3.17 pm

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) for initiating the debate.

It is not too much of a secret, certainly in some quarters, that I am not a great fan of academies. I opposed them under the previous Government, and I oppose the academy regime under this Government. Within a few months of coming into the House of Commons, I voted against the Academies Bill. That was for a couple of reasons. First, many supporters of academies, who want to push for academy status, are seeking to control admissions. For them, it is about who goes into the school, not what goes on in the school.

In a private meeting with the Secretary of State, I said, “You should be far more radical and make every school an academy in terms of some of the freedoms that are proposed.” However, for those who support

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academies, and who are pushing for them, that would not really work, because the secret of academies is that some schools are academies and some are not. Alongside freedoms in relation to conditions of service and so on, there would need to be some control over admissions, which would defeat the purpose of going to academy status for many sponsors, and the same applies to free schools.

I am opposed to the academies also because there is an overemphasis on the impact that the structure will have on raising achievement and attainment in schools. It is interesting that many of the new academies have not taken up some of the new freedoms: they have taken the money and stayed, rather than taking the money and running with the new freedoms. Another reason for my opposition is that I always want, as Stephen Covey said, to

“Begin with the end in mind.”

If something works, generally speaking it is okay. I do not feel that there are too many strong, politically different issues or matters of principle. Most of them are about what works in a situation, with some fundamental underpinning of values. I am not clear where the evidence is for academies. In a sitting of the Education Committee a few weeks ago, I asked the Secretary of State whether he believed in evidence-based policy and he said that he very much does, but I do not see any evidence for that.

The success of the academies project seems—my hon. Friend the Member for Southport referred to this—to be judged by how many academies there are. That has almost become an end in itself. There has been much talk about needing to convert. A school is in a particular situation, and the idea of need is always introduced; but it does not mean the school will benefit from a conversion. The evidence base is not there. The idea is that the school needs to convert because it meets the criteria; but it is the Secretary of State who sets the criteria. It is like saying, “I will decide when it is raining, and I will decide what to wear in the rain.” He is doing the same, because he is saying, “I will decide the criteria and whether they have been met.” That is the same idea as, “There is a need to put on a coat when it is raining; it is raining so we need to put a coat on.” The false logic behind the whole academies programme is: “An intervention is needed and an academy is an intervention, so you need an academy.” It is all false logic. Using a coat when it rains is an intervention, but it is not the only form of intervention and there is no evidence that that intervention is the one that would work.

There are all sorts of interventions, which could include setting up an academy—but where is the evidence? Local authority support would be a possibility: many authorities are not, as has been suggested, dreadful, and are effective at providing support. The intervention may be a new head for the existing school. It may be an integrated post-inspection plan, or an interim executive board to turn the school around. There is evidence to show that all those interventions work in certain circumstances. They all have an evidence base, but there is no evidence that the academy structure works. It is false logic.

In my constituency in Bradford, there are two schools that are going through intervention academy conversions. My two sons went to one of those schools many years

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ago. If someone went to a local estate agency 10 or 15 years ago, the window would have adverts stating that properties were close to the school. The school was one of the largest and most successful in the Bradford district and it was why people moved into that area, but it has had a difficult time. It was not so long ago that the head teacher of that school, before retirement, was the executive head of another school that was failing and has now become successful. I was chair of governors at a school that was in special measures, and it became the first secondary school in Bradford to be rated as outstanding. All that was done without academy status and on the basis of interventions by an extremely good head teacher, who was able, through a new management team, to turn the school around.

In Bradford, a secondary partnership has been established. The whole principle behind it has been to offer support to other schools and negate the need for academy conversions. The partnership was formed about 18 months ago and all 28 secondary schools from the district are involved and pay an annual subscription to join. It involves developing a rigorous system of performance review. It will provide effective school-to-school support and deliver school-led professional development. Those schools do not need to be academies. There are other ways forward that do not require a change to a school’s structure.

Ideology has been mentioned a few times, but I do not think that is the issue. It is about ego. All schools can be improved, but it takes time and requires hard work. It is not glamorous and a slog is involved. It takes 18 months to two years to get the right people in place to turn a school around, but where is the glamour in that for a Secretary of State who needs to be seen to do dramatic things? Where is the glamour in that hard graft that happens day in, day out up and down the country in turning around schools that need to improve?

The problem is that that egocentric project comes with a cost. The House of Commons Library briefing shows the actual cost involved in investing in the schools and bribing them to take up academy status, as well as the opportunity cost of the money that is not available for other schools. It is frankly sickening to see schools in Bradford unable to afford basic repairs while a bottomless pit of money appears to be available to support the free schools and academies programme. That programme is a costly distraction—devoid of evidence—from the principal concern of an authority, which is to raise educational achievement and attainment through the well-established methods that already exist for turning schools around and providing the quality education that pupils need and deserve.

3.28 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It is a pleasure, Mrs Main, to be under your chairmanship this afternoon. I think I agree with some of what everyone has said, but not all that anyone has said, which makes for an interesting debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing it. One point on which I agree with him is that there is a danger of the academies programme being seen as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. It is that point on intended and unintended consequences that I wanted to address.

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I will explain where I am coming from on the issue by reference to my constituency. I had a quick tot up and I have nine secondary schools in my constituency, including one that is 100 yards outside. They range from leading independent schools, such as Latymer Upper school and St Paul’s girls’ school, to leading Catholic schools, such as Sacred Heart high school and London Oratory, which former Prime Ministers and current party leaders seem keen to send their children to. There is also the West London free school, which was set up Toby Young, and two academies that were part of the Labour Government’s academies programme: Burlington Danes academy, which is a new build, and Hammersmith academy. There are two outstanding—I should say that all those that are subject to Ofsted inspection are outstanding—community schools: William Morris school, which is a sixth-form school that I helped set up 20 years ago and am a governor of, and Phoenix high school, which is run by Sir William Atkinson, who is a famous head teacher, known across the country.

The reason I mentioned those is because there is a vast range of schools, and I do not discriminate between any of them. I go to them all, invite their pupils here and I am very proud to have every single one of them in my constituency. I am particularly proud of the two academies and indeed, I helped to set them up, under the previous Labour Government. It is a shame that the £50 million that went into those was not replicated by the Building Schools for the Future programme being continued, so that community schools could also have benefited.

What I find surprising is the attitude of—I have to call them this—the ideologues in the Department for Education and in some Conservative local councils, including my own. They take it to be their mission to ensure that there is academisation wherever possible, without regard to the reasons why they are doing it. I hope that from what I have said it is clear that I have no particular beef about whether a school is an academy or not. All those schools are doing well in their own way.

I can best illustrate that by reference to ARK Schools, which is a well known academy chain, and is the governing foundation for Burlington Danes academy, which, historically, has been a grammar school, a successful comprehensive school, and a Church of England school. It is now an ARK academy and I was part of ensuring that that happened. On the back of that, west London is now populated by a dozen-plus new ARK schools, and again, I have no particular objection to that. I was at one of the primary schools last week—ARK Conway primary academy—opening the new library.

What I have difficulty with, however, is the attitude of Conservative local authorities, who, whenever they see a possibility in relation to an existing community school, pressurise that school into becoming an ARK academy. We had an early example of that with Kenmont primary school in my constituency. The head left, which is a perfectly normal thing to happen. The local authority then said that it could not afford to employ a new head and that the school would therefore have to become an ARK academy. It was only because the parents and governors objected—in the end, a new head was recruited —that that did not happen, and it is now, once again, a very successful community primary school.

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Other schools have been pressurised; indeed, one is being pressurised at the moment, and I use the phrase advisedly. There are primary schools in my constituency that have effectively been told that their only option is to become an academy. I feel that in some cases, those schools are set up to fail, and they are not given the requisite support. Perhaps a head teacher leaves, there is a temporary head for a year or two, and the school is allowed to drift into special measures. I am not going to name particular schools—I do not want to name schools that are having difficulties—but I see that pattern repeated, and it is not what a local authority should be doing. It should be supporting all its schools, including those for which it is not directly responsible.

We had a £33 million investment programme—at the moment, that is quite a big programme—over two years for primary schools, yet all that money was directed to voluntary-aided schools, free schools or academies, for new build, refurbishment, conversion or expansion as may be, despite the fact that very successful community schools also wish to expand and see investment put into them. I object to those double standards and to not having a level playing field. I have to ask who the ideologues are in this case, and I am afraid that they are particularly centred around the Secretary of State for Education.

None of that would matter if there were no adverse consequences, but let me explain some of the consequences. First, there will be a perception—it may be a reality, but it is certainly a perception—that we are creating a two-tier system in education, in which academies are the preferred type of schools. Parents will therefore gravitate, reasonably and understandably, towards those schools, because they believe that the schools will be preferred—with money, resources or simply the attention that they receive from local education authorities and the DFE. That then leads to a form of separate development. A number of academies are now for pupils aged three to 18, and they therefore monopolise children within an area. Equally, I have noticed a trend whereby secondary academies will select—particularly if they are in the same group—from their primary feeder schools, so it may be that there is no longer an interchange between primary schools in that way. I am beginning to get a lot of complaints from parents of children in community primary schools who might want to send their children to secondary academies, and they find that they are refused or are a long way down the waiting list.

I also fear that there is a possibility of politicisation of the academy system down the road. There is a strong association between the academy system and not only Conservative local authorities, but Conservative funders, peers and so on. Lord Nash has been mentioned. Lord Fink, who I think is still the Tory party treasurer, was the chairman of ARK, and he is the chairman of one of the schools in my constituency. Both of those gentlemen are very substantial funders of the Conservative party. One of them, Lord Nash—or rather, his wife, Lady Nash—was the principal funder of my opponent at the last election. It is a free country. Anyone can do as they wish, but the association of particular schools, chains of schools and individuals with a particular political party is not healthy in education. I see that as another branch of the politicisation and there is the real prospect of our moving—with every pronouncement that comes out of Government or those close to Government—to

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profit-making schools. If another Conservative Government were elected, we would see that trend continue, and I think that would be extremely regrettable.

This is not an easy issue to deal with; it is not black and white in any way. As I hope I made very clear at the beginning, I support every school in my constituency. I have a good relationship with ARK. I find it slightly troubling that soon it will be almost the size of a local education authority, spread across some west London boroughs, because it does not have the same democratic accountability as LEAs. However, I do not blame ARK. It may be a willing recipient of the Government’s largesse, but I place the blame squarely where it lies: in the tram-line attitude and the “Go for academies at all costs” policy that infects the DFE at the moment. With hindsight, in years to come, I think that that will be seen as a very retrograde, ideological and divisive step.

Whether individual schools are achieving for individual pupils is clearly important, but as Members of Parliament, we have to look after the interests and welfare of all the schools in our constituencies, and that certainly ought to be the role played by LEAs and the DFE as well. I do not see that happening—I do not see the even-handed approach that will embrace and encourage community schools, in the same way that I see that when those in the preferred or favoured categories are dealt with.

Guy Opperman: With the hon. Gentleman’s experience of ARK, does he not accept that in even his own constituency—I do not extend the point to all other ARK schools around the country—when ARK has gone in and schools have become academies, they have transformed the education? Without knowing his constituency, I suggest that all the schools ARK has gone into have had a successful outcome. Surely that is the point.

Mr Slaughter: I make it clear that I am absolutely not criticising ARK as an educational institution. The answer is that it has had some remarkable successes and some partial successes. Some successes have not been quite so big, and in some cases, it is too early to say. That is true—it is exactly why I started with a slightly self-indulgent tour round my constituency—and I could say the same thing about many other schools and different types of schools there. That is not the point I am making. The point that I thought I was making—I will make it slightly more clearly—is that the concentration and fixation on a particular type of school and giving schools of that type a privileged status will undoubtedly have an unbalancing effect on education across the piece. That is the mistake that the Government are making.

3.40 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate. He gave us a thoughtful and philosophical discourse, as ever, on forced academisation. Interestingly, he described what he saw as bullying going on within the system. I will come back to that. He also introduced us to the interesting concept of an under-occupancy subsidy for some types of school that the Government are currently promoting. I am sure that we will hear more about that in the future.

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I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on his speech. He managed to turn it into a bit of a debate about pensions, which might be a separate issue from what we are discussing today, but he did show his erudition by quoting Yeats. I, too, will quote some Yeats:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.

In some of what is going on with the forced academisation debate, there is a problem with the falconer not knowing what the falcon is getting up to out and about in the field. I will also come back to that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) described what she called snake-oil salesmen in relation to forced academisation. The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) said that this policy was not so much ideological as egotistical on the part of the Secretary of State for Education and that he needed to be seen to be doing something dramatic, which explained his actions. It reminds me a bit of the goalkeeper’s dilemma during a penalty shoot-out. Statistically it is proven that, very often, to stand still is the best thing to do during a penalty shoot-out, but if the goalkeeper does that and the opposition scores, they are roundly criticised. If, however, the goalkeeper dives in completely the wrong direction and the opposition scores, they are praised for at least having a go. Perhaps that explains the phenomenon that the hon. Gentleman described.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) told us about his own experience, including helping to set up academies in his constituency, and about his fear of politicisation and of profit-making schools. I recently met colleagues from Sweden, who described to me the utter disaster of profit-making schools—free schools—in Sweden. The impact has been to lower standards because of the race to the bottom that profit-making schools entail. Also, Sweden has had to reinstate a requirement for teachers to be properly qualified in free schools, because of that race to the bottom for low-paid staff and maximising profit. That has happened in free schools in Sweden, so there is a lesson for us there as well.

This debate is about forced academisation. Let me say at the outset that I am a supporter of academies and have been throughout my 12 years in the House of Commons. Of course, the genesis for the academies programme under the previous, Labour Government was to launch a direct assault on the double disadvantage of social and economic deprivation. Our concern about the current Government’s academies programme is not about the freedoms that can be granted—that come along with academy status—but about the loss of focus on under-performing schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation and the fact that that might result in the positive impact of the academies programme being diluted. I worry that the principal foundations for the success of the early academies—collaboration and partnership—have been replaced by what other hon. Members have talked about here today, a fixation on the numbers game. That is what we are seeing at the moment. It explains why we are having this debate on forced academisation today. It is all about numbers, rather than standards.

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I am not wedded to any particular model for the way in which schools should be run. As a former teacher myself, I agree with the hon. Member for Southport that the structure makes very little difference. We know what makes a good school; we know what factors are involved in that, and there is plenty of research to show it. I do not think that there are many people, either—there may be some here—who think that local authorities should directly run all state-funded schools these days. A lot of us agree that local authorities did not always do a particularly good job of running local schools in many cases in the past, but just because a job was not always done well does not mean that there is not a job that needs to be done. There is a job that needs to be done at local level in relation to our schools, and that focus is being lost by the current Government with this numbers game that they are fixated on.

I welcome the Minister who will reply to the debate. It is a shame that the Minister for Schools is not replying to it. I know that responsibility for this subject lies in the House of Lords, but it would be good to have the Schools Minister here to reply to the debate, because he could then explain why he supports the current policy when he said in his manifesto at the last election that he wanted to

“replace Academies with our own model of ‘Sponsor-Managed Schools’. These schools will be commissioned by and accountable to local authorities and not Whitehall”.

That was his policy previously, which perhaps explains why he never fronts up on this subject as Schools Minister and turns up to debate it. I would welcome his doing that in the future.

However, I am glad that we have the hon. Lady here to answer on behalf of the Government about the worrying reports that we are receiving from around the country. Despite my intervention earlier about yesterday’s article by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian, there seems to be a growing number of reports from around the country about bullying behaviour by the individuals who are being sent round by the Department for Education to bring about forced academisation of schools.

Last year I visited a group of schools that had formed an education improvement partnership. One of the primary school head teachers in it was desperate to tell me about her experience with what some people locally have described as gauleiters being sent out by the Department for Education. What she told me made my jaw drop. She told me that when the adviser from the Department turned up, she was told that she had to meet them and that no one else was to be present. When she objected to that, she was told that perhaps at a stretch she might be allowed to have the chair of governors present with her for part of the meeting. She wanted to have, and in the end she insisted on having, the head teacher of the local secondary school, which was part of the education improvement partnership, with her for the debate, but she told me several stories about how she was leaned on—that is the only way it can be described—and told that there was no alternative to her school becoming an academy, despite the fact that the governors did not want that, the parents did not want it and it was clearly an improving school. In the end, having taken legal advice, they were able to fend off the adviser who had come from the Government, using those bullying tactics, but I am told that as she left she said, “I’ll be back”, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style—no

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doubt after further efforts have been made to undermine the efforts being made by the school to operate as part of an education improvement partnership to raise standards in the school. That is happening around the country. I have also been told that in the same area, one head teacher has seen a gagging clause put into their contract, having been forced out of a school as part of this process.

It is all very well, under the cloak of standards, to go around to schools and offer them an opportunity to consider academisation—the sponsored academy approach. That can be entirely appropriate on many occasions, but the bullying behaviour—we are hearing, and I am receiving, more and more accounts of it—is very worrying. I therefore want the Minister to answer a few questions about that. How many schools does she know of that have successfully resisted forced academisation procedures? How are the academy advisers recruited? How are they rewarded? Is it true that they are on a payment-by-results regime? I hope that the Minister will answer this question particularly. Is there any code of conduct for those people as to how they should behave? As the Minister with responsibility for the issue of bullying, will she give us an absolute assurance that if there is one, she will publish it, and that if there is not one currently, she will ensure that one is available? I ask that because some of the behaviour that is being described—

Guy Opperman rose—

Kevin Brennan: I do not have time to give way I am afraid. I would otherwise, but I want the Minister to be able to answer.

Given the behaviour that is being described, if there is a code of conduct, it is obviously not being adhered to in any acceptable way. Is it acceptable to insist on meeting heads alone, not allowing them to have other people with them? Do the advisers have targets? To whom are they accountable? What evidence is there that forced academisation raises standards? We do not have much time and I want to give the Minister the chance to answer the questions. Why has the Department backed down in the face of a legal challenge from Coventry council about forced academisation? Will she undertake to ban gagging orders on heads who are forced out of their jobs and introduce transparency into the process?

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate. We have had an interesting discussion this afternoon on the evidence behind the academies programme and some of the issues with underperforming schools. He outlined the elements of a good school. I agree with him, and think everyone in this House would agree, that good leadership, a good ethos and parental involvement are all things we recognise about good schools. He also suggested that those attributes were completely independent of academies, and that is where I cannot agree with him.

Strong evidence across the OECD links school autonomy with improved performance and, where there is a strong accountability system—also important—strong leadership in the school and improved results. It is notable that many of the countries that have successfully improved

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their educational performance—Germany over the past 10 years, for example—have done so by increasing the amount of autonomy that schools have, setting strong standards and a strong accountability regime. Germany has seen a marked improvement, relative to other countries. The OECD used evidence from PISA 2006 to show that science results for 15-year-olds had improved in countries that gave more autonomy to schools. That evidence is generally recognised, and was recognised by the previous Government when they established and promoted the academies programme. There is a link between autonomy and accountability and improved performance.

John Pugh: Is there a system in Germany whereby schools selectively opt for greater autonomy or are they all simply endowed with greater autonomy?

Elizabeth Truss: The German system is rather more complex because each Land has its own education system. I am happy to discuss it with my hon. Friend in more detail in due course, but there has been a general move across the country to have fewer decisions made by the Government and more decisions made by school leaders. That is my general point. The point about process he raised is a slightly different issue.

My hon. Friend mentioned that our other school policies and what happens in schools are important. He is right. The academies programme is part of what the Government are doing to address educational standards. We are also giving significant funding for disadvantaged pupils through the pupil premium, which is £2.5 billion a year. We are also improving the quality of teaching in our schools, by increasing the number of high-quality applicants to the profession and developing existing teachers. We are reforming the national curriculum to make it more rigorous and more focused, so that teachers have the freedom to design lessons that inspire and motivate their pupils.

Some freedoms that have hitherto been held mainly by academies are being extended to all schools. All schools are being given more freedom in how they design their curriculums. We are encouraging schools to collaborate and share best practice, so that strong schools can help weaker schools to improve. We are increasing the rigour of the accountability framework, including introducing the English baccalaureate and our new floor standard measure for key stage 4. Ofsted’s inspection framework is raising the bar on inspections, so “satisfactory” is no longer good enough. The policies have to be looked at in the round. The academies programme is accompanied by other policies, in areas such as accountability, to ensure that school leaders are accountable for what they do.

Richard Burden: Will the Minister give way?

Elizabeth Truss: I am afraid that I will not because I have a lot of questions to answer in a short time. Many interesting issues have been raised during the debate that I have not yet answered and want to move on to.

We are encouraging all schools to convert to academy status, so that good and outstanding schools can use the autonomy that the status provides to drive up standards. Where schools are underperforming and leadership and

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management need improvement, however, we cannot just stand by and allow that to continue. The cases that hon. Members have raised in the debate are about schools in which performance is not good enough. We are not talking about schools in which performance is already good. There are good schools under local authority auspices and there are good academies, but we are talking about underperforming schools. We look for two indicators of underperformance to determine which schools we should approach and work with to deliver sustained improvement: low achievement over time and whether the school is in Ofsted category 4.

Many schools agree to become sponsored academies, because they know that academies are achieving dramatic improvements in results, particularly where new sponsors have taken on formerly underperforming schools, as I have seen in my county of Norfolk. Sponsors bring outside influence and a wealth of experience. They challenge traditional thinking and have no truck with a culture of low expectations.

Hon. Members asked about the evidence. It shows that sponsored academies are improving at a faster rate than other state-funded schools. In fact, on average, the longer they are open, the better they do. Between 2011 and 2012 the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, in sponsored secondary academies increased by 3.1%, which compares with 0.6% across all state-funded schools, so there is a differential rate of performance.

There are some dramatic case studies. Students and staff at the Accrington academy in Lancashire, for example, celebrated a huge improvement in results. In 2012, 60% of students achieved five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. That was up 13 percentage points from 47% in 2011 and up an incredible 42 percentage points from just 18% at the predecessor school in 2008. The school is supported by its sponsor, United Learning. Given the opportunities, I can understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is keen for more schools to be able to convert to academy status in his area. I am discussing that with the Minister for Schools, who is in turn discussing it with the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. We hope to come back to my hon. Friend very soon.

Several hon. Members rose

Elizabeth Truss: I will not give way because I want to answer the questions that have been raised.

Mr Slaughter: On a point of order, Mrs Main, the Minister is not giving way because she wishes to answer the questions, but she is not addressing the subject of the debate at all.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): That is not a point of order.

Elizabeth Truss: My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham also outlined academies’ freedoms over term times, the school day and pay and conditions. We have heard positive reports about ARK academies and the fact that they have a longer school day. E-ACT has supported the Blakely academy to set higher teacher pay to bring in top-quality teachers.

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We should bear it in mind that intervention takes place where schools are underperforming—where there is a problem. At meetings with governing bodies, where schools are in Ofsted categories of concern, a broker discusses sponsorship options and aims to agree a schedule of actions. As is necessarily the case in an underperforming school, that can sometimes appear challenging—of course, it can. We are saying that what is happening at that school is not delivering for the children. It is important that they receive the best possible education.

3.58 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.23 pm

On resuming

Elizabeth Truss: As I mentioned before the short break in proceedings, the schools that we seek to intervene in and that are suited to a sponsored academy solution are those that are underperforming. There have been some questions about the make-up of the departmental brokers that we employ to carry out that work. As the schools are underperforming, the conversations are often about challenging them to perform better. The departmental brokers have contracts with the Department that state their terms and conditions. They are not paid on results, and they are subject to the civil service code of conduct. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) asked about the code of conduct procedure. He also referred to it in a letter when there was a complaint, and that was addressed by the Department for Education.

The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, made it clear in his most recent report that more children than ever before are in good schools. That is fantastic news. He has been clear that there are areas of the country where almost all schools are excellent or good, which, again, is fantastic news. None the less, progress and performance are not uniform across the country. Sir Michael has been equally clear that there are areas of the country where only a minority of schools are good enough, which is unacceptable. According to Ofsted, 2 million children are in schools that are not good enough, and no one should be willing to accept that.

What we have to bear in mind is that when we broker sponsored academies in cases of underperforming schools, the children are not receiving the quality of education that they deserve.

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Robert Powell

4.26 pm

Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con): It is a great pleasure, Mrs Main, to address the Chamber under your chairmanship. Robert Darren Powell was born on 29 December 1979 at Glanamman hospital near Ammanford. Robbie and his parents lived in the Upper Swansea valley in the town of Ystradgynlais. The community is part of the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency, which I represented in Parliament between 1992 and 1997. Although I am no longer the Member of Parliament for the family, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) has kindly agreed to let me lead this debate as many of the matters that I intend to raise are ones that arose when I served either as the family’s MP or as the Member of the European Parliament for Wales.

Robbie Powell was just 10 years and four months old when he died. A post-mortem examination took place and the cause of death was recorded as Addison's disease, which is a rare disease that affects one in 10,000 people. It can, however, be effectively diagnosed by the ACTH— adrenocorticotropic hormone—test. If that had taken place in Robbie’s case, he would be alive today and living a full and normal life.

The case of Robbie Powell has become notorious as an example of the failure of multiple individuals and agencies. The satirical magazine Private Eye has described it as one of the most shocking and astonishing stories in the history of the NHS. The multiple failures even affected how the case was dealt with by Welsh Office officials, which led to two Cabinet Ministers, my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) giving parliamentary answers that later proved to be untrue. For the purposes of today’s debate, however, I wish to focus on the role of the prosecuting authorities in considering the issue of whether a criminal prosecution should have been authorised in this case.

Robbie died on 17 April 1990. He had been unwell for more than a fortnight and his parents had requested no fewer than seven consultations with five local GPs over that period as they became increasingly concerned about his condition. Robbie had excessive weight loss and was so weak in the last four days of his life that he could not walk. If Robbie had been referred immediately for hospital treatment it is likely that his life would have been saved, but a number of general practitioners who dealt with him did not refer him to hospital for an investigation. On the final day of his short life, his father had to take him by car to Morriston hospital, after being refused an ambulance at the second GP consultation of the day. Robbie stopped breathing on arrival at the hospital and never regained consciousness.

All of the evidence shows that the father had been pleading with GPs to refer Robbie to Morriston hospital. What Mr Powell could not have known at that time is that four months earlier, a hospital consultant had recommended that Robbie should be tested for Addison’s disease. It later emerged that a letter to that effect had been sent to the GP practice. It said that Robbie needed the ACTH test and should be immediately re-referred if there was any recurrence of his symptoms. Clearly, after Robbie had died one would have expected that all of the

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background circumstances and failures would have come to light. However, the reality is that virtually all the organisations that had the responsibility for establishing the facts operated in ways that blocked, impeded or even falsified the evidence.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the skill with which he has pursued this case. However, I am sure that he would also like to put on the record the tenacity with which Robbie’s father has pursued the case. Without his tenacity, we would not be where we are today.

Jonathan Evans: I am certainly very happy to acknowledge that tenacity, as I will elaborate on later in my remarks, and as I said earlier I thank my hon. Friend for his support for my raising this matter today.

My own concerns as the then MP for the Powell family became so great that they led me to request the then Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, to authorise a full public inquiry to get at the facts, a request that was framed in joint terms with the then spokesman for Her Majesty’s Opposition and later First Secretary of Wales, Rhodri Morgan. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham wrote to me on 8 May 1994 indicating that he had given the issue of whether to hold a public inquiry very careful consideration but did not think that he would be justified in holding one. However, we now know that at that time the Welsh Office officials were providing him with false information about the case.

However, my right hon. Friend offered to set up a non-statutory inquiry under an independent chairman if my constituents—the Powell family—felt that such an inquiry would help to get to the bottom of the issue. Although the family wanted a full public inquiry, they accepted this course of action but received a notification six months later that the family’s general practitioners had refused to co-operate. Furthermore, at one point the medical notes in the case, which were crucial in terms of the request for the Addison’s disease test, went missing. Questions were asked in Parliament. In June 1995, that led my right hon. Friend to assert that he had been advised that no package containing those documents had ever been received by his Department.

However, after further investigations that were undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he became Welsh Secretary, it was established that the information that had been provided to Parliament was completely untrue and as a result my right hon. Friend—who was then the new Welsh Secretary—was obliged to set up an independent investigation into the management of papers by the Welsh Office. Needless to say, the fact that MPs and Cabinet Ministers had been provided with false information on such matters by civil servants did nothing to improve the Powell family’s confidence that the true facts of the case would ever come to light.

I set out these issues as the context of this debate, because responsibilities in relation to health are now clearly within the remit of the Welsh Assembly. More recently, the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, ordered an independent review of the case, which reported last year. In advance of ordering that review, however, the

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First Minister had asked the Attorney-General whether he would join the Welsh Assembly Government in establishing a full public inquiry into the case, as the matters of concern that I intend to raise in this debate are not wholly within the remit of the Welsh Assembly Government but relate specifically to the manner in which the prosecuting authorities had considered the matter.

It was about that issue that I wrote on 4 April 1996 to the then chief crown prosecutor for Swansea expressing concern about the case and pointing out that it might be necessary to require a full and detailed investigation of the actions—or should I say the inactivity?—of the prosecuting authorities. The response that I received was directly from the then Director of Public Prosecutions in London, the late Dame Barbara Mills QC, who set out—I am bound to say in rather simplistic fashion—the “realistic prospect of conviction” test. Dame Barbara indicated that the Crown Prosecution Service had first been consulted about the case in November 1994 and had given preliminary advice to the police, before offering additional advice to the police in December 1994. In December 1995, following what was described by Dame Barbara as an “extensive” inquiry, the Dyfed Powys police submitted a further file to the CPS seeking advice, and the case again received detailed consideration with advice being given to the police on 5 January 1996. Dame Barbara set out in that letter that she had advised that the evidence available at that stage was insufficient to support a prosecution, but she indicated that she would be happy to consider any further evidence. She reiterated this stance in a letter to me on 26 July 1996.

At a later stage, and following complaints made by Mr Powell to the then chief constable of Dyfed Powys police and the Police Complaints Authority, it was decided that Dyfed Powys police’s handling of the case would be independently reviewed by another police force. Detective Chief Inspector Poole of West Midlands police was appointed and his November 2000 review made 25 recommendations. The Avon and Somerset police force was instructed to undertake a disciplinary investigation, and in fact a detective chief superintendent and a superintendent from Dyfed Powys police were both formally issued with discipline notices. However, as was sadly becoming rather familiar, both senior officers were then permitted to retire and the investigation went no further.

