One of the most powerful aspects of Sure Start, which the previous Government introduced, was that, in a non-threatening, non-stigmatising way, parents from

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all parts of society were made to feel welcome entering the building where their children were being supported in their education. I know from my constituency and my experience working in social services that many young parents who have had not good experiences in school do not like to cross the threshold, because doing so brings back bad memories. It is enormously powerful to involve, from that early point, the values of co-operation and support, and to say not only, “Come in, because your child is here,” but “Come in and have your say. We are all equal; all have equal membership.” From the first, it creates a different relationship between the parents and the people providing the education and support for children. The Minister should look closely at that second change.

Mr Sheerman: My hon. Friend and I are both Co-operative Members, and she knows that I have set up a few co-operatives myself. Does she agree that being a co-operative is not a panacea? On this sad day of the demise of the Co-operative bank as an independent co-operative, it would be wrong of us, as Co-operative Members, not to put on the record that sometimes people get into co-operatives for reasons of venality, and that through incompetence things can go wrong. Full involvement in a co-operative is needed to stop that happening. Today is a sad day for many co-operators.

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend has put his concerns on the record and he is absolutely right. There is strength in the co-operative movement; it is not about co-operative schools managing on their own and being separate academies or free schools, but about their being part of a movement that, as the hon. Member for Wycombe indicated, naturally gives support—there is support from Co-operatives UK and co-operative schools organisations —and sets up mutuality with other schools that can be helpful and supportive.

Steve Baker: I want to respond to what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said about the Co-operative bank—I am glad that is on the record. I would like to offer two points of comfort. First, given the way in which the credit markets were manipulated by central banks over the past few years—Members know that is one of my favourite subjects—no bank was likely to escape, so I am not surprised that the Co-operative bank was one that did not. Secondly, although we may be small in number, our spirit for co-operation is that of tigers. Co-operation’s moment has come. It will be victorious, and in future the co-operative movement will surge away.

Meg Munn: There is nothing I can add to that. I was going on to say that such wide support is positive.

Andrew Gwynne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. She touches on the power of co-operation outside the schools community. Co-operative schools do not act in isolation. I commend to her the work of Reddish Vale technology college, which has strong co-operative links with its local nurseries and primary schools. It feeds them, as equal members, into the co-operative principles and ideals that apply at the college, and works incredibly closely with them to drive up excellence in standards across all schools, not only those in the co-operative trust.

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Meg Munn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to all hon. Members who have given real-life examples, which are the important background to the legislative changes I propose.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I apologise for missing the beginning of the debate; it was due to a Delegated Legislation Committee. Hon. Members know that I am a keen supporter of co-operatives. I planned to support the hon. Lady’s remarks with examples of co-operatives in Herefordshire, but as I had to sit through all the discussion and hearings about the Co-operative bank on the Treasury Committee, I cannot resist pointing out that there were specific issues with the bank that were not merely to do with the model it adopted, and a series of catastrophic misjudgments by successive managements. The issues with the bank should not be taken as an indictment of the co-operative model or the co-operative movement.

Meg Munn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and welcome him to the debate. I welcome his support for co-operatives. I am moved to call him my fellow co-operator, which is the term those of us in the co-operative movement use. Welcome, fellow co-operator.

I am coming to a conclusion, Mr Hollobone. There is wide support for the changes, which the Government now need to action. The NASUWT, a trade union active in many schools, is supportive of the model. It creates, as has been discussed, a basis on which people come together as equal parts to run schools, try to achieve excellence and work in their communities. Everybody should see co-operation as fundamental to education. It should be part of the process, and is what will help all our children and young people to do their best. I thank all the co-operative movement: the Co-operative party, which produced an excellent briefing, and drafted the clauses for, and supported me in introducing, the ten-minute rule Bill; and the Schools Co-operative Society, which has been enormously important in ensuring that the schools that have taken on the model are supported, and that growth is achievable in a way that does not threaten the model.

3.8 pm

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate and on his eloquence in furthering the arguments I support. Despite co-operatives and the co-operative movement having a strong association and history with the Labour party, not least through the 32 Labour and Co-operative MPs in this Parliament, of which I am one, it is praiseworthy that the ideas that power them are not owned by a political party. They are represented by a political party, but they are owned by all of us. It is incumbent on us, in each of our political traditions, to uncover those self-sustaining values for the time we are in now, and the hon. Gentleman has been a powerful advocate today.

I want to start by talking about some of the shifts that we have seen in education in recent years and conclude by talking about some of the ways in which the co-operative movement may be able to contribute to and shape that story, rather than merely being subject

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to it. We have already discussed several excellent co-operative schools across the country. Cressex, to which the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) referred, is a fine and outstanding example of a co-operative school.

In Luton South we do not have a co-operative school, but we are keen to have one. Co-operative schools, and co-operative education in general, empower local people to take responsibility for the education that they best understand. Co-operative education avoids many of the traps inherent in the fragmentation of education that has occurred in recent years, particularly when it comes to the dispersal of power, which is abused in the education system more often than we tend to admit.

In the past 10 or 20 years, under successive Governments, control and responsibility for education has shifted from local authorities to individual schools. As many Opposition Members have argued in recent years, however, I believe that under the coalition Government we have seen an expression not of localism but of centralism. In other words, the Secretary of State has been given direct responsibility over individual schools. In Luton, we have real issues around community cohesion, we are a good size to allow democratic control to be exercised across all our schools, and schools working in partnership are a key part of where we hope to be in future and the kind of community that we seek to shape. Many of the Government’s choices and decisions have, therefore, been unfortunate for our attempts to pursue our ends.

