“range of sensitive and difficult circumstances which are not set out in the legislation.”

The statement concluded by attaching weight to the level of harm to the victim, which in this case was none as no abortion took place.

I found the statement very disturbing and that day wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions to request him to review the decision not to prosecute. My first objection was that I could not understand how it could be in the public interest not to prosecute in respect of an abortion that was carried out on the basis of gender alone. Gender-based abortion is part of a complex of misogynistic beliefs and practices to which we cannot

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give an inch. Along with female infanticide, it is the purest expression of the belief that the male is more valuable than the female, for invariably gender-based abortion involves the destruction of female fetuses; we do not hear of male fetuses being aborted.

Women are not the weaker sex. We are not a curse. We are not a burden to be disposed of as a family sees fit. What is more, people have to be completely myopic not to see that if it becomes known that doctors are taking a no-questions-asked attitude to gender-selective abortions, women will be pressurised into having them. Gender-selective abortions are at root an exercise of patriarchal and communal coercion, not female choice.

Jim Shannon: I want to ask a question of the hon. Lady in her position as shadow Attorney-General. Is it her opinion that the decision not to prosecute should be reviewed, and could it be reviewed by the Attorney-General?

Emily Thornberry: If the hon. Gentleman will hold his breath, I will get there. In my view, it is not in the public interest for us to behave in this way. We must make it absolutely clear that, as a country, we have no truck with this. I am a staunch advocate of women’s right to choose, but I do not accept that that corners me into supporting something as plainly monstrous as gender-selective abortion.

I am also concerned that if the public see abortion as being used for gender selection, support for abortion will erode. In my view, there has been and remains a clear majority, albeit a silent one, in favour of abortion, and their views are reflected in the very thoughtful contributions made today by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). We must not play into the hands of the likes of those who claim that the most dangerous situation to be in in Britain today is to be in a womb and to be a female. We need to take a sensible view of this.

My second objection, which was echoed at the time by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, was about the amount of deference that the CPS seemed to be showing the medical profession. The CPS seems to believe that doctors can have the discretion to disapply the law in their surgeries. It seems to me that when a roofer breaks the law, he is hauled into court and faces the prospect of prison. When a doctor does, he should also be hauled into court and should not simply be heard by a panel of his peers with no criminal powers. That is taking the idea of “Doctor knows best” far too far. The rule of law has to apply to all equally; otherwise, it is meaningless.

Following the outcry, the DPP, Keir Starmer, has issued a statement seeking to explain further the reasoning behind the decision. That statement, which comes a full month later, introduces a number of new lines of argument, while quietly dropping some of the old ones. Mr Starmer now tells us that the evidential threshold for the allegation that this was a gender-based abortion has not been met. He says that that was because other factors were alluded to during the discussion between patient and doctor. Instead, the matter hinged on whether the doctors fulfilled their duty under the Abortion Act to carry out a sufficiently robust assessment of the risk to the pregnant

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woman’s mental and physical health to reach a good-faith opinion that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve a risk, greater than if the pregnancy was terminated, to the woman’s mental and physical health. The director explains that there is no guidance on how a doctor should assess that and therefore no yardstick by which to measure whether the doctors’ assessments fell below a standard that any reasonable doctor would consider adequate. The director concludes that it would be of questionable public interest to prosecute amid such uncertainty.

That is a more elegant and persuasive way of hoofing the matter back to the GMC. Gone is any suggestion that we will not prosecute criminal attempts because the victim is unharmed. Gone is any impression given by the earlier statement that the very fact of the GMC’s involvement is sufficient and that the criminal courts need not be involved. Gone is any suggestion that it is somehow okay for doctors to abort fetuses merely because they are female.

I am reassured by the director’s statement that had the decision boiled down to one of whether to prosecute on the basis that the doctors attempted a gender-specific abortion,

“there might be powerful reasons for a prosecution in the public interest”.

To my mind, the director’s statement illustrates the need to ensure that the DPP personally signs off all decisions about prosecutions under the Abortion Act 1967, whether those decisions are in favour of or against prosecution. I hope that the Attorney-General can assure the House that that is what will happen in future.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Before I call the Attorney-General, I note, just for Hansard, the unusual circumstances in which we have present at the debate three Ministers: the Minister responsible for public health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison); the Solicitor-General; and the Attorney-General.

3.37 pm

The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing the debate.

Investigative journalism plays an important part in a vigorous and healthy democracy. The Daily Telegraph has done a very important public service in bringing these issues before us today. The debate has been a characteristically thoughtful one, as befits matters touching on the criminal law, personal health and dignity, ethics and moral issues, professional standards and the wider public interest. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who have all made contributions, and to those right hon. and hon. Members who have intervened.

The cases highlighted by The Daily Telegraph were much debated at the time of the original CPS decision not to prosecute. The terms of that debate may have given the public the impression that this case was about

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medical practitioners offering abortion on the basis of the gender of the child. On that basis, it may well have seemed incomprehensible that the full force of the criminal law was not being brought to bear on a practice that most people would regard as abhorrent. I certainly do and I think that everyone in this room does. But as I hope to make clear and as I hope has been made clear by the DPP’s explanation, that is not in fact what these cases are at root about.

The DPP has recently published detailed reasons for the CPS decision. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to read his account very carefully, if they have not already done so. It is absolutely right that prosecution decisions are taken by independent prosecutors on the facts before them and free from political influence. That is what entitles the public to have confidence in those decisions. However, it is also important that the public should be able to understand the decisions and, where that is not straightforward, that prosecutors make a special effort to explain them. This was obviously such a case, and I am particularly pleased that the director has taken the time and trouble to review—I requested him to do so—the decisions personally and to set out fully the reasoning that led him to endorse the conclusion that it would not be right to prosecute.

Mr Burrowes: Will the Attorney-General give way?

The Attorney-General: In a moment; I was going to answer the two questions raised by my hon. Friend. First, the director did not make the initial decision not to prosecute, but he was consulted, as is normal in complex and sensitive cases. The answer to the second question, on whether I was consulted on the decision before it was taken, is that I was not. The case was not raised with me by the director prior to the decision not to prosecute being taken. In my view, it should have been, and on reflection, the director accepts that he should have done so. Before that leads to an inference that therefore the decision might have been different, I simply make the point that as I asked the director to review the decision completely and I had ample opportunity to consult with him before he did so, I am satisfied that the decision that has now been reached, which I will come on to in a moment, would have been the same had that process taken place in the first case.

Mr Burrowes: Does my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General agree that in hindsight it would have been appropriate for the DPP to be involved at an earlier stage, to respond to the question raised by the shadow Attorney-General, and should not all future investigations of allegations of contraventions of the 1967 Act involve the DPP at that earlier stage and proper consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend?