That investigation was called Operation Reboant, and it focused on the handling of the investigation itself. Although Dame Barbara had spoken about the detail of the Dyfed Powys police investigation, the conclusion of the Avon and Somerset police force on this matter was shockingly different. It concluded that Dyfed Powys police had been institutionally incompetent in respect of the police investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Robbie Powell. The manner in which employees of Dyfed Powys police had dealt with Robbie’s father was also criticised. The inquiry concluded that, as an organisation, Dyfed Powys police had failed to investigate professionally, efficiently or effectively the circumstances surrounding and subsequent to the death of Robert Powell at Morriston hospital, and that the criminal investigations were badly managed by senior detectives. However, the inquiry did not authorise prosecution for misconduct in public office as Dyfed Powys police was neither a body corporate nor a person

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for prosecution purposes. Furthermore, it should be noted that the GPs who were under investigation were, at the material time, actually employed by Dyfed Powys police as police surgeons, and that this conflict of interest was not disclosed.

The second investigation was entitled Operation Radiance and it was an investigation into whether any criminal offences had been committed by the general practitioners, whose role had been to provide health care to the Powell family. This investigation was undertaken by DCI Poole, who concluded that there was the potential for up to 35 individual criminal offences to be considered in the case, ranging from manslaughter to the falsification of documents, perverting the course of justice and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Core to those charges was the revelation that a secretary in the GP practice constructed a referral letter after Robbie had died requesting that Robbie should be tested for Addison’s disease in response to the original referral on that issue, which had taken place months earlier. The letter was then backdated to the time that Robbie was still alive and placed in his file of papers. Two persons in the GP practice accepted that they had been involved in this exercise, the clear purpose of which was to mislead the investigations that were taking place into the circumstances that led to Robbie’s death. Another GP confessed that she had watched a television investigative report into the scandal that had been broadcast in Wales, and following that broadcast she had constructed a series of notes, backdated them to a date when Robbie was alive and then placed them in his notes. Again, it seems clear that this action was contrived in order to give a misleading impression regarding the medical care that was being offered.

The conclusions of Operation Radiance were delivered to the CPS and led to a meeting between the CPS and their advising counsel on 2 April 2003, the effect of which was to inform the parents that no prosecution would be undertaken in relation to any of the issues arising from the treatment of their son. I have rarely read a more self-serving document than that six-page letter, but the essence of the viewpoint conveyed by the CPS is that it would no longer be justifiable to resurrect the offences as any case brought against the doctors for forgery or for perverting the course of justice would inevitably be stopped as “an abuse of process”.

It is difficult to understand why the prosecution of conduct of the sort to which I have referred could be regarded as “an abuse of process”. However, the first sentence of the final page of that letter gives a hint, when the CPS says that

“the important considerations are the passage of time and the earlier CPS decisions”.

I cannot imagine for one moment that an argument of that sort would cut much ice in the considerations that Parliament has given to the issues surrounding the deaths at Hillsborough in 1989, more than a year before the death of Robert Powell. Accordingly, the passage of time in itself surely should never be relied upon by the prosecuting authorities as a reason why no prosecution should be taken forward, and I can imagine the outcry if such a claim were to be made in the Hillsborough case.

However, it is the remaining words of that sentence that give a hint as to why the prosecuting authorities had concluded that no action would be taken over these shocking events. The words are

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“and the earlier CPS decisions”.

In my correspondence with Dame Barbara Mills in 1996, she made it clear that the Crown Prosecution Service was still open to considering further evidence in the case, but on the final page of the six-page letter of 17 April 2003, crown prosecutor Mr Andrew Penhale says these extraordinary words:

“for a variety of reasons, the important evidential points were missed and the doctors were given an unqualified assurance that they would not be prosecuted.”

It seems, in that context, that the prosecuting authorities conclude that the initiation of criminal proceedings, at the very least for forgery and perverting the course of justice, might be regarded as an abuse of process. Two serious issues arise from this. Although the use of evidence that arises following a declaration that no prosecution would be forthcoming might make that evidence inadmissible, is it really the opinion of the Attorney-General that such a statement would preclude any further prosecution of such an individual? This proposition requires clarification. If the granting by the prosecuting authorities of what effectively amounts to an immunity from prosecution is regarded by the Attorney-General as effective, does that not set out even more starkly the need for a full and thorough public inquiry, to establish quite how such an appalling situation has arisen?

I am aware that the Attorney-General does not feel a public inquiry is necessary, as all the facts are now known, albeit they have been dragged into the public spotlight after years of lies and obfuscation. However, I do not know why the GPs were given immunity from prosecution in respect of serious offences of forgery and perverting the course of justice. The Powell family and I would be interested in hearing an answer to that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, I pay credit to Mr and Mrs Powell, who have fought relentlessly for justice for their son since his untimely death, very often in the face of obstruction, lies, forgery and abuse. Mr and Mrs Powell are not seeking vindictive retribution against those who failed their son and then wilfully obstructed the investigation of the circumstances. The Attorney-General declined to participate in a public inquiry as he feels that the facts are known, but he should acknowledge that it has only been the relentless challenge of Mr Powell that has brought the appalling truth to light in this case.

Back in 2001, the Bristol inquiry concluded that when things go wrong, hospitals and health care professionals owe a duty of candour and that they should be open and honest. The Robbie Powell case in May 2000 highlighted the absence of any duty of candour for health care professionals. A judgment in the European Court of Human Rights states:

“Whilst it is arguable that doctors had a duty not to falsify medical records under the common law…there was no binding decision of the courts as to the existence of such a duty. As the law stands now”,

in this country,

“doctors have no duty to give parents of a child who died as a result of their negligence a truthful account of the circumstances of the death, nor even to refrain from deliberately falsifying records.”

The Health Committee has proposed twice that this duty should be established in statute and it remains the

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family’s aim to see that achieved. The recent Francis report, of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry, has also recommended implementing this duty of candour, as has the former chief medical officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson. Hon. Members will not be surprised that those people who have campaigned to establish such a duty wish to call it Robbie’s law, in acknowledgment of the appalling failures in the case that I have outlined.

4.34 pm

The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) on securing this debate.

My hon. Friend outlined the sad and unhappy history of this matter. At the outset, I acknowledge that it is clear that Mr Powell and his family feel, with justification, very let down by how this matter has been handled.

My hon. Friend’s concerns appear to fall into two categories. The first relates to the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to bring any criminal proceedings arising from the circumstances of Robbie Powell’s death. The second is whether, in light of the Crown Prosecution Service’s conduct of this matter, there should be a full public inquiry.

First, on the decision not to prosecute, it is right that Parliament holds public services to account, including the Crown Prosecution Service, for which I am ministerially accountable here. However, I have to preface my remarks with a note of caution. This debate cannot be the place to determine the guilt or innocence of those suspected of criminal activity, and it is not the place where I can engage in detailed analysis of the complex issues that this case involves. I must also be realistic about what I can achieve in the short time available to me in this debate. I do not make those remarks lightly or to brush the matters aside. I know that this is a case where there have been allegations of record falsification and cover up, and it would only fuel those concerns if I were to refuse to engage with them. So I will engage with them, to the extent that I can and that it is possible to do so in this Chamber.

The CPS reviews of evidence in the 1990s were in relation to evidence gathered during a criminal investigation by Dyfed-Powys police, which was later found, as my hon. Friend said, to be institutionally incompetent. It is hardly surprising that decisions made by the CPS on the strength of evidence gathered by an institutionally incompetent criminal investigation may be open to criticism. I will therefore focus on the review of the evidence conducted by CPS in 2003, which was based on police investigations conducted by an independent team supervised by the Police Complaints Authority.