Whatever we feel about the shift, under either of the previous two Governments, towards more individual schools taking responsibility, taking ownership and taking governance, the change has happened. We see that in the statistics on the adoption of the academy and free school models. Co-operative education provides a powerful mechanism for harnessing some of the positives of that shift, such as the exercise of leadership and good teaching quality, which we understand to be most crucial for raising standards in schools and the provision of education.

Mr Sheerman: May I suggest to my hon. Friend that if he wants to be slightly subversive, the best example I have seen of a co-operative is one in which the pupils are empowered to help run the school through Learning to Lead? That combination is liberating and amazing, and it provides a revolutionary structure of governance. It now exists in more than 100 schools.

Gavin Shuker: My hon. Friend does not anticipate my remarks, as is often said when someone makes a good point that we would like to adopt. He does, however, pre-empt my central argument about the distribution of power in the education system. How do we reap the benefits of allowing people to get on and lead in their own context, while sharing the responsibilities and ensuring that abuses of power do not take place, without sidestepping effective governance? That is where I believe that co-operative schools can be truly helpful.

In my own experience of mixed provision of education, public interest units can sometimes run schools autonomously, which can be good for local authorities. In Luton, two of our high schools became academies under the previous Government’s academies programme, which was designed for schools that were struggling to keep up with others. A further education provider came in and ran those schools. There has been, and continues to be, a strand of scepticism and concern in the community

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when schools are taken over, which we must acknowledge, but the education provider had a trusted relationship with the local authority and was able to step in and improve results.

A free school has opened in the centre of my constituency. It seemed bizarre to me that the only way in which we could get the basic primary school allocation of places was to bar the local authority from running the school, but we had to find a way to get that allocation, because there is a massive push on places. We found an arm’s-length council body to run the free school. It was a good example of how to use the existing system and to link it back into the community, and I believe that it is a really positive development.

In the mix of those different models, I believe that the co-operative model presents one of the best ways in which to harness elements of the co-operative tradition, even now, when the Labour party does not control but seeks to shape education policy in opposition. We should encourage local authorities and others to adopt the co-operative model to ensure that we reap the benefits of choice and autonomy in the education system. I note the comment of Peter Laurence, who is development director in the Brigshaw Federation, one of the first co-operative trusts in Leeds:

“We could all see the direction of travel of Government policy and the rapidly changing role of the LA. To us self-help is a natural solution.”

Is that not exactly the point? From the rich traditions of the co-operative movement, we find mechanisms that are appropriate to us today.

Jesse Norman: I am reluctant to introduce a note of discord into a debate that has been remarkably harmonious and valuable, but does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a potential conflict between the co-operative nature of a school and the demands of the unions, which may sometimes find themselves in opposition, as they have been in other areas of public service?

Gavin Shuker: The hon. Gentleman genuinely pre-empts my next point—

Jesse Norman: Brilliant as it is.

Gavin Shuker: Brilliant as it is. I was going to say that if we look at the record of co-operative schools’ relationships with other partners, such as trade unions, we see that they perform incredibly well. I point to the Schools Co-operative Society, which has been able to establish nationwide a package of terms and conditions with the network of schools to ensure that that kind of strife does not occur.

Andrew Gwynne: I have seen several schools in my constituency convert either to trusts or to academies, and I know some of the fraught discussions that take place with staff at the schools during the conversions. May I highlight to my hon. Friend the fact that by converting first to a co-operative trust and subsequently to a co-operative academy, Reddish Vale technology college helped to ease some of the concerns of the staff because they had buy-in to the co-operative principle?

Gavin Shuker: That makes the point entirely that the best way to harness leadership is not usually to parachute it in from outside—sometimes that has to be done if a

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school has failed the community consistently over a period of time, which usually comes down to school leadership—but to empower members of the community who, day in and day out, serve young people and families to get on and lead. That goes right to the heart of how the co-operative governance model works. Those are not simply structures; they are values. It is not about looking to see how we could design an over-engineered, so-called democratic arrangement. It is about saying that certain values of the co-operative movement, in particular the fair distribution of power, can be applied in education extremely well.

In the past few weeks questions, at least, have been raised, or investigations carried out, across the country, about the alleged misuse of power in a number of schools—and a DFE investigation is under way into several schools in my constituency that converted to academies and continued rapidly to adopt other schools. In my region the transition into academies or other types of governance, and the results of that, has been questioned. That has happened in Basildon, Thurrock and Luton; but a previous example in Derby at least raised the question of the fair exercise of power.

The advantage of the co-operative movement is not just the structure, but the ethos. However, the structure is a key factor: the idea that all of us with an interest in education locally can shape it locally and question the authority that is exercised, instead of constantly looking up and across to centralised power in Whitehall and Westminster, or to the immediate leadership of the school. In that way, the co-operative model can present a powerful, positive argument for allowing schools and communities to exercise their own power.

I was proud to grow up in a comprehensive system, with local democratic accountability through voting for and selecting councillors, portfolio holders and leaders, because the link with the community was not broken. Co-operative schools go right to the heart of that issue, and they present a different and powerful model for achieving such democratic control, in which the people who care most passionately about education—the parents, children, teachers, school leaders and governors—come together to share responsibility and power.

I want to ask the Minister about the level of capacity building that DFE is engaged in, particularly in local authorities, to encourage them to examine the co-operative model and consider it as an alternative route, alongside the many others that the Department provides. I understand from speaking to people in local authorities that there is still some misunderstanding about what a co-operative is. That should not surprise us, because we sometimes encounter the same degree of misunderstanding in Parliament, and such things may be difficult for people to get their head around. However, if we are to have genuine choice and to move away from one-size-fits-all comprehensive education, which I have talked about already, it is important to put all the options on the table, and not just some of them. If the Government were to do that they would have more supporters from across the House for their reform of education.

