2.10 pm

Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I start by apologising because, as I explained to Mr Speaker, a long-standing engagement elsewhere, and an almost as long-standing train reservation, mean that I will have to depart almost as soon as I have spoken, but I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to do so. This has been an excellent debate marked by contributions from colleagues who are leaving the House and will be deeply missed, not least my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), who was a first-class colleague in the Ministry of Defence during some very tough times.

Before the last election, all three parties committed to a strategic defence and security review following the election. I had fondly imagined that that process would be allowed to take some 18 months or so, as had the 1998 review, and that it would be a deep and profound study of what we needed. What we actually found coming down the tracks at us was a brutal comprehensive spending review, and we had to make a very quick decision as to whether we were going to allow ourselves the luxury of the 18-month review or would do a quick and dirty review and try to equip ourselves with the arguments that might help us to increase the size of our cash envelope, to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife referred, recognising that more detailed work would have to take place afterwards. In the event, the cut of some 7.5% that was applied to the budget—or a little over 16% to the programme, which was at that time overheated—led us to make some very unpalatable decisions that none of us came into politics wishing to make. Decisions such as axing the Harrier were absolutely wretched and painful things that nobody wanted to make.

The painful decisions that were made in 2010 by Ministers and by defence chiefs were, as others have said, made against the background that the sunny uplands would follow and that for the period after 2015 the Ministry of Defence could at least look forward to a flat real budget supplemented, as came later, by a 1% real-terms increase in the equipment budget. If this year’s comprehensive spending review visits further cuts on the defence budget, bearing in mind that there have been a couple of mini-CSRs in the past couple of years that have already done some damage, it simply will not be affordable for us to come up with anything like Future Force 2020, which was articulated in 2010, let alone the wider and more ambitious prospectus that was outlined so lucidly by the Chairman of the Defence Committee. I would not demur from that in any significant way, although that would certainly have taken the budget way beyond the realms of 2% of GDP and rather, as the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, nearer to 3% or even 4%.

Of course, it is right that we have another review now. I am a firm supporter of having a review at least every five years, because the world can change an awful lot in five years, as it has in the past five years. We would do

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well to try to break ourselves out of the unfortunate cycle where we propel ourselves into one of these reviews at the outset of a Parliament, when there is a comprehensive spending review looming over the whole thing. It would be better if it could be done at a later point in the Parliament so that we get out of this unfortunate cycle.

The significant changes in our security assessment since 2010 are the diminishing relationship with an increasingly aggressive Russia, the rise of Islamic State, and the ever-growing threat of global terrorism and cyber-attack. When one looks at some of the specific issues that will be on the table, with which Defence Ministers, whoever they are this summer, will have to grapple, it is clear that the painful decisions we thought we were taking in 2010 may be but nothing compared with some of the agonies that will be on the table from now on.

I think there is a general consensus that the nation will not find acceptable the 2010 conclusion that we would spend £7 billion on building two aircraft carriers, and then tie up the second one, and that we must in some way deploy the second. That will have a manpower implication which was not taken into account when cuts in naval headcount were made in 2010. We also have a general consensus that we must make good the pledge to go back into the realms of maritime patrol. We have to do that if we are going to embark a carrier fleet in Plymouth. That will have a resources implication and potentially even a manpower implication.

We do not know how many joint strike fighter aircraft we will be able to afford. We seem to have forgotten all about DPOC—deep persistent offensive capability—and the role that air-based joint strike fighters were supposed to have fulfilled. As the saga—I think it would be fair to call it that—of the F-35 rolls on and on, we still do not know what the unit cost of these aircraft will be or how many we will be able to afford. At the time when BAE got its work share, our commitment was meant to be 130. So far, as I understand it, we have bought four, and we are talking about sailing carriers with 12 on board. I have absolutely no idea where the number is going to end up. This is not just a shopping list; there are also manpower implications for how many of these things we have.

We are supposed to be having 13 frigates in order to get us back to the princely goal of a destroyer frigate fleet of 19, but one hears worrying rumours that some of the past mistakes are being repeated and that this is getting almost as big and expensive as the Type 45. I wonder how many we are really going to end up with. Again, that has manpower implications. On amphibious shipping—the ability to enter a theatre of war from the sea—HMS Ocean is due out of service in 2018. Is she going to be replaced? Albion remains tied up. What are we going to do about this? We will lose a serious capability if we do not resource that.

We need more ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—assets. The lack of that capability inhibited what we were able to do in Afghanistan and was conspicuously a problem in Libya. We have not resolved the saga of Army vehicles. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) was extremely pertinent in his observations on that. We have all sorts of balls in the air relating to the future of remotely piloted aircraft—a matter of great importance to our future capability. Again, there

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are cost pressures there that are not even factored in. Chinook and Apache both need upgrading. I could go on; this is not an exhaustive list.

The existing budget as predicted cannot pay for all that, let alone withstand any cuts that might come this autumn. Let us remind ourselves of the gap. The RUSI paper, with which I entirely agree, and whose figures accord with what I recall from the last time I saw any, suggests that we will be at 1.95% spending next year—one might hide one’s blushes there with a bit of creative accounting—but that by year 2 there will be a gap of £3 billion and by year 4 a gap of £6 billion. That is if no cuts at all are made this summer; if any are made, the situation will get worse and worse.

We seem to have got to a situation where all three political parties recognise that Britain has global interests and have a genuine will that we ought to be part of international coalitions to protect those interests. All three parties agree, in principle, with the commitment that the Prime Minister gave, in principle, at Newport, that we ought to be spending at least 2% of our GDP on defence. Yet given those figures, with an extra £6 billion a year needed to do that by year 4 of this Parliament, it is small wonder that neither the Chancellor, the shadow Chancellor, nor—I am not trying to score a political point here—the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have exactly been on the front foot so far in explaining where £6 billion a year could possibly come from.

I would say to everyone who has taken part in this debate, because we are, by definition, defence enthusiasts, that whether or not this issue takes light during the election campaign, we will have to come back—those of us who manage to come back—to debate these things again and again through the rest of this year as we conduct an SDSR and a CSR and keep the pressure on our Treasury colleagues, of every colour, to honour the commitments given at Newport and the needs so powerfully outlined by the Chairman of the Defence Committee in describing where the shortfalls will occur.

2.19 pm

Simon Reevell (Dewsbury) (Con): Last August, I was reminded of something that happened to me more than 25 years earlier. Back then, as a young infantry officer on a night-time exercise and navigating by the stars, I had to get my men through some woods. We eventually got to the edge of the trees and saw open ground ahead, but there was only a narrow point at which to exit the woods and the exit would be slow, so the gun group went first and then the rifle group, and it all seemed to go very well. I used what moonlight there was to look around and make sure that not only had everybody got out of the woods, but that they were now in position, which they were. The only thing spoiling the view was that, 250 yards to the right, a particularly distinctive tree marked where we had gone into the woods in the first place. We had not gone through the woods at all: we had got lost in the middle of them, and we were now in a very nice position, but facing completely the wrong way.

The plight of the 10 Russian paratroopers reminded me of that incident. Bless them, they too had become geographically embarrassed: they had ended up in Ukraine

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and been captured by the Ukrainian military. They were not of course any sort of force supporting the rebels; they had simply got lost in the woods. What was more interesting was the detail of where they had come from. They were from the 331st Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division. To put having at least 98 divisions into context, the Football League has more divisions than the British Army. Even making allowances, to have 331 regiments of a 98th Division means there are a lot of them; there are not a lot of us. That is illustrated by something else that happened last August. As Ukrainian troops faced Russian paratroopers, we amalgamated two of our tank regiments into one that was smaller than a single regiment would have been even a few years ago.

As summer turned to autumn, we hosted a bit of a do in Newport in Wales. We had previously written to all the potential guests to remind them of a few house rules, one of which was about spending 2% of GDP on defence. Along with whatever going-home gifts they received, they were all reminded of that on departure. However, we are suddenly shy of that same 2% commitment in our attitude and, potentially, in our contribution.

There are only two reasons why people do not spend money: the first is that they cannot afford to do so, and the second is that they can afford it but choose not to do so. We do not seem shy of making spending commitments. We have just committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it would be moon-howlingly mad to be committed to foreign aid at the expense of the defence of the realm. No one ever suggested that swords should be beaten into ploughshares before the danger is well and truly passed, and passed for good.

We can afford the 2%, but we are not doing it, which must mean that someone has decided that we will not. How can that be? The idea of allocating a percentage of GDP to defence, rather than a particular annual amount, is clearly designed to ensure that the necessary resources will be made available over a period of time: 2% of a lower GDP in year x is offset by 2% of a higher GDP in subsequent years.

Some people use the phrase “fixing the roof while the sun shines”. That is a particularly commendable approach, so why on earth would anyone contemplate abandoning it for defence spending? Why would they even dream about abandoning it at a time when Russian bombers are being intercepted in the channel, over Cornwall and just off the south coast? Why would they dream of abandoning it when we have yet again learned to expect the unexpected—this time in Libya, against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and, most importantly, with article 5 commitments in the Baltic that the founders of NATO could never have contemplated? Why would we abandon it at a time when if we renamed our frigates and destroyers after premiership football teams, one of the clubs would miss out because we do not have enough ships?

I am not alone in having given the Government the benefit of the doubt on defence matters in the early years of this Parliament. I did so because it was clearly intimated that the effects of the measures introduced would be offset by increases in defence expenditure as the economy healed and grew. Now I hear that to come good on that deal, a search is on for anything that can be fudged as defence spending to get us to the 2% level. That sort of kindergarten economics is bad not just for

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defence, but for politics. It leads to damaging speculation, such as the whisper that while Regular Army numbers may be safe, the number of reservists is not guaranteed, at a time when we are in the middle of a campaign to offset cuts to the Army with a recruiting drive for non-regulars.

It has even been suggested that former senior military figures are misrepresenting the situation to sell books. Criticisms may be made of some former senior figures, not for misrepresenting the situation now, but for the fact that—for all their later book talk of gritted teeth and near resignation while in post—no one stepped forward and spoke out at the time; in fact, quite the opposite. I do not thank them for that, but the Government certainly should.

I have heard this phrase used at a party conference:

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”.

Courage and bravery are of course the hallmark of our armed forces, but the Estonian soldier waiting in his foxhole for Russian tanks may well believe that the size of the dog in the fight is also critical. We plan to underfeed our bulldog, while its potential adversaries are thrown red meat.

Outside those woods back in the summer of nineteen-eighty-whenever, I may have been 180° out, but no-one else noticed and, in the scheme of things, it did not matter. This does matter. In this context, it is those reinforcing the impression that we care only so much about defence who face the wrong way. In doing so, they face away from the first duty of any and every British Government, which is the duty to ensure the security of these islands, and that is a disappointing and dangerous state of affairs.

2.27 pm

Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell), who has given us a salutary reminder of the importance of defence. He and I share a profession, and I have to say that this is the first defence debate that I have attended in my 10 years in the House. I say so not out of pride, but out of shame, as well as to emphasise the growing unease I have felt from reading and listening to such important debates—it has been a privilege to listen to the speeches of hon. Members from both sides of the House. I am now better informed, and perhaps even a little wiser and more enlightened, but none of them allayed my anxieties or convinced me not to make the effort to attend the debate this afternoon.

I must say that my only qualification—a tenuous one—for speaking in a defence debate is that my father was a career soldier and that I was brought up on Army bases and camps around the world in the 1960s. He was a gunner for 40 years, and left the Army only in the mid-1980s. The experience of growing up within the Army taught me not only its values—its ethics, its morality, its discipline and its code—but that it was essential to the very fabric of this country for us to maintain our armed forces in a state of readiness and properly resourced to be able to defend its people. Following my increasing concern over the past few years, I have to say that I am no longer convinced that we give our defence forces the priority that they require.