The Attorney-General: As my hon. Friend will appreciate, the DPP himself does not under the statute have to give consent. Nevertheless, I am sure that the DPP will have noted my hon. Friend’s comments—representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service are here. It is clear to me that this is an important issue in a difficult area, which I will come on to in a moment. I trust that his comments are noted, but he will appreciate that the decisions are ultimately for the DPP, not me.

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The director’s reasons speak for themselves. I am satisfied that this difficult decision was taken properly and conscientiously. The responsibility of taking such decisions is a heavy burden, which few of us would relish. I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the distinction with which the current director has fulfilled an onerous and difficult series of public duties over recent years, particularly as his term of office is drawing to a close.

The hon. Member for Strangford asked whether I agreed with the decision taken by the director. I emphasise the point I made: I am clear that it is not my role as Attorney-General to second-guess the decisions of independent prosecutors. These were difficult decisions on which different prosecutors could reasonably have come to different conclusions, but I am entirely satisfied that this difficult decision was taken properly and conscientiously.

I shall say a little more by way of context. First, abortion law in this country, in my judgment, is workable, but needs to be understood. I should perhaps emphasise that the law is not framed in terms of prohibiting gender-specific abortion or indeed listing any other forms of unlawful abortion. It works, or was intended to work by Parliament, by providing for abortions to be performed safely, by qualified medical practitioners, when those practitioners judge it to be in the medical interests of the patient and where that is the course that the patient herself agrees is right. Two medical practitioners must on each occasion have formed a view, in good faith, that the health risks of continuing with a pregnancy outweigh those of termination. That is our guarantee, as provided by Parliament, that we have a system of safe and lawful abortion provided by the 1967 Act.

Neil Parish: Is my right hon. and learned Friend saying that he believes the law to be correct as it is? If that is the case, why is abortion being allowed for gender selection?

The Attorney-General: I think my hon. Friend might misunderstand. We can have a long moral and ethical debate about the workings of the 1967 Act, as we have had in Parliament—I dare say that many in the room will express different views on the Act and all sorts of connected aspects—but that would be about an issue of policy. The question I am dealing with in this debate is whether, within the framework of what was intended by the 1967 Act, it is possible to enforce the law as Parliament intended it to be. I hope I will be able to develop that thought in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough asked about the statistics on those prosecuted under the 1967 Act. Since 2010, there have been 25 prosecutions, and he is right that none has been of medial professionals for failure to observe the terms of the 1967 Act.

Jim Shannon: As I asked the shadow Attorney-General, in light of the disquiet expressed by Members today and the disquiet outside the House, would the Attorney-General agree to a review of the case?

The Attorney-General: So far as this case is concerned, the decision is that of the CPS. For me to overturn or review somebody else’s decision in a case in which the decision does not fall on me would be wrongful interference

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in the independence of the prosecution and its discretion. As far as I am concerned, the function I have has been performed, in that there has been a review by the DPP of his decision and he has been able to explain it fully in the explanation he has provided. As I have already indicated, I do not consider anything to be in any way improper or unreasonable in that explanation or in how he has approached the matter. If the hon. Gentleman will let me develop my argument, he may understand why that is the case in a moment.

The question in this case is not about proving whether gender-specific abortion was being offered on demand. It was about whether the doctors had done what the law requires, which is to reach an opinion in good faith about the consequences for the patient of continuing with or terminating a pregnancy. I appreciate that abortion gives rise to strong views based on ethical and philosophical differences, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be the subject of much public debate, but the issue for the prosecutor is the law as it stands.

Neil Parish: Is that not semantics? Is the Attorney-General saying that doctors are not prosecuted because they took the decision that abortion due to gender selection was all right in theory because the mental health of the mother might be affected or based on some other grounds that are acceptable under the 1967 Act? That seems to be pure semantics.

The Attorney-General: I am sure that my hon. Friend has had an opportunity to read the full note produced by the DPP. It sets out in detail, which I do not have time to go into this afternoon, the evidence in the case of each doctor presented to the CPS. My hon. Friend will appreciate that it is important that the evidence in each case is looked at separately. The DPP goes through it in detail and explains that the issue is not gender-specific abortion. If somebody says to a doctor without more ado, “I want an abortion on gender-specific grounds,” and the doctor says yes, the case might be a clear-cut matter to prosecute because the grounds fall clearly outside the ambit of the 1967 Act. The section of the Act with which we are concerned is about the physical and mental health of the woman. It is about good faith, in that it is for the doctor to satisfy themselves that any abortion falls within the criteria. If my hon. Friend looks at the matter in detail, he will see why the director came to the conclusion he did, which I will address, but in briefer terms.

The CPS concluded, with some difficulty, that there was just enough evidence available in the cases to bring the good faith of the doctors into issue. I think that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury was wrong when she said in her final statement that the position had changed. The DPP’s statement of reasons says, nevertheless, that the evidence was not strong in either case and the prospects of conviction would not in his judgment have been high on the facts as they appeared. The matter does not rest there. Even in a case that just about passes the evidential threshold, the CPS is obliged to consider whether a prosecution would be in the public interest. That is one of the tasks that we require it to do. The fact that an evidential threshold is passed—a point raised in the debate—does not mean that a prosecution has to, or indeed should, follow.

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The decision was that prosecution did not pass the public interest threshold. It is that aspect of the decision that raises wider issues of public policy, some of which we have debated today, which I accept are an entirely legitimate topic of debate. The issue, as I see it, is this. Because the law makes the difference between lawful and unlawful abortion subject to a medical test, doctors have to be able to carry out that test on a case-by-case basis according to proper medical standards of care, skill and judgment. That is, effectively, what the test of “good faith” in the 1967 Act means. Doctors are required by law to make such decisions to a proper professional standard. If a question arises about whether a doctor has done so in any given case, a law enforcement agency must look to approved medical practice for assistance in identifying the proper standard. The same thing applies in virtually every case involving professional standards. Dare I say it, it would apply even in the case of a plumber who carried out some work that led to a catastrophic outcome.

Sir Alan Beith: It would surely not be right in such circumstances merely to demonstrate that other plumbers engaged in conduct that did not meet professional standards, and no more would it of doctors.

The Attorney-General: I reassure my right hon. Friend that that is certainly not the case. Ultimately, in any case, the jury decides, not the experts. One would normally expect a jury to be given some indication of the professional standards expected in a profession—there may even be rival professional views about what the standards should be—in order to help it decide.

Such a problem might not arise in an extremely clear-cut case. We might imagine a case in which a doctor behaved in a way in which no reasonable practitioner would behave, for example by arranging a medical abortion for a patient about whom he or she knew nothing and whom he or she had never met or spoken to. In any other circumstances, however, the CPS would need, and would expect to be able, to refer to medical consensus to determine whether a proper professional approach had been taken.

When they are looked at in the kind of detail considered by the prosecutor, the cases that we are debating are not extreme ones in which the doctors behaved as no reasonable practitioner would behave. Complicating factors were raised by both the patients and the doctors, who subsequently had to take the decisions. There were, as we have discussed, no detailed professional rules or step-by-step guidelines telling doctors how to take such decisions; the matter was left to general professional standards and ethics. The CPS, therefore, had no detailed consensus to help it to evaluate the matter.

