we aim to achieve by the end of this year? What emergency measures need to be put in place to improve our performance on this matter, because we are letting down not only the Syrians but our other European partners? And we will look back on this period and wish that we had done more, done it more effectively and done it much more speedily.

3.6 pm

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Dobbin.

I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for raising this issue. It is an important one, and we need to focus on the Government’s response to what is an extremely serious crisis in the middle east. I listened with great interest to her account of her visit to the region. I have not been there in the current circumstances, but she painted a very clear picture of the pressures that exist.

Nevertheless, I genuinely cannot begin to understand what it means to be lifted out of a city such as Aleppo, where I may have lived a perfectly normal and busy working life, and to be removed from my country in circumstances of civil war before being placed in a foreign country, where all elements of humanity have gone and where there is a major humanitarian effort just to maintain a basic standard of living. Even in my constituency, which is in the far-flung regions of north Wales, there are people who have been in touch with me to tell me about the circumstances of their relatives in Syria who have been displaced in cities such as Aleppo. The hon. Lady has therefore done a service in bringing this issue to the House today.

I also took on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said about his understanding of the experience of people in Syria. And the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of persecution, particularly of Christians, which is an important one that we need to reflect upon and consider in the context of today’s debate. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said that a wider issue—the political situation in Syria—needs to be resolved. It does, to stop the haemorrhaging of refugees from Syria in the first place.

I pay tribute to the Government for their humanitarian response in-region. I think that the Department for International Development is the second biggest donor in the world in terms of in-region activity, which is extremely good and positive. However, I go back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington and others have said: people are leaving the region

16 July 2014 : Column 299WH

because they cannot live there. They do not wish to leave; they want to be back in the region where they have lived, grown up and made their lives and careers. For them to do that, we have to respond in a helpful way and achieve the humanitarian aims we have set.

Since the conflict in Syria began more than three years ago, some 2.8 million people have fled the country. The vast majority are being sheltered by a small number of neighbouring countries, and although the international effort is helping, those countries are now struggling to cope. Lebanon, which has been mentioned, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It is now sheltering more than 1.1 million refugees from the Syrian conflict. The hon. Member for Brent Central mentioned Jordan, which was sheltering about 500,000 people in September 2013.

More than 50% of Syrian refugees are children. Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Antonio Guterres, said: