3.11 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for his speech and congratulate him on securing this debate. His peroration was not Castro-like at all; it was considerably better argued than a Castro speech and considerably shorter, although it was perhaps long for this Chamber. As usual, his extremely well argued speech was a philosophical trot through the issues.

I also welcome the Minister for Schools, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), and wish him good luck in his new role. As he knows, his job is very important. This is the first time I have faced him since the reshuffle. We came into the House at the same time. In fact, we made our maiden speeches on the same day, so I have watched his progress with great interest; obviously, I will watch his progress with even greater interest in the months to come. In the reshuffle, a number of Education Ministers have gone: the hon. Members for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb)—whom the Minister replaces—and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). One other Education Minister wanted to go but was unable to do so. If, as often happens after a reshuffle, training is offered to Ministers, the Schools Minister might want to suggest an assertiveness training course for Lord Hill for the next time he tries to resign from the Government.

The Schools Minister takes his post at a time when teacher morale is at a pretty low ebb, and he needs to do something to try to improve that situation, because low teacher morale is not good for learning or for standards and outcomes. He may be aware that I was a teacher in

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a previous period of low morale in the 1980s, which sadly resulted in a great deal of disruption because of an approach to pay and conditions that led to a great deal of unhappiness among teachers. In the context in which we meet today, at a time of low morale with the Government considering the whole issue of national pay and conditions, it would be a welcome step if the Minister took a grip and rejected, for many of the reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Southport, the approach to teachers pay to which the Secretary of State seems philosophically wedded.

The Minister may be aware that the School Teachers Review Body is currently considering teachers pay at the Secretary of State’s behest. The other day, I read with interest the Secret Teacher’s contribution to The Guardian on teachers pay, which summed up quite well some of the teaching profession’s anxieties. The Secret Teacher’s birthday is on 28 September, which is the deadline the Secretary of State has given Patricia Hodgson, the chair of the School Teachers Review Body, to return her recommendations on teachers pay. I hope the Minister does not use that information to try to ascertain the secret teacher’s identity, but the Secret Teacher points out just how anxious teachers are about the steps the Secretary of State is taking to consider market-facing pay, regional pay or whatever we call it in the end. The Secret Teacher also points out that one of the common features of high-performing jurisdictions, which, by the way, we are too in this country—perhaps the Secretary of State should say that more often—is long-term investment in pay to attract a higher quality of applicant to the job. The Labour Government tried to emulate that.

The hon. Member for Southport mentioned that teachers pay is now linked more to classroom performance, and I make no apology for that. Certainly when I was a teacher, often the only way for a teacher to get paid more, apart from through the incremental points for experience, was to take on a responsibility outside the classroom. Some of the best teachers ended up doing administration rather than what they should have been doing, which was standing in a classroom and using their excellent teaching skills to help young people to achieve their potential.

There is a great deal of unhappiness among the teaching associations and unions on teachers pay, and I hope the new Schools Minister will take an approach of dialogue, consensus and working in partnership with the teaching profession to work through some of those issues, rather than taking the more confrontational and “impositional” approach that the Secretary of State tends to take from time to time.

On regional pay in education, the hon. Member for Southport gave a fairly comprehensive presentation on the arguments. The argument seems to be that, where local pay and costs of living are below average, the Government can get away with saving money by paying less. That is certainly one reason why the Government could go for local and regional pay. Another argument is that relatively high pay in the public sector makes it harder for the private sector to recruit, which he referred to as the “crowding-out” argument. He also referred to research from Bristol university, which I will come back to towards the end of my remarks.

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Why would the imposition of local and regional pay on teachers be the wrong approach? Well, there are a number of reasons, both educational and economic. Earlier, we discussed the potential damage if spending power is taken out of the economies of more deprived areas. Economics is a dismal science, as the hon. Gentleman hinted in his remarks, and it would be a big mistake simply to take a micro-economic argument in isolation from the macro-economic argument, which is exactly the mistake the Government are making in their overall economic policy on the deficit. On regional pay, if a significant amount of spending power is taken out of those areas of the country by reducing the wages of reasonably well paid public servants in the hope that that would make the private sector more attractive to them, the Government would have to posit a huge increase in private sector productivity for that to have a positive economic impact. Those of us with our feet on the ground know that, in practice, cutting fairly well paid jobs in such areas would take spending power out of the local economy, thereby damaging the provision of public services and damaging the private sector by suppressing demand for goods and services, so there is a strong economic argument against going down that road. It would also make it harder to recruit good teachers in more deprived areas. As the hon. Member for Southport suggested, the job is often more challenging in such areas, which are not necessarily seen as the most desirable places to live in.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the basic philosophical issue of equal pay for equal work. Yes, we could take a purely laissez-faire approach and pay different people at different rates for the same work; but we still have a national education system, despite the increased number of academies, and it seems to me that we should try to hold on to that basic principle.

As to the overall impact on teacher morale—I referred earlier to the Secret Teacher article—there is no doubt that it is at a low ebb at the moment. Introducing relative pay, or reducing it in some areas, especially in the current context of pay freezes, would have a major impact on teacher morale. The question would arise, I guess, of how to stop schools paying what they wanted to. The only way would be to reduce the funding available in areas where it was intended that pay should be reduced. There are thus also huge implications for school funding, which are not being planned for.

Bureaucracy is also an issue. What structure would be required to determine the rates that would apply; or would that be left purely to the market? There is no real evidence that relatively high public sector pay damages the private sector. At a time such as now, when there is high unemployment, including graduate unemployment, there is, if anything, an excess supply of labour available for the private sector to recruit from. Regional pay variations in similar jobs are relatively small. Large organisations in the private sector typically tend to have national pay structures as well, with limited variation, except, of course, for the same variation that has existed for some time in the teaching profession, for London and the south-east. Of course, the TUC recently gathered evidence about regional pay. Its research found that very few large private sector employers use local pay. That was attributed to the wish to have some sort of control over labour costs, and to avoid a duplication of the bargaining process, with the time and resources that

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that would entail. The complexity of regional or local differentiation outweighs the possible gains for those employers.

John Pugh: The hon. Gentleman is surely also aware that what is envisaged may be more complex than was at first thought even by those who support the concept. The Department of Health, under the previous Secretary of State, made a submission suggesting regional pay—but only at a certain level of the hospital structure. As to facing the market, in the higher reaches of the hospital structure the market was national rather than regional; so even within one institution regional pay might not be right. Equally, it is recognised that there are hot spots within regions, where it would not be desirable to pay much less than London rates.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the point that I was making, which is that the policy introduces a level of complexity that leads to cost—the opportunity cost, and the time that people will have to spend on resolving anomalies and complexities in the system, unless the Government intend to take a laissez-faire approach to public sector pay. As far as I know, that is not what they propose, but the costs, otherwise, cannot be ignored.

There are good reasons why regional pay is not common practice among large private sector employers. A lot of the commentary about regional pay seems to be based on poor knowledge of private sector pay systems, and of the existing flexibilities within the public sector pay system, including those affecting teachers. A recent “Today” programme on Radio 4 posed the question why a teacher should be paid the same in Sunderland as in Surrey. Well, those teachers are not paid the same. The pay system has four bands or zones, and teachers in Sunderland are in a different band from those in Surrey. It seems there is not enough knowledge generally about the current system; people do not understand that it is sufficiently flexible to remove any need for a much more laissez-faire approach to teachers pay.

The teaching unions have made a joint submission to the pay review body, and as its report is imminent I shall summarise some of their points. In their view, local pay in teaching would not contribute to the raising of standards, because schools in disadvantaged areas already face the greatest challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers, and in providing opportunities for the most disadvantaged students. Local pay would create even greater obstacles to overcoming inequality and raising standards of attainment for all—an objective that I think all hon. Members share.

The unions believe that local pay would be likely to inhibit teacher mobility and create long-term teacher shortages in areas where pay was reduced. There is no particular reason why it should assist with teacher supply problems elsewhere. It also offends against the principle that we discussed earlier: the rate for the job and equal pay for equal work. The unions believe that pay cuts would be likely to fall more heavily on women teachers, so there is an equality aspect to the issue. The Government would, I think, need to carry out a full equality assessment of any proposal to introduce a regional or market-facing pay system.