To prosecute would have been to ask a jury to decide what steps a doctor should take. Juries take difficult decisions robustly, and sometimes they have to find their way through conflicting medical evidence. Is it right or fair, however, to ask a jury to arbitrate on a question of medical standards and ethics on which the profession has not published a detailed consensus, and on which a great deal turns for both doctor and patient? The CPS concluded in the recent cases that it would be contrary to the public interest to proceed.

Those who have the relevant policy and professional responsibilities are, no doubt, reflecting on the conclusions to be drawn. The Under-Secretary of State for Health,

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my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), is present for precisely that reason. As the House will appreciate, these are not my responsibilities.

Mr Burrowes: I recognise that in such cases, because of the level of uncertainty, it is questionable whether a prosecution would serve the interests of justice. When more certainty has been achieved through the publication of guidance, will the Attorney-General undertake to review the matter and consider whether further guidance is required to provide clarity on prosecution?

My supplementary question is to ensure that the Attorney-General does not get off the hook without commenting on another issue. The CQC has provided evidence of 14 hospitals where—forget “good faith”—doctors were not even present when forms were signed. Surely the Attorney-General must ask why no prosecutions occurred in such cases, which go way beyond questions of guidance. They are malpractice and a flagrant abuse of the Abortion Act 1967, and they must lead to prosecutions.

The Attorney-General: I hope I may be able to reassure my hon. Friend. On the second matter that he raises—it is not germane to one of the cases, although it was to another—as he knows, the evidence revealed that the pre-signing of forms was quite widespread. I understand that that practice has now been stopped, and that clear guidance has been issued as to its undesirability. That is a policy issue, and I have no doubt at all that as a result, the requirements set down by professional standards have already been clarified.

I turn to the more general point. There are two ways in which we can move forward. We might take the view that the current situation is, overall, a satisfactory one, in which professional medical discretion, which must inevitably be relied on, is left at large, with the law enforcement agencies acting as a back-stop for the most egregious cases that flout any conceivable proper standards. The other view, which I understand that the Department of Health has accepted, is that such a situation allows law enforcement far too residual a role and that the balance needs to be redressed. The law enforcement agencies will need clearer and more specific guidance on how to distinguish between desirable and undesirable professional practice in making and recording decisions

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on the termination of pregnancy. I greatly welcome that, and I have no doubt that it will make the task of prosecutors much easier.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Attorney-General has rightly said that we should not second-guess a prosecutor, the professional judgment of a doctor or the position of a jury when taking evidence. We can, however, second-guess ourselves as legislators. During the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, we were assured that gender selection would not be permitted as a ground for abortion, and that a proposed amendment to that effect was redundant. I am sure that that was said in good faith, and the amendment was withdrawn on that basis, but do we not have cause for consideration in that area?

The Attorney-General: It is quite clear from a reading of the 1967 Act that gender selection alone is not grounds for the termination of a pregnancy. The debate has highlighted policy issues, which Parliament can debate further if it wishes, about how the question of gender selection may carry some weight in respect of, in particular, the impact on a woman’s mental health of continuing with a pregnancy. That is inherent in the drafting of the legislation, which places a great burden of responsibility on the medical profession to carry out a specific assessment, under the subsection that, as we know, is the most relied on as the justification for a termination.

It would be wrong of me, in the course of this debate, to start re-examining something that is a policy issue for Parliament. I have done my best to answer the question, which is whether the law as it stands is workable and can be made better. I have already indicated that if, as I understand to be the position, the General Medical Council produces such guidelines, they will be of immeasurable assistance in providing a benchmark for how doctors are expected to make the assessments required under the 1967 Act.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has informed me that he would be more than happy for his officials to comment on the practicalities, from a prosecutorial viewpoint, of any amended arrangements, should that be thought necessary. I can see that that might be of great practical value. I hope that I have been able to provide hon. Members with some reassurance.

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Teaching Unions (Strikes)

4 pm

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): It is an honour to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

This debate is extremely timely, as it comes against the backdrop of recent strike action by certain teaching unions. Last week, on 1 October, members of the National Union of Teachers and NASUWT went on strike in 49 local authorities in eastern England, the midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, consequently denying education to pupils in 2,500 schools. I want to put on the record that, thanks to non-striking teachers’ dedication to their pupils and profession, many of the schools that expected to close were able to remain open.

Another wave of strikes is planned on 17 October in London, the north-east, the south-east and the south-west, where my constituency is located. I take this opportunity to urge teachers in schools in my constituency to think twice about strike action and, like their many fellow professionals who turned their back on last week’s strike, not to strike at the expense of their pupils’ education and welfare. A national strike of union members is planned for later in the year, before Christmas, and that will inevitably disrupt the lives of pupils and parents alike.

Let us turn to the origin of the decision to take industrial action. Last year, the two largest teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT, voted to take industrial action throughout 2013. At first glance, the results of the ballots seem decisive: 82.5% of NUT members and 82% of NASUWT members voted in favour of strike action. We must, however, look at the turnout for the ballots: just 27% of all NUT members responded by returning their ballots, as did 40% of NASUWT members. In reality, strike action was therefore voted through by just 22% of NUT members and 33% of NASUWT members.

Even then, it is important to note that those unions do not represent the teaching profession of more than 750,000 teachers in its entirety. Taking that into account, strike action was agreed by the unions with a mandate of only 17.3% of teachers voting to strike. That is significant, because we must recognise the increasing divide between teachers or teaching professionals and the unions who claim to represent their voice.

In recent years, it seems that the only voice that unions represent is the growing tendency towards militant socialism that has gripped the heart of teaching unions. A breakdown of the NUT national executive shows that more than half its members have links to far-left organisations, with 21 of the 40 members having links to the Socialist party or the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, while 11 were endorsed by the Socialist Workers party in their election to the executive, four are members of the Socialist Teachers Alliance, one was a Socialist party candidate in the 1997 general election and there is even a member of the Communist party.

It is well known that union leaders do very nicely in pay and conditions out of their members’ subs. In the NUT, Christine Blower’s total remuneration is now £158,155, which has increased by 25% since she became general secretary in May 2009. That is more than seven times higher than the average teacher’s starting salary,

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and her pension contribution alone, of £42,236, is almost double that starting salary. Chris Keates of NASUWT earns a total remuneration of £139,834, which has increased by 78% since she became general secretary in 2004.

Let us not believe that the unions, either in numbers or in voice, reflect the everyday lives of the teaching profession. Tens of thousands of teachers—the silent majority—work tirelessly to transform the lives of young people in their care, and do so without recourse to strike action or what might be termed “teacher absenteeism”.

