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Tuesday 10 January 2012
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Regional Pay (Public Sector)
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Diolch, Mr Chope. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning and to have the honour of beginning the first Westminster Hall debate of 2012. I thank right hon. and hon. Friends for making the effort to come here on the first morning of Parliament’s return.
The topic of regional pay will increasingly dominate relations between the UK Government and the public sector over the coming year, perhaps even more than the still unsolved dispute over public sector pensions. Back in November, I labelled the autumn statement a panicked response to worsening economic forecasts, rising unemployment and increasing deficit payments. The statement included many interventionist measures for which my party had been calling, particularly increased capital infrastructure investment. The signature policy of the statement was the capital investment programme, which seems remarkably similar to my party’s proposals at the last Welsh general election. I hope that the £25 billion of funds to be raised from pension funds over the coming years will be shared equitably across the nations and regions of the state.
“more responsive to local…markets”,
with the aim that they should report in July this year. After the flurry of announcements that we heard at the beginning of the autumn statement, it took a while for the significance of that announcement to sink in. What the Chancellor was announcing was a wholesale review of the introduction of regional pay in the public sector to be introduced as early as the 2013-14 pay round. I do not want to accuse the Chancellor of being deliberately antagonistic—
Jonathan Edwards: Well, it is the first day back. However, the fact that that announcement was made on the eve of the biggest industrial strike in the UK since 1926 smacks of deliberate bad timing. If the Government think that the proposals for public sector pensions have got state employees and their representatives worked up, they have not seen anything yet. As the debate rages over such proposals, I fear that we are likely to witness increased industrial strife.
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more balanced economy in the nations and regions of the state that does not squeeze out the private sector. The claim—the theory, at least—is that depressing public sector wages where they are currently higher than those in the private sector will lead to the brightest and best choosing a private sector career over public service and that such an approach will boost the private sector.
What are the Treasury’s intentions? Is it considering a system that extends the London weighting, or is it considering something altogether more far-reaching? In June 2008, the Minister for the Cabinet Office was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that it is the intention of the new UK Government to lower rates of pay in the civil service outside London. That is on top of redundancies and a two-year pay freeze, with the autumn statement freezing public sector pay at 1% for a further two years. May I remind Ministers that a pay freeze at 1% is essentially a further real-terms pay cut for the next two years? My fear is that the Treasury’s proposals are all about saving costs. I therefore cannot see it topping up payments for public sector workers in more affluent areas of the state or reallocating resources. My concern is that the Government’s intention is to reduce pay in the poorest parts of the state across the public sector and to introduce market conditions into public sector workers’ pay and remuneration.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that the public sector pay bill for 2009 was around £182 billion, which represents around 30% of UK Government expenditure and around 13.1% of UK national income. However, based on the 2010 comprehensive spending review, we know that the public wage bill will be significantly reduced by the projected reduction of 400,000 public sector jobs by 2017. In winding up today, it would be helpful if the Minister informed us what the savings will be of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s new projections of more than 710,000 public sector job losses by 2017.
At the risk of offending my friends in the Labour party, based on the policy direction of the previous Government, the Treasury should have the full support of Her Majesty’s official Opposition. What strikes me about politics in this place is that, despite the sporadic changing of the guard at No. 10 Downing street, more things stay the same. The previous Prime Minister had obviously spent too much time in his former post at the Treasury, as he was an avid exponent of regional pay. Indeed, the previous Labour Government introduced regional pay for court workers and the Prison Service.
In the teeth of the trade union movement’s opposition over the coming months to these proposals, the Treasury will justifiably be able to say that the previous Labour Government introduced the principle of differential pay, using the Courts Service as a pathfinder for its wider introduction across the whole public sector. Indeed, the Chancellor made that point repeatedly to the Treasury Committee during the evidence session on the autumn statement last month. To the Public and Commercial Services Union’s credit, it warned exactly of that during the debate surrounding the proposals for the Courts Service in 2007. It said at the time:
“There was a need for a pay and regrading review as workers from the magistrates’ courts have recently been brought into the civil service. But the Department of Constitutional Affairs has gone for the cheapest possible option. If the government brings regional pay in here, it will try to implement it in the rest of the civil service, and then across the public sector.”
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I would be grateful to the Minister if she informed hon. Members about the Government’s assessment of the impact on recruitment and quality of service in south-east England of introducing regional pay in the Courts Service. More importantly from my constituents’ perspective, what has been the impact on recruitment, performance and, crucially, morale in those areas where lower rates of pay are offered?
Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman is in general making an excellent case this morning, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. Does he agree that there is a real problem surrounding the quality of public services as a result of the fact that, for example, doctors might come out of university with five, six or seven years of debt and be paid less in regions such as the north-east or Wales than in London?
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, and I thank her for that intervention. I will come on to talk about the brain-drain element and the polarisation of wealth across the British state.
I say to the Minister that, with the policy in operation across some parts of the public sector already, the Treasury should have the information about its impact at its disposal. That leads us to ask why the autumn statement pledged to hold an investigation into the issue. There is already a wealth of evidence from trade unions about the problems of the policy in the courts and prison services.
Without having sight of the Minister’s speech, I presume that her counter-argument might include saying that it is the Government’s intention to equalise the standard of living for public sector workers. Such an argument might go along the lines that a teacher working in Carlisle or Carmarthenshire has more disposable income than a colleague working in Reading, because of the difference in the cost of living and that that is morally unjustifiable. Superficially, that seems a seductive and attractive argument, but it is essentially a policy aimed towards a race to the bottom.
I hope that the Government do not embark on a divide-and-rule strategy and play public sector workers off against each other, as they have during the public sector pensions debate. Under the proposals, both public and private sector workers in the regions and locations concerned would be losers. The impact of such a policy would not be a geographical or sectoral rebalancing of the economy; it would be a sobering experience, with public sector workers already in fear of their jobs having their pockets picked for pension payments and suffering a prolonged period of wage freezes and real-term cuts.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): Does my hon. Friend agree that the arguments about differential costs of living in some areas are sometimes bogus? He will know as well as I do that, for example, transport costs in rural areas are astronomical. People might have to run two cars, as they struggle to maintain a lifestyle that involves travelling to two jobs in different directions.
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has been supported by about 18 Members to date. I urge those Members who support the campaign on this issue to sign that early-day motion at the very least.
Public sector workers are facing real-term cuts and that is before we consider the impact on the private sector. In many places, the private sector is reliant on the trade generated by the public sector and the money circulated through public sector employees. In constituencies such as mine, where more than 30% of people work in the public sector, there is a direct correlation between their wages and the cash circulating in the local economy.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Surely, his point about the direct correlation between socio-economic difficulties in geographical areas—particularly those that are some distance from the south-east such as Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England—and the high dependency on public sector employment is key. Many of those areas have only managed to get through the recession at the moment because of their high dependency on the public sector. If we were to go down this route now, we would find that the problem would be multiplied even more.
Since the general election, we have heard a lot about the UK Government’s ambition to geographically rebalance the economy. They have the full support of my party, including the national insurance holiday proposals for small businesses, which I think shows the Treasury’s intent, despite the evidence showing a lack of success. The policy indicates that the Treasury, at long last, realises that countervailing measures are required to address the so-called north-south economic divide. We will, however, need a far more comprehensive approach than we have seen to date. My fear is that this policy on regional pay goes in a completely different economic direction.
One of our major criticisms of UK Governments of whatever colour in the past 30 years has been that the emphasis has been far too concentrated on one small geographical part of the state. Successive Governments have been guilty of allowing regional and individual wealth polarisation at an incredible rate. The average gross value added per person in inner London is 10 times that of workers in the Gwent valley. Inner London is the richest part of the European Union, whereas the communities that I represent—only a few hours down the M4; longer on the train—qualify for the highest form of European convergence aid. Such are the imbalances in the British state that it is now by far the most unequal of all EU member states. Considering the unification legacy in Germany, that is a damning indictment of all successive Governments.
Far from addressing that record of shame, these proposals will further depress those economies that are in desperate need of investment. It is no surprise to anyone that the fiscal consolidation pursued by the UK Government will hit the poorest parts of the state most. The statement by the Prime Minister that we are all in this together is rivalled in its degree of preposterousness only by the previous Prime Minister’s assertion, when Chancellor, that he would abolish boom and bust. My
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country has the lowest average gross weekly wages in the whole UK. On average, workers in Wales earn approximately £519.40, compared with £629.10 in the south-east of England and £826.40 in London. Take away the consistency of public sector pay—a point made by many hon. Members in interventions to date—and those discrepancies will be far worse.
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing the debate. Aside from the unfairness, will he tell hon. Members whether the ability of the fire service, for example, to be resilient in the event of major incidents such as terrorist threats—or flooding, which happens in my region—is likely to be undermined by such a national pay structure? Remember, fire fighters will often cross borders to help brigades in other areas.
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about morale and about where public sector workers choose their profession as a vocation. They do so as a lifetime commitment and are more likely to move to areas where they will get better pay. This is a pressing issue about the effect that this proposal will have on the quality of our public services in those areas where we need to be pumping up the public sector because there are problems with the economy.
It would be indefensible, considering that public expenditure per head is far higher in London than other parts of the state, for the Treasury to introduce a policy that further exacerbates the wealth divide. The spending power of people in the poorest parts of the state is obviously far lower, and that has an impact on private sector growth in those areas. In the communities that I represent, more than 30% of the population work in the public sector. Their disposable income correlates directly to cash circulating in the local economy. The move towards regional pay, therefore, is deeply worrying, as it will institutionalise lower pay in poorer areas. It will entrench those deeply socially divisive economic variances that exist within the British state and fundamentally undermine a supposed key objective of the current UK Government.
Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, because this is a very important issue. What would have been the consequence if regional pay had already been instituted and police officers from my area in Cleveland were sent down to London, Birmingham or Manchester during last year’s summer riots? What would have been the consequences for the pensions of those police officers if their annual pay was reduced in certain regions of the country?
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes a very informative intervention, which shows some of the problems. He is right to point to the recent riots in London, because police forces from his area and mine were sent down to London to deal with those problems. What would the morale in the police force be if there was differential pay in different parts of the British state? In fact, I cannot think of many other policy interventions that would undermine completely attempts to rebalance the economy geographically.
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Returning to some of the arguments used to promote the idea, the notion that depressing public sector pay would lead to the brightest and the best leaving the public sector to generate wealth seems a slightly strange one. Public sector workers often make a lifetime commitment to joining a profession and to public service. Rather than seeking work in the local private sector, they are far more likely to seek similar employment in other areas where they will receive a better pay. That will result in speeding up the brain drain that has caused so much damage to the communities that I represent.
There are a number of technical problems with the introduction of regional public sector pay. One obvious problem is how to calculate pay. Is the idea to link it with private sector pay? If so, the huge disparities in pay in the private sector between different parts of the UK would be replicated in the public sector. Generally, private sector wages in Wales are only half those in London. Are we seriously saying that a public sector worker in Southwark, who does exactly the same job as an individual in Carmarthenshire, should be paid twice the rate?