The approach would also make determination processes costlier—something that we have already discussed. Other interrelationships with pay flexibility should be

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considered, because the limited use of existing pay flexibility for recruitment and retention suggests that schools do not believe that the pay structure should develop further in that way. Increasing the scope for variations in pay could lead to schools competing for staff—at local level anyway—through wages. Another issue is reconciling the introduction of local pay with a clearer and more transparent funding system for schools, and more effective financial planning by schools. The unions echo the points that I made about private sector employers and the local economy.

That leads me on to the Bristol research, which the hon. Member for Southport spoke about. As he said, in August a study by the centre for market and public organisation at the university was published, under the somewhat non-academic title of “Wage Regulation Harms Kids”. It claimed to show that pupils’ performance at GCSE is affected by how teachers pay compares with pay generally in the area. As the hon. Gentleman said, it suggested that where pay is generally high compared with teachers pay, pupils do worse, and vice versa. The conclusion that is drawn is that there should be more variation in teacher pay, and, in particular, that teachers in high-wage areas should be paid more.

John Pugh: I think the hon. Gentleman used the phrase “do worse”, but I believe the conclusion is that those pupils improve less: in high-wage areas, generally speaking, attainment is better, or higher.

Kevin Brennan: I think improving less probably is doing worse; but I take the semantic point, and those who want to perform a textual exegesis on our deliberations this afternoon can take a look at it later, when they consult Hansard.

The argument runs that where teachers have low pay compared with others in their area, teacher recruitment will be more problematic, and teachers will be less motivated. That relates to the point that I was discussing earlier with the hon. Gentleman. “Wage Regulation Harms Kids” says:

“The nature of teaching is that a large proportion of the work is discretionary (lesson planning, after-school programmes, time invested in individual children) so there is scope for reductions in effort in response to relative wages.”

The case is based on the contention that teachers in more affluent areas are lazier than teachers working in other areas, because the ratio of their wages to wages for other jobs in the area is lower than that of teachers in other areas of the country. The study offers no real objective evidence to support that contention. The hon. Member for Southport has gone through the methodology used; it is almost entirely an exercise in statistical correlation, and relies less on causation than on an association of numbers from the evidence that it considered. No evidence is offered that the amount of teacher pay compared with pay in the area generally has a causal relationship to pupil performance, despite the report’s title.

Nor does the document consider any alternative hypothesis for the statistical link that it claims to have identified, which seems strange. It makes no attempt, for example, to consider Ofsted ratings for teaching, as the hon. Gentleman suggested could be done in different areas, to see whether there is inspection evidence that teaching is worse or teachers lazier in more prosperous, high-wage areas. It does not consider whether the challenges

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of teaching in less well-off areas require more of teachers and, conversely, whether a lot of schools in more prosperous areas are coasting and not being challenged by the nature of the task. It might have nothing to do with pay. That explanation is at least worthy of some investigation by such a study.

The case of London is especially relevant, as the hon. Gentleman said. London has high and rising standards, certainly in recent years, but also the largest gap in the country between teacher pay and pay generally. It does not seem to make a great deal of sense. Much of the analysis is based on dividing the country into just two areas and comparing them. That is a very broad-brush approach that can miss many local variations. I will not go on, but there are also problems with the report’s grasp of how teacher pay works and some confusion about external tests at key stages 1 and 3, which no longer exist. That did not inspire much confidence in me either.

The Secretary of State has been known from time to time to take pieces of research such as the programme for international student assessment tables, ignore the parts that he is not keen on and highlight only the bits that he is keen on, or even to ignore completely some pieces of research, such as the pupil achievement research on trends in international mathematics and science study. I am not suggesting that he will necessarily do so, but if he is planning to use this piece of research to justify the introduction of regional pay on the basis that teachers in areas such as his constituency are lazier than teachers in other parts of the country, without any real evidence for doing so, he is on extremely shaky ground.

I end with a couple of questions for the Minister. What is the Government’s current position on regional pay? We have heard conflicting voices from within Government in recent months; one minute it is on, the next minute it is off. Will he give us an update on the latest position? Does he think that Yeovil teachers should be treated differently from teachers in Surrey for doing the same job, and paid a different rate? Does he grasp how demotivating this debate is for the teaching work force that he now has the privilege of serving, in addition to the pupils and parents of this country, in his role as Schools Minister? What assurances can he give us that all of this is not just a softening up for the ultimate privatisation agenda that some of us think the Secretary of State has in mind in the longer term?

3.35 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) for the kind comments that he made at the beginning of his speech, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. As he mentioned a number of times, the issue is incredibly important for many people across the country, particularly in the north and in his constituency, and he will understand that it is an issue throughout much of the country beyond the south-east, including the area that I represent in the south-west of England. The Government acknowledge how sensitive it is for many people who work and do extremely important tasks within the public sector.

My hon. Friend has raised the issue at an important moment. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), mentioned, the School

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Teachers Review Body is considering the issues and will report relatively shortly. I think the shadow Minister said that he was expecting the response on 20 September. The latest information available to me indicates that it is more likely to be published towards the end of October. The shadow Minister will be aware from his own experiences in Government that the report will be made initially to the Secretary of State, who will then have to decide when to publish the evidence, alongside the Government’s response to the recommendations. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend and the shadow Minister will be assiduous in considering the evidence base and the response and following up with any issues and observations they have.

Before I go into the detail of my response to my hon. Friend, I should say that I agree with him on two strategic observations that he made about this debate. It is incredibly important that measures should be evidence-based. There is a lot of prejudice on different sides of the debate about issues of flexibility in pay, regional pay and local pay, but there is complete agreement between my hon. Friend and the Government that it must be evidence-based. He mentioned that he published his own report on the issues, bringing to the surface some of the evidence available on the issue of regional and local pay, even though it is not uncontested territory.

My hon. Friend referred earlier to having tabled a question to the Department about the regional variations in quality of teaching measured by the Ofsted framework. From my recollection of the last few days, he can expect a letter from the chief inspector on that issue pretty soon. I will be interested to hear his analysis after he has looked through the information, which I think will be quite detailed. It will perhaps take the debate further.

He and the shadow Minister made an important point. We acknowledge that education is an area in which the Government cannot simply press a button in Westminster or Whitehall and create particular policy responses across the country. There are 23,500 schools in this country, and education is delivered not by Ministers but by the people who teach in schools, head teachers and all the others who contribute in educational settings. Motivating and inspiring those people, and supporting them in the common aspiration of improving the education of young people, involves a partnership between the Government and those who serve in education. We are conscious of the need to keep them motivated and to make them understand that the Government want to support them in doing their job as effectively as possible.

The shadow Minister indicated that he is concerned about morale in some areas of the teaching profession. I have no doubt that there are various different propositions to make in this area. From my own visits to many schools across the country, particularly in my own constituency having taken on this role only recently, I think a lot of teachers and head teachers acknowledge that the Government, in difficult financial times, have put in place a good financial settlement for schools, given the pressures on other areas, including the pupil premium, which is ensuring that schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas, have the funding needed to tackle some of the challenges they face.

Before I respond to my hon. Friend, I would like to say that I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his kind comments about me taking up this role. I look forward to working with him as co-operatively as I can, and as the usual cross-party niceties allow. I would also

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like, as I did when I spoke a few days ago in the House, to pick up on his comments about the three Education Ministers who left in the reshuffle. I think he was indicating and hinting that those three individuals were passionate about their work and were regarded as very strong in the areas they championed. I think all hon. Members wish them all the best for the future, whether they agreed with every one of their policy proposals or not. I have no doubt that all three will go on contributing to the debate about education and children’s services.

In preparation for the debate, I read with interest my hon. Friend’s recent paper on the subject of regional and local pay. As I indicated, it is an important and timely contribution to a timely and topical debate. I will address some of the points he raised in that paper, as well as the points that came up in his speech. First, however, it is important and useful to set out, to some extent, the approach the Government are taking on reforms to teachers pay and the debate about regional and local pay across the public sector.