A new generation of teachers is coming forward who are the best trained and best skilled work force we have ever had. This generation of teachers deserves to be rewarded for their ability to raise their pupils’ performance. They are increasingly turning their back on the unions as their mouthpiece, knowing that they are being given greater freedoms to teach and improve their pupils’ education in the classroom. Some are even tearing up their union cards. One teacher wrote on The Guardian “Secret Teacher” site that

“we came into teaching for a reason. To inspire children, to go that extra mile, and to become better at what we do—ultimately for the students who are the reason we chose this profession. Yes, there are many issues facing us that do need action—but why is it that the unions’ suggested actions simply serve letting down the very people at the core of teaching?”

We need the best teachers to be in place, particularly in schools where the gap between the most affluent and the most disadvantaged pupils remains stubbornly high, to help turn pupils’ lives around. A good-quality education depends entirely on good- quality teachers, so rewarding good teachers must be at the heart of this Government’s school reforms.

That belief is overwhelmingly backed by the public. In a recent Populus poll of 1,700 people, 61% agreed that schools

“should be able to set the pay of individual teachers based on the quality of their performance as determined by an annual appraisal”,

while 28% believed that teachers

“should…receive the same salary regardless”.

When asked what the most important factor is in deciding teachers’ pay, only 8% plumped for length of service, which is the current measure. The poll found that 70% of people are opposed to teaching unions’ planned strikes, while 34% believe that teachers should be entirely banned from taking strike action.

I do not believe that the Government should be in the business of banning teachers from going on strike. It must be up to teachers themselves, not only as responsible adults, but above all as responsible professionals, to choose how they wish to be regarded. Do they believe that as professionals—that is how we wish teachers to be seen—they should take strike action where no other professionals would dare to? It must be up to teachers to face their responsibilities and to ask themselves why, if it is not acceptable for pupils to be absent from school, it should be acceptable for teachers to indulge in teacher absenteeism. What possible example can that set? How can the authority of a teacher’s professionalism be anything but diminished by strike action?

If teaching unions think that there is a genuine and deeply felt need to strike, they will recognise that such a need is also felt by the entire school community—pupils

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and parents alike. Each individual school, rather than taking its cue from the phantom democratic ballots of union leaders, should know whether strike action is necessary at local level and whether taking the ultimate step of sacrificing a day of pupils’ education is in those pupils’ interests.

The teachers’ cause would be strengthened if they had the backing of the entire school community, including parents. One solution for assessing whether an individual school has a truly effective mandate for strike action would be for it to ballot its parents on whether they agree with any proposed strike action. After all, parental ballots are not a new feature of our education system: they were introduced by the Labour party in 1998 as a means of assessing whether grammar schools should close.

Rather than strike action taking place with just over 17% of support from teachers, industrial action backed by parents would appear far more legitimate and have a greater chance of being taken more seriously. Allowing parents a voice over teacher strike action would help to depoliticise strikes, which are currently organised by a militant few at the expense of the welfare of the many pupils and parents whose lives will be disrupted in the next few weeks.

Of course, rather than take strike action in term time, thereby disrupting the education of thousands of young people and effectively denying them a day’s learning, surely it would be better for teachers to strike during the school holidays, when they are still at work in schools? We are frequently informed that just as a parliamentary recess is not a holiday for Members of Parliament, school holidays are not entirely holidays for teachers, who continue to work hard in their schools.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Does he agree that we should encourage head teachers and chairs of governors to do their utmost to keep schools open as a learning environment for children, given that being at home may not be suitably positive for learning reinforcement?

Chris Skidmore: It is extremely important that school leadership remains strong at this time. I am referring here to the chair of governors, who has a duty to reflect the community’s voice, and the head teacher. As we know, it is the leadership that decides whether a school should remain open or should close. In my own constituency, I have seen the head teacher make the decision. As well as telling teachers who wish not to strike to have the courage of their convictions and to cross the picket line and go into school, we must also tell head teachers to stand firm on their principles. They are the captain of the ship in the school and they must ensure that it stays open for as long as possible.

Going back to my point about teachers striking in school holidays, I do not believe that teachers are taking off the entire school holiday. They are working hard in that period when the pupils are away from school, so it should not make any difference if the strike action was taken in school holidays rather than term time unless the deliberate aim of the teachers’ unions is to cause the maximum possible disruption to pupils’ learning, which would be regrettable.

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In conclusion, there will always be disagreements and battles over how schools are run and pupils are taught. That is fair enough. Teachers themselves may disagree over the direction of a policy or a Government, and that is their right, but such battles should be fought not by strikes but in the court of public opinion, with ballots that reflect the views of all teachers and parents, and, ultimately, at the ballot box. They should not be fought, as those striking well know, at the expense of the children whom they claim to serve.

4.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): It is a pleasure, Mr Pritchard, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on his excellent speech, which outlined many important issues, and on his ongoing work to support the reform of education, which is vital for our country. I note that we do not have Opposition Front Benchers at this debate. The Opposition have remained silent on the issue of trade unions, even though many of their Members of Parliament are funded by those organisations.

Strikes benefit no one. They damage the education of pupils and inconvenience parents and carers, who often rely on school when they are out at work. The children who are let down the most are those from low-income backgrounds who desperately need an excellent education to help them get on in life. Moreover, strikes do not support the teaching profession. What we want is a highly valued and respected profession that takes professional responsibility for what it does. The strikes are in danger of undermining the well deserved public respect for teachers.

The recent strikes have been particularly disappointing. They do not command public support. A recent Populus poll found that 70% of the public do not support the planned strikes, and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, teachers themselves do not support them. Less than a quarter of teachers voted in favour of strike action when they were balloted by the National Union of Teachers and the NASUWT.

I am pleased to say, though, that fewer schools closed than on previous occasions. In last week’s strike in Yorkshire, the midlands and the east of England, only a third of schools were fully closed to pupils. That was down to the hard work and dedication of many teachers and head teachers. By comparison, 60% of schools in the same regions were fully closed in the national strike of November 2011. That shows that those who seek wholesale disruption of our schools are losing the argument, and less and less support for such action is being shown in the classroom. Like my hon. Friend, I encourage teachers and head teachers in constituencies that could be affected by the forthcoming strike to keep their schools open. The majority of Britain’s hardworking teachers understand that strike action is not the right way to express their concerns about education reform, and they need to put pressure on their unions to stop it.

The NUT and the NASUWT have identified the issues of pay, particularly performance-related pay, and pensions as an underlying cause of the strikes. Most people get performance-related pay, so the concept is widely understood. It helps to improve performance and retain high-quality personnel. Teaching should be

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no different. The public understand that. In recent surveys, 61% of the public supported performance-related pay for teachers. Pay reform, which means moving to a performance-related pay system and away from automatic increments based on how long someone has been a teacher, will reward excellence and raise the professional status of teaching. It will help schools to attract high-flying graduates and career-changers, particularly to subjects for which it is difficult to recruit teachers because there are highly competitive jobs available elsewhere.