How many different regions will there be? How will boundaries be set, and how often will pay and boundaries be reviewed? In an unusual sign of activity, the First Minister of Wales announced within hours of the autumn statement that, if the UK Treasury introduced the policy, the Welsh Government would seek to assume responsibility for public sector pay. I remember being interviewed by the BBC on the steps of St Stephen’s entrance on my response to the autumn statement. I was asked to respond to the First Minister’s comments, which I had not heard previously, that regional pay was
“a code for cutting pay in Wales”.
“Ultimately we may have to look at taking overpay and conditions here in Wales. It’s not as easy as it sounds. There are real issues in terms of how that’s done. But if we’re forced into that situation, better that than have people’s pay cut by the UK Government in London.”
That sort of fighting talk, with an alternative course of action, is extremely unlike the current Welsh Government. We normally get a pile of hot air based on Labour-Tory tribalism, but with even the Welsh Government awakening from its slumber, perhaps Ministers here in London should be very wary of the strength of opposition that these proposals will generate.
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): As usual, my Plaid friends always make the case better when they do not mention the word “independence”. Going back to the better part of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, we have a Secretary of State for Wales who happens to represent a Buckinghamshire constituency. Surely, if these proposals were considered logically, the rate of pay for that Secretary of State—if she is still Secretary of State at the end of the week—would be rather different if she represented a Welsh seat. That would be absolute nonsense, and it illustrates how nonsensical this policy is.
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Parliament should receive differential pay, and I can imagine how that might go down with hon. Members if we had to vote on it.
Hywel Williams: To return to the practical problems that we have in Wales, we share a long land border with England that is rather different from Scotland. There is much less traffic. I am very glad to see that link with England and both sides should profit from it, but it means that public sector pay in the Courts Service in Mold, for example, is different from that in Chester, which is just a few miles down the road, and that is ludicrous.
As a Welsh nationalist, I of course welcome the statements of the Government of my country that they will look into devolving public sector pay and conditions. Let us hope that if the UK Government continue with this policy, they match their words with actions. My only word of warning is: how will the Welsh Government fund this policy, given that they are reliant on block grant funding, which has been depressed by the Treasury, and that they are paralysed by an inability to raise their own revenue? If we go down this road, we will have to reform the funding formula, which the Labour party was previously cautious about doing.
Every hon. Member will acknowledge that the cost of living—particularly housing—for public sector workers in some parts of the UK is a problem. The chasm between private sector and public sector wages in London, for example, needs to be addressed. That is why my party previously made the case for a maximum wage to tackle the ridiculous earnings and bonuses paid to people in the square mile that do so much to inflate prices for ordinary working people in both public and private sectors. We must consider introducing innovative ideas, such as rent caps, as in New York, to reduce the housing benefit bill and ensure that public sector workers are not priced out of housing.
Rather than take such bold measures, the UK Government prefer to hammer hard-working people in the poorest parts of the state in an attempt to remedy the problems caused by the obsession of successive Westminster Governments with the economic elite here in London. That policy response, based on dealing with the consequences of macro-economic policy, has led to such imbalances across the state, rather than tackling the causes of those imbalances. The argument is that, through regional pay, the differences between public and private sector pay will disappear, but that claim comes about through looking at problems through the wrong end of the microscope. That is the same perspective from which people argued that cutting public sector jobs would lead automatically to their replacement with private sector jobs—and that has since been proven quite wrong, especially in areas such as the one that I represent.
In Wales, as in other parts of the UK, the private sector is undoubtedly too small, and that is sometimes misrepresented by people saying that there is too large a public sector, but that is not the case. The private sector in Wales needs to be given encouragement to
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grow through tax breaks, Government support for specific industries and infrastructure improvements. My party has been championing such intervention in response to the economic turmoil of the financial crisis in the past four years. I need not remind hon. Members that the Welsh economy under Plaid Cymru was growing faster than in any other part of the UK when we left office.
Sharp cuts in the pay available to public sector workers would have a hugely negative impact upon their ability to spend in the private sector and would probably lead to a vicious downward spiral, with job losses in the private sector and then a further downward impact upon public sector pay to again re-align. This is what Blanchflower calls a “death spiral”. The effect of regional pay may be to institutionalise lower pay and create employment ghettos. I am concerned that, despite such significant problems, the twin siren calls of saving money and dismantling the public sector may be too much for the Chancellor to ignore. I hope that I am wrong. Diolch yn fawr.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Chope, for calling me to speak on this complex, interesting issue. This is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship, and it is a great pleasure to do so. I congratulate my good friend, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). We have discussed this matter once, briefly, on Welsh radio, and I said then that I wanted to speak in this debate. The gist of what I said then, and shall say now, is that we are facing a complex issue. It is difficult to understand how the hon. Gentleman could be so definitive about a response.
There are serious issues here. On 29 November, the Chancellor announced a review of the case for regional pay. We are talking about an announcement that there will be an inquiry reviewing the case; that is not sufficiently definitive to be described as proposals. A number of hon. Members who intervened mentioned proposals, but we are considering something that could have a damaging effect and could distort local markets.
The issue is not new. I first became involved in it 30 years ago, and it was a chastening experience. I am talking about the general, in-principle case for looking at regional pay. I had just become chairman of Montgomeryshire district council, and had very little experience of public work; I had probably been put in that position a little earlier than I should have been. I was a local farmer—a small businessman—and it seemed to me that the local authority was distorting the local market. It was paying a significantly higher rate than the local market. People were being transferred, and local businesses were complaining about losing their best staff.
I went to a conference in Kensington town hall; I was very green and new. My chief executive, who came with me, put me down to speak. When I was on the platform, I made what I thought was an entirely rational point, but I was booed off the platform. I was an independent chairman; I was speaking with a local businessman’s logic about how we could run the business—the local authority—more efficiently and not distort local markets, but I was booed off. That was more than 30 years ago, so there is nothing new about this debate.
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I have read some quotes made by the previous Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and they were incredibly positive about regional pay. I am sure that when we have this debate in July after the inquiry reports, which will be the obvious time to discuss what might then be considered proposals, his quotes will be mentioned; there are legions of them, strongly supporting regional pay and saying how vital it is for the future of our economy.
Helen Goodman: Labour Members are concerned that there is not an open inquiry, but a collecting of arguments for doing something that the Chancellor already wants to do. Will the hon. Gentleman say who is on the commission, who is undertaking the review, and whether the trade unions are involved with it?
Hywel Williams: The hon. Gentleman says that the debate is on a long-standing, old question from 30 years ago. I thought that the Conservative position on it in Wales was made clear in a debate on 30 September 2008, when Mr William Graham—some hon. Members might not know that he is a senior Conservative Assembly Member—said:
“First Minister, you will know that the Welsh Conservatives firmly oppose the introduction of regional pay for civil servants.”
Glyn Davies: I am sure that Mr William Graham will be extremely honoured to be quoted in a debate in this House. I will tell him about that when I speak to him later today, as I have arranged to do—[Interruption. ]—not on this issue, but on another one that will be of particular interest to Welsh Members across the board.
This issue has the potential to distort local markets. That was my view 30 years ago, and I still see that potential now. I should have thought that I would have found a measure of agreement with the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in our discussions on Sunday morning, because there are significant questions about the difficulty of transferring from one area to another, for example, and whether inflexibilities will be introduced into the market. There are a host of other issues to consider, too.
We need an inquiry. I understand that one or two Opposition Members feel that the inquiry may not look across the board. I would be disappointed if that were so. We need an inquiry that will bring forward the information that all of us, including the Chancellor, need to make a balanced judgment. The appropriate time for to happen that will be in six months.
Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman undertake to speak to his boss, the Secretary of State for Wales, and perhaps even the Chancellor, because, as he just learned from my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), there is not a review? A series of letters have been sent to the national pay review bodies, asking them to consider the matter. Will he take up the challenge and tell the Chancellor that there ought to be a public review, and that trade unions and other bodies absolutely ought to be involved?
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Glyn Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Wales, I reassure him that all the issues that I am involved with in the House feature in our discussions. When I am asked tomorrow what I have been doing since Christmas, I will certainly point to the debate that I am involved in today. I hope that that satisfies him on his request.
The only point that I want to make in my contribution is that the debate is too early. We need to have it in July, and we will. It will be an issue for the Floor of the House—an important and possibly contentious issue; I do not know. We will have to wait and see what the report says. It is possible that the issue will be contentious, but we must wait to see any proposals. In principle, I do not have any objection to the idea of a flexible labour market. Clearly, however, it must work and must not have a negative impact, and that can be decided only when we see the results of the inquiry, and information on which we can base a proper judgment.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, which is important for my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), in that we have large numbers of public sector workers. I am glad that my hon. Friend was successful in securing the debate, and I draw hon. Members’ attention to my early-day motion.
Regional pay would institutionalise lower pay in countries and regions of the UK such as Wales compared with London and south-east England, and it would magnify the unfairness of the current economic situation. Whether it is called zonal pay, local pay or regional pay, in the present constitutional position and economic climate, it would go completely against the supposed policy of the UK Government to rebalance the UK economy, which is sorely needed. Regional pay would badly impact on Wales and other countries and regions with a weaker private sector, which is certainly the case in my constituency, as well as in other parts of Wales, the north-east and north-west of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
When the Government refer to rebalancing, they are referring to something different from what my party means by rebalancing. When the UK Government refer to rebalancing, they are referring to growth in the south-east, as we have seen from the implementation of various policies such as the huge high-speed rail proposal, which will be outlined today, the Olympics or a number of others, which I will not go into this morning.
Our version of rebalancing is to increase support to sectors of industry and locations that have not benefited in the past from Government benevolence and support, which means support for countries and regions that have lost out over previous decades. As my hon. Friend has said, the economic situation has led to the growth of the financial sector in the City of London to the cost of other industries; in Wales, we look in particular at the decline of manufacturing. We have a much more fragile and non-diversified economy because of the centralisation of the UK economy on London, which has produced the overheating of housing costs and pressures in and around London. Anyone who lives in the south-east knows what I mean, and we have seen an increase in
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inequality between London and the south-east of England compared with the rest of the UK. If the proposals go through—if they are discussed and decided upon—I fear that that inequality will be exacerbated.
The annual survey of hours and earnings published by the Office for National Statistics last month showed that Welsh workers are already among the lowest paid in the UK, while workers in many parts of London and the south-east earn double our average salary. I would be the first to complain about the large pockets of inner-city poverty that I come across when down here in London, and they are scattered throughout the inner cities of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but generally we have seen the north and west of the UK suffering, while the south-east has benefited. That leads me to what might be a soundbite but which has a certain truth: we have regional pay already, but in favour of the south-east. In part, that is because we have too weak a private sector, which needs support and investment to develop, as we in Plaid recommended in our economic renewal plan.