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I should not have been in the Chamber this afternoon; with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who has responsibility for defence equipment, support and technology, I should have been in Appledore visiting the last English shipbuilder, which is just completing its third Irish—I stress, Irish—naval patrol vessel, having already completed the bow sections of both of the carriers. I believe that our visit would have been widely welcomed by the 400 or 500-strong work force of that shipyard because they feel that the defence establishment should nurture the last remaining skill bases that exist for the production of naval vessels and ships. I am grateful to the Minister for having expressed his wish to visit, and I hope that he will visit after the election—and I hope that he will still be in his present job or some even more senior and illustrious position.

My purpose today is not to contribute to the weight of opinion, authority and expertise that I have been awestruck to listen to this afternoon, but by appearing here today as the representative of a sedentary and dusty trade, a long way removed from the military or the armed forces, to demonstrate to the Government, including Ministers from my party, that the issue of defence is not a specialised interest confined merely to a few dozen of our colleagues. It was suggested earlier that those present are “defence enthusiasts”, but concern about defence is spreading widely, not only through the Conservative party, but the country. It would be wrong of us to believe that it is a specialised interest of significance only to a narrow circle: it is becoming ever more widespread.

I attend this debate not to send a message to my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know grasps these points, but to those in charge of the Treasury that enough is enough and that 2% is a line in the sand. Beyond it we must not go. It represents a demonstration of will and the fulfilment of a commitment, and no amount of creative accounting, sneaking or ducking and diving will deflect the attention of the British people from the solemn responsibility of this Government and the next to defend our interests and the integrity of our borders. I say to my hon. Friend as a messenger to those who sit in Cabinet and have the decision-making power in the councils of the Government that if we were to compromise that 2%, the message it would send to the dictators, and the enemies of freedom and all the values and principles we hold dear, is that we are no longer willing to stand by our commitments and to pay the price of freedom.

I agree with those who have said that to do business in terms of proportions and percentages of GDP is not good politics, but we have made the 2% figure the line in the sand. We have said it to other countries and we cannot now compromise on our determination to fulfil our responsibility to the international community. If we allow ourselves to become weak, impliedly we expect others to take up—to the same measure and in the same proportion—the burden of defending us. That has never been Britain’s way and cannot be the way that this House regards as appropriate. I ask all my hon. Friends to hold the Government to the 2% commitment and not to let it go.

2.34 pm

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I, too, have been awestruck by what I have heard this afternoon, not least the speech we have just heard from my hon. and learned

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Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) and the excellent speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) who made a fantastic speech from the Opposition Benches.

Tribute has been paid to the armed forces this afternoon, but I do not think that we can pay high enough tribute to them. Year after year and throughout history, we in this place have sent our armed forces into harm’s way. Ultimately, we decide how to finance and nurture them, and take care of them when they come home. It is a huge responsibility.

I wish to make the point to the Ministers that any comments I make—and I know others feel the same way—are not aimed personally at them. They are both honourable men. I know the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) well and I know that he feels very strongly about the state of our armed forces.

I find it strange that defence is a partisan subject, not just in the House but as reported by commentators and others, although there is an element of truth in that even in my own party. It is suggested that the right represent the armed forces and the left represent overseas aid. That should not be the case, and I do not believe it is. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said so eloquently, it is the collective responsibility of the whole House to ensure the defence of our island and our dependants, and the meeting in full of all the commitments that we have—not least to NATO.

Allegedly, polls show that there are no votes in defence. I would like to put any politician who claims that in front of a battalion of the Coldstream Guards that has just returned from its second or third tour of Afghanistan. I do not think that that politician would return to the House in one piece. Millions have died to defend peace, democracy and freedom throughout history, many of whom were servicemen and women. Are we saying that all that sacrifice does not get any votes? Do we really mean that? I do not think we do, but what concerns me greatly is where politics has got to. I read a very good book recently about Winston Churchill, and when he was shown the results of a poll, he threw the poll in the dustbin and did completely the opposite. Some would argue that on some occasions that is rashness, but some would call it leadership. It is on subjects that do not necessarily seem to attract the voter that parties, of all political persuasions, have to lead. If we do not lead, we will endanger our country.

Expenditure on defence has never been—and I suspect never will be—a popular political topic. It is, as someone said earlier, like an insurance policy. We groan as we pay the annual fee, but we do so because when the dread day comes that we shuffle off this mortal coil, our loved ones will benefit from the investment that we have made. By God, if we did not have such an insurance policy, we would rightly be attacked by members of our family, our wives or anybody else whom we have not provided with security. That is what we should bear in mind when we debate expenditure on defence.

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How many times throughout our great island history have we spent less money on defence? I am an avid reader of military history—as an ex-soldier it is particularly pertinent to me—and politicians of all colours have made the same mistake that we are making today countless times. Why do we go on making the same mistake? We are told that tanks will not rumble across the plains of central Europe. I suspect they probably will not, but I would not like to bank on it. I suspect that the Poles did not bank on their country being invaded at one end by the Russians and at the other by the Germans, but it happened. It is happening again, as we know, in Ukraine. Without defence, there will be no security at all for the other subjects we have to meet and pay for.

I would like to touch, if I may, on a very delicate subject: overseas aid. How many of us in this Chamber set ourselves a target every year to give, say, £500 to charity? I bet no one does, but if, at the end of the financial year, we had spent only £300, would we then splurge £200 on any old charity? Of course we would not. We would keep that money for a better cause. That is where I think we are getting it wrong. We have to target better what few resources we have for overseas aid. We have proof that much of the money we spend does not get to where it is intended to go.

One or two hon. Members have suggested that somehow the military should be incorporated into overseas aid. There are arguments for and against, but on the whole when it works there is no one better than the British serviceman or servicewomen to deal with such predicaments. That again has proved what an honourable and fantastic task they all do. Overseas aid has been ring-fenced. Other areas have been ring-fenced. If we cannot defend our country, our people, our dependants, meet our commitments and stand together—we are never going to stand on our own; we cannot afford to—and for the Americans to publicly now say to the world that Great Britain is not meeting its commitments, that means the position is incredibly serious. I know friends who have contacts in America. Their contacts say that they really hate saying that publicly, but they do so because they are so concerned.

It is not just hon. Members in this House who are concerned. It is the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton; former US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates; former British Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth); former British Defence Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff); former NATO Secretary-General, Anders Rasmussen; current NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg; President of the United States of America, Barak Obama; US army chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno; former defence attaché to Washington, Sir Anthony Dymock; former ambassador to the United State, Sir Christopher Meyer; former UK Chief of the General Staff, Sir Peter Wall; US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power; former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West; and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the Chairman of the Defence Committee. That is by no means the whole list. It is not just us who are saying that we must meet at least—at least—the 2% commitment; it is everybody else who is looking to this island for leadership to protect all the things that we hold dear.

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2.43 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Twenty five years ago, we spent more than 4% of our gross national product on defence. There were some 306,000 regular personnel and 340,000 reservists. The Army had 153,000 regular soldiers who manned three armoured and one infantry division. We had 1,330 main battle tanks. The Royal Navy had 50 frigates and destroyers, two aircraft carriers, 28 attack submarines, three Harrier squadrons and a Royal Marine Commando brigade. For its part, the Royal Air Force had 26 fast jet squadrons, two squadrons of maritime patrol aircraft and specific aeroplanes tasked with suppressing potential air defences.

In the next Parliament, however, the Army will be reduced to 82,000 regular soldiers and 400 tanks. The Navy will have 19 frigates or destroyers, seven attack submarines and only about 24,000 sailors. It may be that by 2020 we will see the first of two new aircraft carriers, but as yet not one aircraft has been ordered to put on them. The RAF will have seven, or maybe only six, fast jet squadrons, and no means to suppress enemy air defences. Nobody knows whether by then we might again have some maritime patrol aircraft. That remains the worst gap in our current military capability.

Some argue that there are few votes in defence—we have heard that repeated all afternoon—but that is certainly not what I hear in Beckenham. People there are increasingly fearful of what is happening in the world.

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): As my hon. Friend knows, I back the minimum 2% spend of GDP on defence. He knows how important that is to the Ribble Valley. Does he welcome the announcement today by the Prime Minister and BAE Systems that a new training academy will open at BAE Systems Samlesbury, not only to train the new apprentices but to tune up the great skills we already have at BAE Systems?

Bob Stewart: I was born close to Samlesbury, so I know it well. I certainly applaud that news.

Leaders on both sides of the House consistently maintain, quite rightly, that defence is the first responsibility of Government. If that is so, whether there are votes in defence hardly matters. It is the duty of our political leaders to ensure our defences are sound, whether there are votes in defence or not. The defence of our country is the paramount requirement of our Government. If we had been beaten by Hitler in 1945, there would not even have been a national health service. Health, education, pensions and overseas aid budgets are largely ring-fenced and apparently untouchable. Obviously, that is not so for the defence budget. If defence is vital, its budget should be protected too.

Some hon. Members have touched on our long-standing and close defence partnership with the United States, which is being increasingly questioned there. Both the American President and, more recently, the United States army chief of staff have signalled their alarm at what is happening to our MOD budget. We have favoured status so far, but yet more cuts to our defence budget are likely to have an irreversible impact on our special defence relationship with the United States. If we, as America’s most steadfast ally, are not prepared to put at least 2% of GDP into defence, why should United

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States citizens, who currently pay more than double per head than us, continue to fund more than 70% of NATO’s budget?

Others argue that the dominating factors of mass and firepower in conflict are no longer as important as they were, and of course they have a point. It is true that cyber, data fusion, information, robotics and the like spawn a different form of war fighting—truly they are important developments, and they might even influence how we go to war—but I dispute that they are war-winning factors. It is unlikely that they will be able to dislodge the Daesh from Syria and Iraq. They might help, but they alone will not do it. In military terms, the job might well require good old-fashioned kinetic energy—soldiers closing with the enemy on the ground and destroying them in face-to-face fighting—although I hope this time it is done mainly by soldiers from our friends in the middle east, rather than our own armed forces.

Some say that the cold war is dead. Others suggest that the day of the tank is over. The Russians obviously disagree. Perhaps we are not really seeing T-64 and T-72 tanks cruising around eastern Ukraine. Russia has once more formally declared NATO to be its enemy and stated plainly that external conflicts can justify its use of nuclear weapons. The MOD is a unique Department of State because it provides us with both the insurance and endowment policies necessary to deal with the unexpected. Threats to our national security tend to explode suddenly and with very little warning. Of course, we all want a strong economy, but defence is too important to depend just on that. We only have to look at the lack of political resolve in the 1930s, which translated into our armed forces stagnating, giving clear signals to Hitler that we were not prepared to arrest his ambitions. Such stupidity cost us dear.

In truth, a strong economy needs a safe security environment. Defence must be affordable. The international situation is as bad as I have ever seen it in my lifetime. Welfare, education, pensions and overseas aid will count for nought if defence goes wrong, so, particularly now, the defence of our country is far too important a matter for it to become a party political football. It is a bipartisan matter for serious political parties. Looking around the Chamber, I think that all the parties present are serious. I call on all the parties present, including the Democratic Unionist party—I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his fantastic speech today—to commit wholeheartedly to ensuring that we spend 2% of GDP on defence.

2.52 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Not for the first time, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) has done the House and the country a service by bringing to the Chamber a matter that the coalition Government might perhaps have preferred he had let lie. I believe it is his intention, if we do not get the assurances we want from both Front Benches, to give the House the opportunity to put its opinion on the record by dividing. If the Whips did not know that, they had better get busy.

One of the advantages of speaking last from the Back Benches in such a debate is that I do not have to repeat all the points made by everybody else. This has

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been particularly worthwhile today because I could not have made a stronger strategic case than the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee made in his excellent speech, and I could not have made a stronger economic case than was forcefully made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). I pay tribute to him for his outstanding service to this country, both in high office and, more recently, as Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I have had the pleasure of serving on throughout this Parliament.

Any suggestion that the budget spent on the intelligence agencies should be redefined as defence to edge us closer to the 2% minimum would be not only outrageous, but dishonest, because we would no longer be comparing like with like. Let us compare like with like. It came as a surprise to the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick), who made a thoughtful speech, when I pointed out to him that at the height of the second cold war, in the 1980s, this country was spending more than 5% of GDP on defence. I know the economy has got bigger, but defence has got more expensive, so that excuse will not do.

Let me put on the record that between 1982 and 1986, the amount spent on defence varied from 5.1% of GDP to 5.3%. From 1986 to 1990, as a result of perestroika, the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and other measures, the figure gradually declined from a maximum of 4.8% to 4%. When we took the peace dividend, following the break-up of the Soviet Union—in other words, in the first five years of the 1990s—the figures were 3.6%, 3.6%, 3.5%, 3.3% and 3.1%.

When Labour came into office in 1997, the figure was 2.5%, and it remained, as Tony Blair said and as I have quoted here before, roughly constant at 2.5% for a decade, although that hid the fact that the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq, which should have been met from the Treasury reserve, were being included in the overall calculation. Even as late as the coalition coming in, in 2009-10, the figure was 2.5%, and it remained the same in 2010-11. It went down to 2.4% in 2011-12 and since 2012 it has been 2.2% and 2.1%. Frankly, I regard it as a disgrace that defence spending has declined even to that level, and I will be far from satisfied if—without redefining things—we spend only 2% of GDP on defence in the future.

I have to ask myself why, at a time when we have not only the threat from international terrorism to deal with, but a re-emerging threat from a newly aggressive and revanchist Russia, politicians are calling into question even the basic NATO minimum of 2%. The only answer I get has nothing to do with grand strategy and everything to do with low politics. This is the politics of the pollsters who are trying to tell my Prime Minister that there are no votes in defence.

My mind goes back to a conversation I had in Conservative central office with the then general director of campaigning of the Conservative party in about 1985. When I said that we needed to focus on Labour’s defence policy at the next general election, he said, “Well, just because nuclear weapons and defence policy was a big issue in 1983, it does not mean that it will be a big issue in 1987.” My response was, “Of course it will not be a big issue unless we make it a big issue.” Of course, if we poll people at the moment and ask them

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how high defence is in their sense of priorities, we will not get much of a reaction. Believe me, however, things would be different if we went into the election campaign fighting hard to explain to people the dangers that threaten us and the terrible signal it would send to Vladimir Putin if we, having exhorted everybody else in NATO to meet the 2% minimum, then fell below it ourselves for the very first time—which would be appalling.

I do not know who is more to blame. I do not know whether it is the American strategist who is advising my Prime Minister or whether it is the British Chancellor who is advising him, but I like to think that my Prime Minister has more sense than to fall for it. Let me put it in “low” political terms: if the Prime Minister is worried about the UK Independence party taking a chunk of the Conservative vote, he should bear it in mind that even UKIP has made the gesture—it is only a gesture on its part—that it would support the 2% minimum. If the Prime Minister is worried about losing votes to UKIP, he had better match its pledge.

We have had a pledge from UKIP. We have had a pledge—a very important pledge—from the Democratic Unionist party today. We need a pledge from the official Opposition, and we need a pledge from the Government. Otherwise, in the words of an excellent editorial that appeared in The Times yesterday, we shall be practising nothing short of “a false economy”, along with a dangerous delusion about the action that we need to take when doing our duty for this country.

3 pm

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): This has been a very good debate. We have heard 19 speeches from Members in all parts of the House, although, yet again, no Scottish National party Members have been present for a debate on defence. I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on making the debate possible, and also on maintaining the role that he has played throughout this Parliament of political pain in the posterior of the Prime Minister.

I particularly want to mention four Members who spoke today: my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway). I understand that they will all be retiring at the general election, and I thank them not only for the speeches that they made today, but for their wisdom, and for their contribution to the House during their time here.

Another feature of the debate is that it has been completely void of Whips’ narks, although, in an intervention, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who is no longer in the Chamber, produced the usual narrative of the “£38 billion black hole” that the Conservatives claim to have inherited. In a report published in July 2011, the Defence Committee said:

“We note that the MoD now state the genuine size of the gap is substantially in excess of £38 billion. However, we also note the”


“Secretary of State’s assertion that ‘for the first time in a generation, the MoD will have brought its plans and budget broadly into balance, allowing it to plan with confidence for the delivery of the future equipment programme’. Without proper detailed figures neither statement can be verified.”

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The debate has, of course, been dominated by the issue of the 2%. We have seen a great deal of “blue on blue” this afternoon, and I feel sorry for my hon. Friend—as I call him—the Minister. [Interruption.] Yes, he has drawn the short straw. However, he is passionate about defence, and he is very committed to it.

The right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife said that when it came to defence, the Treasury was always the problem. I am sorry, but that is not true in this instance. Last year’s autumn statement set out what the Government, including the Prime Minister, would need to spend between 2016 and 2020, not only to eliminate the deficit but to be in surplus by 2018-19. If, as we heard from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), there is flat cash over that period, we are talking about a £6.8 billion cut in the defence budget, not counting the other cuts to which the Chancellor referred in the autumn statement.As has been pointed out, health, education and overseas aid have been ring-fenced, so any further cuts made over that period would have to fall on Departments that have not been ring-fenced. That would bring us to a point at which defence spending would be not 2%, but 1.4% of GDP.

However, it is worse than that for defence. The Government’s policy is to ring-fence the equipment budget and increase it by 1%. Any cuts made will not be made to the entire budget; they will fall on 55% of it, which means operations. As we all know, the main cost driver in that area is people, notwithstanding the nonsense that the Prime Minister keeps reiterating—as he did during Prime Minister’s Question Time a few weeks ago in a reply to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth)—about the Army remaining at its current levels. Unless he has some magic formula to which we mere mortals are not party, I do not understand how he will ensure that that happens.

The Prime Minister now has a defensive strategy. It goes like this: “We try to massage the figures.” However, as the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has said, that would be dishonest, and he is not alone in saying that. In The Times this morning, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, says he rejects including, for example, the intelligence budget in the figure:

“This is the kind of book-keeping for which you would go to prison if you were running a company.”

So clearly there is a concern. There are people in No. 10 who think if they massage the budget in some way, people will not spot the difference, but it appears from today’s debate that there are many on the Prime Minister’s own Back Benches with a lot of experience of, and commitment to, this sector, and he will find it difficult to pull the wool over their eyes.

I say to those on the Government Benches that I do not for one minute question their commitment to defence, because I know most of them very well, and they have spoken passionately over many years about their commitment to defence. But they have a dilemma, because in a few weeks’ time they will be standing on an election platform calling for a reduction in defence spending; they will have to somehow explain that to their electorate.

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Mr Gray: I know of the hon. Gentleman’s personal commitment to defence; he is passionate about it, as we all are. He will also be standing for election in a couple of weeks’ time. Will he be standing on the platform that an incoming Labour Government will definitely commit to 2% or more on defence spending?

Mr Jones: Well, what I am not being is dishonest, which is what the Government’s position is. I shall reiterate the point that I made in the debate last week: what we have a commitment to, and will argue for, is maintaining the 2015-16 budget. Also, we will start the defence review—the detailed work that needs to happen, not the rushed job we saw last time—and that will inform the debate on future budgets.

Mr Gray: The same as us.

Mr Jones: No, it is not the same, because the Government and the hon. Gentleman have got the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s fiscal straitjacket around them—his commitments to reducing spending. There is a big difference, and it gives us a lot of leeway in making sure that we can deliver on our defence needs and foreign affairs commitments, whereas what the Government are putting forward will lead to a situation in which the budget is set, and there is no way that they can meet those commitments.

Something else has come out in this debate. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), who is in a good position because he was a Minister in the Department at the time, and the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell) raised the idea that the Prime Minister convinced his Back Benchers and the military to take the pain of the 8% cut in 2010, and that somehow once we reached the sunny uplands—I think the hon. Member for Dewsbury referred to that—we would have an increase in the budget. That is clearly not going to happen if the Prime Minister’s commitment to deficit reduction is followed. We have come to expect such smoke and mirrors from the Prime Minister. We have had that narrative again; I do not for a minute question the former adviser of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who has written in today’s newspapers in a similar vein. It is clear that that commitment cannot be met if the Prime Minister is to keep to the deficit reduction process laid out in the autumn statement.

We need honesty from the Government on what they are going to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and I are not going to stand here and make the ludicrous promises we heard at the last general election from those now on the Government Benches. They promised a larger Army, more helicopters, and more of everything for the armed forces, but the Conservatives reverted to type, as they always do in government. The hon. Member for Dewsbury said that this was a right-left issue. No, it is not. The Conservatives’ record in office shows that they always cut defence, whereas Labour has always protected defence.

Sir Peter Luff: I genuinely want this to be a bipartisan debate, but could the hon. Gentleman clarify the shadow Chancellor’s comments in The Times on Tuesday this week, when he stated that his party would go

12 Mar 2015 : Column 481

“nowhere near the huge scale of defence cuts you are going to see under the Conservatives”?

Does that mean that Labour will commit to at least the 1%-plus real-terms-equivalent budget increase?

Mr Jones: I know that the hon. Gentleman is not standing for re-election, but he needs to understand that the huge impediment to his party’s adopting the 2% target is the autumn statement. His party will have to bin that if it wants to commit to the 2%. This allows us a lot more flexibility. We will ensure that the findings of the defence review are what drive our defence needs. That is in contrast to what happened in 2010 and what is happening now, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer driving the debate with the support of the Prime Minister.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) made a clear commitment that his party would seek a commitment to the 2% expenditure target from any other party before supporting it in a future Government. The Prime Minister has employed a lot of diversionary tactics in the past 24 hours, because he knows that he has a problem in this area. He clearly wanted to massage the figures, but that has now been blown out of the water.

Then we had the nonsense last night of the Defence Secretary writing to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about whether the nuclear deterrent would be up for negotiation in any future deal with the Scottish National party. I want to nail that one quite clearly: no, it would not. We are not going to do what the Conservatives did when they came into office in 2010. They played fast and loose with the nuclear deterrent by doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats to delay the implementation of the decision to replace Trident, which the Labour Government had already voted for. It was this Government, in the deal that was done in May 2010, who delayed that implementation, so I am not going to take any lessons from the Conservatives about doing deals, or using our nuclear deterrent in some kind of political poker game as a means of getting into office.

Simon Reevell: In passing, may I point out that the quotes recently attributed to me were not in fact mine? Is the hon. Gentleman in any way embarrassed by the fact that, within the space of 10 minutes, he has turned what was a sensible debate into a party political broadcast?

Mr Jones: Not at all, because I am actually on the hon. Gentleman’s side in trying to expose the Government’s illogical approach. I think I am right in saying that it was he who described the attempts of the Prime Minister or his advisers to massage the figures as “kindergarten economics”. There is an honest argument to be made to the British people about what we are doing on defence, but the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot stand before his electorate in Dewsbury in a few weeks’ time and say that he wants his Government to commit to 2% when he has also signed up to the Chancellor’s deficit reduction strategy. I am on his side when we argue about defence—I have argued passionately about the subject from the very moment I entered this House, as people know, and I will continue to do so—but will he be able to look his electorate in the eye

12 Mar 2015 : Column 482

and say that his party is committed to 2%? No, he will not. The manifesto on which he will be campaigning will actually offer the opposite: it will propose reducing defence expenditure.

Simon Reevell: This afternoon’s debate has been contributed to by a large number of people who put a belief in defence above party politics, and they have been objective in their criticism of both sides. That mood has changed since the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, and that is a shame.

Mr Jones: I am a very thin-skinned individual, as people know, and I am wounded by the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. However, if I have exposed the inconsistency in the Government’s—

Simon Reevell: This is party politics.

Mr Jones: Well, it might be party politics, but if I have exposed the inconsistency between what the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister have said about deficit reduction over the next five years on the one hand, and what the hon. Gentleman and others on his side have said about their support for the 2% on the other, then I am sorry, but I am guilty of that.

This is an important debate and I am glad that we have had it. May I also say that the Members who said we should have more of these debates made an important point? We used to have the Back-Bench debates annually, and they were important to Members on all sides in ensuring that defence went up the political agenda, and that we had the scrutiny we needed.

Let me finish with this final point: irrespective of party politics—the hon. Member for Dewsbury will have more of that in the next few weeks, if he is standing for re-election—if there is one thing that unites us, it is our thanks, support and admiration for the vital job the men and women of our armed forces do daily. We sometimes forget the sacrifice that they and their families make. That is one thing that, irrespective of our disagreements on the detail of defence policy, we should never forget.

3.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): This has been a timely debate, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who, as the House knows, takes a particular interest in defence. I gently point out to the House that although the Backbench Business Committee is responsible for this debate and a number of hon. Members have said it is a shame there are not more debates on defence, there was a debate on Monday of last week on this very subject in Government time. Hon. Members need to recognise that the Government are giving due time to these important matters.

This is a timely debate because it comes as we prepare for the comprehensive spending review and the strategic defence and security review, which will follow the general election. There is no doubt about the support for our armed forces from all 20 Members who have spoken today, including the Opposition spokesman, and about the importance of defence to the nation’s security. Fittingly, this debate was used as an opportunity to speak by a

12 Mar 2015 : Column 483

number of hon. Members who are leaving the House later this month having served the House with particular distinction, particularly on defence. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who unfortunately has had to catch a train, although I told him I would mention him; to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), who I am delighted to see in his place; to my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), who has given considerable service to this House—I had not appreciated that he had also served on a carrier in an earlier career; and to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), who has been a very influential figure on the Defence Committee. I am pleased they have all been able to participate, alongside the many other Members whose contributions I may or may not have time to commend.

Clearly, in a democracy, strong defence requires a strong economy, and as we head into the next Parliament, securing our economic recovery will be vital to securing defence spending. We do recognise—we were challenged by some hon. Members on this—that the threats we face have changed since the last strategic defence review, and they will be carefully reviewed in the next SDSR, which will help to determine the investment choices of the next Government.

I listened carefully to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), a former Defence Minister, whose commitment to defence I do not doubt. I have, however, had the opportunity not only to listen to his remarks today, but to read the interim report—I believe it is described as No. 8—of Labour’s so-called zero-based review, the defence element of which was published only on Saturday. I gently remind the House that he was making some claims about defence being in a better place under a potential Labour Government, but the zero-based review’s foreword indicates that, were Labour to have the opportunity, it would carry out

“a root and branch review of every pound the government spends from the bottom up”.

The defence volume foreword says

“we will make appropriate savings in the Defence budget”.

I take that to mean that every pound of defence spending will be up for review and is not secure as a consequence.

Mr Kevan Jones: It is a sensible way forward to ensure, as I said in the debate last week, that every single piece of our defence expenditure is reviewed to ensure that we get maximum value for money. If we are going to meet the targets for 2015-16, savings will have to be made and that will be reinvested in what can actually be done. What we do not have is the fiscal straitjacket that the Minister has come 2016-17.

Mr Dunne: The only comfort that this House can take from the Opposition’s position is that one of the very few Government Departments that the shadow Chancellor would not abolish is the Ministry of Defence.

I wish to set out some context about how, since 2010, defence spending has required, and has undergone, significant reform. The situation we inherited from the Labour Administration was chaotic. There was a severely overheated programme with costs that outstripped the

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available budget, which left a black hole of £38 billion. Difficult decisions were routinely ducked. The Gray report, commissioned by the previous Government, identified that the average equipment programme overrun was five years, and with an average increase in cost of £300 million. The National Audit Office’s major projects report for 2009 evidenced an increase in costs in that year alone of £1.2 billion across the major projects, including the infamous decision to delay the carriers in a desperate attempt to cram that year’s spending into the available budget. To sort that out required one of the biggest defence transformation programmes undertaken in the western world. Today, the defence budget is in balance—

Mr Kevan Jones rose

Mr Dunne: No, the hon. Gentleman has had his chance. The defence budget is in balance and our plans are affordable. We are on track to deliver £5 billion of efficiency savings in the next Parliament, including £1 billion from the equipment support plan alone. Incidentally, the half-baked plans in the Labour review “A New Deal for UK Defence” would deliver only some 1% of what we are already saving in the Department. The proof of our transformation was set out in the National Audit Office major projects report for 2014, which showed a reduction in cost of £397 million across our 11 largest projects. That was the Ministry of Defence’s best performance on cost since 2005 and best performance on delivering projects on time since 2001.

Mark Hendrick: Will the Minister tell the House how much money was wasted in the Government’s decision to move two cats and traps for the two aircraft carriers and then to back away from cats and traps?

Mr Dunne: Yes, it cost just under £100 million to make that decision, which is substantially less than the £1.2 billion cost of the deferral to which I referred earlier. I should congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his contribution today. I had not appreciated that, like me a few months ago, he faced some impediments to getting in and out of the Chamber. I hope that his leg gets better soon.

Even the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, not known for lavishing praise on this Government, said only last week that she had

“seen a step change and improvement in performance, which is incredibly welcome.”

She was referring to the transformation in defence.

Sir Nicholas Soames: I congratulate Conservative Ministers on making such a tremendous improvement to the capital budget. May I urge them to seek big savings in the bureaucracy of the armed forces? There is no bureaucracy in Whitehall that is worse than that in the Army, Navy and Air Force, and those services really need sorting out.

Mr Dunne: I thank my right hon. Friend for his advice. It is the case that vast majority of the headcount reductions across the Ministry of Defence have taken place within the bureaucracy—as my right hon. Friend calls it—of civil service support to the armed forces.

12 Mar 2015 : Column 485

The lesson here is that it is no use having a budget of £34 billion if it is not spent efficiently. Driving efficiency savings out of our budget is an important part of what we have achieved, which is to get more capability for our armed forces out of the money that we spend on defence.

In 2010, the defence budget was the second largest in NATO, and the largest in the EU. In 2015, it remains the second largest in NATO and, by some margin, the largest in the EU. Using NATO’s figures, the UK defence budget is now some $8 billion larger than the next largest EU budget, which is that of France. That gives the UK one of the most effective and deployable armed forces in the world. This very day, the UK has more than 4,000 military personnel deployed overseas on 20 key operations, in 24 countries worldwide.

Our funding also enables the UK to be and remain the most reliable partner to the US in NATO. Since August, we have been the US’s largest partner in the coalition air strikes against ISIL, conducting more than 10% of air strikes. A key capability in the effort, for example, has been the result of investment in the Brimstone missile, the most advanced precision missile system in the world. We are now working to integrate Brimstone on to other platforms such as Typhoon. This is just a single capability within our £163 billion costed, funded, affordable equipment plan, which in turn enables the UK to be one of only four NATO countries consistently to meet the key metric, spending 20% of defence expenditure on major new capabilities.

The clarity of this plan allows us to invest in next-generation capability. I shall give a few brief examples. Our new aircraft carriers will deliver a step change in capability. They are half as long and weigh almost three times as much as the previous Invincible class, yet will deliver their cutting-edge capability with the same size crew. They will have the next-generation F35 aircraft flying from them, and we have ordered four aircraft to form part of the operational squadron in addition to the four currently in test and evaluation in the United States. That platform will be far more capable than the Harrier that they replace. As the Prime Minister confirmed again yesterday, the Conservative party is committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent and will build a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, with the final investment decision due in 2016, of which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) will approve.

Ms Gisela Stuart: Yesterday I suggested to the Prime Minister that he might be just a tad embarrassed by the fact that less than a year ago he lectured other NATO countries about not reaching 2%, yet we were falling below it. He failed to answer that question. Would the Minister like to add anything?

Mr Dunne: I will come on to the issue of the 2% in a moment. We are not falling below it and we do not intend to do so in the period of the spending review. We have also presided over the modernisation of our air mobility fleet, which is now the envy of the world. Many of our NATO allies rely on our capability during operations. The Voyager air-to-air refuelling capability is being used today across Iraq by a number of our allies, not only the RAF. We are transforming our

12 Mar 2015 : Column 486

helicopter fleets. As I saw earlier this morning, we have invested £6 billion over the past four years in state-of-the-art lift, attack and surveillance capability, on time, on budget, providing flexibility so that more can be done with less.

For the Army, last year we placed the Scout vehicle contract—the biggest single order for a UK armoured vehicle in 30 years. It will provide the Army with its first fully digitised armoured fighting vehicle to give it the kind of manoeuvrability that the Chairman of the Select Committee and other hon. Members have called for. I can also confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), who did such a good job in laying the foundations for this transformation work, that we remain committed to spending at least 1.2% of the defence budget on defence science and technology. We achieved more than that last year and will do so this year. This will include more investment in disruptive areas of technology such as directed energy weapons and others, where we have committed to shift more of the balance of science and technology investment as we move into a contingent posture.

The Government’s position on the motion before the House this afternoon is clear. We will meet the 2% commitment in this financial year. We will meet it in the next. As we have been consistent, after the general election this will be a matter for the next spending review. The Prime Minister has been clear. We are committed to a 1% year-on-year real-terms increase in spending on defence equipment for the next spending review period. He has also been clear that the size of our regular armed services will remain at the level it is now, with a continuing commitment to grow the reserves to 35,000. It is not just about 2% of GDP; it is about how you spend it and what you are prepared to do with it.

The results of our reform programme speak for themselves. Four and a half years ago, we were in chaos. Today, we have earned a strong reputation across Whitehall for competence and have transformed defence capability for the better. The Treasury, even, has granted the Ministry of Defence the largest delegated budget of any Department. So we have replaced Labour’s chaos with Conservative competence. Where there was a deficit, now there is a balanced budget; where there were cost overruns, now there are cost savings; and where equipment programmes were late and over-budget, now they are overwhelmingly on time. The MOD is on far firmer foundations as we head into the next SDSR and spending review.

3.30 pm

Mr Baron: I want to thank all hon. Members for their contributions. There have been many good speeches here today, and I am pleased to say that we have all benefited from them. There has been almost universal acceptance that we live in times of heightened tensions. A growing number of countries not necessarily friendly to the west are not only increasing their defence spending and rearming but becoming more assertive. We need to spend more on defence not only better to support alliances and better protect our interests, but in deterring potential aggressors, to help to avoid conflict in the future.

We all know that 2% is an arbitrary figure. Money must be well spent and should reflect desired capability. I personally believe that we should spend 3% to 4%, but

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2% has a symbolic value in that, having lectured other NATO members on the importance of 2%, it is important that we lead by example. We need to rediscover the political will for strong defence across the political divide. There is presently a disconnect in that the main political parties accept that we have global interests and responsibilities but seem reluctant to fund them, and perhaps our misguided military interventions have contributed to that. If so, these demons must be vanquished, because they have distracted us from the greater danger of potentially hostile nation states.

In short, as for the line that there are no votes in defence, we are shirking our duty to lead on this issue, and votes are lost through bad defence. We have acknowledged the adage that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. That has been forged by events, and we forget the lessons of history at our peril. Therefore, given that those on neither Front Bench have clearly committed to 2% of GDP—[Interruption.] If they have, they will have no trouble in supporting the motion. On that basis, I wish to test the will of the House if it will allow me.

The House divided:

Ayes 37, Noes 3.

Division No. 175]


3.32 pm


Afriyie, Adam

Amess, Sir David

Baron, Mr John

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Chope, Mr Christopher

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Davis, rh Mr David

Drax, Richard

Evans, Mr Nigel

Freer, Mike

George, Andrew

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Gray, Mr James

Havard, Mr Dai

Hendrick, Mark

Hermon, Lady

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Latham, Pauline

Lefroy, Jeremy

Lopresti, Jack

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Sir Peter

McIntosh, Miss Anne

Offord, Dr Matthew

Reevell, Simon

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Rosindell, Andrew

Shannon, Jim

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, rh Sir Nicholas

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sturdy, Julian

Twigg, Derek

Whittingdale, Mr John

Tellers for the Ayes:

Dr Julian Lewis


Bob Stewart


Clark, Katy

Lucas, Caroline

McDonnell, John

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr Philip Hollobone


Philip Davies

Question accordingly agreed to.


That this House believes that defence spending should be set to a minimum of two per cent of GDP in accordance with the UK’s NATO commitment.

12 Mar 2015 : Column 488

Education Regulations and Faith Schools

3.43 pm

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House believes that Ofsted should respect the ability of faith schools to teach their core beliefs in the context of respect and toleration for others.

Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing the time of these debates, and a number of colleagues, including the hon. Members for Southport (John Pugh) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), would have liked to have taken part in this important debate, but they have unmissable commitments in their constituencies. I am grateful to those of my colleagues who are here to support me.

Faith schools do a marvellous job. That is why parents love them, and I am one of those parents. Of course, when we say faith schools, we are overwhelmingly talking about Church schools. In the state sector there are almost 7,000 faith schools, of which 4,500 are Church of England, almost 2,000 are Catholic, 48 are Jewish, 18 Muslim, eight Sikh and four Hindu. Last year, of the 693 best performing state primary schools, 62% were faith schools—a staggering percentage—even though they account for only a third of primaries nationally.

Church schools are great motors of social mobility. They perform well whatever the background of the pupils. Faith schools are ethnically diverse. About a quarter of pupils of faith schools have an ethnic background other than white British. In my son’s school it is over 60%. Far from preaching intolerance, these schools, because of their strong, unifying, religious ethos, do more for social cohesion than a thousand Home Office initiatives.

Many people’s experience of the Church of England or Roman Catholic school at the end of their road is that it is a delightful haven of well-behaved pupils from all backgrounds and highly motivated teachers putting their heart and soul into the school and its community. But it is faith schools that are under attack from the forces of intolerance, so we must recognise their great contribution and encourage them to carry on doing what they are doing so well.

Groups such as the British Humanist Association would like to ban faith schools. They do no seem to care how much parents and pupils love them or how well they perform—the very definition of intolerance. They try to smear faith schools with what happened in Birmingham with the Trojan horse scandal, but we all know that none of the Trojan horse schools was a faith school. Faith schools should hold their heads up high and not engage in the pre-emptive cringe and kowtow to the latest fashion. They should stand by the principles that have made them such a success: love of God and neighbour, pursuit of truth, high aspiration and discipline.

We do not want any dumbing down. Jewish schools should teach the Jewish religion, and Christian schools should teach the Christian religion. That is likely to give their pupils a better idea of their place in the world, of their potential and of their obligations to others. Yes, they should learn about other religions, which is necessary not only for being a good citizen, but for being culturally aware, but that can take place in the context of the school’s faith ethos. Of course pupils can accept or reject the school’s world view, whether religious or

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secular. There are plenty of Christians in secular schools and plenty of atheists in Christian schools. The law guarantees freedom of conscience. But by the same token, governors, teachers, parents and pupils who want a religious education also have freedom of conscience, and we must guard their freedoms carefully.

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that what is important is the teaching of religious education in all schools so that all children can understand religions and non-religions as they progress through school? We should have proper RE teachers to give young people the wide breadth of knowledge they need to understand everyone else in the country and all those who live in their communities.

Sir Edward Leigh: Yes, of course I agree. It is very important that RE is a rigid academic discipline. Children must be aware of other faiths and of comparative religion, but they must also have a firm grounding in their own faith’s teachings, because that gives them a sense of belonging and place.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about the need for a firm grounding. Is not the line that must be drawn that no taxpayer-funded school should ever be involved in proselytising or indoctrination?

Sir Edward Leigh: I absolutely agree. I mentioned the thousands of Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. I do not think that there is any evidence that any of those schools are creating Christian jihadists. I have six children, and they have attended faith schools in the state and private sectors. The thought that any of those primary schools in the maintained sector, whether Catholic or Anglican, is teaching intolerance is completely absurd.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) mentioned the importance of understanding other faiths. Is that not the critical factor? We should all understand other faiths and schools should teach an understanding of other faiths, but that is very different from promoting other faiths in a faith school.

Sir Edward Leigh: Absolutely. The cornerstone—may I dare use that word?—of faith schools is that they start from their own religion, and what do all of the great world religions teach? They teach understanding, tolerance and love of God and neighbour, so nobody should be teaching intolerance.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): In Windsor we have some really excellent faith schools as well as secular schools—a good mix. I have observed that the pupils who go through the faith schools are equally open minded and tolerant as those in the secular schools.

Sir Edward Leigh: The evidence for that is absolutely overwhelming.

I now want to turn to Ofsted and the terms of this motion. It may be that the time has come for Ofsted to put itself in special measures, in certain respects. It appears to be guilty of trying to enforce a kind of state-imposed orthodoxy on certain moral and religious questions. This has provoked huge controversy and has

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rarely been out of the news. We have to ask whether we can any longer have confidence in Ofsted’s reports. Ofsted’s own director of schools, Sean Harford, has admitted that the reliability of inspections is a problem. Sadly, Ministers deflect every question by saying, “It’s a matter for Ofsted.” Perhaps Ofsted is out of control because it is not being held accountable by the Department. That is why we are having this debate.

In September, the National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools wrote to the Secretary of State complaining that Ofsted inspectors asked hugely inappropriate questions and bullied their pupils into answering insensitive and anti-religious questions.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Jonathan Rabson, who is chairman of NAJOS in my constituency, has said:

“Jewish schools now have the sense that our Jewish values and ethos are being questioned. We have experienced a campaign to discredit Jewish schools and to challenge the values we espouse…We ask you to take this matter extremely seriously.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that Jewish people feel under attack as a result of Ofsted?

Sir Edward Leigh: Absolutely. It is no secret that I admire enormously the Jewish religion and the ethos that it creates. What a pity that one of the school’s year 11 girls said that the questioning made them feel “threatened and bullied” about their own religion. Another young girl said that she felt “traumatised” after they had been asked whether they had a boyfriend, knew how babies were made, and knew whether two men could marry. Rabbi David Meyer, the incoming director of the educational oversight body, Partnerships for Jewish Schools, has said:

“We are seeing a worrying trend of Ofsted inspectors showing a lack of respect of the values and traditions of our community.”

I fully support the right of Jewish schools to promote their own ethos and religion.

Let us turn to some other schools. In 2013, St Benedict’s Catholic school in Bury St Edmunds tied for first place in national state school tables for the proportion of pupils going to Oxbridge. What a marvellous school! In September 2014, it was subject to a no-notice inspection. No-notice inspections were part of the response to the Trojan horse scandal. Clearly Ofsted thought that there could be a fundamentalist Catholic conspiracy within St Benedict’s Catholic school. No-notice inspections are quite devastating for the school. Ofsted turns up, rings up, and says, “We’re in the car park. We’re coming in now.” It usually happens because it suspects that something quite serious is going on. The head teacher of St Benedict’s thought that perhaps a no-notice inspection was started because he had not printed a statement on citizenship, although he does not know. The resulting draft report downgraded the school to “requires improvement”. It said that in three of the five inspection areas, the

“younger students show less awareness of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation”.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am surprised that Bury St Edmunds is a place where these things are taught.

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Sir Edward Leigh: I am very surprised that Bury St Edmunds, of all places, is possibly a centre of extremism and radicalisation. That is not the town that I know.

The idea that Catholics are being radicalised in state schools is as ridiculous as it is offensive. The local reaction forced Ofsted to remove the offending phrase, but the downgrading remained in place. This suggests that once Ofsted has decided that a school does not support “British values”, it will mark it down in all areas. The unreality of its report was underlined when the exam results for St Benedict’s were finally published. At A-level, the school was placed in the top 100 schools nationally, state and private. Its GCSEs, too, put it among the best performing schools in Suffolk. The Catholic Education Service took the rare step of demanding an apology from Ofsted. Anybody who knows the Catholic Education Service will know that it is not an extremist body, by any manner of means—it is very quiet and restrained. Why have the inspectors who handed this ridiculous report never been brought to account?

Let us look at Trinity Christian school in Reading. It wrote to the Secretary of State in October 2014 after Ofsted had failed the school under “British values”, whatever they are. In November 2013, the school had been rated good in every category, and its spiritual education was deemed excellent. That report said:

“Pupils are well prepared for life in modern, multicultural, democratic British society through the teaching of the Christian principle to ‘love thy neighbour’.”

However, the inspection in October 2014 predominantly focused on the new rules on British values, which had come into force a week earlier. The inspector expressed doubts over the continued existence of the school—I stress, its continued existence—because of its non-compliance with the new rules. She stated that the representatives of other faiths should be invited to lead collective worship, and that the school must “actively promote” other faiths. That is directly antithetical to the school’s Christian ethos. There would be justified outrage if Ofsted demanded that secular or atheist schools actively promoted Christianity, so why should Christian schools “actively promote” what they hold to be untrue? I agree that they should inform children about other religions, but actively promoting them is immoral, impossible and, I believe, a crime against their conscience. We have to wonder how far Christian schools need to go to satisfy the new standards.

On the subject of the Church of England, only two days ago I had a word with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is concerned about this matter. I have also had a word with Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, who is also concerned. This is a mainstream concern in the Catholic and Anglican Churches. By their very nature, such people are not alarmists or extremists, but good and open-minded, but they are deeply worried about what is going on.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): Does my hon. Friend know whether the one report he has so far quoted was from an aberrant Ofsted inspector, or is it because of a direction from Ofsted or from Ministers? Who is responsible?

Sir Edward Leigh: I have not yet finished my speech. I do not want to weary the House, but I have several examples. If this was an aberrant inspection of one

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school out of thousands, we might say that we should not worry too much about it, but I will quote several examples. There is undoubtedly evidence that such inappropriate questioning has taken place. The schools have complained—I will deal with that in a moment—and there is no adequate evidence that Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, has gone back to the schools and questioned pupils, parents and teachers about the inappropriate questioning.

This debate is terribly important: if it achieves nothing else, it will ensure that there is no kind of pre-emptive cringe on the part of Christian schools worried that they might be marked down if they do not promote “British values” rather than their own ethos. I hope that there will be a kind of pre-emptive cringe on the part of Ofsted. Given that all my hon. Friends have come into the Chamber, inspectors will now be worried about asking such inappropriate questions because they might be held to account.

There is a bit of a pattern. I will mention other examples before I sit down because it is important to establish that pattern, and to convince the House that this is not about one aberrant inspector, but has happened in several schools and across several faiths.

Kevin Brennan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problems have arisen partly because of the knee-jerk way with which British values were introduced last summer? In fact, the requirement is actively to promote not other faiths, but respect for, and tolerance of, other faiths. If this had not been introduced in such a rush and with such a knee-jerk reaction, perhaps that would be better understood throughout the system.

Sir Edward Leigh: I agree entirely, and we are looking forward to hearing the Minister make that clear. There was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, and perhaps over-zealous Ofsted inspectors have not understood what British values are about. Surely British values are about what our country has always been about, which is tolerance and understanding, not a requirement to promote other people’s religions or values.

We have to wonder how far Christian schools have to go to satisfy the new standards. In September, Bolton Parish Church primary school was told that although

“events such as…Diwali are celebrated…pupils’ understanding of life in modern Britain is underdeveloped.”

Middle Rasen school in my constituency was marked down, apparently because it was too British—a strange problem for north Lincolnshire. How many non-Christian festivals does a Christian school have to celebrate before Ofsted is happy? Faith schools have a legal right to teach their own faith, and English law stipulates that school assemblies and RE should normally be “mainly Christian”, but that has been overridden by inspectors.

Grindon Hall Christian school is one of the top state schools in Sunderland for GCSEs and the top school, state or private, for A-levels. In May 2014, Ofsted rated it good in all areas except leadership and management. In November it was also subject to a no-notice British values inspection—quite alarming for the top performing school in Sunderland. Its primary school pupils were asked if they knew anyone who thought they were in the wrong body. Well, I have sometimes thought that maybe I am in the wrong body—[Laughter.] One parent

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complained that her 10-year-old daughter was asked if she knew what lesbians did. One sixth-former said that the inspector was

“manipulating the conversation to make us say something to discredit the manner of teaching in school.”

Another said:

“She seemed to have the view that since we are a Christian school we don’t respect other religions and views.”

A third said:

“It felt like she wanted a certain answer from us and wouldn’t be satisfied until she got that answer.”

Ofsted issued a report that rated the school “inadequate”. Despite the fact that it is the best in terms of results, the Ofsted report marks it as the worst of any school in Sunderland. Clearly, results count for nothing.

As with St Benedict’s, Ofsted issued a draft report with phrasing that tipped its hand. The report said:

“The Christian ethos of the school permeates much of the school’s provision. This has restricted the development of a broad and balanced approach to the curriculum.”

I thought the reason why we are such a tolerant and successful country was our Christian heritage, which teaches tolerance and respect for others. Those inspectors clearly regard a Christian ethos as inherently negative. Although the phrase was withdrawn after complaints, the report attacked every area of the school’s performance, not just British values. Hundreds of parents signed a letter to the Secretary of State to urge a review of the report which, they said,

“paints a picture of our school—and our children—that we just do not recognise.”

The Durham free school is a Christian faith school. Department for Education monitoring visits in December 2013 were very positive, but the school was targeted in the November 2014 no-notice inspections. After the inspections, pupils came forward to report questions asked by inspectors that made them feel uncomfortable. Again the views of the inspection team were revealed in the draft report which claimed that

“RE is a narrow study of the Bible”.

Well, I do not know, but I would have thought that in RE it is not a bad idea to study the Bible fairly rigorously. The school told Ofsted that

“only a very small proportion of the RE teaching at any time has constituted study of the Bible…your inspectors simply could not have seen any evidence during the inspection to support this conclusion.”

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Does this not, to some extent, call into question the quality of some of the inspectors? A state school in my constituency said that it would be willing to be inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, because by and large it has practising teachers doing inspections, whereas Ofsted by and large does not.

Sir Edward Leigh: My hon. Friend and I had a meeting with the Secretary of State earlier and he put that point to her. It is worth looking at, and we should learn lessons from the ISI and how it does things.

Ofsted issued a report that rated The Durham free school inadequate in all areas. That caused panic in the DFE and within hours the Secretary of State announced that she was closing the school—

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Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): For the sake of completeness, the hon. Gentleman should mention that both the north-east schools that he has used as examples were found to be teaching creationism as fact in science and biology.

Sir Edward Leigh: That is not what I have been told. What I have been told is that the pupils were questioned inappropriately and that they were frightened and alarmed. I know nothing about whether the schools were teaching creationism and I make no comment on that. Once the inspectors took a dim view of the schools’ performance on British values, they were marked down heavily. All the Trojan horse schools are still open. Whatever one says about Durham, the allegations against the Trojan horse schools were more serious than anything that was said about Durham. They are still open, yet Durham is to be closed.

Ofsted, too, went into panic mode. Questioned about Durham and Grindon in the Education Committee on 28 January, Sir Michael Wilshaw claimed there was

“very bad homophobic bullying going on in these schools”.

The written Ofsted reports do not say this. Sir Michael’s statement is not being backed up by the Ofsted report. I have had a conversation with the Secretary of State. She has claimed to me and my colleagues that the comments are not true, but they have been reported on and parents have complained to Ofsted in large numbers that the reports are nonsense. One lesbian mum at The Durham free school went to the press to say her daughter had been victimised at a previous school because of her mother’s sexuality, but not at The Durham free school.

Under questioning from the Education Committee, which had been contacted by parents of children at both schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw said that if the inappropriate questioning had taken place, the inspector would be

“dealt with very severely by Ofsted”.

He said, however:

“I assure you that the sort of allegations that have been made in the north-eastern schools have been investigated very thoroughly and we found no substance to them.”

What does “investigated very thoroughly” mean? Does it mean contacting the parents who made the allegations? Does it mean interviewing the pupils? Does it mean interviewing teachers? It does not. According to one of Ofsted’s regional directors, Nick Hudson, who wrote to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on 16 February, it means that Ofsted interviews its own inspectors. Unsurprisingly, the inspectors deny saying the things that would result in them being “dealt with very severely”. No wonder, then, that Ofsted gives itself a clean bill of health.

Sir Michael and Mr Hudson claim there is no evidence. Parents’ letters are, apparently, not evidence. They are simply being treated as if they are untrue. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), who would have been here today but for attending an event in his constituency, has written to the Secretary of State demanding to know why Sir Michael claimed on 28 January that the allegations “have been investigated”—past tense—while the Schools Minister, in a written question on 10 February, told Parliament that

“Ofsted is investigating matters raised”.

Which of these statements is true?

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The Minister needs to come to the Dispatch Box and announce that there will be a proper investigation into the complaints of parents at these Jewish and Christian schools. There are too many, with too many similarities, for us to believe that they are all just made up. The Minister must tell us that new guidance will be issued to Ofsted on what constitutes age-appropriate questioning—that is all we are asking for—on sex and sexuality. He must make it clear to Ofsted that having a religious ethos is not a negative thing. Contrary to certain inspectors’ fantasies of Anglican or Catholic jihadism, the religious ethos of a school has the ability to imbue its pupils with lifelong virtues that will make them model citizens. That should be welcomed, not persecuted.

The Minister should remind Ofsted that the law prioritises the teaching of the Christian faith in RE and school assemblies because we are a Christian nation with a Christian heritage. He should require Ofsted to respect religious diversity in education. The problems of a few non-faith schools taken over by Islamic fundamentalists in Birmingham do not justify any aggression towards mainstream faith schools. So-called “British values” is a classic bureaucratic response to a problem and it is damaging Christian schools. The truth is that the real basis of actual British values are Christian values. It is the influence of Christianity that has made us one of the most tolerant and successful nations on earth, not this artificial nonsense—a knee-jerk reaction—dreamed up by officials.

The so-called British values the Government are attempting to force through purport to be upholding a status quo, but they are nothing of the kind. In fact, what we are dealing with is an attempt to destroy the rich diversity that currently exists and replace it with a stultifying conformist ideology that is enforced on all people at all times and everywhere. They are happy for people to be slightly Christian, slightly Jewish or slightly Muslim, so long as that is just a pretty façade for agreeing and conforming with an unforgivingly liberal ideology.

We believe in a different Britain. We believe in a Britain where one is free to be truly Catholic, free to be deeply Anglican, free to be an outright atheist, free to be a faithful Hindu, Sikh, Methodist or whatever one’s conscience calls one to be, or even free not to care at all.

We are faced with two roads—one of narrow ideology and the other of broad tolerance and co-existence—and the Department for Education is at the heart of the decision about which road to take. It must be robust with Ofsted. It should tell it to focus on results and to drop the politics. I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who said that it was not Ofsted’s place to follow every ministerial fad on British values. Ofsted should look at maths and English, not political correctness. The “Book of Proverbs” says:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

Church schools are a great blessing to our young people, spiritually, morally and educationally. I hope that the Minister will tell us he agrees with these sentiments and will require Ofsted to encourage them in its good work, not undermine them.

4.10 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): This debate is vital, because dedicated teachers in faith schools across the country are deeply worried. Reports of the approach

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taken by inspectors, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), in applying these schools standards and regulations has generated such concern that in my view Ministers have a duty to step in to clarify the confusion and allay teachers’ fears.

A constituent wrote to me, saying that the school and early years funding regulations

“will cause many early years providers with faith links to be excluded, or to compromise their teaching for fear of being excluded from receiving funding”.

In response, an Education Minister wrote:

“The Government…does not believe that it is appropriate to fund early years settings that teach creationism as evidence-based scientific fact… Nurseries continue to be free to tell creation stories, provided that they do not assert that these are scientifically based”.

What exactly does that mean? A nursery school teacher reading the Biblical account of creation has to say to her three-year-olds, “But children, this is not being taught as evidence-based scientific fact.” That is absolutely ridiculous. The concern is, however, that for fear of contravening the Department’s requirements, teachers are feeling pressurised into the safer option—as they see it—of not teaching the creation story or any other aspects of the Bible.

Another confusion concerns the application of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural standards. The Department states:

“It is not necessary for schools…to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own”.

It is important that the Minister confirms that at the Dispatch Box and that there is no requirement to promote other faiths. What is required is actively to promote mutual respect and tolerance of those with other faiths and beliefs. It is the freedom to follow other religions and a respect for that freedom that we should promote. It is entirely right that we should respect other people, including those with other beliefs, and to respect their right to hold those beliefs, but this is being conflated with a requirement to respect all other beliefs, which is quite a different thing altogether.

I respect Scientologists, but I do not respect Scientology. This confusion is very real. It appears in inspectors’ minds. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, wrote of schools teaching “respect for…various faiths”, making no distinction between the believers and the beliefs. I understand that a Jewish Ofsted inspector has said that Ofsted wants to clamp down on schools that

“don’t conform to their ideology”.

Will the Minister confirm that it is not the intention that the standards should discriminate against any religion or undermine religious freedoms, because that appears to be exactly what is happening?

That brings us to yet another cause of confusion mentioned already: what exactly are British values? The Department’s consultation on British values—such a major issue—was hurried, mainly over the school summer holiday period, and inadequate. To then require the active promotion of those values by teachers is presumptuous and has contributed to the current confusion. The Church of England, in its response to the consultation on independent schools regulations, expressed concern that there had not been a sufficiently broad public consultation to inform the definition of British values

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and remains of the view that they are inadequately expressed and that broad public debate is still required. Ministers need to act on such concerns expressed by the Church of England, which oversees almost 5,000 church schools, both primary and secondary.