In the autumn statement in November 2011, the Chancellor said that pay review bodies would be asked to consider how and if public sector pay could be made more responsive to local labour markets. He then wrote to pay review bodies in December 2011. His letter to the School Teachers Review Body said:

“there is substantial evidence that the difference between public and private sector wages varies considerably between local labour markets. This has the potential to hurt private sector businesses that need to compete with higher public wages; lead to unfair variations in public sector service quality; and reduce the number of jobs that the public sector can support for any given level of expenditure.”

Those are some of the suggestions that my hon. Friend was commenting on in the debate and in his paper.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, there are already four geographical pay bands—the shadow Minister commented on this—that apply to teachers pay: inner London, outer London, the London fringe, and the rest of England and Wales. The current pay bands have rigid boundaries, which at the point they were devised took account of areas that historically had higher teacher vacancy rates and costs of living. The starting salary for classroom teachers is £21,588 in the England and Wales pay band and £27,000 in the inner London pay band. I think I am right in saying that all parties across the House, and my hon. Friend, acknowledge that there are some areas where there are very high costs, and where not having a degree of flexibility in pay would mean that it would be very difficult to recruit people who worked in those areas. Many of us are very passionate about ensuring that young people, particularly in areas such as inner London where there are big challenges in many schools, should have very high quality teachers and they should not be penalised as a consequence of teachers not being able to live and teach in those areas. The debate, then, is not whether there should be any element of regional variation within the system of teachers pay, but whether we should have different or greater variation.

The single most important determinant of a good education is for every child to have access to a good teacher. The available evidence suggests that the main driver of variation in student achievement at school is the quality of the teachers. The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from

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disadvantaged backgrounds, and research from the Sutton Trust has suggested that poor pupils may lose out on a whole year’s worth of education if they spend a year in a class with a poorly performing teacher, when compared with the education that they would have received from a very good teacher. International evidence shows that the top performing school systems consistently attract more able people into the teaching profession, leading to better pupil outcomes. That is a reason why the pay incentives and the overall levels of pay have to be right, as my hon. Friend would agree. Competitive salaries, in line with other local graduate professions, help to ensure that high-quality graduates are attracted into and retained within the teaching profession across the country.

John Pugh: The Minister is suggesting, and I agree, that teachers in disadvantaged areas have probably greater potential to make a difference to children’s lives. It is relatively unsurprising, then, that value added is identified in those areas of relative deprivation, as the Propper data show.

Mr Laws: That is a good point, but it is perhaps not the whole debate. I will explain why as I proceed through the comments that I have to make.

Recent research from the OECD showed that our teachers are amongst the best paid of all OECD countries. There was an improvement under the previous Government, which we welcome—that is good news. However, alongside ensuring that salaries are competitive we need to consider the case for arrangements for teachers pay that drive up the quality of teaching by rewarding good performance; giving schools as much freedom as possible to spend their money sensibly as they see fit to meet their pupils’ needs; ensuring the best teachers are incentivised to work in the most challenging schools, as my hon. Friend has acknowledged; and ensuring—an important point both for and against the argument for regional pay—the best value for money for the taxpayer in the money that it is allocated. That is why the Secretary of State, responding to the Chancellor, has asked the experts, the School Teachers Review Body, to consider how reforms to the teachers pay system might support schools and head teachers to recruit and retain the best quality teachers. That is in line with the approach being taken for other public sector work forces and will ensure that any changes that are made—this is my hon. Friend’s concern—must be based on the best evidence available.

In his remit letter to the STRB, the Secretary of State asked it to consider a number of factors: first, how we might reduce rigidity within the pay system so that it best supports the recruitment and retention of high quality teachers in all schools; secondly, how teachers pay could be better linked to performance and whether there are existing barriers to that within the current system; and thirdly, whether to make teachers pay more flexible following the commitment in the 2011 autumn statement to ask pay review bodies to consider how public sector pay can be made more responsive to local market conditions. The question of how teachers’ pay can be made more responsive to local labour markets is only one of the things—an important point that I want to draw out from today’s debate—that the Secretary of State has asked the STRB to consider, and it is important that I set out all of the issues on which the Secretary of State has asked for recommendations.

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To support the STRB’s consideration of its remit, the Secretary of State submitted written evidence. The STRB has also taken into account evidence from bodies representing employers of teachers, school governors, and teacher and head teacher unions. The Secretary of State’s evidence raised concerns that under the current system the rate at which teachers are paid is more closely associated with the time they have served as a teacher than it is with their performance in the classroom. Almost every teacher on the main pay scale progresses to the next spine point each year, and almost half of qualified teachers across all pay scales are on a higher spine point than the previous year.

Our analysis of vacancy rates shows that some schools find it more difficult to recruit and retain teachers than others. There are different vacancy rates between different regions, between local authorities in the same region, and between schools in the same local authority. There are also differences in vacancy rates between subjects, as my hon. Friend is aware. For example, there are above average vacancies in English and mathematics posts, but below average vacancy rates in the arts and humanities. Where vacancies are filled, some subjects are significantly more likely to be taught by non-specialist teachers, which is a major concern. For example, 21% of physics lessons are taught by non-specialist teachers, compared with 10% of history lessons.

The Secretary of State’s evidence to the STRB suggested five options for reform that it may wish to consider, illustrating the range of approaches that are available to it when making its recommendations. In late October, following careful consideration of all the evidence submitted, the STRB will make its recommendations to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has stated his intention to then issue a second remit to the STRB that may ask it to produce more detailed recommendations, or to consider further issues on which it has not yet reported. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that no decisions have been made and the Government remain open-minded about these reforms.

My hon. Friend’s paper and his speech clearly set out a number of key arguments made in the recent debate about regional pay for public sector workers. I should like briefly to touch on some of the issues that he highlighted. I remind him that issues relating to how public sector pay reflects the local labour market will be considered alongside other priorities, which I mentioned earlier.

John Pugh: Will the Minister consider the following point? We have used the expression “responsive to the local labour market” all the way through, as though we know in every case what the local labour market or the pool of workers is that we are pulling from. It would be useful to have an additional piece of research figuring out, when, say, a school head teacher or head of department post is advertised, the actual field of applicants. Where do they come from and how do people move between one area and another? In teaching, people at a certain level are prepared to move appreciable distances. Often in an advertisement in the paper, a school is appealing to the labour market of the whole nation, not just the local labour market. We cannot talk as though the local labour market is a fixed thing that we always understand.

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Mr Laws: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He will also appreciate that the reasons that motivate people to take on particular posts or to stay within geographic communities are based not just on pay, but on other connections that individuals may have with an area.

The first of my hon. Friend’s arguments was that the private sector might be disadvantaged in local labour markets where public sector workers are relatively highly paid. He referred to this as the crowding-out hypothesis. As the Secretary of State’s evidence to the STRB showed, there is variety in supply and demand within the teacher labour market, including in the relative pay of public and private sector workers. This appears to be reflected in vacancy rates, with schools in some regions finding it more difficult to attract candidates into vacancies. However, as the Secretary of State’s evidence also shows, there is variation between regions, between local authorities and between schools in the same local authority. Schools also appear to experience greater difficulty appointing specialists in some subjects compared with others. Stakeholders have submitted a large amount of evidence to the STRB and the other pay review bodies in this regard and detailed representations have been made on crowding out. I am confident that the experts will therefore have all the information they need to consider this specific issue carefully when making its recommendations.

My hon. Friend’s paper also considers whether the Government could make savings by reducing the pay of public sector workers in line with local labour markets. Increasing autonomy for schools is central to the Government’s education reforms. Although of course we wish to achieve value for money in all public spending decisions, we have clearly prioritised autonomy for head teachers to allocate the funds available to them in the way that they think is most appropriate to provide for the needs of their pupils, subject to the disciplines that any of us would expect in the public sector. Where pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds attend school, we have made sure that there is additional money through the pupil premium, which my hon. Friend strongly supports, for head teachers to spend on the additional support that they think is necessary. However, there are always advantages and disadvantages in such an approach—my hon. Friend set them out carefully—and those matters will be carefully considered by the STRB in its deliberations.