Support for the private sector in Wales may seem a peculiar position for a lefty nationalist to take, and I can see some eyebrows rising around the Chamber already. Unlike the Unionist parties, however, we see no long-term benefits in being continually tied to fiscal transfers from London. That is not the position in which we want to see our country. We want to be as successful as any other part of the UK or of Europe. It is a mark of the failure of the current unionist settlement that parts of Wales have a gross value added that is low enough to take advantage of European convergence funding. Many parts of Wales have a GVA of less than 75% of the average, so we get large transfers from Brussels. Such transfers are welcome, but we do not want to be in that position at all. That situation is the result of the major economic decisions made in London, where the main economic levers are held. To thrive, the private sector in Wales needs support for it to grow. We need much better infrastructure and the Government to give the support and advantages that will allow companies the opportunity to develop. That has not happened over a long period, and it requires a broad mix of government policy and a fair economic wind.
Chopping back the public sector in all the guises introduced by the Government—real-terms pay cuts, 710,000 job cuts according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, and the pickpocketing of pension contributions—will not improve the private sector in Wales one jot. Clearly, as anyone who has looked locally at the economy in Wales or elsewhere knows, there is a strong relationship between the public sector in our areas and the private sector. Cut the public sector and the private sector is hit hard.
The effect of any regional pay policy would be to depress wages in the public sector throughout Wales, which will have a strong knock-on effect on the private sector, because families will have less disposable income. Families with less income will purchase fewer goods and services locally, therefore providing less circulation of income for the local private sector.
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Edwards) for securing the debate. As well as depressing salaries in the public sector and therefore in the private sector, and given that many of the people affected are already not well paid, will not regional pay cost the state more in working tax credit, housing benefit and the other benefits with which we subsidise low-paid workers?
Hywel Williams: The hon. Lady makes a fine point. As so often with the policies of this Government and at times, I fear, of her own Government previously, there is no apparent understanding that the system is such that if we cut off a large branch, the tree itself will be affected. I agree with her entirely.
Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In the north-east, the proposal has the potential to take between £500 million and £1 billion out of our regional economy every year, and yet the switch in capital to our regional economy under the Chancellor’s autumn statement was 0.1% or £4.1 million, which is completely unbalanced.
When cuts were made to wider public sector budgets, the effects were largely on the public sector, of course, but also on the para-private sector—companies that have contracts with the public sector—which is integral to local economies. Similarly, those whose livelihoods depend on services to those in employment will be at risk from the proposals. As well as the local economy, a whole host of small companies that service the public sector in our regions will be affected.
I have great sympathy with Labour Members—I am pleased to see some of them here today—but I appreciate that they will be fighting the proposals with one hand tied behind their backs. It does not please me to make the point about the introduction of regional pay by the previous Government, but the Labour Government promoted the idea. They floated it in 2003, and they introduced it in the Courts Service in England and Wales in 2008, when it was not entirely successful. The Public and Commercial Services Union has told me that regional and local pay in the Ministry of Justice has not been a success, and that with the introduction of local pay in the Courts Service in 2007, there were problems with regional pay zones in the Ministry of Justice. The policy created inequalities and tensions, and it was ultimately unsuccessful and had to be reformed. I hope that lessons have been learned, but I worry that the wrong ones might have been learned.
I conclude by saying that the effect of regional pay will be far-reaching and negative and that it will not improve the private sector. There is a strong likelihood that it will lead to institutionalisation of low pay in some places, and it will certainly make it much more difficult to attract new workers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr has said. The Treasury must reconsider its stance, and I will certainly contribute to the debate as it develops, as will my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd).
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I appreciate that Scottish Tories may have problems in mustering manpower. It has been said that there are more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs, and if the London Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government push the regional pay issue through, Tory MSPs in Edinburgh will be rarer than polar bears on the Clyde.
Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. Some hon. Members have indicated to me informally that they wish to participate in the debate. However, I will not call anyone if they do not rise and seek to catch my eye. This is the new year, a time to exercise the muscles and become fitter, so perhaps hon. Members who wish to speak will rise in their place.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this debate, and on the many excellent points he made in his introduction. Other excellent points were made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), and by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams). I do not intend to speak for long, or to repeat the many points made about the implications for regional pay and the regional economy. I intend to focus on what the plans say about the economic policies of this Tory-led Government.
The Tory-led Government talk a good talk about the key challenges facing our economy: the rebalancing away from the service sector towards manufacturing, and away from the south and London towards the regions, including the north-east, where my constituency is. Those challenges are important because of the huge consequences of the financial crisis, which was brought about by an over-focus and over-concentration of the economy on financial services. It will be remembered that when we went into the financial crisis, we had the second lowest deficit in the OECD, but we suffered more greatly because of over-dependence on financial services.
What do the proposals mean for the economy, and particularly for rebalancing it towards manufacturing and the regions? My hon. Friends have made some excellent points about driving higher-paid workers in the public sector away from the regions, and about the impact on the ability of the regions to attract higher-paid private sector workers. I want to focus on what the proposals will mean for those on lower pay.
The evidence shows that the disparity between public and private sector wages, such as it is, is focused on the lower section. The Policy Exchange, in its analysis, admits that the pay advantage, as it calls it, is not evenly distributed and is higher in lower grades, particularly among the bottom 10% of public sector workers. From my experience of working in the public sector as a chartered engineer, I know very well that at the higher end, professional engineers, for example, are much better paid in the private sector than in the public sector. Seeking to equalise pay rates in the private and public sectors in the regions will inevitably reduce the wages of the poorest-paid. What does that say about the Government’s policies and intentions?
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We may disagree about the exact causes of the financial crisis, and where the blame for it should lie, but I think we all agree that the poorest people in the country did not cause it, so why are Government policies again targeting the poorest people? The poorest people will pay because, as the hon. Member for Arfon said, depressing wages at the lower end of the public sector will inevitably have an impact on the private sector. Indeed, in their proposals, the Government intend to reduce salaries in the public sector, which must have a knock-on effect on the private sector.
We should remember that salaries at the lower end of the public sector, as in the private sector, are not those on which a family—or often even an individual—can live. The minimum wage is not a living wage, and for that reason, Newcastle city council is working towards a living wage in the most difficult economic circumstances. Low-wage and minimum-wage employers often have to be subsidised by the state, in that working tax credit and housing benefit are needed to enable their employees to live decently, so depressing private sector salaries will cost the state more in benefits.
Let us consider how the private sector will react. We know that the ideological basis of much of the Government’s approach to the economy is that destroying the public sector will provide space for the private sector to leap in, create jobs and new opportunities, and drive the economic recovery forward. I believe that the economic recovery must come from a growth in private sector jobs, but it is clear, after more than a year and a half of this Government, that the private sector cannot create the necessary jobs and growth without the support and partnership of an active public sector, which, by its very nature, includes experienced, well-paid and secure employees who are able to support private sector activities.
I speak regularly to local businesses in my constituency, and they all want to play a part in driving forward growth and creating a resurgence of jobs in the region. People tell me not that wages are too high, but that they need: more public sector support in areas such as skills; investment in shared resources, infrastructure, and transport; and measures to increase confidence and buying power among the public. Reducing the salaries of public sector workers in Newcastle will reduce people’s confidence and lessen the prospect of private sector employers increasing employment and stoking growth.
How can the Minister justify targeting the poorest people in our society to pay back a deficit that is due to a crisis caused by a rampant financial sector? We have had 18 months of an ideological experiment, on a national basis, that clearly has not worked. Depressing local wages will not only drive out more skilled constituents, but will hit the private sector in regions that are already vulnerable and most greatly affected by public sector cuts. This ideological experiment has run its course, and the Government’s proposal yet again takes it too far.
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing the debate. The issue of regional pay is important for people living in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and in regions such as the north-east of England.
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I spoke about regional pay, or the localisation of pay, in a debate on 6 December 2011, and the issue has been on the agenda for Governments since at least the 1980s, when I was a civil servant in Durham. The Megaw report wanted to devolve public sector pay in the civil service on a regional basis, but that proposal did not get anywhere. Introducing local rates of pay is difficult. The previous Government looked at the issue with regard to the public sector, and a Treasury guidance note from 2003 stated:
“At the extreme, local pay in theory could mean devolved pay…to local bodies. In practice, extremely devolved arrangements are not desirable. There are risks of workers being treated differently for no good reason. There could be dangers of leapfrogging and parts of the public sector competing against each other for the best staff.”
This is a time of austerity. Public sector pay has been restricted and will not be increased for two years, and then it will increase by just 1% for two years. Let us look at markets in the north-east of England; if we had devolved local pay bargaining, people might say that pay should be frozen in that region for another year because of the difference between the public and private sectors. Do the Government believe that public sector workers in some parts of the country should have a pay rise, while those in other places should not receive one, because, according to Government analysis, the pay difference between the public and private sectors is too big?
We should not look at only one region. The difference in pay in the north-east and in the south-east of England is 10%, and we should try to decrease that. Why is it right for a nurse working at St Thomas’ hospital, across the way from here, to be on a different pay rate from a nurse who works at the university hospital of North Tees in my constituency, or in Bishop Auckland or Hartlepool? I cannot see how that can be right if both nurses are doing the same job. Many private sector companies, especially supermarkets and some banks such as Santander, have national pay agreements. There may be some flexibility within those agreements, but they have national pay systems. To say that some public sector workers should suffer austerity measures for longer than others because of where they live is divisive. How can we encourage a public sector worker to move from south-east England to the north-east to do exactly the same job if the rates of pay in the north-east are completely different from those in London?
Tom Blenkinsop: My hon. Friend makes an excellent case. There are institutionalised national bodies that survey and assess prices in supermarkets. How on earth would regionalised public sector pay work in an economy with five or six big supermarkets that are supposed to have national rates for pricing their goods?
Phil Wilson: My hon. Friend raises an important point. One reason why the previous Government did not introduce such measures is because the complexity of having different pay bodies, boards and regions would create unnecessary bureaucracy, which any Government should want to keep to a minimum.
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In north-east England, average pay is £19,000 per year, but it is only that high because of public sector workers in the area. How low does the Minister want pay in north-east England to be? Public sector workers maintain the average salary at £19,000; without them it would be much lower. The differential in rates of pay is not a reason for cutting pay or suspending pay rises in the public sector. Instead, we should see how we can increase pay in the private sector.
Tom Blenkinsop: Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it would be good to see the Minister thank and congratulate north-east England: although in the rest of the country the manufacturing economy is in the doldrums, the north-east is bucking that trend. Workers in the steel and chemical processing industries would undoubtedly be affected by any reduction in public sector pay.
Phil Wilson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and those workers will soon be joined by workers in the train building sector, in the factory in Newton Aycliffe. As I understand, the north-east exports more manufacturing goods than it imports.