Schools in challenging circumstances, which often struggle to retain good teachers, can now, because of the additional flexibility that we are giving, use the pupil premium to attract the best staff and make the biggest difference to the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said:

“Basing pay progression on performance would bring classroom teachers into line both with head teachers, where it already operates, and with most other sectors”,

so the leader of the head teachers’ union has suggested that performance-related pay would help.

A recent YouGov poll for Policy Exchange found that nine out of 10 teachers think that the quality of teaching should be a major driver in pay and progression, while only six out of 10 think that years of experience should be a major factor in pay. Many teachers themselves support the changes. The unions should be helping us to work with head teachers to ensure that performance-related pay is implemented in a way that is fair to teachers, rather than calling for strike action, which will not only cause problems for the profession but potentially affect children.

The other issue is pension reform. Changes to teachers’ pension arrangements are in line with changes to public sector pensions in general. We all know that people are living longer, and the cost of public service pensions has increased by a third in the past 10 years to £32 billion. The new teachers’ pension scheme remains one of the very best available. All the evidence suggests that it does help to attract people into the teaching profession.

The Minister for Schools and the Secretary of State for Education have had extensive discussions with the unions and others involved in education, and the policy direction on pay and pensions is now fixed. As I have demonstrated in my speech, the reforms command broad popular support, and support in principle from the teachers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood made some interesting points about why the teaching unions might be motivated to take strike action for ideological reasons, or for reasons relating to their pay and pensions, which appear to be pretty generous when compared with those of teachers. That is no excuse to damage children’s education, disrupt parents’ lives, which has an ongoing impact on the economy, and bring into disrepute the teaching profession.

We are willing to meet the teaching unions; we are planning to meet them again soon to discuss their concerns. However, we are very clear that the direction that we have set on pay and pensions is right, and it is part of our overall reform package to improve education in this country.

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We have great esteem and respect for the role of teachers.All educational research suggests that the quality of teaching is the No. 1 factor in a child’s education that will make the difference between learning and not learning. However, we have seen this week, in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies study from the OECD, exactly where we are in the skills league table, and during the past decades, our skills have not significantly improved. It is a huge worry that, in key skills such as literacy and numeracy, we have not seen the kind of improvement that those who said that exam grades had improved have claimed.

We face a big issue with our education system. We know that the quality of our education and skills is related to economic growth. We also know that children who do not reach the levels of literacy and numeracy that they need to reach will not get good jobs and will face more danger of being unemployed. Those are critical issues, which is why we have embarked on a wide-ranging series of reforms in education. First of all, there was the academy and free schools programme, to ensure that head teachers have the powers they need to improve results in their school. Secondly, there was our programme to reform exams and the curriculum, to ensure that we are teaching subjects such as mathematics, science and English in a rigorous way. That is why we have reintroduced marks for grammar, spelling and punctuation at GCSE level, and why we have addressed the rampant grade inflation that has been evident in our GCSE results. However, possibly most important of all our reforms is the way that we are working to recruit the best and brightest to the teaching profession.

There are a lot of tales of doom about teaching, but our figures compare very well with those of other countries around the world when it comes to the age profile of teachers. In many countries, those in the teaching profession are close to retirement; that is a particular issue in Germany. Here in England, those in the teaching profession are pretty young. Teach First, a programme that ensures that top graduates are attracted to teaching as soon as they leave university, has been very effective. It is now the biggest graduate recruiter from our universities, and teaching is now seen as an aspirational career by many graduates when they leave university, which is fantastic. I am delighted that this autumn we have been able to extend Teach First to the early years, so we now have teachers who are top graduates straight from university teaching three and four-year-olds.

A recent OECD study compared the rates of pay and pensions of our teachers with those of teachers in other countries. We perform above the average for OECD member countries, so our teachers are well remunerated, as is right, and we need to bear that in mind.

There is so much that we have to work on as a country to ensure that our education system is world class. It is about all the things that I have mentioned: teaching; the way that schools operate; and head teachers having the flexibility to run their school in a way that will deliver results for children. There are so many things that need to be done that it is vital that everybody in the education system works to those objectives. Progress is being made, and we have seen very positive results. For example, the number of girls studying physics and chemistry at GCSE is at a record high, and we have also

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seen the number of children studying maths and science at A-level go up. When we have these very positive results in our education system, it is very disappointing that there are still those who seek to disrupt that system, rather than help us and work with us on the progress that we are making.

I note that there is a new shadow Education Secretary in position, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), although I am sad to see that he is not in Westminster Hall today. The former shadow Education Secretary, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), refused to condemn the strike action; actually, I do not think that he supported or condemned it, but just said nothing about it, even though children’s education was being disrupted. What we need to hear from the new shadow Education Secretary is an answer to this question: does he agree that these strikes should be condemned, and does he agree with us that it is wrong for teachers to go on strike at this important time in children’s educational careers, or is he in the pockets of the unions, like his predecessor and like the leader of his party? That is a question that I hope the Opposition will answer very soon.

It is very important to have had this debate, and to have discussed these issues at length. It is crucial for our children that they are able to attend school every day knowing that they will receive a good education. The best way of reforming a system is to participate and to have the debate in proper public forums, not to take out frustrations on innocent bystanders—those children and parents who do not have an alternative, including parents who may have to miss a day of work because a school is not open, and children, perhaps from low-income backgrounds, who are learning and who miss a day of their education as a result of this strike action.

I note the positive trend in the proportion of schools staying open. I hope that next week and the week afterwards we will see more schools stay open, and that today’s debate will encourage them to do so.

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“Go Home or Face Arrest” Campaign

4.26 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon for this short debate, Mr Pritchard.

I want people to imagine a situation and just think about it for a minute—a van pulls a billboard through the streets, telling illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest”. Just imagine it, and picture it. This is not 1940s occupied Europe; it is not even one of those National Front campaigns from the 1970s. This is the United Kingdom in 2013, where a van pulls a billboard through the streets of London telling people to “Go home or face arrest”. Just in case people did not quite get it, what else was on that poster? It was a huge set of handcuffs. And just to make it even more provocative, this van was trailed through some of the most racially diverse and multicultural parts of London. That was almost as stupid as it was grotesque.

What sort of response did that action get? Well, I do not think that I have seen a Government campaign that has been so roundly condemned. I could not even start to read out the lists of organisations, individuals and groups that were overwhelmingly opposed to it. Suffice to say that it managed to create a coalition of everybody from the Deputy Prime Minister to Nigel Farage, with the Business Secretary flung in for good measure, with his acerbic comment that it was “stupid and offensive”. As I say, this particular campaign united everybody from the Deputy Prime Minister to Nigel Farage, such was the opposition to it.

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. Does he agree that this campaign has caused division, and also fear in the minds of the citizens who freely walk on the streets that they will be stopped and perhaps harassed by the police and other agencies?