The final point mentioned by my hon. Friend was public sector pay in other countries. He specifically mentioned in his paper the experience in Sweden. As is well documented, the Secretary of State and the Government wish to learn carefully the right lessons from all education systems that perform most strongly in international comparisons. We have considered the Swedish system, but we are interested in all public education systems where pupils perform well compared with their counterparts in other countries, particularly where the attainment gap between the least and most advantaged children is small compared with the large gap that still exists in this country. We trust that the STRB will take into account systems employed in Sweden and elsewhere in the world. These will inform its recommendations to the Secretary of State.

Regional pay has been at the forefront of recent debates about public sector pay reform. However, my honourable Friend will recognise that, although we

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have asked the STRB to consider how teachers pay could be made more flexible locally or regionally, there are issues other than regional pay under consideration when it comes to teachers specifically. Increasing the flexibility that head teachers have to determine the pay arrangements suited to their school could be a key element of the drive to increase autonomy from government. We want head teachers, particularly in the most disadvantaged schools, to be able to use the additional funding that they have through the pupil premium to attract and retain top quality teachers to work where the pupils need them most. We need carefully to consider whether the current system enables them to do that.

Our approach all along has been to provide the STRB with the evidence that we think is most relevant to its deliberations and to encourage others to do the same. We are encouraged that contributions to the debate are being made by organisations and individuals who are not among the statutory consultees of the STRB. My hon. Friend has made his case clearly and publicly.

In setting out the Government’s approach after the Chancellor made his statement last year, my hon. Friend will be aware that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a speech at a union conference in June, saying:

“Despite some of the more excited press reporting, the only thing we have decided is to look at the evidence…before we decide anything, we want to hear from everyone with a contribution to make to this debate—employers, academics and, yes of course, the Trades Unions. There will be no change unless there is strong evidence to support it and a rational case for proceeding.”

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution to this important debate. I am sure that, like me, he looks forward to reading the STRB’s report and the Government’s response, and I have no doubt that he will respond again in detail to those.

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GCSE English (Marking)

3.58 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the Minister on her new role, to which I am sure she will bring great energy and commitment.

Unlike the current Ministers, I have no experience of work in the media or policy think-tanks. I simply bring experience of how things work or do not work in the real world outside Westminster, where real families toil, real kids go to school and real professionals work jolly hard to achieve the best they possibly can for our young people. I have a lifetime’s experience of teaching English. The easiest exam to prepare kids for was O-level English literature, and the exam that gave the most perverse, unfair outcomes for kids was O-level English language. The Government’s theoreticians may think a return to O-level will be a good thing, but I very much doubt it.

Criterion-referenced GCSE English has gone through many changes over the years, but today’s world has been transformed from the world of 1988, when the first cohort of students took the then new school leavers’ exam introduced by the Conservative Government. In all its manifestations, however, I can say without hesitation that GCSE has been far more demanding for students than its predecessor. It is a much tougher qualification to prepare students for and has a much tougher assessment regime for them to meet, but it has been fairer—until now, when a Government obsessed with ideas rather than realities are presiding over a monumental injustice.

At its heart, the GCSE fiasco this summer is not about Ministers and MPs, or exam boards and technical stuff. It is about something a lot simpler and a lot more important: it is about whether the assessments given to young people this summer were fair. The head of Ofqual, in her outrageously flippant remark that some candidates “got lucky”, seems to recognise that she failed in her duty to ensure that the outcomes in one year were fair to all candidates. As the editor of The Times Educational Supplement wrote this week:

“Obsessed with maintaining standards between years, Ofqual has failed to maintain them within a single one. It has completely undermined confidence in the exams it is supposed to protect.”

The Ofqual report “GCSE English Awards” lets the cat out of the bag. A technical document, designed to whitewash, it is obsessed with controlling statistics, not standards. It makes it clear that young people’s achievements at 16 are capped by their achievement at 11. The whole review hinges on

“the predictions made by the exam boards of results for each GCSE…based on prior attainment data”—

key stage 2 results—so that achievement at 16 is being capped by achievement at 11. An exasperated National Union of Teachers collectively sighs:

“Such an approach begs the question—does secondary education just not matter?”

Excellent analyses by the National Association for the Teaching of English and the National Association of Head Teachers demonstrate that Ofqual and the Government are, in essence, returning to norm referencing by the back door. Although the Secretary of State, in a very brief answer to my question yesterday, said that norm referencing was off the table, it is very much on the table, and I think that there needs to be some

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honesty about that. It is hardly surprising that the whitewash document also includes an admission, on page 19, that

“this year’s English results have come as a shock to some schools, and some of the school-level outcomes are hard to explain”.

You bet they are, if the aim is to cover up a monumental cock-up.

What is clear to me from talking with local head teachers in the Scunthorpe area whose students have been affected is that something significant and exceptional has gone wrong this year. They are solid, decent professionals whose judgments I trust, and they are universally telling me that if we look back across their schools’ predictions for the past five years in GCSE English and GCSE maths—the two key progression qualifications—their predictions for students attaining C and above have been consistently within a 4% tolerance of the final outcomes, except for this year, when maths remains within that tolerance, but English is more than 10% out. These are professionals who know what they are doing, and they tell me that the same students predicted a C this year would have achieved a C last year.

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I will be brief, because I had the chance to speak in the main Chamber. What my hon. Friend’s professionals are telling him in Scunthorpe is precisely what professionals are telling me in Southampton. I was, with the current shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of the two architects of Ofqual. We took the decision to establish an independent regulator. Does he agree that we have to face the fact that the guarantee of independence, which we delivered, was no guarantee of competence? The worst thing we can do now is to overlook the fact that Ofqual has got this wrong and to say that there is nothing that we can do to right the injustice that has been done to thousands of students this summer.

Nic Dakin: My right hon. Friend makes a salient and pertinent point. What is important is that young people in Scunthorpe, in Southampton and indeed throughout the land are treated fairly. The regulators recognise their own incompetence when one of them comes out with comments such as some students “got lucky”, but that is not good enough, is it? The incompetence that they recognise should not stand in the way of young people being treated fairly.

It is worth noting that, nationally, 26.7% of students doing the foundation paper in June 2011 got a C grade, while only 10.2% got a C grade in June 2012. Those statistics corroborate my local head teachers’ view that students taking the exam in June 2012 were disadvantaged compared with similar students who took the exam in June 2011.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the conditions on which Ofqual was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) and the now shadow Chancellor was that its duty was to maintain confidence in the exam system? How does a comment from the chief executive of Ofqual that some kids “got lucky” maintain such confidence?

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Nic Dakin: It is clear that there is no confidence at all in Ofqual among education professionals, among people working in industry and business who I met the other day—they clearly do not have confidence in Ofqual—and, most importantly, among parents and the students themselves. Ofqual has failed that crucial test.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): If the exam marking was so fundamentally flawed and the exam was too easy or whatever, why was the barrier between A and A* not changed? Why were those marks kept the same? Why was the C grade changed?

Nic Dakin: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I shall explain, there were impacts on other grade levels. The focus has primarily been on the borderline between C and D because that is such a crucial progression lever for young people, but there have been effects on other grades as well.

Why does this matter? It matters because GCSE English is a progression qualification: it makes a difference to individuals’ lives, to what they do next and to where they go next. It matters because we have a duty to young people to ensure that the assessments at 16 are fair. They have clearly not been fair this year. Worse than that, the Secretary of State and the regulator obfuscate, appearing more interested in covering up and protecting themselves than in ensuring that young people are treated fairly. Worse still, as my hon. Friend says, the focus has been on the unfairness to students missing out on a C and having to adjust their careers accordingly, but as a former principal of a sixth-form college I know that those students getting a B instead of an A will be disadvantaged next year when they apply for higher education. Their choices will be limited.

On 23 August, the Secretary of State for Education received news of the fall in success rates for students in their GCSEs with a certain smug satisfaction: failure for young people was success for him. It was all about rigour, standards and other buzzwords, not about achievement, progression and fair outcomes. Gradually, though, a darker story began to emerge. As schools analysed the results, they identified a significant change in how GCSE English had been marked in June compared with January. Something had gone very wrong, with grade boundaries being significantly adjusted in year to ensure that fewer students met their predicted grades.