3.23 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I have been called to speak earlier than I anticipated, and it is great to have this opportunity. I congratulate the hon. Member

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for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate and on his speech, which came across as genuine and sincere. He captured the values of the co-operative movement very well, and I welcomed his remarks, on which hon. Members can build in debate. He was very polite and thanked the Minister for turning up. I said that it was his duty, and I know that he would agree, but the hon. Gentleman should never apologise for making Ministers come to the House of Commons. When I was a Minister, that was a priority, and I know that the Minister who is present today thinks so too. The debate is important, and the hon. Member for Wycombe kicked it off extremely well.

I congratulate, too, someone whom I was going to call my old friend—but she might take that the wrong way, so I will call her my long-standing friend: that is my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). We cut our teeth together, when we first came into Parliament, on the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and she has a long—not that long, but longish—history of involvement in the co-operative movement. She spoke with passion, sincerity and knowledge on that subject.

I also want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), who made the important point about the co-operative movement and co-operative schools that although structures are important it is the values underpinning the movement that make it a suitable model for the education system.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I apologise for missing part of the proceedings. Lipson community college in Plymouth is a co-operative academy. It was set up in 2009 and is outstanding. It encourages pupils to follow up and become co-operators. In fact, they are very involved in the young co-operative movement, and the Ruptors street dance co-op is an example of that. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many offshoots from the education of young people in co-operative schools? I do not think that anyone puts a value on that, and we need a better understanding of what co-op schools can offer. I think many colleagues in this place do not really understand that.

Kevin Brennan: I strongly agree. I should like to talk more later about knowledge and understanding of co-operative schools. I should say at the outset that the Labour Front Bench is strongly supportive of the movement and of the rapid development and spread of co-operative schools that has happened in recent years, since legislation was amended to make it a little easier to form them. There is still work to be done, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley pointed out. There is a good quotation on the Schools Co-operative Society website:

“Essentially they are just what schools should be and what people thought they really were about already!”

That is a good way to put it. There is nothing about co-operative schools that would not be familiar to people, as far as values or ideas of what a good school should be are concerned. Yet, as we know, there is sometimes misunderstanding about co-operatives and co-operative schools.

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Values in education are one reason why Labour supports the movement. It is time that we had more of a debate about those. There is much debate about structures and the idea that opening a free school or an academy will solve everyone’s problems. However, we all know that what really counts is good teaching, great leadership and the values underpinning a school and education system. It is interesting that the process that has been going on, which is a quiet revolution in the system—and people talked about a revolution in the debate—has received hardly any media coverage. Yes, the Government have a flagship policy for free schools, but there are far more co-operative schools than free schools. No one would think that from reading the papers and following the news. Certainly, a lot more Department for Education staff are devoted to free schools than to co-operatives. There are more than 100, are there not? I did not realise there were that many left in the Department. It is an awful lot of staff, but very little in the way of resources is devoted to helping co-operative schools to develop.

I welcome the remarks of the Secretary of State about the co-operative movement and co-operative schools in general, which the hon. Member for Wycombe quoted. No one would ever accuse him of not talking a good game, but in relation to actual delivery and policy, it would be good to see more resources within the Department being devoted to co-operative schools, since the Secretary of State has made it so clear that he is powerfully in favour of their development. That is important because it provides a bulwark against what some people fear—that the current upheaval in the structure of the schools system could lead to the idea that the Secretary of State has entertained from time to time: a system of taxpayer-funded, profit-making schools. That idea was tried in Sweden under its free school system, but it has not worked out too well.

The Swedish system was a model. The Secretary of State was infatuated with Swedish models, but he does not talk about them much any more. Sweden had profit-making free schools, but what happened was perhaps predictable. There are two ways to make a profit: increase revenue or cut costs. Of course, there are limited opportunities for taxpayer-funded schools to increase revenue. In Sweden, once hedge funds and the like invested in the schools, it led to the cutting of costs.

Since there is no requirement for qualified teachers, an obvious way to cut costs is to employ people who do not have to be paid qualified teacher rates. As a result, some of the schools went bust, with consequences for the education of the children, and also with the consequence ultimately that the legislation was overturned and a requirement was reintroduced for qualified teachers in the schools. There were no real educational or co-operative values underpinning the schools, which left them as the prey of hedge fund managers and the like. [Interruption.] If there are co-operative schools—would the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) like to intervene?

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): No.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman does not want to intervene. He is chuntering away from a sedentary position, but he is not prepared to share his views with us.

If there is a co-operative schools system underpinned by the values described so eloquently by the hon. Member for Wycombe at the start of the debate, we overcome

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such problems. The schools can have autonomy. They can be run by local people according to a set of values that do not put profit before the education of local children and the views of local people.

I have had the opportunity to visit co-operative schools around the country. I mentioned earlier the visits that I made to Upper Shirley high school in Southampton and the Tiverton co-operative learning development trust in Devon. I talked to the teachers and the leaders in those co-operative schools and I put the hard questions to them. It is not enough simply to have a structure and values in place. It has to be absolutely the case that everybody involved in the school is focused on raising standards and making sure that every child matters and that every child is given an opportunity to fulfil their potential.

I have no doubt that from time to time some co-operative schools will go off the rails, as do other schools, but it is surely right that a model based on co-operative principles, whereby everybody knows the values that they should be working to, stands a better chance of success than one that is based on ultimately making a profit. That is a road down which I understand the Secretary of State is interested in travelling.