The 2003 evidential review considered whether any of the medical professionals involved in the case could be prosecuted for gross negligence manslaughter. It also considered, in relation to the amended medical records and a backdated referral letter, whether proceedings could or should be brought for forgery and/or perverting the course of justice. That review encompassed a lengthy consideration of papers over a number of months and meetings with officers, initiating further inquiries and

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consulting the various medical and forensic experts in the case. A senior and eminent Queen’s counsel was instructed by the CPS throughout.

The decision at the end was that no prosecution could be brought. That decision was taken on 14 March 2003. The family were informed by letter, which explained that the CPS intended to meet them to explain the background to the decision. Ahead of that meeting, the CPS and Dyfed-Powys police met the General Medical Council to determine what might be required to initiate a GMC inquiry.

The meeting with the family took place in early April 2003. It was explained at the meeting that this was an extremely difficult decision, based on a complicated set of facts, involving myriad differing medical opinions. The decision had to consider the impact of the earlier CPS decisions not to prosecute and the impact of the passage of time on the fairness of the prosecution, including matters such as the availability of evidence for both the prosecution and defence.

The letter of 17 April 2003, to which my hon. Friend refers, was sent to explain that decision in writing, following the meeting with the Powell family. I am afraid that I do not agree with the description of the letter as “a self-serving document”. Its purpose was to assist the Powell family in understanding the decision making in an extremely complicated case and to set out fairly the Crown Prosecution Service’s evaluation of what was and was not possible.

In 2004, an inquest was finally held in this case, after the then Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, consented to an application being made to the High Court for an order that it should take place. Following the inquest, Mr Powell complained that a number of the doctors had committed perjury during the inquest. That was again considered by the same reviewing lawyer and senior Queen’s counsel. In respect of one of the doctors, such a prosecution would have met the same problems as had been highlighted in 2003; in respect of the other doctor, the case was significantly weakened by the medical evidence heard during the inquest. The CPS decision not to prosecute for perjury and the reasons behind it were also explained to the family, in a letter dated 8 December 2005. It was, of course, open to the Powell family to ask for the CPS decisions not to prosecute in 2003 and 2005 to be reviewed within the CPS, or to institute judicial review proceedings.

It remains the case that such a review would still be available. I emphasise that I am not, in saying that, suggesting that the review could possibly come to any different conclusion, because I have no grounds for making that suggestion. I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that that is all I can say on that aspect of the matter in this context.

Jonathan Evans: Before the Attorney-General moves away from the 2003 letter, will he respond to my points on the aspect of the letter dealing with unqualified assurances that there would be no prosecution? It is one thing to tell someone that, on the basis of the current evidence, there will not be a prosecution; it is quite another for the Crown Prosecution Service to explain a decision not to prosecute on the basis of previous unqualified assurances that no prosecution would ever take place.

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The Attorney-General: I totally understand my hon. Friend’s point. My difficulty is that I am not in a position in this debate to analyse the assurances that were given, their exact terms or their effect. The CPS will have to consider that. What I can say is that, generally speaking, although it is true that there may be exceptional circumstances in which an assurance that a prosecution will not be brought can subsequently be ignored and overridden, and would survive an abuse of process application if a trial were ever to take place, such an assurance will be a powerful argument if someone wishes to argue that there would be an abuse of process if a prosecution were to be brought.

In any event, the abuse of process issue in respect of assurances that no prosecution would take place is only one element in the equation, as I hope I have been able to explain. It is not the sole argument; there are also evidential issues, and I do not think such things can be considered separately. I am afraid that is the best explanation I can give in the time available.

I know my hon. Friend has previously raised with me instances in which earlier decisions not to prosecute have been ignored with prosecutions being brought later, which I accept. I emphasise that such assurances are not an insuperable or absolute bar, but they are without doubt a major obstacle if any further prosecution is to take place.

Jonathan Evans: My final point is that it is one thing to say that, back in 1996, an unqualified assurance was given and that it was sufficiently important for it to appear in that letter, but in 1996 a letter was sent to a Member of Parliament saying that the CPS remained open to further evidence. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that should at least be considered?

The Attorney-General: I have no reason to disagree, but, equally, I have no reason to disagree with the position that the CPS adopted in 2003. That really is as far as I can go on the matter. I have explained that the issue can be reviewed further, but, for the reasons I have already given, I have no reason to think that it will necessarily be a productive avenue. If that is something the family want, it is something they can ask for.

I am conscious that I have very little time, so I will explain the Law Officers’ approach to the public inquiry. The question was most recently considered by the former Solicitor-General, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), in the summer of 2010. Prior to that, it was considered by Lord Goldsmith in early 2007.

The starting point for those Law Officers who have previously considered the case is that a public inquiry is unnecessary, not because the matter is not serious—the matter is undoubtedly extremely serious—but because issues surrounding the circumstances of Robbie’s death have already been the subject of intense scrutiny. In 2003, there was an inquiry into Dyfed-Powys police’s handling of the case by Avon and Somerset constabulary. In 2007-08, the Independent Police Complaints Commission

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conducted two further investigations into complaints relating to Dyfed-Powys police. Additionally, the Welsh Assembly Government commissioned their own report, published in February 2012, into the handling of the care and treatment received by Robbie Powell. It is difficult to see that a public inquiry would uncover anything that has not already been uncovered or would identify lessons to be learned that have not already been identified.

Although it was the view of Lord Goldsmith and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough that a public inquiry is unnecessary, they both agreed that, if the Welsh First Minister maintained that such an inquiry needed to be established, they would not stand in his way provided that any inquiry encompassed the actions of both the police and the CPS. The main concern was that a public inquiry would be seriously impeded if it were not able to consider the actions of all those involved. It would serve no purpose for some participants in the Powell case to be within the scope of the inquiry only for others to be left out.

The Home Office took the view, however, that a public inquiry into the activities of the police was not necessary given the number of existing inquiries into the police arising from the case. The Home Office accordingly now takes the view that any new inquiry into the actions of the police is unlikely to produce any fresh information about the role of the police in this tragic case. For that reason, the Home Office is not convinced that there is a need for a joint inquiry. The decision is for the Home Office, but from the information available to me as a Law Officer, I have no reason to dispute the Home Office’s view.

Had the Home Office agreed to an inquiry, it would have been a further condition of the Law Officers’ consent that the inquiry did not extend to question the correctness or otherwise of a prosecutorial decision. That is because it is a fundamental constitutional principle that decisions by prosecutors are taken independently of the Executive and are free from political influence. If such decisions are reviewed anywhere, they have to be reviewed in a court of law. Any other approach risks the perception that the Government are holding the threat of an inquiry over the head of prosecutors to push them into making prosecutorial decisions in a way more to the Government’s liking.

Of course, the Home Office is right: this very tragic case has been the subject of a large number of reviews that have undoubtedly identified areas where things could have been done much better. It is important that the recommendations of those reviews are implemented.

Robbie Powell’s death was almost 23 years ago, and the passage of time continues to run. The concerns expressed by Lord Goldsmith and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough about whether a public inquiry could ever be appropriate in this case perhaps apply with greater force today than they did in 2010.

I can conclude only by expressing my sympathy for the family.

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Coventry City Football Club

4.56 pm

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): Thank you, Mrs Main, for presiding over this debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss an issue of such concern to the city of Coventry, to local people and, most particularly, to Sky Blue fans.

Coventry City football club has been in deep financial difficulty for many years. Five years ago, when it had lost its ground, Highfield Road, and most of its assets, the club was sold to the hedge fund Sisu 20 minutes before the administrators were due to take over. Sisu specialises in acquiring distressed assets, and under Sisu the club’s ownership is multilayered, opaque and partly offshore in the Cayman Islands. It is claimed that Sisu has lost £43 million over the period, but nobody can be sure as substantial management fees of millions of pounds are passed between the layers of ownership and debentures seem to protect unknown investors.