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because he reminds me of something else that went on that week, and he is right to mention it. Not only did we have the grotesque sight of a van pulling a billboard in London telling people to “Go home”, but it was part of a joint operation whereby, for the first time in years if not decades, we had racial profiling at London underground stations as part of UK Border Agency operations. What on earth was going to happen next? Where was this going to go after that?

Of course, today we had the landmark ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority, which has effectively banned this stupid and grotesque campaign. I have seen the Minister who is here today go round—

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Did it ban the whole thing or did it just point out one element that was wrong?

Pete Wishart: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that, because I saw the Minister this morning, going from studio to studio, defending this decision. I think that he took some comfort from the fact that the ASA only banned it because it was misleading, not

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because it was offensive or racist. However, that is cold comfort to the Minister, because the ASA said that this campaign was reminiscent of the anti-immigrant campaigns of the ’70s and that people would find it offensive.

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper) indicated dissent.

Pete Wishart: The Minister is scowling. The saddest thing about these TV appearances this morning is that he is still prepared to defend this absurd campaign and to revise it and bring it back to us, once again, aping his boss, the Home Secretary, who made the same remarks in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. We might see the son of hate vans in the streets soon.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I apologise for missing the start of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not just on securing this debate, but securing the decision from the ASA to coincide with it. Has he seen the reply to my parliamentary question about the cost of the pilot project, which was put at £10,000? Given the pressure on the public purse, does he not think that that £10,000 could have been used better in some other area of the immigration field, which we know the Minister is keen to repair?

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I must have missed his parliamentary question, which is remiss of me, because I usually look out for every one of his parliamentary utterances and questions. Of course, he is right. The £10,000 could have been better spent than on that absurd campaign with a hate van, trailing through the streets of London with a message saying, “Go home”.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the Minister can hardly take any comfort from the ASA’s statement that the Government were using misleading statements? They were basically saying things that were not true on a van being trailed through areas of mixed ethnicity, which was bound to cause trouble.

Pete Wishart: My hon. Friend is right. I cannot remember any campaign that has effectively been banned by the ASA. It is the first time in my 12 years in the House that I have seen anything like this misleading information. The Minister should be thoroughly embarrassed about what happened this morning, but instead we have seen the parody of him going through the news studios, defending these awful, appalling vans.

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman feel that all vans advertising the breaking of the law may put fear into the hearts of those who may be breaking it? For example, people could go to prison if they did not pay their television licence.

Pete Wishart: That is a good point. I want to come on to such points, which are important, about how the message was communicated and observed by the target groups. If I miss that point, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman once again.

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These vans have been correctly labelled, in common parlance, as hate vans or racist vans, and that is how we have started to refer to them. We could not find a terminology to express our horror and disgust at the sight of these things and we were right to label them as such.

I agree with the Minister that illegal immigration must be tackled. I think that all hon. Members here agree with that. It is wrong and the Government must do something to deal with it. However, they have to deal with such issues reasonably, in a measured and mannered way. Probably every hon. Member in this Chamber agrees that there should be voluntary return. If people want to go home, let us assist them.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Can we also send out the message of the importance of immigration and how people benefit, both in host countries and countries of origin? The Philippines, for example, with about 9 million of its citizens migrating abroad for work, has a national migrants day. I encourage hon. Members to read Philippe Legrain’s book, “Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them”, and to see the benefits that immigration generally brings to all societies, where it happens.

Pete Wishart: My hon. Friend gets to the heart of so many of our debates on immigration, including the philosophical debate about the value and worth of immigration. We never hear about that from this Government. They do not accept for a minute that immigration is valuable. It is a problem that has to be managed, and this Government in particular say that it has to be managed in a more hostile, aggressive, robust way. As we head towards the new immigration Bill, which contains some thoroughly nasty horrors, we will see much more of this from this Government and it will get ever worse.

Alec Shelbrooke: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I have given way already and shall try to make some progress. I may come back to the hon. Gentleman later.

The hate vans, or racist vans, were ranting at people through a billboard with a telephone number on it, instead of communicating with them reasonably, trying to get a measured response and trying to ensure that people can return voluntarily. We should be helping them—assisting them—not shouting at them and giving a telephone number on a billboard. That is not the way to deal with some of the keen and sensitive issues to do with immigration. However, there is no way that we will get through to this Government on such points.

The Minister knows how hard life is for illegal immigrants. Life is desperate for illegal immigrants in this country. They cannot work—certainly, not legally—and they do not have access to benefits. They live a life of destitution, in fear of being detected. That is the reality of life for illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom, not the Daily Mail version, in which they are living the life of Riley, at our expense, laughing behind our backs, which sometimes I think that the Minister believes. It is a life of desperate destitution and fear.

It is about fear and that is what is being communicated. We have to look underneath the stupid message—the silly “Go home or face arrest”—and find out what it is

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intended to do and to achieve. Stupid poster though it is, there is something fundamental underneath this. The campaign is trying to engender a sense of fear and exaggerate the problem, to politicise it and appeal to the basest political instincts. That is a dangerous game to play. That is where it leads to real issues, tensions and anxieties in our communities. This Government should stop that and ensure that it is never done again. These hate vans and racist vans are touring our country.

Let us gloss over the obvious point that those who are notionally targeted by the campaign probably cannot read English and probably have no idea what the vans are trying to say. If they do read English, the first thing they will do is go right underground and try to hide away, having been made aware, thanks to the Government, of a more aggressive campaign that is out to get them.

Let us be generous and say that this campaign gets through to its target audience. Mr Pritchard, imagine that you are an illegal immigrant, walking down your street in your multiracial, multi-diverse community. There is something in the back of your mind and you are thinking, “There’s something I’ve got to do. What is it? I can’t figure out what it is.” Then, all of a sudden, one of these vans comes along, telling you to go home and you say, “That’s it! That’s what I forgot to do! All this time I’ve been in this country, I’ve forgotten to go home whence I came.” What nonsense. [Interruption.] No wonder you are laughing, Mr Pritchard, as is every other hon. Member. That is how nonsensical a concept this is. Imagine that.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. For the record, unless I misheard the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that I show any emotion when chairing debates. I am completely impartial.

Pete Wishart: I am sorry to have misinterpreted your wry smile as any sign of jocularity, Mr Pritchard.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): I was smiling at the colour of your tie.

Pete Wishart: I am glad that that is resolved. Thank you, Mr Pritchard.

Come on, let us figure out what it is really all about. I think that all hon. Members in this Chamber can be candid. This has little, if anything, to do with illegal immigration, but everything to do with the rise of the UK Independence party in the opinion polls. It is about this Conservative Government’s fear of the electoral challenge from UKIP and the fact that it has made immigration a key plank of its appeal. The Government are now engaged in a desperate race to the bottom with Nigel Farage, to see who can be the hardest on immigration. I gently say to the Minister that he will never out-UKIP UKIP. UKIP is the master of nasty, pernicious, right-wing populism, and it is to the Conservative party’s credit that it will never beat UKIP in a race to the bottom on such issues, regardless of how hard the Conservative party might try.