The private sector has a major role to play, and we need an increase in private sector jobs. At the moment, however, 67,000 public sector jobs have been lost in north-east England, and unemployment has risen to 11.6%. Where are the private sector jobs? How can we say that the public sector is crowding out private sector jobs when unemployment is rising and there is no growth to make up for the loss of 67,000 public sector jobs? Figures from the third quarter of last year show that the number of private sector jobs in the UK increased by only 5,000. Many regions such as the north-east are losing out.
I am very worried about what will happen. There is a big pay differential between the south-east and the rest of the country. The differential between regions other than the south-east is minor; it is only 1% or 2%, depending on what goods we compare. We talk about social mobility, and about people getting on and wanting to move to different parts of the country; how will that be possible if pay rates are so different across the country?
Also, we will not create regions as we know them; we will create silos. If people work in the public sector in the north-east, that is where they will have to work, because if they want to move to south-east England or somewhere else, they probably will not be able to afford to buy a house there. There is great difficulty with that at the moment. Let us not forget that in London, where there is London weighting, there is a big problem with recruitment in the public sector as well.
The proposal is a knee-jerk reaction that has not been thought through. I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that this will not be regional pay as perhaps it was outlined in the past, and that it will be based on zones or localities. That may be so, and it may have been tried out in the Courts Service; let us say that it has been tried there. The fundamental point is that the previous Government did not want to implement it anywhere else, because they knew about the inherent contradictions involved in doing that.
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such that if people work there in the public sector, they cannot work anywhere else. I do not want public sector workers in north-east England to have to face extended periods of austerity because they happen to be working in the wrong part of the country.
We need to look at the private sector. I want private sector jobs to come to the north-east of England, and I want those private sector jobs to have good pay rates. This week and over the weekend, every party has been going on about high pay among senior executives. Okay, let us consider that, but let us also consider low pay in the private sector and not just in the public sector, because private sector workers make up the majority of workers in the country. The answer to the problem is not regional pay or localised pay—it is a living wage for all our people.
I, too, offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this important debate, which, as he has rightly pointed out, will be one of the defining debates in respect of economic policy over the coming period. He made a series of telling and well argued points. It was slightly ironic to hear a nationalist Member of the House arguing in effect in favour of collective bargaining on a national, British basis right across the UK. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting point.
Jonathan Edwards: I make no apologies for what I said, because at the moment sovereignty over these issues resides in this place, and as someone who has been sent here to represent the ordinary working people of Carmarthenshire, I will continue to do so as long as that is the case.
Owen Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and pleased that he makes no apologies for what he said. I entirely agree with the arguments that he made in respect of solidarity and collaboration right across the UK for people who have similar interests across Britain, whichever area of the country they live in. I wholeheartedly share his views about that, which is why I am a Unionist, not a nationalist, on today of all days.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), who made a powerful speech, and of course the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who I am delighted is taking up the challenge of telling the Secretary of State for Wales and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that we need a proper review to address this very complex issue—as he described it—as opposed to a couple of private letters to the heads of the national pay review bodies.
Public sector workers must wake up every morning wondering what this Government will do to them next. We have seen the continuing pay freeze; we have seen additional cuts in wages when inflation is taken into account for the next two years; we have seen the 3% additional effective cut in wages as a result of the
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changes in public sector pensions; and 710,000 public sector workers, up from the 400,000 previously admitted to, are waiting to see whether they will be in a job at the end of this spending period.
Against that backdrop, there was the bombshell in the Chancellor’s autumn statement that regional pay will be re-examined. The Chancellor said that the evidence suggests that regional pay should be considered, because there are disparities between pay bands in the public sector across the UK. As we know, the Chancellor is very keen on evidence-based policy, so I thought that I would assess the evidence in respect of regional pay to date, because we have some experience of it.
London weighting is well established. It is a means of trying to deal with the problems, particularly in respect of housing, for people working in London on lower public sector wages. The previous Government sought to expand that by looking at key worker status and further help for key workers in London. As several hon. Members have said today, and as the Chancellor said repeatedly when he appeared before the Select Committee on the Treasury, we also have the experience of the Courts Service. However, the Chancellor has been slightly less than fair with the facts in respect of the Courts Service. The fact is that the Courts Service changes that were introduced in 2008—the previous Labour Government introduced zonal pay and five zones across the UK—were a significant improvement on the disparities that existed hitherto. The Courts Service came together in 2005. There was a merger involving the magistrates courts, the county courts, the Crown court and the Supreme Court. Before that point, more than 50 rates of pay were being applied across the Courts Service, so we went from 50 to five. The reality is that despite protestations by some of the unions at the time, most members happily opted into that service; indeed, more than 95% did so.
Opposition Members, who believe in evidence-based policy, would like the Government properly to review the experience of workers in the Courts Service. They should consider retention, rates of pay and the way in which the system has facilitated movement or otherwise across the country, and bring that to the table as part of the evidence for the current proposal.
Glyn Davies: It has become fashionable for Opposition Members to disown the policies of the previous Government and, in fact, to disown their own policies at the start of this Government. I have listened to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who has discussed the five regional zones and evidence-based policy. He has described the current proposal as a bombshell, which indicates to me that he has no interest in the results of the inquiry. All we are hearing is knee-jerk opposition to make a point before we have even heard the facts.
Owen Smith: For the third time, I have to tell the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that there is no inquiry. A couple of letters have gone from the Chancellor to the heads of the pay review bodies asking them to come forward with evidence on how local pay might reflect local market conditions, which is not an open inquiry. I thought that the hon. Gentleman had taken up the challenge to appeal for an inquiry.
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The world has changed since the policies were implemented in 2008 on the Courts Service, which took place in an economy that was growing right across the UK. The world has changed. When the facts change, we reconsider our views, and we are doing that right now. We are thinking about the meaning of the Government’s proposals on regional pay and what the evidence shows us. We will come to a considered view when we know what the Government are proposing, but let us look at the evidence.
Of course, it was a previous Tory Chancellor, in the 1990s, who first talked about introducing regional pay on a much wider scale. What happened in the NHS? Local bits of the NHS were given the right to conduct local bargaining, but they lacked the necessary experience and were unable properly to assess local market conditions. As a consequence, there was more than a year’s delay before regional pay bands were set. When regional pay bands were set, the differential across the country was 0.1%. The rationale for that was, of course, that managers understood that, given the problems and complexity that widespread differentials would throw up, a collective agreement right across the country was the best possible option. The Chancellor agreed, and a year later he took back the power, concerned that there might have been spiralling costs had the situation continued.
NHS trusts have the capacity to engage in a greater degree of differentiation, but by and large they do not do so, because they accept that it would be unfair and lead to unintended consequences. We saw some such unintended consequences when the police looked into regional pay. In the London Metropolitan area, there was an agreement a few years ago to offer a much higher rate of pay to Metropolitan police officers. The unintended consequence was that officers transferred in droves from the areas around central London, and outer metropolitan boroughs consequently had to set higher rates themselves. Such a policy leads to unintended consequences and involves significant risks, so the Government need to think carefully before they pursue it.
Hywel Williams: I do not want dwell on the policies of the previous Government, because I think that those of the current one are infinitely more damaging, but before we leave 2008, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the previous Government were not considering regional pay in any other part of the public sector apart from HM Courts Service? Was it just the Courts Service?
Owen Smith: The hon. Gentleman knows that I was not in the House in 2008, but as far as I am aware, we introduced the policy in the Courts Service and there was further consideration. The former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), certainly talked about regional pay, but we did not introduce it in other areas. At the end of our period in government, there had been some experimentation in respect of the Courts Service, but we did not introduce the policy elsewhere.
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Let us look at what happened at the Courts Service and consider where we go from here, because there are significant risks. At the time, the Government, and certainly the Treasury, understood that there were risks. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has mentioned the Treasury paper in 2004-05, which stated that
“extremely devolved arrangements are not desirable. There are risks of workers being treated differently for no good reason. There could be dangers of leapfrogging and parts of the public sector competing against each other for the best staff.”
That takes us to the motive: why have the Government now decided to bring this forward? If it was not a good idea a few years ago, why is it a good idea now? The reason is, of course, found in the two issues that they have with the public and private sectors. First, they believe in a totally outmoded, almost Manichean split—the public sector is bad, bloated and inefficient and the private sector is good, lean, hungry and eager to work. That is their understanding.
Secondly, the Government have a thoroughly outmoded notion that cutting the public sector and effectively forcing people to transfer to the private sector—through actively cutting jobs, as we heard was the strategy in the Budget, or through reducing regional pay, as we now hear might be the strategy—will somehow inflate the private sector. There is absolutely no evidence to support that. It is a totally misguided prescription, and one I fear that the Government will repeat.
“an economic reform to boost regions of the economy that are over-dependent on the public sector. All the evidence is that flexible public sector pay to reflect local labour market conditions will allow the private sector to flourish.”
Show us the money and show us the evidence, because we cannot see it at the moment. We can see a pamphlet with a lot of inflammatory language about the Manichean split between the fat public sector and the lean and hungry private sector from a think-tank which is pretty close to the Prime Minister and which some would say is a free-market, right-wing organisation, but apart from that I do not see a lot of evidence to support the position.
I suspect that the Minister will come out with some inflammatory comparisons, but I hope that she will not. We have heard so often about paramedics earning 16% more in the public sector than in the private sector, and I hope that we will not hear such unnecessary and unfair comparisons now. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies itself has said, such comparisons do not take into account the fact that there are invariably older and more experienced workers with better qualifications in the public sector. When such factors are taken into account, the differential between the public sector and their private sector counterparts is perhaps only 2%.
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. This morning, the Bevan Foundation responded to the debate by stating that the IFS figures do not compare like with like and that it is deeply misleading to use the figures in that way.
I entirely agree. The evidence is shaky and a leap of faith is required—just as we were meant to believe that cutting the public sector would lead to a flourishing private sector. As we have heard, there is no
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reasonable basis for making that leap of faith. On job creation in the public versus private sector, we learned that in the last quarter, for every 13 jobs lost in the public sector, only one was created in the private sector. That is the reality of what is happening in the economy. We should not take, with any degree of faith, the Government’s reassurances that changing regional pay will make a key difference.
On both sides of the House, we have come to understand that fairness is an important theme in modern politics. In politics, we seem to be tussling daily over who can be the fairest, and the Government have to stand against the test of fairness on this issue. They need to answer the question whether it is fair to target public sector workers once more to pick up the bill for a crisis in our economy that they did not cause. Is it fair for the Government to implement a policy that will once more impact disproportionately on less affluent areas that have greater health problems due to the legacy of heavy industry and other issues? Is it fair to implement a policy that will suck demand out of their economies and further reduce the incomes of people living there?
The Government have a manifestly failing economic strategy to reduce the deficit that has led, on their admission, to an increased level of borrowing— £158 billion extra is being borrowed as a result of the their policy. That is why they are thrashing around looking for extra savings and why they are countenancing further unfair and destructive measures. They need to think hard about the policy, conduct a proper review and provide evidence to substantiate their dangerous claims.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Chloe Smith): Happy new year, Mr Chope. I am sure that it is an honour for us all to take part in the first debate of 2012, so let us enjoy ourselves for that reason. I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) for securing what has been a thorough and interesting debate. It might not be a new debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) said, but it is extremely important none the less.