In one school in my constituency, because of the boundary changes, the percentage of students achieving five A* to C grades fell from 80% based on January marking to 62% in June. As a consequence, the percentage of students achieving the important five A* to C grades including mathematics and English fell from 62% to 52%. At another local school, the changes meant that 25 pupils did not achieve the C grade they were predicted to achieve, and the school’s English results fell from 53% achieving C last year to 40% this year. At another school, almost 25% of the cohort taking exams were negatively affected by the boundary changes. These are drastic and startling figures, and I assure you, Mr Hollobone, that in all my years as an English teacher and then a sixth-form college principal, I have never seen anything quite like it.

One local head teacher described the impact on students and the school as catastrophic. Students who had achieved a C in English in January were re-timetabled for extra

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maths; they achieved their maths C in June, but because the school did not draw down their English marks until June, the C they had banked in January became a D in June. How on earth can that be fair?

Schools are very good at self-evaluation, but this episode has undermined their confidence in what they are doing. Their confidence in teaching GCSE English has also been undermined as further confused messages such as those we heard yesterday come out. There is also a lack of confidence about how they are preparing this year’s cohort for next year’s exam, so the impact of this year’s cock-up is being felt not only by this year’s students, but by next year’s students. That is why it is so important that the Government act now to put things right for the youngsters and schools affected.

The Association of School and College Leaders believes that one quarter of all secondary schools in England and Wales have been damaged. At first, it was thought that tens of thousands of pupils were affected, but the situation is far worse. We now know that 133,906 pupils have been affected on the boundary between grades C and D alone, before all the other boundaries are taken into account. If that injustice is not reversed it is likely to have a long-term impact on the social mobility of the students affected. Research from ASCL shows that those affected are disproportionately from areas of high deprivation, ethnic minority groups and poorer families. Parents have written to me to explain that their children have been devastated by the news that they cannot pursue the courses and jobs they had set their minds on. I have an example here of a student who has moved on to further education, whose mother writes:

“My daughter is one of the many thousands involved in this injustice and we've now heard that the AQA resit for English Language is 7th November. This fiasco needs to be sorted NOW before it’s too late! As it is she is having to do extra work to ‘revise’ for the resit on top of her college assignments. It’s simply not fair.”

Similarly, teachers have told me about the anxiety that the situation has caused them, with one describing Ofqual’s actions as immoral and inhuman.

Last week, The Times Educational Supplement published letters between Ofqual and Edexcel showing that the regulator had, at the 11th hour, pressured the exam board into revising the grade boundaries against its professional judgment. Ofqual told the exam board to

“review the English award at grade C in order to produce outcomes that are much closer to the predictions and so in line with national standards”.

We must remember that the predictions are based on key stage 2 assessments at age 11. In its response, Edexcel protested that

“we have put considerable effort into producing what we consider to be a fair award”,

adding that

“our award is a fair award and we do not believe a further revision of our grade boundaries is justified”.

Those are the professionals, who have looked at the work, not just carried out a statistical exercise. Ofqual then sent a final letter, warning Edexcel that

“their expectation”

was

“that Edexcel will produce outcomes...that are within the 1% of the overall prediction”.

Edexcel then capitulated.

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Last week, the chief regulator and the Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee on Education to answer the growing avalanche of questions. It was a master class in obfuscation. After their appearance, the Chair of the Select Committee spoke for everyone when he said:

“There are many important questions in this to which we do not have satisfactory answers”,

adding that the explanations given were “inadequate”. The Secretary of State has hovered between bullish and sheepish in his response to the gathering storm. He blusters and hides behind an unaccountable quango, which in turn hides behind a cloak of statistical confusion.

Adding further to the unfolding chaos, the regulator in Wales—the Welsh Government—has taken clear action by ordering the Welsh board to re-award grades to Welsh candidates. That means that students in Wales will be treated fairly, but my constituents who did the Welsh board English GCSE—believe it or not, Mr Hollobone, the Welsh exam board is popular in Scunthorpe—will not. How on earth can that be proper? How can it be just?

There is a further contradiction and a further worry. The Secretary of State seems to be saying that GCSE results must not go up, but that in every school more than 40% of pupils must get five A* to C grades. Those who have signed up to a conspiracy version of history see that as an agenda not only to fail students, but to fail schools. A consortium of schools, academies, further education colleges, local authorities and professional associations is taking legal action this week. I wish them success, but it should not have come to that—wasting public money, time and energy on legal costs and process. Ofqual and the Secretary of State should be big enough to hold up their hands, admit that they got it wrong and take action to put it right. That is the moral code that we teach our young people, and our leaders should also follow it.

Who is accountable for the cock-up? An unelected quango that is doing the Secretary of State’s bidding. Surely it would be better if he were directly accountable to the young people of this country and ordered an immediate independent inquiry into what has happened or, better still, followed the Welsh Government’s example and ordered Ofqual to instruct the exam boards to re-award their grades, so that all students taking the exam this year are treated fairly and in line with their contemporaries the year before.

Being a modern MP, I asked my Twitter and Facebook followers what questions they wanted to be answered. Overwhelmingly, they were variations on the following. Can the Minister explain to youngsters and their families how pupils can get a lower mark in January and do better than someone who gets a higher mark in June? That is what happened this year. While the Minister is considering that, I will ask three further questions. Will she urge the Secretary of State to stand up and be counted, to apologise for this year’s cock-up and to take action to ensure that this year’s students are treated equally and fairly, based on the professional judgment of the exam boards—the people who have seen the children’s work? Will she say whether she is happy that achievement at 16 is apparently being capped by achievement at 11, in a move back to norm referencing? Finally, will she ask Ofsted not to fail schools that can demonstrate that they missed the threshold owing to the impact of GCSE English marking this summer?

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4.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for securing today’s debate. I recognise that he has a lot of expertise in the sector. He taught English at Greatfield high school, and is a former principal of a further education college, so I respect the knowledge that he has brought to today’s debate.

I want to restate what the Secretary of State has already made clear. I have great sympathy for all those students who did not receive the grades they were expecting in this summer’s GCSE English results. There is a process whereby hon. Members can register their concerns with Ofqual, which is rightly dealing with queries. If schools or students are concerned, I suggest that they raise those concerns with Ofqual as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman asks me to set out what action the Government are taking, and what action I believe they should take. It will come as no surprise to him that, as the Secretary of State made clear at the Select Committee earlier this week, it would be totally wrong for the Government to intervene in marking or grading decisions. That is Ofqual’s responsibility, and as other hon. Members have said, Ofqual was set up by the previous Secretary of State to oversee and maintain standards and qualifications. Grade boundaries and maintaining standards is a matter for Ofqual, which is directly accountable to Parliament. It is important that where there are independent regulators, they should conduct investigations and answer queries—in this case, that process is still ongoing—without undue political interference.

Ofqual published its initial report into the concerns about GCSE English, finding that the June grade boundaries were properly set and that candidates’ work was properly graded. It has also said that the January grade boundaries were set generously. The hon. Gentleman has referred to Glenys Stacey’s comments on that matter.

Nic Dakin: First, does the Secretary of State have a role in ensuring the competence of the regulator? Secondly, Ofqual has not looked at any work; it is a mere statistical sample of 75%. It is not even a technical analysis of 100%, according to the report, which is signally flawed. Does the Minister accept that point?

Elizabeth Truss: On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, our exam system is undergoing reform. I shall comment later on the modular system and the impact that that had on grading decisions.

Ofqual is looking at the details of individual students and why they got the expected results, while others did not. That is why I am encouraging hon. Members to send concerns to Ofqual, which will produce its final report in October. It is the right body to investigate the matter, rather than the Department for Education, because otherwise we end up in a system where politicians interfere with the grading review. The hon. Gentleman alluded to Wales, and that is a problem with the approach being taken there.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned problems with the current system, presenting a rosy description of GCSEs in the years since their introduction. Although he spoke about O-levels, I am not able to remember sitting such exams, because I took GCSEs. Therefore, I

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sadly do not have his wealth of knowledge about different qualifications going back through history. The specific problem with English GCSE was the modular examination system, which we are changing. A lot of convoluted technical processes were created that made it more difficult to moderate and mark the exams. The Government and the Secretary of State have been clear about wanting to move away from a modular system to one in which students study subjects in depth, and where what students have learnt can be assessed at the end of the course. We think that modular exams and re-sitting exams get in the way of sound subject knowledge and sound subject teaching.