What did Nigel Farage do when he saw the campaign? He laughed in the Home Secretary’s face and mumbled something about the Big Brother state—imagine the campaign’s target laughing in the Home Secretary’s face. I bet Nigel Farage went home that evening and, like a badge of honour, knew that he had managed to move the Government significantly on to his territory,

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where he will decisively beat them on such issues. This is UKIP UK. UKIP does not have even one Member of Parliament, but the whole political world down here is now spinning around the world of the fruitcakes and loonies, as the Prime Minister so cleverly, clearly and accurately described them. That is where we are now: the reality of UKIP UK. UKIP is pulling the strings and the Conservative party is dancing to it.

People might wonder why I, as a Scots Nat, am concerned about these vans in London. First, they appal me as a citizen of this country, and they should appal every decent, reasonable person. They are appalling and should not be here. But the Government brought the campaign to Scotland. When I first saw the vans, I immediately wrote to the Home Secretary asking whether there were any plans to bring them to Scotland. I said, “We do not want the vans in Scotland. We have fantastic relations throughout every single community, and we value those relations. The vans would be most unwelcome.” I did not get the courtesy of a reply. I therefore wrote again to the Home Secretary asking why I did not get a reply to my letter. Coincidentally, I got a reply from the Minister yesterday—it might be that there just happens to be a debate. I say this not to the Minister but to his officials: get your act together, for goodness’ sake.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. Remarks should be made to the Chair, not directly to officials. I am sure the hon. Gentleman recalls that, as he has been here for many years.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful, Mr Pritchard. It must have just slipped my mind.

I ask the Minister to ask his officials to ensure that they reply, for goodness’ sake, to Members of Parliament on sensitive issues such as this. Will the Minister pass on to his officials that it is not good enough that Members of Parliament are not responded to until they decide to hold a debate on an issue to ensure that they get that reply? That certainly seems to be consistent with what is happening in the Home Office.

In the meantime, between my writing to the Home Secretary and where we are today, the full suite of “Go home” materials arrived in Glasgow. The UK Border Agency office in Brand street, Glasgow now plays host to those appalling materials. We do not have UKIP in Scotland. In Scotland, we loathe UKIP to the bottom of our ballot boxes. UKIP does not even retain its deposits. Nigel Farage had to get a police escort the last time he visited Edinburgh. UKIP is alien to our cultural and political values. The campaign jars with our sense of community, and it is something that we just do not want in Scotland.

The Minister should take his battle with UKIP elsewhere and leave Scotland out of it, because I do not want people in Scotland who go to the Glasgow Brand street office to be met with those materials. What do those materials say? Before people are even sitting down, they are asked to think about going home, with the inquiry “Is life hard here?” They are then told “Going home is simple,” before being told by another poster with a photograph of a plane:

“This plane can take you home. We can book the tickets.”

On the way out there is a dangling plane, which suggests “This is the plane that can take you home.” That is absolutely disgusting and contrary to how we would

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like to address such issues sensitively, and it makes me more determined than ever that, with independence, Scotland will always get the Government whom we vote for. We will not have a Conservative Government with their one lone panda of a Member of Parliament ruling the roost over our country and imposing such nonsense on my nation, and thank goodness we will secure that next year and end such Tory rubbish in our Glasgow offices. Minister, please keep Scotland well out of this.

What happens now? We have had the ASA ruling today, and we are all very pleased. It looks like the end of these appalling hate vans—these racist vans. The son of hate vans might be coming, I do not know, but perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he is encouraged by what he has seen over the past few months. When the Government were first challenged, they seemed to be able to pull out some sort of statistic showing that the vans were actually working. I do not know what on earth that statistic was based on, but perhaps the Minister could tell us about how the vans were supposed to be working.

Mr Virendra Sharma: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: My time is up, sorry.

Hopefully we will see the end of the vans, which I think were a testing exercise in advance of the next immigration Bill. The Government floated the policy just to see how much they would get away with, how nasty and pernicious they could be, in trying to get their immigration Bill through. That is exactly what they were doing. Everyone in this room has a concern on immigration, and we will be questioning the Minister when the immigration Bill is introduced, because it will contain some horrible stuff that we must confront. We are still part of the UK, and we will be subject to the Bill. We do not want it, but unfortunately we will be subject to it. The Bill is contrary to everything that we are trying to achieve for positive, good relations in Scotland, but we will be subject to a Conservative Government’s immigration Bill.

How did the Conservatives get this past the Liberals? I want to hear the Minister’s take on this. How on earth did they get the Liberals to sign up to something like this? I heard that the former Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), was not available, so the Conservatives decided to proceed any way. After what we have heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, with whom I know he worked closely, the Conservatives managed somehow to get the policy through the Liberals and into the campaign. Hopefully the Liberals will veto anything like this in future so we have no repeats.

The one thing I want from the Minister, and I know I will not get it, is an apology for exposing this nation to a nasty, pernicious and grotesque campaign. I know I will not get that apology, but perhaps I will get a small acknowledgement that there was something wrong with the campaign, that it was not right and that it was inconsistent with the good community relations that we are trying to achieve. I just want an acknowledgement, but somehow I do not think I will get that, either. Let us hope that we never see the likes of this again, but I have a feeling that it is just the beginning.

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4.47 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asked me lots of questions and has not left me a great deal of time to answer them, but I will do my best. If colleagues will forgive me, I shall address my answers to him, as it is his debate. If I have chance, I will take interventions from others, but it is right that I try to address his questions.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I, from the sound of his remarks, will not agree on the merits of the campaign, but it is worth setting out our thinking, because the campaign is not what he suggests. It is not focused at migrants; it is focused at people who are in the United Kingdom illegally—people who are here and breaking our laws. The campaign is not about migrants.

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—I apologise again, because I always mangle the name of his constituency—said that the Government do not welcome people to Britain, which is not true. Every single time we make a speech or publish something, we make it very clear that Britain is open to migrants from across the world: people who want to come here to work, to study and to make a contribution. That message, which is welcoming to people who want to follow our laws and rules, is perfectly compatible with a message that says, “For those people who come here and do not follow the rules, and who want to break our laws, we should be equally firm about telling them that we want to enforce those laws.” Frankly, if people are here illegally, they should go back to their country of origin. There is nothing wrong with suggesting that they do so. If it is as bad here at the moment as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire suggests, the obvious question is why people are in this country illegally and not returning to their country of origin. We have worked closely with community groups and those involved in supporting migrants to help them to deliver that message sensitively.