Steve Baker: I do not want to break up the spirit of consensus that we have engendered, but I am not against profit. I simply want to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention back to the third principle of co-operatives, which I am sure he knows better than I do: member economic participation. We know—we discussed it earlier—that one reason why the Rochdale pioneers succeeded is because they made a surplus, and surpluses are paid as dividends to members. I am a little cautious when talking about co-operatives. I would not want the debate to be shut down too far, because there is an honourable tradition, clearly articulated by the co-operative movement, of member economic participation. I would not want to exclude it from the future of co-operative schools.

Kevin Brennan: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and the opportunity to make it clear that I am not against profit, either. We live in a mixed economy and the market is a wonderful thing. In the case of education, occasionally it can be a good servant, but it is a very, very poor master. Opposition Members will never support profit-making schools. Yes, there is a role for a profit-making business in education—publishers, for instance—but Opposition Members will not support profit making in taxpayer-funded schools.

Alison Seabeck: The Plymouth Learning Trust is made up of 16 schools that have come together in a not-for-profit company. They are doing a lot of joint working, which is very effective, so pure profit does not always have to be the driver.

Kevin Brennan: Indeed. My hon. Friend makes that point very well and she is absolutely right to do so.

Some people in teachers’ associations and trade unions have been suspicious of co-operative schools, but the partnership that is developing between teachers’ associations and trade unions and some co-operative schools around the country is to be welcomed. The agreement between the NASUWT and the co-operative schools movement

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is a welcome development. I hope other teachers’ associations and unions will also engage in a positive manner with the co-operative schools movement. As was pointed out earlier in the debate, teachers should very much welcome such a development and the opportunity to be a part of running their schools and playing their role within co-operative schools and co-operative trusts.

On the ten-minute rule Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley earlier this year, I hope the Minister will encourage the Department—it might have been another Department—to answer the letter that she sent earlier in the year. If it has been lost, perhaps she can provide a further copy. The Minister’s hon. Friends welcomed her remarks on the Bill, and I would welcome an opportunity for us to co-operate in a parliamentary way on the provisions of her Bill, albeit after they have been appropriately stress-tested by the civil service and Parliament and properly scrutinised before we do so. May I make that offer to him?

If the Government feel that that is something they would like to do to make it possible for my hon. Friend’s Bill, or the spirit of her Bill, to become law, the Minister would have our co-operation. I completely understand that he cannot commit to that today in a debate of this kind, but perhaps he will take away that offer and consider my hon. Friend’s remarks. Will he ensure that it is possible for co-operative structures to be incorporated into the legislation, as in clause 1 of her Bill, and also make it possible for nurseries to become co-operatives? Will it be possible for them to form part of a co-operative trust that, as she rightly pointed out, might form an all-through education service for an area, which is an ambition of many co-operative trusts around the country? I hope he will be able to say something positive and take that away and consider it, even if he cannot make a commitment now.

I welcome this debate and the way it was kicked off by the hon. Member for Wycombe. I welcome the Government’s professed support for co-operative schools, and I hope the Minister will talk about that. What counts is what works, and we can see that co-operative schools do work. They work because they can generate the kind of leadership and teaching that we want, where everybody understands the values under which they are working—the values of sharing and of working together in the interests of children and young people. Finally, I once again thank and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this debate.

3.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate, and on his passionate contribution, demonstrating his commitment to raising educational standards in his constituency? As he knows, this Government want to be champions of diversity, of high standards and of closer working-together in the education system.

It is always hugely encouraging to hear examples of where standards are being raised. We are seeing improvement, including in the recent results in the Cressex community school in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Like him, I want to pay tribute to the head teacher—David

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Hood—the governors, the staff, pupils and the whole community, which has played its part in helping to drive up standards. They are to be commended for their efforts.

I assure hon. Members that the Government are wholeheartedly supportive of the role that school partnerships and co-operation play in achieving our shared goal of a high-performing and self-improving education system. As my hon. Friend said, we are in danger of fierce agreement. Politics is not always as black and white as people think it is. Shared values can surface, and this is one such occasion. There is an underlying cause to which we all want to contribute, which is ensuring that every child, whatever their start in life, gets the best possible chance to reach their full potential, as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said. The community has a huge role in making that happen.

We have had excellent contributions from the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). I welcome this opportunity to discuss on behalf of the Government the contribution that diversity partnerships and collaboration are making to improving standards in education, performance and teaching through the co-operative movement and other things in our education system.

The evidence is stark. It shows that schools working together leads to an increase in performance for all schools involved in that partnership, even—this should be noted—for high-performing schools that support weaker schools. As Dr Chris Tomlinson, the phenomenally successful executive principal of the Harris academy Greenwich, Harris academy Chafford Hundred and the primary attached to that in the Harris federation of schools, said:

“Working together improves our knowledge about how to get the best out of pupils and staff. It helps us to fine-tune and understand those occasionally small changes that make a real difference”.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has set out, one of the interesting things about the example of Cressex community school is that it is a maintained school in partnership with a successful converter academy and an independent school, among other partners. That is exactly the sort of partnership that we are developing through our academies programme and in other education reforms.

We should, and do, cherish the values of co-operative trust schools, in particular the importance of shared responsibility for problems and for designing solutions, and the importance of those involved in a child’s learning having a stake in that learning. As we have heard, since the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which introduced trust school status—the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish reminded us that the first was in his constituency—we have seen a steady and increased pace of such schools being set up. Their number is up from 188 in September 2011, as we have heard, to more than 700 by the end of this year. That in itself demonstrates that the permissive nature of the establishment of such

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schools is doing nothing to prevent schools from starting to form trusts and relationships. Cornwall is perhaps the most acute example of where that is happening right across a county.

The co-operative trust model is one of many that can facilitate effective partnership working. In an increasingly diverse education system, many different models are emerging, which is increasing choice for parents, which we want to see more of, as well as increasing support for schools. We now have academy chains, where schools formally work together, often sharing governance and leadership while benefiting from the autonomy of academy status.