A bitter battle has waged for the past year over the rent and ownership of the Ricoh arena, where the club play. The club’s owners have been on a rent strike. They say they are fighting for a more realistic settlement for a league one club, although Arena Coventry Ltd, which is jointly owned by Coventry city council and the Alan Edward Higgs Charity, believes the agenda has been to destabilise the company and thereby gain control at a fire-sale price. A much lowered rent has been offered, but the dispute continues.

Meanwhile, the fans and the people of Coventry despair as the club’s owners threaten to liquidate the business or move the club out of the city. I am grateful to the Football League, which yesterday, ahead of this debate, issued a statement reiterating its position:

“Any application to move the club to a stadium outside the city would need to be considered by the Board of the Football League. In doing so, the Board would require the club to demonstrate that it had a clear plan for returning to Coventry within a prescribed timeframe.”

I hope the Football League’s rules will therefore not allow Sisu to do anything like what was done to Wimbledon football club.

The Football League has a reform of governance programme under way, on which I would like the Minister to comment. However, the Football League, which is within the democratic control of the clubs themselves, can only do so much. Do the Government believe that will be adequate to address the challenges faced by Coventry City football club and the game?

Although the dispute between the parties over the rent level has been in the public domain for many months, and much innuendo and allegation inevitably surround such disputes, one key aspect has not had any public exposure. If we are to go forward, it must be flushed out. The football club’s owners are seeking to challenge the validity of the original rental agreement made back in 2002, and are using that challenge in an attempt to discredit the city council’s motives for paying £14 million to Yorkshire bank in December for the stadium’s debts. I cannot see what right the club owners have to issue threats on that front as they bought the club more than five years later. They had the opportunity for due diligence, and I would hope that the principle of caveat emptor meant something in that case. If the

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hedge fund is allowed to reopen the issue, it will be a blatant attempt to profit at the expense of those who built and paid for the stadium: in part, the people of Coventry.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has obviously done considerable investigation into the matter. I have the impression that the parent company, Sisu, bought the football club to acquire the stadium; that is my view, although I have not gone into it in depth. Has he considered a way forward? Is it worth while exploring arbitration? He will know better than I do; he has dealt with the matter a lot more than I have.

Mr Ainsworth: I will come to exactly that point later in my speech. It is a potential way forward that has been put to the club owners in the past few days.

To return to the issue of whether the owners will be allowed to reopen the agreements that existed long before they arrived in the city and took over the club, Martin Reeves and Chris West of the city council and Arena Coventry Ltd dismissed the threats as “desperate stuff”. However, in my view, the club owners must be prepared to justify their threats and allegations publicly or drop the issue if we are to find a way forward. I challenge them to do so.

The Sky Blue Trust, which represents fans, now has more than 800 members, an indication of the growing amount of alarm among fans. I thank the trust for helping and supporting me to prepare for this debate and for all the work that it has done over the past few years. The club has made a proposal that I put to the club owners yesterday: binding arbitration conducted by a well-qualified local man, Dr John Beech, who has a PhD in business strategy from Cranfield university and more than five years’ experience examining football finance.

Board member Mark Labovitch indicated his enthusiasm for that course of action. However, the response that I received today demonstrates how difficult it is to deal with Joy Seppala and her team. It seeks to turn the proposal of binding arbitration into an opportunity to investigate Arena Coventry’s finances and set the agenda for the arbiters. Of course, there is no suggestion that the football club’s finances or ownership structure should be subjected to investigation.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on raising this important matter. The fortunes of top sporting clubs are key in any community, and the fortunes of Coventry City are important to my constituents in Rugby, as Coventry City is their closest league club. In Rugby, where some of us play a game with a slightly differently shaped ball, we had an issue with the administration of our top rugby club, the Rugby Lions, and it took some time for the sport’s administrative body to get involved. Does he believe that the football authorities are currently sufficiently involved?

Mr Ainsworth: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I will raise the general issue of the need for new governance in football, which I think applies to other businesses, and certainly to other sporting businesses. We will have to see what the Minister says, and whether

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he can give us any comfort with regard to pressure that the Department might be putting on the authorities or discussions that they might be having with them to ensure that the arrangements are sufficient to the task in hand.

Before I leave the issue of arbitration, I find it astonishing that Mr Labovitch, a member of the football board, should have sent me this e-mail a few minutes ago about the offer to arbitrate:

“Bob, I forgot to mention one (hopefully obvious) point: arbitration should all be conducted in public, no hiding behind claims of ‘commercially sensitive’”.

This from a company deliberately structured to prevent anybody from seeing what its business is, where the money is moved and who the eventual beneficiaries are. It is cheeky beyond belief.

The Sky Blue Trust has campaigned for fans to be given a stake in the club. In the past, club owners have said that they will do so, but when asked to make a firm offer, they have come up with 5% to 10% at a discount at some undefined future date, with no representation on the main board. The trust feels that such an offer is of absolutely no value, as it will not provide the transparency necessary for good governance.

I am also grateful to the enormously impressive Supporters Direct, which points out to anybody who will listen—this goes right to the point made by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey)—that this country’s record of football governance is not good. Some 92 clubs have gone into receivership in the past 20 years. In Germany, where fan ownership is the norm, not one Bundesliga club has experienced insolvency since the league’s creation in 1963. Are the Government happy with English football’s governance? Banking regulation has failed us spectacularly. Are not the same issues—lack of accountability, greed and lack of transparency—a problem in football too?

The Ricoh arena has massive potential to benefit the most economically deprived part of Coventry. It is directly connected to the motorway network and will soon be connected to the railway. Many in the city have worked hard to bring what used to be a derelict, contaminated site back into economic use, and the city is open to plans that will bring more benefit.

Many of us accept the need for a realistic approach to the lease and management issues if the stadium is to reach its full potential. Changes would be supported with the right partner at the right time. But Sisu is not entitled to bully its way into control of an asset that it did not provide, build or pay for. It must prove that it is not simply a predator with greed running through its DNA before it can expect such treatment.

The football club is a valuable part of our city’s life. In an age when communities struggle for relevance, it has the capacity to motivate people and give them collective spirit. This dispute has gone on for far too long and needs to be brought to a conclusion. I fear that Sisu, despite its words and slick presentations, has no interest in such things.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I am a Huddersfield Town fan, and my club is very much at the heart of my community, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for the Yorkshire ambulances. Mark Robins has recently moved to Huddersfield Town as manager, so us fans feel a close kinship with Coventry City, and

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we went through our own financial problems in the previous decade. Also, only on Friday night, I spent the evening at a charity dinner with Brian Kilcline, who lifted the FA cup for Coventry City in 1987; I told him about this debate and he, too, sent his best wishes to all Sky Blue fans. Good luck with the quest to save the club for the community.

Mr Ainsworth: I thank the hon. Gentleman. For Coventry, 1987 was the pinnacle so far of what can be achieved by a football club on behalf of a city, and it was the entire city; whether football fans, rugby fans or whatever, they were lifted for such a long time by that magnificent occasion, and we want to see many more of them. We all fear, however, that we will not see such occasions unless there is a new settlement, a new realism and a new acceptance of community responsibility by the owners of the club, with a constructive approach to settling the dispute that they appear to have deliberately prolonged. They are not stupid—we are dealing with clever people—so one has to assume that their motives are not good for the community, the city or the club and its fans.

Will the Minister respond to the need for the reform of governance and for transparency in our national game? Has he looked at the reform programme of the Football League, and does he believe it adequate to the challenge faced by the game? My reading is that it would not have helped us to any great extent with the existing problems in Coventry, but if the Minister can say otherwise I will be pleased to hear it. Have the Government looked at the licensing proposals of Supporters Direct? Could those proposals provide sustainability and accountability for what is overwhelmingly our biggest national sporting game?