The policy is not about saving money—I shall pause for the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) to draw breath—but about supporting economic growth, and I will go through the reasons why the Government believe that the policy could do that. A simple fact of life that needs to enter the debate is that public and private sector organisations compete for employees in different markets across the UK. There is no way around that fact. Equally, there is no way around the fact that private sector pay is, on the whole, set locally and that public sector pay is usually set nationally. I will set out two effects that those differences can have before going on to the meat of the debate.
The differences can do three things. First, they can hurt private sector businesses that have to compete in certain places with higher public sector wages. Secondly, they can also lead to unfair variations in the quality of public services—something on which I am sure that we would all have more to say, had we another hour and half in which to debate it. Thirdly—this is crucial—if a higher than locally desirable wage bill is set, public sector money is not always allocated as effectively as it
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could be within local areas. That has a knock-on effect on what the public sector can do with its remaining budget, which has a further knock-on effect on the number of jobs that the public sector can support.
Hywel Williams: To the contrary, given the problems of mobility of public service workers, which would inevitably arise with regional pay, what consideration are the Government giving to the direction of labour in the public sector?
The point that I was going to make, which is the most important one that I want to leave behind in this debate, is that the Government have set out no detailed proposals at this stage. As I think all hon. Members know, the proposal that has been made so far, through the autumn statement and subsequently, is only to ask the experts how public sector pay might better reflect local markets. I, for one, do not have a problem with that being done by letter. I hear what hon. Members have said about that. However, I am also particularly delighted that the hon. Member for Pontypridd changes his mind when facts change. I hope that in this case also he will wait for the evidence.
Owen Smith: Does the Minister accept that the Chancellor has clearly indicated that he is in favour of the reform? He spoke before the Treasury Committee, and no one can be in any doubt that he thinks it is a good idea.
Helen Goodman: Does the Minister therefore accept that all that has happened is that the Chancellor has asked how the idea could be implemented and how it would work and that no consideration is being given to the proposal’s overall economic impact?
To move on to the content that we need to get through, hon. Members should be in no doubt about how important the public sector is and about the fact that the Government share that view and the desire for all parts of the economy to do well in the coming years. However, fiscal consolidation is a vital precondition for growth and part of the sustainable foundation that will let all sectors and all parts of industry do well and do what they need to. It is also part of achieving even growth across the country. It is right that public sector pay restraint should play a part in that fiscal consolidation. Public servants do a crucial job in delivering the high-quality services that we all look for, and it is right that we continue to offer the kind of rewards that attract the most skilled people to the public sector. However, it is incontrovertible that public sector wages on average continue to compare extremely generously to those of
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private sector workers. The Institute of Fiscal Studies, which has already featured in the debate, suggested that there is on average a 7.5% premium to working in the public sector over comparable jobs in the private sector. That makes a strong case for public sector pay bill restraint.
I want to discuss the rationale for the policy suggestion that has been made and the Chancellor’s effort to seek views on how it can be carried out. We must ensure that public sector pay is set at the right level for each labour market in the long term. I want to make it clear again that the proposals are not about generating savings, but about supporting economic growth by ensuring that wages are set at the level in individual localities. Indeed, a significant reason for the disparity between public and private sector pay is due, as I have mentioned, to the difference between pay that is set locally and pay that is set nationally. Typically, private sector pay is more subject to the rates paid by local competitors, the local cost of living and perhaps, in some cases, local turnover rates. However, public sector pay is usually set on a one-size-fits-all basis nationally. Accordingly, public sector workers can often be paid more than private sector workers in similar jobs in the same area. That has potentially damaging consequences for the economy. For example, private sector businesses, perhaps such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire once ran, which are looking for staff to help them to set up or grow, need to compete with much higher public sector wages in the same area. That is the ultimate crowding-out argument within the debate.
I want to refer briefly to the system of zonal pay in the Courts Service, which has been mentioned. It demonstrates that it is possible for pay to be responsive to local labour markets within a national bargaining framework. Of course, those zones did not simply conform to regional boundaries, but took into account the local economy by, for example, putting Norwich, Exeter and Newcastle in the same zone. The debate has a misnomer at its heart. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced local pay, not regional pay, so we are not talking about something that might take effect at the level of Wales. We are talking about something that may, depending on what the experts say, happen at a lower level.
Miss Smith: I will just have to repeat myself on this point: depending on what the experts say, it will be at a more local level. That is what I, for one, look forward to from those experts, as, no doubt, do all those people who like facts.
The Government are not setting out detailed and prescriptive proposals. The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) would no doubt like me to give a quote, but I shall not give him that pleasure this morning. Public sector work forces have a variety of pay structures, as has been mentioned. The Chancellor has therefore written to the independent pay review bodies to ask them to consider how to make public sector pay more responsive to local labour markets. They will report back with interim findings by July. That will include union evidence, to answer the question of the hon. Member
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for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). I shall be absolutely clear about who will be included in the scope of the relevant body: it will be the NHS, excluding doctors and dentists—again, to respond to a point made by the hon. Lady—and it will include teachers, prison officers and the senior civil service. To respond to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), it will not include the police, who, as he knows, will be subject to the Winsor review.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office will co-ordinate and assist Secretaries of State in exploring how local, market-facing pay could be introduced in civil service Departments. As to the devolved Administrations, public sector pay in devolved areas is a matter for them, except for those areas where workers are covered by a national pay review body. That said, we are keen to see local market-facing pay introduced across the UK, and we urge all devolved Administrations to consider issuing separate remits for the relevant pay review bodies within devolved areas.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr asked me about an impact assessment on how the approach taken in the Courts Service turned out. Very speedily, I can offer him a couple of points about what happened across that experience. First, staff adoption was at 97% over a year later. Secondly and more broadly, analysis conducted after the reforms showed that the majority of locations had a healthy turnover and that the Ministry of Justice was able to recruit and retain staff throughout the country. He also asked me about the Office for Budget Responsibility costs of the public sector work force. If he would let me have that question in writing, in more detail, so that I can answer him as accurately as I can, I would be happy to do so; but I must finish a couple of other points in a very short time.
Public sector pay restraint and reforms to local pay policy are a key step to supporting local economic recovery and growth. Indeed, supporting regional private sector growth has been at the heart of the Government’s growth strategy. Hon. Members may want to consider, for example, the £30 billion of investment in infrastructure projects across the UK set out in the autumn statement, enterprise zones and the regional growth fund. We need to look at the aims and the areas and communities that are dependent so far on the public sector to support them in making the transition to private sector-led growth and prosperity.
Hon. Members have rightly talked about the need for fairness. As we all know, many families face difficult prospects. That is why the Government have taken practical steps to provide support, including—as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) will welcome—having gained more from a tax on bankers every year than the previous Government did in a single year. She will also welcome the protections for the lowest paid during the public sector pay freeze, the deferring of January’s scheduled fuel duty increase and the decisions that have lifted more than 1 million out of income tax altogether.
The Government have already taken considerable action to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth that is more evenly shared across the country. By moving towards local public sector pay, we can ensure that we have high-quality public services across the UK and do not crowd out private sector recovery.
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Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): I thank the Speaker for selecting this subject for debate and am grateful to have a second opportunity to talk about history in schools. When I raised the topic during the Christmas Adjournment debate, I said that if I were to choose one Christmas present, it would be to make history compulsory to the age of 16 in schools. I might have been a bit too hasty in making that wish, however, because the national curriculum review is set to continue for another two years.
Today is a good opportunity for Members to discuss the teaching of history in schools and whether it should be compulsory to the age of 16, as it is in most other countries in Europe. As I said in the Adjournment debate, it is a mark of shame that we, along with Albania, are the only European country that does not teach history in some form beyond the age of 14.
In the Adjournment debate, I mentioned a report that I have written, “History in Schools: A School Report”. I am happy to give a copy to any Member who is interested in reading it; the Minister already has one to hand. Essentially, my report highlights the state of history in schools today, and it does not seek to make party political points. In 1997, a paltry 36% of pupils studied history GCSE. Last year, the number dropped below 30% to 29.5%. Those figures, however, hide what is happening with history across the country. Instead of uniting us as one nation and allowing us to have a coherent national identity, the subject has divided us into two nations of haves and have-nots.
In my report, I break down all the figures by local authority and show the number of pupils taking and passing history at GCSE. In 77 local authorities, fewer than one in five pupils is passing history GCSE. However, the situation is even worse than that. In local authorities such as Knowsley, fewer than 8% of pupils are passing history GCSE.
Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has given us the headlines. Does he share my concern that at local history level, the figures are even worse? Pupils do not know what has gone on historically in their own local areas.
Chris Skidmore: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I will come on to that topic later. First, as a good historian, I want to set out a narrative of what has gone on in the country so far and then to debate what we should do about it. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that local history should feature more prominently in the curriculum, but more on that anon.
In 77 local authorities, fewer than one in five pupils is passing history GCSE. In one local authority, Knowsley, the figure has gone down to 8%, with just four pupils out of 2,000 passing history A-level.
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Chris Skidmore: I was going to get on to another figure. In 159 schools, not a single pupil is being entered for history GCSE, which includes academies and comprehensives—it is roughly balanced between the two. We must have an honest debate about the curriculum. The national curriculum in the 1990s intended to make history compulsory to 16, and we should be looking to do that in academies, comprehensives and all other schools.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Is it my hon. Friend’s intention to make sure that every student studies history until GCSE level? If students are taking GCSEs, which presumably most of them are, they will therefore take history at GCSE, which is something that I totally support.
Chris Skidmore: I want history to be compulsory in some form to 16. I will come on to the important issue of the qualification later. Just as maths, English and science are compulsory in all schools, so too should history. Education is about not simply providing skills, knowledge and requirements for jobs, professions and universities—or whatever route or career a pupil may decide to take—but creating a canon of knowledge. I want every pupil to leave school not only with the basics but with an understanding of the basic principles of our constitution and history. They should have a rounded education and history plays a vital role in that.
Chris Skidmore: The hon. Gentleman knows very well that although academies are exempt from other subjects in the national curriculum, pupils still have to study maths, English and science. Those subjects are compulsory, and academies are bound by law in academy frameworks and agreements to provide them. Under my proposals, history would be included in the same way.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I studied history at A-level. Let me suggest where we should go from here. Certain schools, such as Chatham grammar school where I am currently a governor, have now brought in the E-bac system in which the humanities, history or geography, have to be taken by students up to the age of 16 for GCSE. That is the way forward. Under this Government, people are being pushed to take history and there is a recognition of its importance in our curriculum and in our understanding of our country.
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Chris Skidmore: The E-bac is a welcome development, but we must go further. When looking at grammar schools and selective schools, it is interesting to look beneath the statistics. In comprehensive schools in 1997, 169,298 pupils took history GCSE. That figure has now dropped to 155,982. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) is chuntering. Would she like to say something?