We also have sponsored academies, with more and more outstanding schools now formally sponsoring weaker schools so as to bring about improvement. Six such sponsored academies are co-operative trust academies. We also have federations, where maintained schools formally share governance and expertise. There is also the sharing of head teachers and senior leadership teams; teaching schools; national or local leaders of education; the independent and state schools partnership; and other formal partnerships, such as the Bradford partnership, a not-for-profit organisation consisting of schools from that city working together to improve outcomes for young people.

In that eclectic mix of different models, it will come as no surprise to hon. Members that the Government’s view is that academy status is effective in driving improvement and collaboration. That status is now enjoyed by close to 3,400 schools in England. We believe that teachers and head teachers, not politicians and bureaucrats, should control schools and have more power over how they are run in the best interests of students. With well over half of secondary schools now being academies, and primary schools joining the programme at an increasing rate, research has found that more than a quarter of academies have seen their relationship with other schools improve since they became academies.

The evidence is clear that the freedom that academies have has led to an increase in standards, and that the highest-performing institutions are helping to improve the weakest. As Mary Speakman, head teacher of Altrincham grammar school for girls, one of the lead schools in the Bright Futures educational trust, said:

“The pupils at AGGS get a really privileged education. They do well and our standards are high. We want to share that experience and develop other schools, so that every young person has those chances”.

I am pleased to see that, so far, 173 converter academies are sponsoring 192 academies, and a further 106 projects are approved to open. In the spirit of this debate, I am also pleased to note, as has been said, that the role of the co-operative movement as a sponsor of schools that need extra support is increasing, and to note the increasing number of co-operative schools choosing academy status and becoming co-operative academies. I do not think that the schools have to live in isolation from one another. They share many of the values that, as has been rightly pointed out, exist in the co-operative movement.

It is worth noting what David Wootton, chair of the Independent Academies Association, has said on the issue:

“The academy movement, and sponsored academies in particular, have a strong commitment to social justice and moral purpose. This means a dedication to the communities they serve and a deep

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desire to improve outcomes and ‘close the gap’ for students in some of the most challenged communities. Many academies have very strong community routes…We in the academy movement welcome the support of the Co-operative movement, who are now actively involved supporting academies, and believe there is room for a diversity of providers.”

Gavin Shuker: I thank the Minister for his warm words about co-operatives. Will he say a few words about the Department’s approach to making the benefits of co-operative governance known to schools that are looking to change their governance arrangements? Is there any literature that goes out? Does he have any officials working on the project? What discussions has he had with the co-operative movement on that?

Mr Timpson: I will talk about that in relation to some of the proposals regarding the ten-minute rule Bill and other measures to try to open that up to a wider aspect of the education system. As I have set out, there has been a huge increase in the number of co-operatives over the past two years alone, which shows that they are not being prevented from doing so.

On the matters raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, I am happy to take back the issue of the messages that the Department and other parts of Government are sending out about the benefit that the movement brings to communities around the country. Our having this debate, and my sending out a strong message of support on behalf of the Government, demonstrates our desire to see diversity in the education system that meets the needs of individual communities.

Andrew Gwynne: Is it not one of the benefits of co-operative education that there is no one-size-fits-all approach? Every co-operative school is different in its make-up and outlook, but the one thing that bridges all co-operative schools, whether they are academies, trusts or free schools, is the values that underpin the co-operative principle.

Mr Timpson: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. No one size fits all and, as we know from schools in our constituencies, there is no blueprint that will make every school successful. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe reminded us earlier that the first co-operative free school will open next year in Swanage, and the first co-operative alternative provision free school will open in Harlow in 2014. Those are two examples of how different types of model can be nurtured to meet the needs of particular areas.

Collaboration, which is a feature of the values we have been discussing, manifests itself in several different ways, one of which is the academies programme. Other formal partnership arrangements may work for different communities in relation to both academies and maintained schools, so long as they provide a framework for joint working, with clear lines of accountability, and preserve the intrinsic values of autonomy and liberty that my hon. Friend spoke about.

Steve Baker: May I correct an error that I made earlier? I should have paid tribute to Katy Simmons, the chair of the governors of Cressex community school, and Mervyn Wilson, the principal of the Co-operative College, who have helped me to understand that the

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co-operative movement is striving for autonomy and self-government. While I do not wish to argue about party, it seems to me that the Government are trying to drive people to make the most of their in-built, inherent talents and to exercise freedom and responsibility in relationships, which is all moving in the direction of co-operatives. I am grateful to the Minister for his approach to the subject, but I hope that he will go back to the Department and ask it to produce the Bills that will make that a reality.

Mr Timpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. At this juncture, I should perhaps talk about the ten-minute rule Bill introduced back in April by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley. Some of its provisions related to the status of industrial provident societies and the existing legal barriers that she has identified, as well as to the role that nurseries may play in the co-operative movement.

As the hon. Lady will know, by virtue of having brought in the Bill, some elements of the 2006 Act preclude nurseries from inclusion in such co-operative trust arrangements. We are currently consulting on measures to make it easier for schools to extend their age range downwards—for example, from five to 11 for primary schools, to three to 11—so nursery classes in those schools would be able to adopt co-operative ideals. I anticipate that she will understand that some nurseries will therefore still exist outside the extended school system and that it is not possible for them to be trusts.

I will undertake, first, to ensure that the hon. Lady receives a full and proper reply from my Department and, I assume, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) is a Minister in both Departments—to her inquiry in relation to her Bill. Secondly, I will consider whether it would be of assistance to have a meeting with her and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe to discuss both how we measure the success of the co-operative movement as it has begun to grow over the past few years, and where it fits into the jigsaw of educational provision that is now available. I am happy to take that back and ensure that it is given full attention.