Another source of confusion that has been mentioned surrounds the phrase “age-appropriate”, with reference to Ofsted inspectors’ questions. We hear of different head teachers reporting pupils variously feeling

“bullied into answering inspectors’ questions”,

distressed, “traumatised and ashamed”, and “uncomfortable and upset”. As we have heard, a girl in year 11 felt “threatened about our religion”. It is a rich irony that, if that is the case, the inspectors’ approach contravenes the very recommendation to respect people that these standards extol. Far from promoting British values, these standards seem to be undermining them.

A fundamental British value stated in the standard is “individual liberty”, yet a teacher from an Orthodox Christian school, whom I have known for more than 20 years, wrote to me to point out that

“there are issues of erosion of…freedom”


Ministers need to step in and clarify what questions are and are not suitable for inspectors to ask young children, and how this issue should be approached, so that young people of different faiths can feel comfortable about living out their faiths in today’s diverse society.

Will the Minister confirm that he and his colleagues will look towards giving clear direction to Ofsted inspectors on these and other issues of concern to ensure that common sense prevails, to clarify what teachers in faith schools can expect when being inspected and to ensure that teachers’ ability to work according to their religious ethos is protected, so that the Department’s statement that

“it is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own”

is made a reality and not just rhetoric?

4.16 pm

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing this debate. It is a shame that so few Members are here for this debate on an extremely important subject. The two previous speakers have made important points, to which I am sure the Minister has been listening.

Let me say straight away that this is a matter of conscience, so I speak for nobody but myself. I have a lot of sympathy with what has been said, particularly on tolerance, and on the rights of children, which we need to think about very seriously. I come to this issue from a different angle; I confess that I am an atheist, but I am probably a model of tolerance for other ways of living. I think it extremely important that schools set people up for a full life in modern Britain. I shall come on to give one or two examples of where I feel that is not happening. To me, religious education is about education, not indoctrination. I shall briefly cover four areas in my speech: admissions, staffing, curriculum and community cohesion.

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On admissions, it is interesting to note that only four countries in the whole of the OECD allow state schools to select on the basis of religion: the UK, Ireland, Israel and Estonia. No other country does. In fact, we are the only country in the OECD that has a legal commitment to an act of collective worship. That law is broken in about 80% of schools every day; if we think about the number of people involved, this must be the greatest act of collective law-breaking in history. I think it is time that we looked again at the collective worship provisions of the Education Act 1944. Given that so few schools go through with this, we need to clarify the position. It is interesting that we have heard a lot about the aggression of Ofsted, but in theory, it should be marking down and reporting the schools that are not carrying out proper acts of collective worship and are therefore breaking the law.

On staffing, my party is clear is about its policy. We believe that there should be a discriminatory recruitment process only for the staff needed to carry out religious activity in schools. A lady who lives two doors away from me in Redcar found her school in south Middlesbrough taken over by the Vardy Foundation, a creationist organisation, about 10 years ago, and she had to reapply for her job. I believe that the head of the foundation has now sold the schools that he took over. That woman, who was a drama teacher, was told that her new job would largely involve biblical tableaux. Not surprisingly, she left the school, and subsequently pursued a very successful career at a different school in my area. The issue of staffing is extremely important; young people deserve a range of staff to provide for their needs.

As for the curriculum—I mentioned the drama curriculum a moment ago—I suspect that that is where some of the trouble starts. Other Members have said that Ofsted appears to have been over-zealous in some of our more moderate schools. It certainly sounds as though it has, and I think that clarification is needed. However, it has recently identified various practices. I have already referred to the teaching of creationism as fact; that is happening in quite a few schools in the science and biology curriculum. It is a particular issue in the north-east, partly owing to the Vardy Foundation and some of its successor organisations.

GCSE science exam papers have been redacted in girls’ schools because the questions were deemed unacceptable. Some schools have not observed the legal obligation to teach anatomy, puberty and reproduction. Access has been denied to art or music. Schools have espoused a narrow view of the role of women and girls, homophobia, and exposure to extremist views. Those are all real, recent cases, and we need a system that is capable of picking them up.

I was a member of a parliamentary group that recently heard witnesses speak about three topics. The first was the Trojan horse situation in Birmingham, which has been well reported, so I shall not repeat all the arguments now, but I think it is well known that it was a problem for young people. We also heard from an ex-pupil from a Jewish Orthodox Haredi school in north London, who, despite having been born and raised in the United Kingdom, could speak only Yiddish at the age of 17 because he lived in such a tight, closed community. His education had been incredibly narrow. Some may say

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that his community is free to behave in that way, but I personally think that it is a poor preparation for life in modern Britain.

We also heard from a former Accelerated Christian Education pupil. ACE bases its entire curriculum on the Bible, and the former pupil said that he had left the school, at the age of 18, believing that the national health service and the welfare state were against biblical teaching. In other words, the teaching at the school was a cover for a very right-wing political agenda. Was that person well prepared for life in this country?

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I realise that I approach this issue from a slightly different standpoint, but I have to say that the examples given by my hon. Friend are unbelievably alien to the experience of faith schools in areas such as Northumberland. I would not want him to think that that is what faith schools are like. The motion refers to

“the ability of faith schools to teach their core beliefs in the context of respect and toleration for others.”

I am sure that that wording reflects his views as well as mine.

Ian Swales: Absolutely. Indeed, my right hon. Friend has anticipated the next part of my speech. I have very little against most faith schools. The head of Ofsted is the former head of a Catholic secondary school, and he said recently that most faith schools “have nothing to fear”. There are outstanding faith schools in my constituency: Sacred Heart in Redcar and St Peter’s in South Bank, and their four Catholic feeder primary schools. The point that I was making in giving those rather extreme examples was that we need an inspection system that is fit for purpose and picks up such instances. If anyone has been given the impression that I think faith schools are riddled with this kind of thing, I wish to correct the record, because that is not what I was suggesting.

Sir Peter Bottomley: May I say something in fairness to Ofsted, which has not sent me a brief? On average, there are probably up to 10 faith schools in each of our constituencies, and I think that most of us have not received any complaints about Ofsted inspections. I suspect that we may be hearing about outlying cases. I do not know whether there is a new procedure, or whether some people are not up to the job or need more training, but I believe that most of our constituents want to be protected from both extreme teaching and the odd bad inspection.

Ian Swales: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Extreme teaching—and, indeed, extreme inspection, I suppose—is maybe what we are hearing about. Like him, I have not had any complaints from schools in my area about this issue. I do not want to predict the Minister’s speech, but the Department for Education itself has said that it is not true to suggest that schools would ever be penalised for having a faith ethos, so clearly the Department is not taking that position. If there is an issue, it is somewhere in the middle.

I talked about community cohesion, and there are undoubtedly potential issues there. I know we do not always like to talk about this in this House, but it is not new. We still have a huge sectarian problem in the UK

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in Northern Ireland. The Netherlands in the 1930s had major Protestant-Catholic problems, and one of its policy solutions was to stop educating people separately. I do not put that forward as a policy I think we should necessarily jump into, but it is notable that there are now 62 schools in Northern Ireland that are educating people on a multi-faith basis, and I think the people who live in those communities do see it as part of the peace process, in a place where sectarian divisions run very deep. I am happy to say that there are few parts of the mainland where that seems to be the case.

In a multicultural society, which we undoubtedly have,

“respect and toleration for others”

are vital, and those words are in the motion, so I do not have a problem with its wording. What we are really talking about is Ofsted acting where those things are not seen to be in place. It may well be over-acting, but it is right that it has a role to act if it sees that.

This is not just about parental rights, religion or the state; it is also about the child. It is important to note that article 14 of the UN convention on the rights of the child—the one that is in child-friendly language—says:

“You have the right to choose your own religion and beliefs.”

To be fair, it goes on to say:

“Your parents should help you decide what is right and wrong, and what is best for you”,

so there is an issue about the extent to which children should be indoctrinated and what sort of freedoms they should have. That is encapsulated in the UN convention on the rights of the child. I think children also have a right to be educated to be fit for life in the country in which they live—in this case, Britain. That goes to the heart of what sort of education they should get. Many groups have different views about this. I am standing down in a couple of weeks, but I am sure that this issue will not go away. I think it could grow with the proliferation of religions and cultures. Our laws need to be fit for purpose, as do our inspection processes and the way we fund schools.

As I have said, I have a partial view that not everyone in the House will agree with, but I shall finish with a quote from the chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Jonathan Romain from Maidenhead synagogue. He recently said:

“I want my children to go to a school where they can sit next to a Christian, play football at break time with a Muslim, do homework with a Hindu and walk home with an atheist—and with other children getting to know what a Jewish child is like. Schools should build bridges, not erect barriers.”

4.28 pm

Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing this debate. He has said everything that needs to be said, so I shall now be accused of speaking for the sake of it.

I was born a Catholic and I will die a Catholic, but if I had been born Jewish, I would have been proud to have been a Jew, and so on, but I absolutely understand, like the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who has just spoken, that there are many colleagues who have no faith at all. Until we are dead, we just do not know, so I am erring on the side of caution; I certainly do not want to go to hell, because I can only imagine that

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hell will be like the prospect of a Labour-Scottish National party coalition, so I am now sticking to my faith.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough on what he said, and I very much agree with everything that he shared with the House. My constituents, like his, have raised certain concerns about Ofsted’s system of inspection. The hon. Member for Redcar mentioned the gentleman who is in charge of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw. I went to St Bonaventure’s grammar school, and Michael Wilshaw was the headmaster of that school. Indeed, he was knighted during his period as a head teacher. So the head of Ofsted knows only too well the value of a faith school, because St Bonaventure’s is a wonderful school. There are some wonderful faith schools in Southend, including Our Lady of Lourdes, St Bernard’s, St Thomas More, St Mary’s and St Helen’s.

I have been alarmed about the way in which Ofsted’s inspections of schools are unannounced and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, I think that some of the questions being asked by the inspectors—certainly in a sexual context—are most inappropriate. Parents should be consulted much more readily on the questions that are being asked.

In November 2014, Sir Michael Wilshaw announced that no-notice inspections were used only where there were serious concerns about the breadth and balance of the curriculum, about rapidly declining standards, about safeguarding, or about standards of leadership or governance. As we all know, faith schools are some of the best performing schools in the country. They are marked as either good or outstanding by Ofsted. There is therefore no ground for Ofsted to carry out unannounced inspections on these excellent schools. As far as faith schools are concerned, it is absolutely nonsensical to say that a suspicion of extremism is a ground for making a no-notice inspection.

I also want to raise a shocking example of self-policing following parents’ complaints about the inappropriate and unannounced questioning of their children. I fail to understand how Ofsted was allowed to investigate the complaint made against it. Even more surprisingly, the Department for Education accepted Ofsted’s conclusion that the complaints raised by the parents were “false”.

Mr Andrew Turner: Is my hon. Friend saying that there is no evidence of the complaint being investigated by any body other than Ofsted?

Sir David Amess: Yes, that is absolutely what I am saying.

A leaked internal Department for Education document shows that there has been a significant breakdown in trust between the DFE and Ofsted over this issue. The document describes Ofsted’s controversial drive to carry out British values inspections, and accuses the regulator of sending “confused and mixed messages”. However, the Government put the British values agenda in place and they have been quick to say that complaints about inappropriate questions are a matter for Ofsted, apparently without taking any steps to rein in the regulator. There

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are therefore questions for the Minister to answer today, and I am sure that we are anxious to leave him plenty of time to deal with them.