We believe that modular examinations were a factor in what happened with the English GCSE exams, but that is a matter for Ofqual to investigate. As I have said, the report is expected at the end of October. It will be up to Parliament to examine the findings, as Ofqual is ultimately accountable to Parliament, which returns to the question that the hon. Gentleman asked about what the Secretary of State’s role should be.

We are restoring the end-of-course exams for students starting GCSE courses this September. Yesterday, the Secretary of State announced the new English baccalaureate certificates that will be introduced in the core subjects. They will be linear and results will be given at the end of the course. I understand that that does not answer the specific question of what happened with students this summer, but again, that is being investigated by Ofqual. The proper role of politicians is to consider how the system can be reformed to work properly, rather than intervening in specific decisions that it is right for the regulator to make.

On the hon. Gentleman’s rosy perception of the past few years, there is widespread, bipartisan agreement that the level of grade inflation cannot be justified. He also had warm words for the examining bodies, even though they have been criticised for the role that they played in that inflation. I do not think, therefore, that they can be entirely part of the solution—in other words, we need to consider different approaches to GCSE exams.

Since 2000, England’s performance in international reading, mathematics and science tests have flatlined. Andreas Schleicher from the OECD has described the UK as stagnating over that period. The specific comments about the English results cannot hide the fact that under the previous Government we did not see the increase in standards that was seen in comparable countries. In 2000, the UK was ranked 12 places ahead of Germany in mathematics, but by 2009, it was 12 places behind. In 2000, the UK was 16 places above Germany in science, but it is now three places below. In reading, it was 14 places above Germany, but it is now five below. We cannot ignore international evidence showing that what was being reported as happening as a result of our exam system was not accurate, compared with fast-improving jurisdictions across the world.

Nic Dakin: I say gently to the Minister that those points are for another debate. We should focus on the hundreds of thousands of young people who have been negatively affected by something that, as the general secretary of ASCL said, has gone seriously and significantly wrong. Such people do not say things like that glibly.

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Something is wrong here and it is in an area that the Government, if they had intestinal fortitude, would do something about.

Elizabeth Truss: The reason it has gone wrong is because of the system we inherited, which was based on modular examinations. While we saw grade inflation in the UK, we were being overtaken by other countries.

Mr Denham: I urge the Minister to consider this point: the students do not care about the wider debate on examination standards. Something has gone wrong in the assessment of the English language examination this year. It has nothing to do with the debate about wider standards or how things are run, and it is frankly insulting—I must say that to the Minister, who is new in the job—to talk about other issues when students are wondering what will happen to them.

Elizabeth Truss: It is relevant, because the modular English exam was introduced by and the system was set up under the previous Government. The former Secretary of State was clear when he established Ofqual that it was an independent regulator of standards. It is not right, therefore, for Ministers or the Secretary of State to interfere with the marking process. Ofqual must conduct that investigation and the proper process is for schools and individuals, with the encouragement of MPs who feel that the treatment has not been fair in their constituencies, to apply directly to Ofqual. I have made that point clear, but there is no doubt that the long-term problems in our system have created incentives for schools and exam boards to behave in particular ways, and those issues need to be sorted out. That is the point behind the introduction of the English baccalaureate certificates. The race to the bottom between exam boards needs to end, so that we have a system that accurately reflects standards. At the moment, it does not.

I am extremely sympathetic to students who did not get the results that they expected. However, the proper course of action is through Ofqual, which is conducting the investigation, and the proper role of politicians is to reform the exam system so that we deal with issues such as modularisation, which caused these problems.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): We now move to the next debate. I would be obliged if the Parliamentary Private Secretary would remain in his seat so that we can carry on with the debate in the Minister’s absence.

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Rail Services (Paddington to Herefordshire)

4.29 pm

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): Ensuring that my constituents have first-rate rail links has always been a top priority. Proper rail services are vital to businesses, local families and in helping to ensure that we are the greenest Government ever, but it has been apparent for many years that the railway service from London to Hereford is unacceptable. The timetable offered by First Great Western was poor, and that did not promote tourism or business investment in the area. In fact, it hardly worked at all.

The Department for Transport’s invitation to tender for the operation of the franchise should therefore serve as an opportunity to help to improve rail services across the United Kingdom, not allow them to remain poor or even unchanged. Sadly, that has so far been a missed opportunity. The invitation to tender only requires

“broadly the same number of trains to run between end-to-end destinations as is the case today”.

The Minister, who has entered the Chamber, might find my giving him the first page of my speech very helpful. I believe that what is in the invitation to tender will, at best, lead to a continuation of the status quo. At worst, it will decrease the number of direct trains going to and from Hereford. I am sure that the Minister agrees that that is not what he wants and it cannot be acceptable.

First, the rail services to and from Hereford must not get worse. I believe that, to guarantee that, First Great Western must not be awarded the Great Western rail franchise. Secondly and most importantly, we owe it to the constituents of Herefordshire actively to promote a vastly improved timetable. Currently, weekday connections from Hereford to London start at 5.35 am. That train is scheduled to arrive at London Paddington at 8.51 am. It is therefore near impossible for anyone living in Herefordshire to get to an office in London by 9 am. If the trains started just 35 minutes earlier, at 5 am, that would allow enough time to make it. At the end of the day, the trains do not leave late enough. On weekdays, the latest direct train leaves London Paddington at 7.22 pm, and on Sundays it is even earlier, at 5.42 pm. Those running times are extremely restrictive and only serve to isolate Herefordshire and its people. Crucially, there are only five direct trains between Hereford and London a day.

I, along with my hon. Friends the Members for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), want to see an hourly service. At the moment, trains start too late, finish too early and do not run frequently enough. Within the terms set out in the tender document, it is solely up to the new franchisee to decide whether those times will improve.

With proper investment to ensure more services, Herefordshire could begin to compete with Birmingham, Warwick and Newport, where people currently choose to travel. “The Eddington Transport Study” found that good transport links can support the regeneration of an area where there is existing potential. That was the case with the Jubilee line extension into the docklands area of east London. The Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses considered that

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investment in transport was one of the most economically productive areas of public spending. That was in a report by the Select Committee on Transport in 2010-11.

Herefordshire is trying to take part in a superfast broadband pilot for rural areas, and that should boost our local economy. Of course, a lack of good transport could undermine that excellent development. A report released last week by Sustrans has revealed that our current transport planning system is forcing people into buying cars that they cannot afford or leaving them stranded, denying people access to jobs, schools, hospitals and shops. Obviously, that is unacceptable.

North Herefordshire is a very rural constituency, and efficient transport links are fundamental to its prosperity. My constituents are losing faith in the railways, and that will lead to reduced demand. However, it does not have to be like that. It is up to us to provide the services in order to attract more passengers. Regular, reliable, affordable and punctual services will lead to more passengers and more commuter fares being fed through to the Exchequer. It will boost local economies and those further afield by enabling people to visit shops and restaurants more frequently.

Alongside timetable changes, I would like to encourage a more efficient train service. “The Eddington Transport Study” concluded that the most obvious and direct benefit of an improvement in transport is a reduction in the time spent travelling. My constituents have voiced concerns that, at present, connection times on indirect services offered by First Great Western are often too long or even too short to reach the connecting train. I was therefore saddened to read in a letter from the former Transport Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), that the invitation to tender allows for journeys that are now provided by through trains to be delivered using a connection. The invitation to tender obviously allows for a downgrade of our current service at a time when we urgently need an upgrade.

For train services to become a viable transport option for my constituents, the issues that I have set out need to be addressed. Furthermore, we need improved reliability, affordable fares and clean carriages. My constituents understand that delays occur, but First Great Western has a poor record of communicating information about those delays. Less than half of those surveyed for the Office of Rail Regulation’s national rail trends yearbook felt that First Great Western dealt well with delays. There have also been endless complaints about difficulty collecting fares on board at the end of the line. That not only loses revenue, but leads to inaccurate records, pushing up the price of fares for those who do pay and incorrectly reflecting demand.