Meg Munn: I am grateful to the Minister for that offer, which saves my having to press him for exactly that. It would be most effective to have a meeting—I would certainly want it to be a cross-party one, with hon. Members from both sides of the House who have spoken in this debate—to see how we can take forward both the need for legislation and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) has said, the need to publicise more widely to schools the benefits of co-operation, of which they may be unaware.

Mr Timpson: I am glad that we have managed to come to another co-operative consensus in this debate. Given the steep rise in the number of co-operative trusts in England, it is important to look seriously at their impact and where they fit into our attempts to establish the most effective education for all our children. As the hon. Lady rightly points out, much of that involves good joint working relationships that should provide incentives for schools to develop higher educational standards.

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Doing so has several other advantages. The biggest contribution to school leadership development lies in providing the rich and varied opportunities that will lead to the innovation and responsibility that we want schools to show. Collaborative working can, therefore, provide a broader base for developing leaders, and a greater opportunity for leaders to learn from one another. As I have seen in my constituency, it gives such leaders a greater experience of what is going on not only in their schools, but in surrounding ones and at different levels or key stages.

Working more closely together increases the scope for shared learning and continuous professional development, and helps to improve the capacity of small schools—another important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe—by creating a greater pool of resources and expertise that can be shared more flexibly between schools. School leaders tell us that they can recruit and retain the best staff by providing them with professional challenge and support in working with other schools.

One major advantage of shared arrangements has been the improvement in the governance of weaker schools. It is typical for governing bodies of sponsored chains to be supported in their monitoring role not only by training, but by receiving data that are collated and presented to main boards and local governors in a standard format. The format will normally report on progress against targets and previous performance, comparisons with national benchmarks and the performance of other academies in the chain.

Another advantage is that central costs can be shared across more schools, giving them greater purchasing power in partnership than they would have as stand-alone schools. They can also benefit from economies of scale and from the pooling of resources. The use of shared business management as a resource across schools has been shown to lead to improved efficiencies and the more effective use of resources across schools. Collaborative working also opens up new opportunities to adapt the primary and secondary curriculums to meet local needs, and it allows schools to put in place stronger academic transition procedures between different phases of school.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) raised the issue of the Treasury’s proposed tax changes. Obviously I need to look carefully at that to establish

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exactly whether they will play out as he suggested. On ensuring that we have a crisper, clearer legislative framework, that builds on the matters raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley. Whatever we do in education, we must ensure that it raises standards and that it is sustainable, which is another reason it is important to look at the impact of co-operative trusts on our educational system.

We have managed to transcend a partisan debate, mainly because, as I said at the outset, we have many shared values that do not always have an opportunity to rise to the surface in political debate or in our efforts to make our wider political points as we think is most effective. We do not, however, have anything to fear from co-operatives. Whatever side of the political spectrum we are on, we should embrace the values they offer.

The debate has been an opportunity to celebrate the success and the growing involvement of the co-operative movement in our schools, and to acknowledge that at its core are values that we all hold dear, wherever we sit on the political spectrum—a commitment to social justice and moral purpose, a combined spirit of autonomy, a deep desire to help ensure that children and young people across our communities, but especially in the most challenging areas, get every opportunity to make the most of their education and, wrapping around those values, strong community roots that bind in a joint sense of responsibility and, perhaps most importantly, of caring for others. We all have some compassionate bones in our body, and such values have risen to the surface today, which is a testament to the fact that the co-operative movement does much to enrich our communities, as it does more and more within our schools.

I hope that I have given a forceful indication that this Government hugely value the co-operative movement’s work in our schools. We want to learn more about the effect that it is having, what it is achieving and how it can do more in the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, many schools are still deciding and choosing, as are parents, what sort of schools they want their children to be in. This excellent and informative debate will have encouraged us all to continue to push for higher educational standards in whatever form, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this subject to the House.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I thank all those who co-operated so effectively in the debate.

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Royal British Legion (Norwich)

4 pm

Miss Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for chairing this debate. This is an important topic, even though we have not yet been joined by too many other colleagues. I have had the pleasure of working with constituents in Norwich for the Royal British Legion since I was first elected. On Saturday, I will be doing what I have done for many years: joining Roy and Val Hill of the Sprowston Royal British Legion branch in their well-regimented but good-natured poppy appeal at the largest local branch of Tesco. I am sure that other hon. Members will have similar engagements in their constituency.

On Remembrance Sunday, I usually join hundreds of my constituents at Norwich city hall for wreath-laying and the “Last Post”, and then in Norwich cathedral. In the afternoon, I usually take part in a parade down Yarmouth road with the Thorpe St Andrew branch, led by the indefatigable Roy Robson and the town mayor. However, this year I unwisely chose the day before Remembrance Sunday on which to get married. I hope my constituents will forgive my absence this time.

In Norwich, the work of the legion is coming to the fore in an unfortunate way, which is poor timing, as this is the month before November. I want to use this debate to discuss the ways that we can best support this long-lived and courageous organisation. The Royal British Legion is of course the UK’s leading armed forces charity. It provides practical, emotional and financial support to all members of the British armed forces, past and present, and their families. Secondly, it actively campaigns to improve lives, and it safeguards the military covenant between the nation and its armed forces. By the bye, I am pleased that the Government have published that covenant, setting out the relationship between the nation, the state and the armed forces. It recognises that the whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and to their families, and it establishes how they can expect to be treated. Community covenants are also being signed across the country, bringing military and civilian communities together.

Armed forces have long been based in Norfolk. RAF Marham, for example, has recently been the focus of an enormous community campaign, orchestrated by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). The Norfolk covenant builds on those relationships and local support and rightly aims to provide a more consistent approach.