The campaign to which the hon. Gentleman refers was a pilot, and we were trying to give a tough message about what will happen if people do not leave the country voluntarily: they will leave themselves open to arrest, detention and enforced removal. But the message also said that there is something that those people can do: they can contact the Home Office, and we will assist them in returning to their country of origin voluntarily, perhaps supporting them to do so. A significant number of people, more than 29,000, do that each year. That way of addressing the problem is greatly preferable, and it is much better for the taxpayer.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the cost. The cost of the pilot was just £10,000. If an individual who was in the country illegally chooses to go home as a result of the pilot, it will have paid for itself. We are doing a full evaluation. At the end of the three-month period, which is a reasonable period because of the time it takes to get travel documents, we will do the evaluation and then make a decision about the pilot.

However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the first voluntary departure as a result of the pilot took place on 2 August. It was that of a Pakistani national who had been living in the UK illegally since December.

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Interestingly—colleagues might find this slightly ironic—he did not see the ad van itself; he saw a picture of it in

The Guardian

newspaper. He texted the number and we arranged to support him for his flight home, so at least one individual has left the country as a result of the pilot. From a cost perspective—something that I think the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs has mentioned—the pilot has already paid for itself. If we had had to arrest, detain and enforce the removal of one individual, it would have cost the taxpayer probably the best part of £15,000, so from a cost perspective, if we can persuade people to go home voluntarily, that is clearly the right thing to do.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire referred to the Advertising Standards Authority, but I do not think he accurately set out its view. It was very clear today and did not uphold any of the complaints about the vans or the allegations that the vans were offensive or racist. It said:

“We considered that, in context, the claim would be interpreted as a message regarding the immigration status of those in the country illegally...not related to their race or ethnicity.”

It concluded that

“the poster was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress”

and was

“unlikely to incite or exacerbate racial hatred and tensions in multicultural communities...it was not irresponsible and did not contain anything...likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour.”

The van referred to someone’s area, and the hon. Gentleman is right about the ASA’s view that people would interpret that as being quite a narrow area. For example, in a London borough, people would assume that it meant the London borough. Since our statistics were from a slightly larger area, the ASA said that it was misleading. We have therefore agreed not to use those advertisements in the form that was used.

The ASA did not support the outlandish claims that I think the hon. Gentleman suggested. He should also be aware that his views are not supported by the public. The poll conducted by YouGov on 13 August found that 66% of those polled in the United Kingdom did not consider the poster to be racist, so two thirds of those polled do not agree with him. Also, the comprehensive poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft and published on 1 September found that 79% of those polled supported the messaging in our posters, because they can see that giving a firm message to people who are in the country illegally is perfectly compatible with being welcoming and supportive of those who come to our country legally, follow our rules and comply with the law.

The hon. Gentleman got very heated on that point, but I do not think that he has the measure of public opinion on this issue. People want to welcome those who come here for the right reasons, but the public want to deal firmly with people who should not be here. The advertising campaign was squarely aimed at those who are in the country illegally and have no right to be here. Asking people in that context to return to their country of origin is perfectly reasonable.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Scotland reporting centre. He should know that that pilot ran from 29 July, which is prior to his letter, to 4 October. It did not use any of the materials that we used for the ad van campaign. A significant proportion of those using

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the reporting centre are people who have no right to be in the United Kingdom. They should not be here and should be returning to their country of origin. Partly, the message is a tough one, but the other side of the message tells people that we can support their return and help them to go home.

Our immigration enforcement officers work closely with many communities in the United Kingdom. They work with faith and voluntary groups that know of people who want to return home, but need support to do that. They do not want to be arrested or detained; they want to come forward in such a way that they avoid that experience, and I think that that is perfectly reasonable.

The hon. Gentleman asked what we might do in future. As I said, we are evaluating the campaign to see how successful it has been in driving up significantly the number of voluntary returns. We will make that information available and then decide whether to continue.

On the street operations that we conducted, the hon. Gentleman referred to racial profiling. I absolutely refute that. Our officers do not have the legal power, and we do not have the ability, to do that. We use intelligence to identify where to run the operations, and when we encounter people, we decide whether to talk to them based on their behaviour, not their race, ethnicity or appearance. I absolutely refute his allegation that we are involved in racial profiling in street operations, and it is not supported by the evidence. Again, it is worth saying that the general public support the work that we do in enforcing illegal working laws and in making sure that people obey the law.

Our officers have a difficult job to do. I have been out with them on operations. They take their responsibilities and the intelligence seriously, and they are well aware of the legal environment. They have proper briefings before the operations and they deal with the people they encounter sensitively. I have seen operations where, for example, we have encountered people who have done nothing wrong, and our officers have dealt with them very sensitively and handled a difficult situation well. I do not think that the way in which the hon. Gentleman characterises the issue reflects the reality on the ground. It is hard and difficult work. Just as the police have a difficult job in enforcing criminal laws, our immigration enforcement officers have to enforce immigration laws. They deal with people who should not be in the United Kingdom, and who might not wish to return to their country of origin, but it is important that we enforce the law. It is difficult work and will remain so. It has to be done sensitively, which is what we have been doing.

Mr Virendra Sharma: Nobody is questioning that we are talking about illegal immigrants. We support the idea that there should be no illegal immigrants, but we question the tactics used—for example, when there is forced entry into shops and other places where they cannot find anybody and the intelligence is poor. The small sample of 500 people supporting the idea is not good evidence.

Mr Harper: On the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about entry, our officers have to obey the law in the same way as other law enforcement officers. I have attended operations on which we have encountered the “beds in sheds” phenomenon in his part of London, where there are some appalling pieces of accommodation.

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When we have to gain entry to those properties, we have to work with the local authority. The local authority has to seek a warrant for entry. We have to go through a proper legal process. We have to have evidence and intelligence when we deal with those things, and it is the same when we do illegal working operations. We have to have intelligence; we do not simply do it on a speculative basis. If we have intelligence, we approach people and gather evidence on whether people are working illegally. I make no apology for doing that, because it is not simply about the fact that they are breaking our laws. Employers who employ people illegally undercut legitimate business people. They compete with them unfairly, and we should deal with that.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire both said that they are against illegal immigration. I am glad that they said that. All that the campaign was about was trying something—a pilot—to see whether it was successful. We have been frank about it and we will be guided by the evidence. If the evidence suggests that the pilot has been successful, I might flip the question round and ask why we would

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not go ahead with a pilot that is successful and that leads to more people leaving the country voluntarily. If the pilot proves unsuccessful, we will not roll it out. It will be based on the evidence. We will analyse the pilot properly.

The evidence from the public is that they support a tough approach. I make no apology for dealing with the concerns of the public. We are not, as was suggested, talking about a recent phenomenon. We said at the general election that we would deal with immigration. We have reduced net migration to the country by a third. We have cracked down on abuse. We have seen an increase in the number of students and skilled workers coming here. We want to give the message that we are open for business for the best and the brightest, but that should be combined with dealing firmly with people who break our immigration laws and either come here illegally or overstay their visa. Those things are compatible, and that is how we wish to continue.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).