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why there has been this decline in the study of history? What is his analysis of why this has come about? Is it to do with the interest of the pupils?
Chris Skidmore: The decline has been a slow one. I do not wish to make party political points during this debate. David Cannadine’s excellent new book, “The Right Kind of History”, shows that these debates have been going round in circles since the early part of the 20th century and that lamenting the decline of history is nothing new. What is new is that we are competing in an international market against other countries, the pupils of which are being rigorously taught and assessed in all subjects and are driving forward in a way that our pupils are not.
There are some schools in which pupils take history to 16. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) has mentioned a grammar school in his constituency. It is of interest to me that while the numbers taking history GCSE have been declining in comprehensive schools, they have been increasing in grammar schools since 1997. Although we have 29.5% of pupils in comprehensive schools taking history GCSE, we have 55% of pupils in grammar schools taking history and 48% in independent schools. The gap between grammar schools and comprehensive schools in terms of the proportion of pupils who are taking history GCSE has increased from 17.4% in 1997 to 24.9% in 2010, which is a real problem. The growing divide in education is no longer just about standards in different parts of the country but about the subjects that we choose to take at school. I worry how that will affect our national identity.
Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and pursuing the topic. Does he agree that part of the decline began in the 1970s? Let me declare an interest here; I was a teacher in the 1970s. History teachers were almost compelled to change the nature of what they were teaching to encompass what is known today as the schools history project. Instead of teaching the narrative, teachers were forced to try to teach 11, 12 and 13-year-olds to become historians. What happened then was a loss of confidence and interest in what history teachers were trying to do.
When we look at the nature of the curriculum itself, we see that there have been historical problems. My hon. Friend was a secondary school history teacher before he entered this House and therefore has a wealth of experience—probably more than me—of what actually happens in schools with teaching history. He also knows that, although we may talk about the curriculum and assessment and examination structures, if we are going to make history compulsory to 16, for
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pupils themselves history will only be as good as the teachers who teach it, which is obviously a crucial issue. We all remember our great teachers when we were at school. I had great history teachers, which was one reason why I ended up on the road to becoming a historian before I entered this place.
The Ofsted report, “History for all”, showed that history teaching was “good” or “outstanding” in 63 out of the 83 primary schools that Ofsted assessed, and “good” or “outstanding” in 59 out of 83 secondary schools that it assessed. Nevertheless, the report expressed genuine concerns about the quality of the subject training for teachers.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue to Westminster Hall today. As he has said, history is not just about dates and events, because it is about more than those things. It is also about learning the lessons of lives that were well lived and the lessons of lives that were poorly lived, and perhaps about telling the difference between the two. Does he agree that education in history is much more important than just teaching the facts, figures and dates of history?
Chris Skidmore: One of the reasons why I wanted to secure this debate was to try to get some form of agreement and to have a discussion about more than the nature of history. We can talk about “what” history or “whose” history—whether it is local or national history—and we need to talk about history in terms of the curriculum and examinations, but let us start from a baseline that we can never deny, namely “why” history. Historians have probably come at things from the wrong end, in that they are, as Isaiah Berlin would have put it, foxes rather than hedgehogs. We often focus on the minutiae, and so we start focusing on what should be in the curriculum and how we should frame it without coming to an agreement that we should have history to 16, as most other countries in the world do. That is where I want to get to, and then let us fill out things and colour in the blanks.
Rehman Chishti: I want to follow the question put by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). With regard to teaching history, it is linked to the use of essays, in promoting critical thinking, vocabulary and one’s communication skills. Nowadays, however, modern assessments are much shorter and therefore essays are not used, so the communication skills and increased vocabulary that a student would otherwise have got from writing history essays are not there.
That is a very good point. When we look at the curriculum and the historical content that is being taught, at the moment history teaching obviously finishes for most people at 14. The problem with that approach is that trying to fit into the syllabus the broad span of British history becomes almost impossible and in fact we get a situation where, instead of having a narrative and chronological approach, there is a sort of “Dr Who” time travel fantasy of going from the Tudors back to ancient Egypt, forward to the Romans and then to the Victorians. As a Tudor historian myself, I know that the wars of the roses are rarely taught in schools. Equally, I see that we have a civil war historian in our midst today, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central
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(Tristram Hunt), and he will probably agree that the protectorate is rarely taught in schools and neither is the Glorious Revolution. Unless students have some broad form of a chronology, it is impossible for teachers to get across a genuine interest in history. If history is taught in bite-sized chunks, we are not only doing history a disservice but history students, because they cannot understand the very framework of history itself.
We need to look at that issue, and I believe that making history compulsory to 16 would aid that process of creating a chronology, because for the first time we would then be able to integrate key stage 3 and key stage 4. When we were at school, we actually learned more British history in key stage 3 and even in key stage 2 than we did later on. At the moment, I am writing a book about the battle of Bosworth, an event that is a compulsory part of the curriculum in key stage 2; students have to learn the dates, the framework and what happened then. However, the battle of Bosworth is not part of key stage 3; instead, in key stage 3 students go back again to the mediaeval period. I think that key stage 3 covers the iron age to mediaeval times, with no reference to the Anglo-Saxons or to the Vikings. We need to look at that issue. We should leave the detail up to the national curriculum review within the framework of history being compulsory up to the age of 16.
Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me for a second time. I am interested in the examples that he has given, because the interesting thing about Britain and our modern identity is surely the fact that, for the past four centuries, our history has been an imperial one and that is one of the most important things about Britain. I am not denying that 1066 matters, but the hon. Gentleman did not mention that whole imperial period, and he needs to foreground it.
Chris Skidmore: Yes—absolutely. I now want to talk about the GCSE itself with that point in mind, because we currently have a situation where students stop studying history as a compulsory subject at the end of key stage 3, and then some pupils start their history GCSE as an option. However, the GCSE itself does not necessarily focus on British history; often it focuses on the Third Reich and Stalin’s Russia. There is also the schools history project, which is the history of medicine, but that is a very narrow subject to be assessed on.
Although we can debate what should be in the curriculum, we cannot get away from the fact that in our age examination and assessment drive learning in schools. In addition to history being made compulsory to 16, what we need is a narrative British history GCSE that teaches the whole span of British history, and our imperial history to boot, right up to whatever we would like to call the cut-off period of history. Such a GCSE would give pupils the option to study in depth every period of British history and to be assessed on their knowledge of those periods. Again, I do not want to say what the exact nature of the exam for such a GCSE would be, and a lot of work would need to go into preparing it. However, the GCSE in its current form does not allow narrative British history to be taught. So, in addition to making history compulsory to 16, we also need qualification reform.
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year! This is the first debate for me in this new parliamentary term. We should come to a common conclusion and common ground, so that we can discuss what should be in the history curriculum and what type of examination we should have. We cannot deny that there is a serious problem in our nation. As I said earlier, a subject that should unite us as one nation is becoming a subject for two nations—the haves and have-nots, or whatever one wants to call them. In certain areas of the country, history is becoming a dead subject in schools. I want that situation to end, and I therefore propose that history should be compulsory in schools until the age of 16.
Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Thank you very much indeed, Mr Chope, for allowing me to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this valuable debate, which has really put into practice his excellent skills of research, data analysis, econometrics and geography. All those skills have been brought together today, showing that he is a superb historian.
It seems to me that what we are discussing today is not really geography; we are discussing the two-nation divide in terms not of the north and south, but of a class divide, based on the traditional Disraelian notion of two nations.
I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that history has a particular locus and place within schools. In many ways, I was opposed to the push under the last Government for citizenship teaching, because it seemed to me that, first, citizenship teaching took a chunk out of the syllabus and more often than not history teachers were forced to teach citizenship and that, secondly, we should teach citizenship through history. A study of the past is the best mechanism for understanding one’s role in the present. Obviously, one can divert into the constitution, the judiciary and all the rest in terms of the modern world, but in terms of understanding both our place as citizens and the role of Britain, it seems to me that history is the best place to do that. At one point, we actually had a review that said we should teach history as part of citizenship, which seemed to me to get things slightly the wrong way round.
As we have heard, history is also a very effective academic subject. The Education Secretary likes to draw on the case of Mark Zuckerberg studying ancient Hebrew and then founding Facebook, but one can also point to many innovative entrepreneurs, successful public servants and business people who studied history and benefited from the rigours that studying history brings.
It seems to me that the subject is not necessarily in crisis. The hon. Member for Kingswood mentioned David Cannadine’s new book, which points to this perpetual debate about the nature of history and, without being too partisan on the first day back after the break, I suggest that this is a crisis within the Conservative party. The party likes to talk about the teaching of Britishness and of British history and our understanding of it, partly because of its own various problems with the nature of modern Britain, and it retreats into a debate about the teaching of British history often, it seems, as a vehicle for other more contemporary debates. Of course, historically, the role of history is to retreat into the past to analyse the present.
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Chris Skidmore: I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of my report, so that he has the accurate figures. I came to this debate not wanting to make party political points, but the percentage has not hovered; it has gone down consistently every year in comprehensive schools since 1997, and it has just gone below 30%, which was partly the trigger for my calling this debate and writing the report.
There seems to be a class divide—a worrying schism in what our children are taught. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, it is more than the loss of an academic subject; it is the loss of a patrimony and of a broader understanding of citizenship and identity. By not teaching history in many of our disadvantaged communities, we could be losing some brilliant future historians. We are very good at history in this country. Indeed, we are often accused of being too obsessed with the past, but we produce a good number of scholars, often from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, we have faced an unacceptable shunting of children from disadvantaged communities away from academic subjects and, more often than not, on to semi-vocational ones. That has boosted grades for schools but has sold these kids, who have wanted to go on to sixth form and university, a pup. There has been an ethos that in certain communities such subjects are too difficult, and that has presaged league table results.
We can all relate anecdotes of young people being pushed away from subjects that they should be encouraged to take up. We need a rethink. We are all in favour of proper training in vocational subjects, but it should come after a detailed and solid academic training. That is the German model, and the Alison Wolf report importantly suggested that we should get the grounding right and then allow young people to make the decision about which way to go, with either businesses taking on the training or it being continued in schools.
We should not shunt children from disadvantaged communities off academic subjects; nor should we allow schools to merge history and geography into a humanities subject in which pupils appreciate no element of the discipline. That is particularly a problem in certain academies, and Ministers are slightly shifty on the subject, not least because it is very difficult to get data out of the academies about what is being taught. I have tabled endless questions, which have been answered in different ways, but it seems that in the push for league table results certain academies are disfranchising children.
This also raises an interesting point about the ambition of the Secretary of State for Education for a national story of Britain and Britishness. If the Government’s policy is for ever greater pluralism in educational provision, with free schools and academies, where will we get the
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national cohesive story from if every school tells a different story about history and if every school is encouraged to talk to its own student make-up? The Government have an interesting tension between a traditional conservative belief in a national narrative and their open-market approach to schools and what they teach.