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The Royal British Legion operates in Ilford North as well as Norwich North. Does she agree that the work it does for the people who have served our country so well, and who should always be remembered, is irreplaceable, and that we should cherish such a great organisation and help it in every way we can?

Miss Smith: I certainly do. I am confident that my hon. Friend, like me and many other Members, wants to see the Royal British Legion succeed in Ilford, Norwich and across the country. I will come on to that, as well as

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how we might mark the centenary of world war one next year. Perhaps my hon. Friend will tell us how his region will mark that event.

Let me return to the legion’s purposes. It also organises the poppy appeal. It runs one of the UK’s largest membership organisations, and it is recognised as the nation’s custodian of remembrance. In summary, its mission is to provide welfare, comradeship, representation and remembrance for the armed forces community. We all pay tribute to this impressive and durable organisation. We are talking about a crucial cause, and it is given voice and action by many members and volunteers who have shown the highest courage in their service to this country.

We all want the Royal British Legion to be a strong organisation. As I have mentioned, next year sees the beginning of the world war one centenary commemoration. Another important event is the Normandy Veterans Association’s 70 years commemoration, which is championed in my constituency by some most wonderful veterans who are passionate about seeing it done well. All that is important work that we want the legion to sustain for today’s and tomorrow’s service people and their friends.

It is clear, however, that the legion faces challenges. Its accounts suggest that it runs at a deficit, and it has embarked on a major programme of modernisation and change called the “pathway for growth”. Its aim is to make the legion more visible, more relevant and more accessible to those members of the armed forces community who may require help, advice and support at any stage of their lives. I suspect that this is where the rubber hits the road. The Jubilee hall, which serves the Norwich branch and is a fine community hall, faces closure. The head of clubs and trusts at the headquarters says:

“The primary duty of the trustees in this case is to ensure that the best value is obtained from the assets placed in their trust in order that they can provide the maximum support to the objects of their trust. It was accordingly decided that the better option was to seek to sell the property for the best value which can be obtained from the open market.”

The local branch heard that news in August, and I sombrely noted that in one of their first phone calls afterwards, they contacted me as the local Member of Parliament. After two months, several public meetings, a local newspaper campaign by the Norwich Evening News, a generous underwriting offer from a local businessman, and some initial commercial negotiations, I am raising the story in Parliament, and I also have a petition from 617 local residents, which I shall present next week to the director-general of the Royal British Legion. I will explain to him the love that we in Norwich have for our Jubilee hall. First, it is the most visible base of the legion in the area. It is the size of a sports hall and it is emblazoned with the wording “the Royal British Legion” in brass letters a foot high. It is terrible to lose such an emblem.

Secondly, it is more terrible to lose a supportive and friendly establishment for many legion members who depend on it. It provides a warm drop-in for those who want it. Every table is neatly decorated with tinsel or flowers, depending on the season, and it provides a fuller space when that is wanted as well. Thirdly, it is the kind of community hall that already has 500 bookings for next year. I would be interested to know of any community venue that can rival that. In fact, now I

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know where all the zumba classes in this country are taking place; they are taking place in the Jubilee hall in Norwich, if not in Ilford.

That wide spectrum of activities taking place in the hall is something of which we can be proud. The acting chairman and his team of volunteers at the Norwich city Royal British Legion branch are doing their utmost to achieve a sustainable business after some instability in recent years.

Last Thursday, a “save Jubilee hall” public meeting passed a unanimous vote to keep the hall open, supporting the setting up of a charitable organisation to take on the building. Members and non-members alike of all generations expressed great anxiety about the danger of closure, and wanted to bring back the building to its former glory. Local man Martin Wyatt has offered to underwrite the finances required for such work, and deserves thanks for his generosity. He and the legion committee are working hard to make the transformation a reality. They have secured free legal advice through a local law firm, so they plan to lodge charitable status as soon as possible.

I am pleased—I am sure that the Minister will join me in my pleasure—that the local Labour councillors see the value in the Localism Act 2011, and we all encourage the local authority to list the hall as an asset of community value; that could give us six months’ grace before any sale. Volunteers are delighted to have received a kind letter from the secretary of Her Majesty the Queen, who is of course the patron of the Royal British Legion.

Naturally, the next step is more commercial negotiations, which are not the business of Parliament. However, the hall was built with local funds, and the committee intends to maintain it for its original purpose, though it will broaden its remit to encompass fully the local community. As Mr Wyatt has said,

“we look forward to a completion of this transfer, whether by lease or sale, as soon as possible, and for a stress-free and happy running of Jubilee Hall for years to come”.

It is my hope that by raising this issue today, I have done a little bit to remind us in this great institution of Parliament about the work and the standing of that other great institution, the Royal British Legion.

Here comes the crunch, however. The legion must not leave its members behind; it must not neglect the people who make it a great institution. Now is the time for the legion to listen to its members and to its friends in the wider community. If its aim is to make the legion more visible, more relevant and more accessible, then it should listen and be visible in the Norwich community, and work constructively with local volunteers. We are all behind the legion and its wonderful volunteers, and we do not want the legion to waste that good will.

I said earlier that I would return to the topic of the year ahead. As you know, Mr Hollobone, 2014 will mark a momentous milestone in British history—100 years since the outbreak of world war one. The centenary offers a special opportunity to commemorate not the war and the bloodshed, but the dedicated men and women who sacrificed so much to protect the United Kingdom. It also presents a very important chance to

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educate a new generation of young people about the war, to ensure that the lessons of that extraordinary time are not lost.