What do other bidders offer? The Department for Transport does not allow the details of other bids to be exposed, so we must put our faith in the DFT’s decision alone. I believe that urgent change is needed, so I urge the Minister to alter the terms set out in the invitation to tender document. I know that that is hard and I also know that his office would prefer him to have an easier life and to leave the document alone, but it must be remembered that 15 years is a long time for us to bear the responsibility of a diminished service.

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At present, the tender does not push for the improvements that we on the line so desperately need, and worse, it allows for the current standards to slip. My constituents and I need reassurance that the awarded bidder will actively try to deal with the problems. The franchisee must remember to deliver on their promises. I believe that that should be enforced by the Government.

There have been a number of concerns about the franchising process—namely, those recently voiced by Virgin Rail Group. At a Select Committee sitting in the House of Commons, Virgin criticised the Department for Transport’s failure properly to assess the relative risks of the bids that it received. It asserts that premium payments depend almost entirely on projections of passenger numbers. I have reservations about First Great Western’s chance of achieving those passenger numbers, given its current record of service on the London-to-Hereford route.

In the course of its previous franchise, which has been under way since April 2006, First Great Western has seen a larger-than-expected decline in passenger numbers. That has meant that payments that it was scheduled to make to the Treasury have been reduced. With it having previously pulled out of the Great Western franchise, it would not seem sensible to re-award the franchise to First. That still leaves the Minister three other bidders. I know that he is aware of the shortcomings of the service and will redouble his efforts to deliver for the people.

Aside from the franchise agreement, I would like to draw attention to the need for infrastructure investment on the Paddington-to-Hereford line. As it is only a single-line track between Worcester and Hereford, only a limited number of services can run per day. As trains going in both directions need to share the same track, the capacity of the line is reduced. Also, if one train is delayed, there is an inevitable domino effect on all later trains—they are all delayed. I would like investment in that line to ensure that there is a passing place outside Ledbury. That would be an excellent way to help to improve services and ensure that Herefordshire achieves its potential. The Office of Rail Regulation yearbook confirmed that First Great Western Ltd paid the Government £103.7 million in 2010-11 and £110.1 million in 2011-12. It is fair to say therefore that some of that revenue could be re-invested into the infrastructure of the route.

I would be most grateful to the Minister if he focused on three key things that need to change. First, I would like to re-emphasise my belief that the invitation to tender document must be improved. At a time when we need to boost our economy and get Britain going again, it is all the more important that our rail services are as good as they can be. Allowing broadly the same number of trains to run between end-to-end destinations is simply not good enough. We need a guarantee that our service will improve, not a document that allows it to get worse.

Secondly, there is a vast need for infrastructure improvement due to the single track between Worcester and Hereford. It is clearly an enormous hindrance to an efficient running timetable and must be considered. Working with Network Rail, we could double parts of the line, which would undoubtedly help to secure more direct London-to-Hereford train services. Thirdly, and crucially, my priority is to ensure that there are more

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and better direct services on the London-to-Hereford route. That needs to happen now, without obstruction or delay.

I know that the Minister understands the difficulties my constituents face daily. I am confident that a new train operating company can transform the services. The appointment of the new operator must of course be taken very seriously, and so should the terms set out in the invitation to tender document. I recognise how difficult it is for him to do this, but he is a highly skilled and brilliant politician and this is his moment to rise to the challenge, to deliver for the people, to soar with the eagles and to ensure that we deliver on our election pledges for the environment, for growth, for Britain.

4.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to that wonderful peroration from my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. He is now free to make his points because, I am sorry to say, he is no longer with us at the Department for Transport in the capacity in which he served previously.

As my hon. Friend said, on 27 July this year the Government issued the invitation to tender for the new Great Western franchise—Great Western, of course, being the description of the area, rather than implying which company might deliver the service. It is the future franchise operating train services on the route between London Paddington and Hereford, so the debate is timely and I welcome his contribution to it. The Great Western rail network plays an important role in the economy of the many parts of England and Wales it serves. Rail connectivity provides crucial support for jobs and growth, and delivering high-quality rail services is a means of tackling road congestion and pollution by encouraging modal shift.

My hon. Friend set out with great clarity the importance of the Great Western rail network to his constituency. The Government have prioritised investment in our rail network in response to passenger concerns about overcrowding and to support jobs and growth. The programme of capacity expansion to which we are committed is bigger than any seen since the Victorian era. He will be aware that there are now more people travelling on the network than at any time since 1929, even though the network is much reduced in size. I am happy to be able to tell him that the usage figures for Hereford station in his constituency show that in 2007-08 fewer than 900,000 people used the station annually, but the figure had reached over 1 million by 2010-11, so there has been significant growth in passenger numbers. The figures for Ledbury station show that in 2007-08, there were 162,000 annual usages, up to 189,000 for 2010-11; and the numbers for Colwall station have risen from 56,000 to 61,000. All three stations on the line, particularly Hereford, have shown significant growth, but I have not mentioned Leominster.

Bill Wiggin: Leominster is on a slightly different line. A problem we face at the end of the line is the failure to collect fares, so although the Minister’s figures show an increase, the actual increase might be even greater,

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because there has been such an appalling effort made to collect the fares and therefore the statistics that go with them.

Norman Baker: It is obviously right that people pay their fares and we take fare evasion seriously. It is not only a loss to the railway, but unfair on the passengers who pay for their tickets properly. The Department has focused on it, not least through rolling out smartcard arrangements and gating across franchise areas.

A number of the most ambitious and important changes will take place in the Great Western franchise area, so if you will forgive me, Mr Hollobone, I will refer to the line as a whole, as it is relevant to my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Government’s announcement that the Great Western main line between London and Oxford, on the route to Hereford, will be electrified has been warmly welcomed by all; that will be taken through to Newbury, Bristol and Swansea as well, and brand-new intercity express trains are planned for those routes. The bi-mode version of the new trains will be able to use electric power where new electrification has been installed, and run under their own power on sections of line beyond, so it is entirely possible that the new franchisee will want to run intercity express programme services with new trains to destinations such as Hereford. I am sure that my hon. Friend would welcome that if it came to pass. The Reading station area is being remodelled and the station itself rebuilt to modern standards, which will reduce delays. The Crossrail tunnels are already under construction there.

Ultimately, those projects will generate major benefits for passengers and for the economy of the area served by the new franchise, but delivering such an improvement programme is bound to have a short-term impact on services, so a major challenge for the new operator will therefore be to facilitate the efficient delivery of the programmes and maximise the benefits they can offer for passengers once completed, while minimising disruption during the introduction of the improvements. Franchise bidders will be expected to present robust proposals for minimising disruption during the upgrade works, with a keen focus on the needs of passengers.

This is not just “jam tomorrow”. A success story of Britain’s railways is the large number of additional passengers now using them, although that can of course bring crowding, and overcrowding. As the Department for Transport’s statistics show, train services on this part of the network have some of the highest levels of crowding, which my hon. Friend’s constituents have no doubt mentioned to him. I am therefore pleased to say that this year, additional carriages, funded by the Government, have been introduced on to First Great Western train services. The busiest services operated by high-speed trains, including some to and from Worcester, now have an additional standard class coach. I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the recent arrival of five fully refurbished class 180 trains, which now operate nearly all services to and from Hereford and Worcester not operated by high-speed trains, bringing a much improved level of comfort for passengers. The turbo trains displaced from those services are being used to add extra capacity to First Great Western train services closer to London.

The Government’s plans are not limited to big, attention-grabbing schemes such as those. We recognise that the wider improvements will not benefit the largest number

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of passengers unless accessibility at stations is improved. The Government’s access for all scheme continues to fund improvements to access for disabled people at stations. I am pleased to say that improvements to accessibility are planned at stations on the route, with lifts and a new footbridge for Hereford; improvements, including a ramp, at Malvern Link station; and work under way to establish how lifts can be introduced to Worcester Shrub Hill station. Elsewhere, lifts have been installed at Leominster station in my hon. Friend’s constituency—indeed, he has been assiduous in pressing for that.