The problem is not the syllabus. Key stage 3 teaches empire, industrialisation and a narrative story of British history. It is pretty a good syllabus if it is done well and, crucially, if it is given the time, but the average 13-year-old in a British school gets only one hour a week to study history, and with such timetabling—only 33 or 34 hours a year—it might not be possible to develop the skills, understanding and narrative. There are cries about there being no Nelson, Wellington or Churchill in the syllabus. That is not true, but there needs to be the space and context within which those characters and their history can be taught.
History teachers do not regard the syllabus as the problem, and the old divide between skills and narrative is not so much the problem anymore either, because the best history teachers combine them—one of the advantages of modern information technology and teaching mechanisms. It is exciting if teachers can get kids to use the internet to look at mediaeval roles, the Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights, and that also teaches a narrative history.
Chris Skidmore: Ofsted’s “History for all” report found that the quality of subject training for teachers was inadequate in one in three schools and that teachers in those schools did not fully appreciate progression in historical thinking.
Tristram Hunt: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We all know that inspired and inspiring teachers are key. With numeracy and literacy over the past 10 years, it seems that in certain circumstances teachers got bored and that children could sense it. If teachers are not inspired and children are not inspired by them, we do not get the learning, and we need much more focus on ensuring that teachers are inspired and that they are up to date with the latest scholarship and understand progression.
In Stoke-on-Trent, I would like to get Keele and Staffordshire universities together with the local teachers to ensure that the latter are up to date with the scholarship and are still inspired by it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said, if a teacher is inspiring—as he was in his classroom—the children come alive, and are passionate and interested in the subject.
I will end here because I know that many other Members want to speak, and I apologise for doing so, because I have to meet a constituent later this morning. I am still in two minds about the push towards compulsory history to 16. I have an open mind about it. We risk damaging interest in pursuing the subject if we make it compulsory for huge swathes of children who are simply not interested. That will affect learning in the classroom.
I appreciate the broader issue about history’s role in citizenship. I also understand the point about learning and over-learning certain elements of our national past, such as the Third Reich and dictators. That has much to do with the commerce of education. Once we have
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history textbooks and the machinery of learning, it is difficult to get out of the rut of learning and teaching the same things over and again. It is challenging to get undergraduates who are almost trauma victims, having studied the Third Reich three times, to appreciate broader European or British history.
Jim Shannon: When I was at school, I had the opportunity to learn Irish history, which is probably most unusual for a person from a Unionist tradition. It did not make me any less of a Unionist; indeed, it cemented my Unionism and made me stronger in my beliefs. That is an example. I learned something else, but remained a Unionist.
Tristram Hunt: Those of us who are privileged to have read W. E. H. Lecky’s “A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century” will know that, although we might think that studying the history of Ireland will push us one way, it can take us in a very different direction.
I conclude by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Kingswood for his research and for bringing the matter to national prominence. Class and social division are an issue. We must ensure that schools in disadvantaged communities and areas allow their pupils the opportunity to study history in all its wonderful manifestations.
Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on his well-chosen topic to start off the year. I am slightly in awe of the two fantastic historians in the room. It makes me rather nervous to offer any contribution, but in for a penny, in for a pound is the only attitude to take.
People with an interest in history cannot help realising that discussions about why we study it and what we should study inspire more vitriol among the historian community and more ink on the pages of our opinion magazines and newspapers than almost any other subject. My hon. Friend has set his topic commendably wide, but rather than rehearsing the undergraduate essays on “Why study history?” that I wrote for my Oxbridge preparations, I will focus on why and how we should study it.
We all have a personal view on what history is, why we study it and why we learn it. After 10 years of studying it, just as I was about to leave university, it finally taught me how to think properly—a useful lesson that I like to think that I have carried with me into this place, although opponents may disagree. History is also a study of the consequences of human nature. As a subject, it is not unique in teaching us how to think properly, form an argument and judge and assess evidence—other topics can do that, too—but it brings an additional benefit: it comes with a body of knowledge that allows us to understand why we are where we are, which is fundamental.
I realise that there are some, perhaps wishing to make mischief, who define the Conservative party as a bunch of conservatives with a small c obsessed by our narrative history and constantly seeking that golden thread. That does not interest me. I would far rather focus on what history should not consist of. I have no desire to see children sitting in a classroom chanting their regnal
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dates as though they were times tables. It is like having a wardrobe full of coat hangers with no clothes hanging on them. I am not sure that I could recite the kings and queens of England with any great accuracy.
Sir Lewis Namier identified elections as the locks on the great canal of British history. He was right, but there is no point in being able to recite every significant general election if we cannot talk about the water that flowed through those locks and the changes that came with them. I would love to see Sir Lewis Namier applying his comparative biography techniques to the current Government and Opposition Front Benchers. He might show some interesting comparisons with what we occasionally read in the press.
Nor should history be only about entertainment—horrible histories, blood and gore, and who killed whom in the Tower of London. That is entertaining, but what does it teach us? I am not sure that it teaches us much, other than how to have fun. History is not about teleology, a national story or just a narrative, and it is certainly not about emoting. I despair when students who visit the House of Commons are asked to write essays about what it might have felt like to be a roundhead, a cavalier or a soldier in the trenches and so on, but have no idea of the context of what they are being asked to empathise with. If they are writing as a soldier in the trenches, they do not know why they are there, what led them there or the end result; it is all about empathising. I sometimes suspect that it is almost an excuse to go on a day trip to the Imperial War museum.
History can be a useful tool. It should not just be about great men and personalities. I hold my hand up as being guilty of studying Weimar Germany for GCSE, A-level and my degree. By the time I took my degree, I could almost recite the name of every Reichstag member in 1932. That was not exactly helpful; it simply showed that it is possible to end up as an anorak, knowing more and more about less and less.
What we admire in good history writing or a good university history course is not necessarily what we should admire in a school syllabus. Often, it is hard to throw off what we acquired in our later years when thinking what we should be trying to achieve in our school system. I spent a happy Christmas indulging myself in the 24-hour existence of Carpatho-Ruthenia, which lasted for most of my Boxing day reading. Although it is a fantastic piece of historical research from Norman Davies, it is not something that I would want to inflict on a group of 11-year-olds.
The question then becomes: should we compel certain periods or topics on a history syllabus? Do we believe that history has a didactic purpose? It is fair to say that many people who teach history have strong, often political views and that, naturally, part of what they want to communicate to their pupils is an enthusiasm for the topic and the period. I cannot remember a single one of my history teachers who did not allow a slight degree of political opinion to sneak out in whatever period they were teaching. Perhaps that is understandable, and it is not always a bad thing, but there are dangers in trying to use school history teaching to communicate values. That is my big fear. Ultimately, history is not about communicating values; it is about communicating skills.
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was buried at Sutton Hoo. I think I came down in favour of King Raedwald. I was probably wrong; we still have no idea, I am sure. I have no desire to go back and read anything more about Anglo-Saxon history, but that one week reminded me that what we are trying to do is assess evidence, reach conclusions and construct an argument. Those are the basic and essential skills that we must absorb when we teach history in schools.
Rehman Chishti: I support my hon. Friend’s point. In society now, a fundamental concern is the failure in literacy over the years. Does he agree that history provides a vital opportunity to develop a sustained, lengthy argument, which helps improve literacy?
Paul Maynard: I entirely agree. One of my great frustrations in life is that I discovered how to write an essay only in my last term at university. Unfortunately, it came a bit too late to enhance fully my learning experience during my entire education.
We have to be careful that we do not turn our history lessons and our final history exams—after all, what matters ultimately is what we test—into some sort of quiz or series of multiple choice questions. I have grave reservations about some A-levels. It is to my eternal shame that I got a grade A at A-level politics by just walking in off the street and sitting the exam. I failed to study the subject during the sixth form; I just took it for the fun of it and thought I might get a grade E. It seemed like a fun thing to do. I shocked both myself and the school’s head of politics by getting an A, largely because the exam was based entirely on general knowledge as far as I could make out. It asked questions like, “Tick next to the date of the last general election,” but I do not think that that was something that needed to be studied.
I think that the skills that history teaches us should be made compulsory up to the age of 16. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood entirely on that point. It is a tragedy that far too many children miss out on the opportunity to study history. We do not need to make history frightening or scary, or obsess about the clichés and the grand narrative of the golden thread of British history.
I represent two seaside towns, the history of which, if we tried to comprise the whole of British history, would not start until 1800, because before that not much was built on Blackpool North and Cleveleys, other than a few mud huts here or there. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) is pulling a face at me as though to say that I am wrong—that would not surprise me—so perhaps the correct date is 1730. None the less, there is immense enthusiasm in Blackpool for local history. We have community heritage champions who, although they are often older people who did not have the chance to study history in the way that we would all perhaps like to do so, get really excited at the chance to learn new oral history techniques.
My constituency has a Jewish cemetery. We no longer have a Jewish community to speak of, but people are fascinated by the cemetery and what it tells them about the sort of people who were active in Blackpool in its heyday. It would be a fantastic tool for local children to learn about the area in which they live. I am a strong supporter of using local history as a way of making history interesting for those who study it.
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As ever, however, we cannot look at just the baubles on the Christmas tree. There is no point in teaching children about the things that interest and entertain them unless they understand those lock gates on the canals of both British and European history. Until we understand how it all links together, I do not believe that history will achieve the goal that it should be setting itself. We should interest people, but we should not exclude them from fully understanding what makes the country in which they live what it is today.
Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate and on setting the scene, along with the other two previous speakers. Following on from my intervention, I want to emphasise the importance of local history. We have just heard the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) say that although his area has only been in existence for some 200 years, it has its own rich, distinct history. I represent Britain’s oldest recorded town. Indeed, parts of the western boundary of my constituency are ancient earthworks that predate the Roman invasion.
I pay tribute to all those schools and history teachers who enthuse young people; the issue is that too few do. I want to place on record my appreciation for my history teacher at St Helena school 55 years ago, Mr Brian Barton, who for some reason was known to his contemporaries as Dick Barton, and who, 55 years later, is a tour guide in Colchester. He is not the only one. We are blessed with contemporary historians, such as Andrew Phillips and Patrick Denney, and Philip Crummy of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, who bring history alive. Two thousand years ago, we had the only Roman chariot circus in Britain; Philip Crummy discovered its remains only in November 2004. That is local history in a national context, and in the context of the Roman empire. I want such aspects of local history to be introduced in schools throughout the country, because I passionately believe, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said, that if we can enthuse young people about local history they are more likely to develop an interest in history as a whole. I share the concern that linking history and geography under the heading of humanities dilutes both.
My town is bidding for city status, so perhaps I will be allowed the opportunity to fly its flag. Colchester was the first capital of Roman Britain, and it is the only city of the Roman era that is not a city today. There is no record of that city status ever having been removed, so I hope that Parliament will conclude that we should keep it.