The Secretary of State sent a letter to colleagues stating:

“The changes we are making were first outlined in a letter to the Education Select Committee by Lord Nash in March of this year. In that letter, Lord Nash explained that the rationale was: ‘to tighten up the standards on pupil welfare to improve safeguarding, and the standards on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils to strengthen the barriers to extremism’.”

The letter went on to state:

“The Prime Minister’s Extremism Task Force was clear in its December 2013 report that ‘Islamist extremism…is a distinct ideology which should not be confused with traditional religious practice’—but the vague school standards allow Ofsted to treat social conservatives as extremists.”

That is absolutely ridiculous.

The Secretary of State also told us that there are

“twin aims that lie at the heart of the reforms.

The most significant change strengthens the reference to fundamental British values, requiring schools not only to ‘respect’ but to actively promote them. This gives force to a policy first set out by my predecessor in response to events in Birmingham.

The fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs are not new.

They were defined in the Government’s Prevent Strategy in 2011”.

However, the Secretary of State also said:

“The new standards, which require the active promotion of British values, mark a dramatic change in education policy. The previous standards simply required respect for British values and made no mention of the Equality Act 2010…

No pupil should be made to feel inferior to others because of their background. This has long been a central tenet of British education. But it is of course also essential to protect freedom of speech and it is in no way true to suggest that these changes would fetter the views of individual teachers or censor the discussion of relevant matters. A teacher who, for instance, disagrees with same-sex marriage because of their Christian faith will not be prevented from expressing that view by these changes any more than they would now.”

Fiona Bruce: My hon. Friend has spoken about the changes in these standards, but what has been an important change is that the Secretary of State now has power to take regulatory action where a school is in breach of these requirements. That is why it is so important that we seek clarification and that the Minister gives it, because the repercussions on a school if it is in breach of these standards, in the inspector’s view, are devastating.

Sir David Amess: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s advice, and I am sure the whole House will reflect on what she has said. Let me return to what I was saying before she intervened. The letter continued:

“The experience in Orthodox Jewish schools has been that inspectors were actively hostile to traditional Jewish beliefs about marriage held by children and staff.”

That is absolutely shocking.

In conclusion, I believe that tolerance and inclusion are some of the most important British values, but the way in which they are passed on to young pupils should not be imposed on schools. Ofsted needs to cease making unannounced inspections on our brilliant,

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wonderful faith schools, and stop questioning pupils in a way that is not considered age-appropriate by parents.

4.37 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): As we have to finish at 4.58 pm, Madam Deputy Speaker, I apologise for the fact that I may not be able to leave the 15 minutes I had hoped to leave for the Minister, because if I did so I have would have only six minutes. I will try my best.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on his contribution and his passionate defence of faith schools, in which he admitted to the House that he felt trapped in the wrong body. That was an unexpected revelation; we are all intrigued. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also expressed concerns that the consultation on British values had been rushed. I agree with her on that and I will say something more about it in a moment. The hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) rightly gave some worrying examples about the teaching of creationism. He was also right to intervene earlier in the debate to point out those concerns and to detail concerns about things such as the redacting of examination questions and the failure to teach legally required subjects. Those are serious issues and we should take them seriously in this debate. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) told us about the excellent faith schools in his constituency.

I, too, attended a faith school. I attended a Catholic comprehensive school in Pontypool, and before anyone intervenes to ask me, yes I was taught by nuns, including the wonderful Sister Josephine, who taught me English, and Sister Mary Vincent, who was famous for her ability to deal with boisterous boys and therefore was known by all the pupils as Attila the Nun. It was a school in which it was perfectly possible, as hon. Members have described, to have a balanced education in a faith context. Everyone should take note of that fact.

As hon. Members have said, the debate has come about because of the sudden scandal that broke out in relation to the Al-Madinah free school and other schools involved in the Trojan Horse affair. In fact, the secondary part of the school was closed down as a result of that scandal, so it is not the case that just The Durham free school has been closed down.

There is no question but that British values are important. Given the recent concerns that have been expressed about the young girls who have travelled to Syria, it is clear that we need a national debate about the whole matter as well as about the role that schools should play in teaching British values. As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, there has not been enough deep thinking about what that involves and about how schools should develop a whole school approach to the discussion of British values.

A couple of things have played into the problems that have been outlined this afternoon. One is the carelessness—I can only describe it as that—of the Department for Education and of Ministers in relation to their free school policy. That carelessness and that desire to make the policy a success in terms of numbers has led to some unsuitable people being given charge of our children. As the hon. Member for Redcar said, it led to things going on in schools—we know they were going on in schools such as the Al-Madinah free school and The

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Durham free school—that should not have been going on in state-funded, taxpayer-funded schools. Those things happened because of a carelessness in the introduction of that particular policy. Whatever we think about the concept of free schools, it should not have been a rushed job just to get numbers up. The policy should have been introduced with thought, and we should have applied the utmost rigour in testing the suitability of those people who were being given the charge of our children.

The other matter that has played into the problems is that knee-jerk reaction to the consequences of that carelessness in policy, namely the Trojan horse scandal, which involved a number of schools, including some free schools. That knee-jerk reaction resulted in this rushed idea that we had to teach British values. That very quick consultation resulted in the confusion that Members have outlined this afternoon.

As a result, we have confusion—we have heard about that—and condemnation. We get complaints from schools about the way that they are being treated. That is what happens when policy, particularly education policy, is made on the hoof. Last year, when this issue first came up, we had a debate on British values. At that time, I warned against the rush to put the policy in place. I also mentioned the systematic problems that had led to the Trojan Horse affair. However, as Members have pointed out, it was not faith schools that caused the problem. Faith-based education is a positive part of our system, and some of the finest schools in this country are faith-based schools. None the less, those schools must still respect and understand other views. As Members have said, that is what happens in the vast majority of our faith schools across the country.

Faith schools should never be places of indoctrination and proselytisation. The hon. Member for Gainsborough agreed with me on that. Of course those are the words used by the Catholic Education Service in its briefing on these subjects. Faith schools of whatever faith, academies or community-run schools must understand that the teaching of religion in our taxpayer-funded schools is not about proselytisation or indoctrination. It is of course perfectly valid that we should have a faith-based element in our system. Indeed, it is a long and proud part of our tradition.

We believe that had a better approach been in place, we would not have encountered the problems that have been outlined today. A classic example of the British values issue was when the then Secretary of State hit the headlines—he used to do that very effectively—but totally missed the point. As a result of that, we have the debate that we have had today.

I will conclude, as I wish to leave the Minister plenty of time in which to respond. Ultimately, the problem is taxpayers’ money being handed over too freely without accountability to groups who fail to understand that they cannot proselytise and indoctrinate in our schools. The fault for the emergence of that problem lies largely, I am afraid to say, with the approach that the Government have taken.

4.44 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing this debate and giving the House the

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opportunity to discuss this important issue. I also thank other hon. Members who have spoken and express my gratitude to the Labour shadow Minister for being generous with his time and for issuing a clear reprimand to his boss for his views on the contribution of nuns to the education system. That will have been noted by the House and no doubt by his hon. Friend.

I welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough has given me to provide some clarity on this issue, if that is needed. I hope that I can offer him the assurances for which he has asked. I am grateful to him for notifying me of some of his concerns before the debate so that I could study them in detail. As he mentioned, he also spoke recently to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who takes these matters extremely seriously. I will conclude my remarks with some of the comments that she has asked me to pass on about the Government’s position on these matters.

I should say, especially given the time that I have to respond to the debate, that a lot of the allegations that have been made today about the inspection of particular schools are, as my hon. Friend will understand, contested. It is impossible for me to rebut each of the allegations today. Both the Department and Ofsted take them seriously, but as the Minister responsible for Ofsted I must make it clear that many of the allegations are not accepted and Ofsted has done its best to investigate them closely. The time I have does not allow me to go through each of the schools that my hon. Friend has raised in great detail so I will ask the chief inspector to write to him before Parliament is dissolved explaining Ofsted’s views about the allegations that have been made. I hope that that will be helpful to my hon. Friend.

A number of hon. Members have said, and I am grateful to the shadow Minister for putting the Government’s position on the record, that schools are not required to actively promote other faiths. They have to actively promote respect for those of other faiths. Those two things are different, and that needs to be clearly understood.

The Government recognise the huge contribution of the Churches and faiths to education in our country. As my hon. Friend said, Church and faith schools continue to be included among the highest-performing schools in the country, regularly topping the league tables. It is therefore unsurprising that they continue to be popular with parents, but this is not just about their academic record, as my hon. Friend said. Parents value their strong ethos, and their commitment to the development of character and discipline and to acting for good in society.

There has been a lot of discussion about whether fundamental British values are compatible with the values of different groups and communities in our society, especially those with different faiths and beliefs. For most of us—this has been reflected in the debate today—it is self-evident that these are shared values in our society, but we should be explicit about what the Government require. Our expectation is that every school will promote and teach about democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. I believe that the vast majority of people in Britain, whether they

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have a faith or not, would agree that schools should be teaching these values, and challenging views and behaviours that are contrary to them.

One of the reasons why I am so confident that we are talking about shared values is that so many schools already do a great job of promoting them, including many Church and faith schools. The Government—my hon. Friend raised this with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—are keen to highlight the excellent practice in many schools. For example, Ofsted inspectors recently highlighted excellent practice in Sinai Jewish primary school in Brent. They found that pupils were not only “proud to be Jewish” but also

“enjoy working with pupils from different ethnic and religious backgrounds”.

The report notes that pupils are

“exceptionally well prepared for life in modern Britain”.

Inspectors noted that St Ethelbert’s Catholic primary school in Slough encourages pupils to see the world from different perspectives and has the notion of tolerance and mutual respect running through its core. Ofsted inspectors singled out the contributions of schools such as Christ the King school in Bristol and Tauheedul boys school in Blackburn, which was commended for having children who are

“very well prepared to take their place in modern British society and embrace British values”.

These examples demonstrate that there is no inherent tension between schools having a strong faith ethos and providing well for their pupils in relation to fundamental British values. They show that Ofsted’s approach successfully reconciles those two aspects in reporting on schools, so the Government do not accept the assertion that schools cannot be expected to know how to promote British values effectively, or that doing so creates an excessive burden. Good schools have always ensured that their pupils learn about the values we share, as well as the beliefs and practices that make us different.

Just as the benefits of promoting British values are clear, so are the risks of failing to prepare pupils for life in Britain. What we saw in Birmingham last year—often in non-faith schools, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough rightly pointed out—and since then in a small minority of cases outside Birmingham were the dire consequences of schools failing, in some cases deliberately, to fulfil their responsibilities. In some schools, girls were treated as second-class citizens in the classroom, made to sit at the back and offered less choice of subjects than boys, limiting their aspirations and career opportunities. Homophobic bullying took place, and there were discriminatory attitudes about other faiths, lifestyles and cultures, with teachers and school leaders failing to intervene, and a lack of any learning about the different faiths and beliefs that make up British society, leaving pupils unprepared for adult life and, in some cases, more susceptible to extremist ideologies and their divisive narratives.

An intolerant extreme ideology is, of course, anathema to the vast majority of people of faith in Britain, but the lesson we must learn from Birmingham and other school failures is that it is right and essential to keep focusing on schools’ work to develop their pupils’ character and understanding of others in society and to hold schools to account fairly where they fail to do so.