To the club, I say that there has been a reduced rent offer. If the owners want to be taken seriously, the time is long past for them to respond clearly by accepting or putting a definite counter-proposal, rather than the deliberate obfuscation and delay, for whatever motives, that has gone on for month after month. A reasonable response to the proposition for binding arbitration, which my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) mentioned, would have been an opportunity for the club to win trust. If it had accepted the proposition, it would have seen the supporters’ trust, me and I do not know how many others prepared to join it and say that that was a reasonable way forward; my hon. Friend raised the issue independently today, so he would have been minded to get behind such action. In its response, however, the club has failed absolutely to grasp the opportunity to get with the parts of the community that care so much about the football club and economic development in the city. Instead of all the deliberate talk, innuendo and attempts to destroy reputations that have gone on, the club should come clean about its threats over the 2002 rental agreement. If we had some kind of straight response from the owners, even at this late stage, some good will would rally to their cause. They must start to examine the behaviour that we have seen for far too long.

5.14 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): I thank the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) for

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securing the debate and for his contribution. As I hope he knows, he is well respected both as a Member of the House and in the Ministry of Defence, where he served with much distinction at the end of the previous Government. That is evident in how he presented his case today. May I also record a small apology for some confusion over who was to respond to him in the debate today? I was due to be in a Bill Committee all afternoon but, fortunately, it wound down a little early, so I am sorry if that caused any confusion.

The right hon. Gentleman put his case extremely well. I entirely agree with him on almost everything he said. I place on record my sympathy for the fans of Coventry City football club for the position in which they have been put and for the way in which it came about. No one who cares about football clubs or sport in general can find the series of events that he has outlined today in any way satisfactory. In fact, almost everyone would conclude that that is a disastrous way in which to run a sports club, in anyone’s judgment. The tragedy, in a sense, is that the situation he outlined is not unique to his club. At some stage over the past 10 years, more than half of the Football League’s 72 clubs have been insolvent, which is clearly not satisfactory.

Rather than read through my prepared speaking notes, if the right hon. Gentleman is happy, I will try to answer the various questions that he posed to Government. First, do the Government believe that the Football League’s approach is sufficient? It is fair to say that under the leadership of Greg Clarke, the Football League has made considerable strides and, as I would expect, the right hon. Gentleman fairly alluded to that in his remarks. The tightening up of many of the financial fair play rules that have happened on the current chairman’s watch are welcome, necessary and a step in the right direction. Indeed, when Greg Clarke was interviewed by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee as part of its inquiry into football governance, he straightforwardly said that debt is

“the single biggest problem for football”.

That was entirely mirrored in what the right hon. Gentleman said today. He also asked if I thought that the reform programme would in itself be sufficient. The honest answer is, no, I do not. There is a great deal more ground to be covered. I will come on to some of the ways in which we are trying to cover that in a moment.

The second area touched on by the right hon. Gentleman was the legal dispute between the club owners and the city council. I hope that he does not think that I am ducking the question completely if I say that without precise knowledge, it is difficult to comment in any detail. From what he said, it certainly sounds as if it is at least an unsatisfactory situation. Clearly, if it will lead to legal action, I must be a little careful.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): I have an interest in the club to declare, which I do so willingly.

Before the Minister moves on to the general considerations, could he find any way in which he might facilitate mediation? The two sides are locked in what seems to be a deeply held, personal, embittered struggle, and someone needs to find a way to help them out of it. I know that he cannot appoint a mediator, but is there

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anyone in the Department who could use the enormous influence of his office to facilitate such an event? It is difficult but if he could be positive it would help.

Hugh Robertson: I have no statutory power as a Minister to intervene. The hon. Gentleman, however, is not asking for that; he is asking if I could use my good offices to effect a solution. As long as my powers and the limitations on what a Minister can achieve are clearly known, I have enough respect for the Opposition Members present, in particular the right hon. Member for Coventry North East whom I have dealt with over many years, to say simply that if there is a stage at which my intervention might be helpful, I am happy to do so. The danger is that that card, once played, might be the final card, so it might be better to try some other avenues first.

Mr Ainsworth: I would be wary of asking the Minister to become involved in mediation, because the proposal has been made by the club, and there are grave worries that it may be just part of the prevarication that has gone on for some time, whatever the motive.

Hugh Robertson: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I leave the matter with him, but if he thinks I can do something to help, I am happy to do so. I suspect that a more obvious target might be the chairman of the Football League, who is supposed to be independent in these matters.

Mr Robinson: The problem is exemplified by my right hon. Friend’s intervention. Assuming that it is impossible—the people involved are bitter, and are at it like that all the time—someone should go in with a cool head, look at both sides without taking a prejudiced position, and try to bring them together. That would be the role to take, but I appreciate that the Minister has no statutory power.

Hugh Robertson: The hon. Gentleman puts the issue well. That is the role that should be carried out by the Football League in the first instance, but if for any reason that proves impossible, I will be happy to look at any sensible proposal.

The right hon. Member for Coventry North East asked about supporter representation on the board. I will come to the bigger ticket way that that is being dealt with in a moment. I have worried about this, having looked at it during most of my three years as a Minister, and it can become a bit of an Aunt Sally. It is not much use having one supporter on a board, if there are 10 others who can vote him or her down on each and every occasion. It is about the message it sends out. The drift from the Government and the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is that this is an area that needs to be addressed, and that until now supporters have been under-represented in and under-consulted on the running of football clubs, and their views on how football clubs are run have not been sufficiently taken into account.

The football authorities—I will come to the process in a moment—have been invited to make proposals. It remains to be seen precisely where they get to. If this area were working well, different solutions would probably work for different clubs, depending on their ownership

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structure and the history of their involvement with supporters. If that does not happen, the Government will have to take action, and I will come to that.

The fourth question, which wraps all this up, is whether the Government are happy with football governance. The honest answer is no. That leads to a question about what we have done about it. There has been some progress over the last couple of years. All 92 professional clubs are adopting the financial fair play proposals—I will come to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s process in a moment—and the Football Association has finally set up a regulatory authority that will have power to determine applications under FA and Football League licences and directors’ criteria, and to look after moves.

Soon after I became a Minister, I turned up for a Wednesday morning debate in Westminster Hall to find the best part of 60 Members of Parliament wanting to speak, and it is clear that football governance is an area that is causing concern throughout the House. To try to maintain a cross-party position, we asked the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to look at it. In the middle of 2011, it produced a report, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has seen, with a series of recommendations for the football authorities. They were challenged to go away and work together, which was something they had not done very successfully until then. There is often friction between the Football League, the Premier League and the Football Association. They have worked much more constructively together in this instance, and produced an interim response to the Committee. They agreed

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that there was a need to change, and that they would bring forward new regulations by August. With our encouragement, the Select Committee invited them back to review progress at the end of last year or the beginning of this year, and produced a report that basically said that some progress had been made, but not quickly enough. It contained a straightforward recommendation to the Government that if further progress was not achieved by the middle of this year, the Government should not hesitate in legislating.

Those of us who have been in government would be properly wary of that move, but if it is the only to achieve proper progress, we are prepared to do it, albeit that I would want it done on a cross-party basis. There would be little point otherwise because if the Government changed, the regulations might move about. An absolutely key part of any legislation would be the regulations on supporters’ involvement in their football clubs.

Those were the questions the right hon. Gentleman asked me. Time is running out, so I will not read my script. If he is happy with that and does not want to ask me anything else, I will simply finish where I started and thank him for the debate. I wish him and his local MPs well with Coventry football club. It is a great club, and it does not deserve to have got into its present position. I wish him and others every success in their efforts to bring about a brighter future for it.

Question put and agreed to.

5.25 pm

Sitting adjourned.