Rehman Chishti: On history, places and future city status, Medway was home to Lord Nelson, and the flagship Victory was built in the historic dockyard in Gillingham. There is a lot of responsibility not only on schools to promote local history, but on local authorities to promote it in partnership with those schools. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, along with Colchester, there are other richly historic places, such as Medway?
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I am concerned that, in my home town, not everybody is aware of our patron saint, St Helena, whose badge I proudly wear, or indeed of the history behind her; that is a bit of local history. We are also the home of the fictional character, Moll Flanders—a local girl who did quite well. In fact, she came from the very part of Colchester in which I grew up, Mile End. I think it is time that my home town promoted Moll Flanders, because she was a lively lass and I think she would attract tourism to the town.
Another local historian, Joan Soole, unearthed incredible Colchester connections with the battle of Waterloo, and those local connections brought alive the history of that battle for a completely new generation. We are a famous garrison town and one of the four super-garrisons, but before we became a garrison town, we had a strong Royal Navy connection with that famous battle. We are also the town in which the world’s most famous nursery rhyme was written. In 1805, the Taylor sisters wrote “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Again, these things should be promoted locally. Every community has local history to promote.
Chris Skidmore: I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s brief potted history of Colchester, but with respect, I called for this debate to talk about whether history should be compulsory in schools at age 16 or not. I do not know about the views of other Members, but I would appreciate it if the hon. Gentleman would stick to the subject.
Sir Bob Russell: As the three previous speakers have said, the point that needs to be made is that we need to instil enthusiasm in our young people and get the education system to embrace history, because I regret to say—the hon. Gentleman’s statistics prove this, and it has not been denied—that interest in history has declined over the past 30, 40 or 50 years. I was lucky with my school teachers, first in my Mile End primary school and then at secondary school, and with my parents. It is all to do with giving encouragement, and getting teachers to be enthusiastic about teaching history.
Tristram Hunt: There is an important point to make about how we attract primary school and early secondary school pupils to the subject, so that they have a passion about the past. At its best, local history is not parochial; it goes from a local story to a national and then international story, but it is very difficult to begin to tell and teach children an international story without those building blocks. Colchester seems a good example of a story about a global imperium.
Sir Bob Russell: I will conclude in a moment, because with one intervention, the hon. Gentleman, to whom I am grateful, has embraced precisely the point that I have been trying to make. We can have anything we like in post-14 or post-16 history, but unless the foundations are there, the rest will not happen. It is up to the Government to provide the enthusiasm and direction. Since my education, experience has shown me that many teachers can be enthused and are enthusiastic. They provide that enthusiasm, and they must not be stopped.
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Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I add my congratulations to those given to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing the debate. It is certainly a very interesting subject, and it has given rise to different opinions around the Chamber.
We have heard about people’s experiences with their history teachers, and how teaching particular subjects can create the opposite effect to that intended. Perhaps I should prefix my speech by saying that I was taught not only history but politics by my local Labour party leader. Consequently, I am a Conservative Member of Parliament who knows very little about history. It is perhaps surprising that although we are in the most historic place in the United Kingdom, we are having to remind ourselves about the importance and relevance of history in education. It is something of a cliché, but I strongly feel that it is only by learning from the past that we can understand the present and plan for the future.
Much has been said about the approaches of different countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood talked about the teaching of history in Albania and other countries. It is right for history to be taught in different ways in different countries, because that enables each country to see history from its own perspective. It is therefore right that we should learn history from a British perspective. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) is no longer in this Chamber, but I take issue with his concerns about the patriotism that Conservative MPs often display when talking about history. It is not just Conservative MPs who take a sense of pride in their British heritage; it cuts across right across the political spectrum. Britain has the richest history in the world. If any country needs to prioritise history teaching, it is ours, because an understanding of history helps us to formulate national identity, pride and confidence in who we are.
Kevin Brennan: I am as patriotic as the next man, but does the hon. Gentleman not see that the statement that Britain has the richest history in the world is ludicrous and would not be made by anyone who knew anything about history?
Gareth Johnson: No, I do not agree it is ludicrous at all. More than any other country, Britain has had influence across the entire globe; the fact that English is spoken in more countries than any other language demonstrates the influence that this country has had throughout history. Some of that history is good, and we are very proud of it, and some of it we perhaps do not talk about as much as we should. However, nevertheless, we should be proud of our heritage because it is very distinct. It is certainly the richest of any country I have ever studied and it has influenced more countries than that of any other nation.
Yet it is right to say that the teaching of history in this country is patchy. In some areas, more than three quarters of students do not learn history after they are 14 years of age. We heard about the difference between classes that some people claim exists in relation to the teaching of history. Certainly there are differences between, for example, grammar schools and some comprehensive schools; the teaching levels are not comparable. The teaching of history varies around the countries, too.
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Although more people are passing GCSE history, fewer students are taking up the subject, which is a great shame.
The treatment of the subject is less patchy around Europe; it is compulsory in most European countries. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood mentioned Albania. That keeps cropping up, because it appears to be the only country in Europe that takes a similar approach to England with regard to history teaching. I do not know whether it is a fair comparison, but it certainly seems that there is less mandatory teaching of history in England than anywhere else in Europe. The rest of the UK fares little better.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is trying to ensure that history is relevant to young people? Often the teaching of the subject leaves young people either ostracised or simply feeling that it is not relevant to them today. This is not an either/or. Local history needs to be taught, based on its relevance to young people, so that they can understand their place in the national psyche and get a grasp of history.
Gareth Johnson: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. It is a case of ensuring that students understand that history, and what has gone on in the past, is relevant to what they are doing now. I think that we would all accept that history at its best is the most fascinating subject on the educational spectrum. However, at its worst, it can be one of the dullest. A lot depends on the person in the classroom, and whether they can inspire pupils and convince them that history is to relevant to them, as the hon. Gentleman correctly points out.
To be fair, the Department for Education is doing a lot of good work. The academy innovation goes from strength to strength. We have more protection and support for teachers, with regard to the anonymity that is extended when there are unfounded allegations; also, there has been a withdrawal of the requirement to give notice of periods of detention. In addition, spelling tests are coming back, and we are allowing grammar schools to be expanded.
I would like “more history teaching” to be added to that list of achievements. However, I am the first to accept that the Department for Education faces a dilemma, because it rightly does not wish to be too prescriptive about the curriculum. One of the Department’s aims is to make the curriculum more streamlined. Clearly, the challenge is for the Department to give good schools as much autonomy as it can while ensuring a structured education system for children. Therein lies the future difficulty for the Department in relation to history teaching.
The desire for more British history teaching is not about misplaced patriotism; there is no xenophobic agenda. However, we should not shy away from teaching British history with a sense of pride. For example, the history of the British empire should not be taught with any sense of shame or vitriol. We should allow students
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to embrace history as seen from a British context, because we will fully understand ourselves only when we learn where we have come from. National identity is incredibly important, and much of that identity is determined by our history.
John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on initiating the debate. He rather gallantly tried to separate two issues: first, how much history should be taught and, secondly, what is taught. However, I do not think he can do that because the case for more time must be related to the subject’s inherent value and the contribution that it makes to pupils.
When I was a young man, I had a passionate interest in history; in fact, it was the only subject that I was particularly good at in school. I lost my enthusiasm when I discovered that the more facts that I managed to acquire to settle historical disputes, the less availing they were as they were assimilated to different theories. I became generally interested in theory and fact, lost my passion for history and acquired a passion for philosophy.
I never taught history when I was a teacher, although I might have had the opportunity to do so, but I was appalled by what I saw and the narrowness of the curriculum. One of my sordid secrets is that I taught for many years in an independent school. Lots of people did history. They just did the Third Reich over and again. Therefore, what a subject contains has a lot to do with whether it should be taught or taught to everyone. The reasons for that were quite crude in many respects. Putting the Third Reich on the syllabus meant more pupils and more sets. The headmaster often found that there were better results, too. Therefore, there was an incentive that had nothing to do with teaching history; it was all to do with the promotion of teaching careers, if I can put it as crudely as that.
As a result, some people who have done history leave school knowing very little history. They know very little about the development of their own culture and the nation’s culture, and have to pick it up through TV or books later on in life. There is an enormous and insatiable appetite out there for history as a form of entertainment—we all know that there is a history channel—but it is regrettable that people who study history can do very little on the Tudors and Stuarts, do nothing on the 18th century and have the most prejudiced views about the mediaeval period.
I think that we all have to accept that, within the space of a school year, people need to be selective. There has to be a selection about which bits of history will be taught. Any full story will, perforce, be something of an outline, but I am concerned about the principles that dominate selection in the school curriculum. Selection is often done on dubious grounds. We moved, slightly, on to that ground in the previous contribution. It can be done simply to reflect a nation’s favoured narrative of itself. History then becomes, to some extent, an exercise in self-justification. History can be a bit like autobiography—just a representation of what one would like the world and oneself to believe about the past. Many Governments in the world fall into the trap of sanitising their history curriculum, so that it becomes a very pleasing narrative about how all the things great
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and good came from their nation. I am sure that if we were in the French Parliament talking about history, we would have similar perceptions—different perceptions, but similar kinds of perception.
Moving away from the Nazis and the Third Reich, therefore, does not necessarily solve what should be in the curriculum. I have concerns about bolting back to what I was familiar with in my school days—the Whig narrative of history, where British history is represented as a seamless path to freedom, starting with Magna Carta, which, regrettably, very few people have actually read. When one actually studies it, it entrenches baronial privileges to provide their own courts and armies. A case was made in those days for choice and diversity. There was choice and diversity in who could provide the army, or who could provide the court, and that is found within Magna Carta. History can be selective in omitting all sorts of things that we would rather not touch on, such as the British role in slavery, or working-class history—the worst aspects of the industrial revolution. They are touched on, but they can be omitted, if we choose to do so, from the curriculum.
There are therefore inherent dangers in being too prescriptive about what sort of narrative falls into the curriculum. It may be unusual for me in this context, but that is why I genuinely favour choice and diversity in the history curriculum and making children self-conscious about the whole process of the writing of history—how these stories come about and how we reflect our narrative. History is very rarely written by the losers. The history of the mediaeval period was written by the Church and therefore those kings who gave the Church a bad time—King John is a classic example—got a very bad press.
History should contain an outline, but it should also contain opportunities for intelligent history teachers who care for their subject to choose selectively in a way that both suits their candidate interest and aptitudes, but also covers what they think good history should be. I am in favour of making children, through the history curriculum, critically sceptical. If it does that, it is no bad thing.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): What an interesting seminar we have had this morning on teaching history in schools. There has been a very high standard, as one might expect with so many eminent historians and hon. Members present here to debate the subject. As was revealed earlier, it is true that I taught history, alongside economics, in a comprehensive school for 10 years. In fact, I tweeted that I was going to participate in this debate and one of my former pupils, Cerys Furlong, who is now a Labour councillor in Cardiff—she was indoctrinated well when I was teaching history—tweeted back that she remembered the days when I was an actual history teacher.