Shortly after taking office, the Government consulted on plans to reform the way the rail franchising system operates, and this is perhaps coming to the kernel of the issues my hon. Friend wanted to raise today.

Bill Wiggin: Before the Minister leaves the access for all programme, I want to say that I am grateful for the lifts in Leominster. They were supposed to be monitored so that drunk people do not damage them and people do not get locked in. Unfortunately, they were not monitored as they should have been and people have been locked in. Can we make sure that the monitoring happens, and will he include Ledbury in the next round of the access for all scheme, because the demand there is equally important?

Norman Baker: I am sorry to hear that there has been a problem with the lifts at Leominster. We will certainly pass on those comments to the train operating company and Network Rail. I am deeply surprised to find that my hon. Friend has anything approaching anti-social behaviour in his lovely constituency; nevertheless, I will take away what he says. We have allocated a further £100 million under the access for all programme in the forthcoming control period, and I will ensure that the position at Ledbury is examined at part of that process for ongoing works.

Returning to the franchising system, the new Great Western operator is being given greater flexibility to respond to customer demand in a commercial way within a framework set by the franchise that protects key outcomes for passengers, taxpayers and the economy. I will mention in passing that both coalition parties endorsed that general approach in the run-up to the general election and subsequently in the coalition agreement. The requirements on the new operator are set out in the invitation to tender published on 27 July. Our starting point for the development of the new train service specification has been the current level of train services, rather than the lower contracted minimum in the existing First Great Western franchise agreement. My hon. Friend will know that services have been added since the last franchise was set, so it is important to recognise that we are taking the current high level rather than the low level that existed under the previous Government.

Bill Wiggin: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I urge him to ensure that the high level goes to the end of the line. My understanding is that the tender document insists on a number of services per day and increases the number of those to Worcester and Malvern, but it needs to reach the end of the line at Hereford and not just raise the game halfway. That is really the nub of the argument.

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Norman Baker: I take my hon. Friend’s point and I will come on to give more details about how the franchise system will work in respect of his constituency.

We expect the franchise to include requirements on passenger satisfaction—for example, in relation to stations—and we have set stretching objectives for managing the changes I described a moment ago to deliver an operationally sound and efficient railway that provides enough capacity for passengers. The new franchise will be for 15 years, and we believe that the increased certainty will encourage private sector investment in the railways. A longer franchise should also make it easier for the new operator to build the long-term working relationships with Network Rail and other stakeholders, such as local authorities, that are crucial to an efficient and successful railway. The initial alliancing project in South West Trains has shown good initial results.

Part of the Government’s approach is to provide greater flexibility for operators to react to their passengers’ changing needs as well as to commercial opportunities, and to support operators in delivering a more efficient operation. That is why we have adopted and developed a less prescriptive approach to franchise specification that seeks to avoid the micro-management of the past while protecting key services. In doing so, we have sought to balance the needs of passengers, the railway industry and the wider economy.

The Government believe it is right to give operators greater say in how to deploy their train fleet more efficiently, for example—this is my hon. Friend’s point—by permitting a connecting service where a through train is currently provided and by redefining the relationship between journey flows and station calls. In respect of my hon. Friend’s constituency, bidders for the franchise must continue to provide, as an absolute minimum, 16 services in each direction between London and Worcester each weekday. However, we are aware that about 60% of passengers from London to Hereford choose to change trains at Newport or Birmingham, so we considered whether it is appropriate to prescribe the detail of the exact current service pattern for the next 15 years. Accordingly, we decided that, of the 16 trains to Worcester, eight must provide easy connections to Great Malvern and five to Hereford, as a minimum. The connection must be to another of the franchisee’s services, not to a different operator. As such, operators will need to consider whether to run through-trains or to lease additional rolling stock to provide a connecting train, if that is what they wish to do. As I said, it is entirely possible that through-services will prove to be the more viable option for those operators. If there is a connection, it must not require excessive waiting time and must provide an accessible route that can be navigated easily by passengers with luggage, those travelling with children, or people with disabilities.

Operators are, of course, free to continue to provide through-journeys or a higher frequency of services, as has recently been illustrated by the west coast franchise competition. In that respect, the Government’s policy is to mandate today’s service levels more flexibly and to encourage bidders to propose investment and improvements over the longer term of the franchise. We will look closely at bidders’ proposals later this year, but in the meantime I encourage my hon. Friend to speak to the bidders to set out what he wants for his constituents.

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In addition, we have mandated that, as a minimum, Worcester should receive 85 daily calls, measured as station departures—47 at Shrub Hill and 38 at Foregate Street. A minimum of 71 calls per week day will be required for Malvern Link, Great Malvern, Colwall, Ledbury and Hereford stations, but the operator can allocate them in a way that best meets demand. That is designed to guarantee a comparable level of service to today’s, without prescribing the timetable itself.

My hon. Friend is concerned that the new franchise arrangements may lead to a diminution of services in his constituency. By not micro-managing or setting in stone exactly what has to be delivered, we are giving bidders an opportunity to provide an improved level of service for his constituency. Indeed, with railway numbers increasing year on year, as they have been, it is important to give space to a successful bidder to improve services and if possible, if they choose to do so, within the franchise arrangements to increase the number of through-services. That is not an impossible outcome. We are engaged in the biggest rail building programme since Victorian times. We are looking at how to increase, not decrease, the extent to which people can travel by train. If I may say so, we should therefore see the arrangement not as a threat, but as an opportunity for franchise bidders to develop services that do more to meet the needs of passengers than would a rigorous, rigid franchise arrangement.

Bill Wiggin: I fully accept and welcome the Minister’s intentions. What he is trying to do is very good. Does he agree that the easiest way to demonstrate that flexibility and achieve improvement is simply to increase the number of compulsory journeys, by perhaps just one, to the very end of the line? Thus, on paper, there would be a minimum improvement, even if train operating companies failed to take advantage of all the flexibility that he has so kindly given them. That way, it is beyond debate—it would be clear that a sixth journey to Hereford is a raising of the standards and that, beyond that, everything else is a bonus. I think that that is what he is hinting at.

Norman Baker: I want to answer my hon. Friend’s three key points before we finish. The invitation to tender has been issued; it was dealt with by the then Minister of State, who is now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In a sense, that moment has passed: the invitation to tender cannot sensibly be withdrawn and nor should it be. That would cause all sorts of problems for the Department and, indeed, for the bidders, so it is not an option.

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I recommend that my hon. Friend does what many local Members do—I, too, have done it, in absenting myself from departmental decisions on my local franchise—which is to engage with bidders by talking to them and putting the case that he wants to see for his particular lines. I have certainly found being able to put the case for what I want in my patch to be a rewarding experience, and that bidders have been quite receptive. In this new world, in which we are giving franchise bidders more flexibility to develop services, I would not underestimate the opportunity for bidders, which they welcome, in talking to local Members, understanding what they want and building that into their plans. He and other local Members have that key point of influence where they can talk to franchise bidders and influence them accordingly.

On infrastructure improvements, my hon. Friend will be aware that, as I have mentioned, we are engaged in huge works across the country to improve the railway network. There is always enthusiasm about looking at any scheme that provides value for money. As I understand it, a 15-year period potentially allows a bidder to include in its bid that particular improvement—a passing place at Ledbury—as part of the offer that it makes to the Department. Bidders are putting forward such schemes in other bids, and he could encourage his bidders to do so. Alternatively, he could engage with Network Rail in relation to both what is left in control period 5, or indeed what is in control period 6, to make sure that such an improvement is properly programmed in for future work. We are now seeing significant improvements to track capacity across the country, including redoubling between Swindon and Kemble, so the concept of providing more capacity is certainly one that Network Rail is up for at the moment. There is more of an open door for such schemes than there has been for many years.

On direct services to Malvern, I cannot do anything about the invitation to tender that has been issued. However, I can say that, personally, I think there is a good case for more direct services, and I hope that the franchise bidders will reflect that in their bids. No doubt, they will listen to my hon. Friend’s comments and my response, and I hope that that will be reflected in the sort of bids that he wants, as and when they come into the Department.

Question put and agreed to.

4.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.