As the Minister will no doubt remind us, the Prime Minister has laid out the Government’s plans to mark the centenary. He has announced that support will be available for projects and initiatives, large and small, in local communities across the UK, in the form of Heritage Lottery Fund grants. I hope to work with councils, heritage groups and charities such as the Royal British Legion to mark the centenary locally. It is a matter of shame, I am afraid to say, that the Labour administration at Norfolk county council has rejected that idea, telling me that it has a rather full diary at the moment. It would be a matter of sadness, and downright discourteous to veterans and serving members of the armed forces, if the Labour administration at county hall did not have the time, inclination or gumption to do this job properly.

I turn back to the matter at hand. I will leave time today for colleagues to express, perhaps, their interest in the work of the legion, and for the Minister perhaps to tell us a little more not only about the commemoration plans but about the way that he works incredibly hard in his brief to support charities. Perhaps he can suggest further ways in which the Royal British Legion can do its job and be supported strongly from inside this great Parliament.

In conclusion, I support the Royal British Legion in Norwich. I passionately want it to succeed for those whom the charity serves: veterans of past campaigns; those yet to fight; and, of course, those whom we remember as fallen, and of whom we will say again in November,

“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.”

We all are friends and supporters of the Royal British Legion. My final message today is to those at the legion’s headquarters, if they are listening. I say to them, “Please remember your local members and friends, and save the Jubilee hall in Norwich.”

4.12 pm

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. At the start of my few words, I ask you for a little latitude, as I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), on behalf of all parties in the House of Commons, on her forthcoming marriage, whatever date it may be on. I am sure that she will be fully occupied over the Remembrance Sunday weekend.

The work of the Royal British Legion takes place not only in my area of Redbridge but across our great country. If we forget our past, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. If we do not honour the people who have given their lives, and who are no longer with us because of the passing of time, we risk history repeating itself.

Throughout many conflicts, members of our great Army, Air Force and Navy have given up their lives so that we can enjoy our freedom, and so that we can debate, as a democracy, in this Parliament. I think that members of all parties in this House will agree that the work that the Royal British Legion has done, is doing, and I am sure will continue to do benefits many veterans of many campaigns.

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Sadly, it will not surprise you to know, Mr Hollobone, that I have never been in the armed services, but I am a member of the Royal British Legion, because I think that it is important. It is important that when we lay our wreaths, as most colleagues from all parties in this House will, on Remembrance day—in my area, we lay one on the Saturday and one on the Sunday; I will also lay one at a former Air Force base on the Monday—we genuinely remember, respect and honour the people who have given their lives for us. My only point today is that whether we are talking about Norwich North, Ilford North or any other “north” in this great country, we should honour all those people. May God bless the Royal British Legion.

4.14 pm

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone; I think it is for the first time.

I miss my former ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), so I am absolutely delighted to be in a position to respond to her debate, which brings home very clearly just why she is so respected and loved as a champion of Norwich North and of the things that the people there hold dear. I warmly congratulate her on securing this debate and on drawing the attention of the House to the incredibly important work of the Royal British Legion, as well as to concerns about the closure of the Jubilee hall in Norwich.

Just as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) skilfully intervened to place on record his huge admiration for the work of the Royal British Legion in his constituency, I must also take the opportunity to place on record my recognition of the incredible work done in the “third North”, which is my constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, in particular the work of the legion’s branch at Eastcote, which managed to get a cheque out of me and which looks after me incredibly well during the remembrance services there.

This debate has opened my eyes to some other work that the Royal British Legion is doing that I was not aware of—work that is frankly magnificent. For example, there was the recent opening of its centre for blast injury studies at Imperial college London, which is the first collaboration of its kind in the United Kingdom and where civilian engineers and scientists work alongside military doctors to reduce the effect of roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices. The legion has also teamed up with Help for Heroes to officially open the Phoenix House recovery centre in Yorkshire, where injured and sick service personnel from across north England and Scotland can recover and access key services. The legion is an enormously important institution, and I am sure, Mr Hollobone, that it does wonderful work in Kettering too.

Regarding the specific issue of the Jubilee hall in Norwich, I quite understand the passion underpinning that project; I have similar situations in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North will know that it is not for the Government to intervene in a charity’s decisions, however unpopular they are, but I am absolutely sure that the Royal British Legion will listen very carefully to this debate and will have heard her message about the community’s desire to save Jubilee hall.

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My hon. Friend will also know that the Government are very keen to support this kind of community-led response. She mentioned the Localism Act 2011. That Act introduced the community right to bid, which, as she said, allows communities and parish councils to nominate buildings or land for listing by the local authority as an asset of community value. Exploring this option—asking the local authority to list the hall as an asset of community value, in line with the Act—seems eminently sensible.

What my hon. Friend may or may not be aware of is that, at a time when there is not a lot of money around, significant funding is being made available to support communities that want to take over buildings and assets. In June, I was proud to hear the Prime Minister announce a quarter of a billion pounds of funding at an event at the G8, which will be dedicated over the next 10 years by Big Society Capital and the Big Lottery Fund, to help communities own local assets, such as pubs, shops, community centres and sports facilities. More details of that programme will be announced shortly.

My hon. Friend may also be aware that the My Community Rights support programme provides advice and help to eligible community groups to develop business cases and get “investment-ready” to seek support from other sources. Information is readily available on the programme’s website.

I genuinely wish my hon. Friend and her local campaigning group every success and I hope that the Royal British Legion will go the extra mile in helping the community to safeguard what is clearly a very valuable asset.

My hon. Friend also asked me to talk a little about the commemoration plans to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, which all the speakers today have talked passionately about. They will know that the first world war was a period of almost unparalleled importance in our country’s history. I am proud to say that the Government are taking a strong lead in commemorating the centenary in a way that I hope is appropriate. The centenary will not only focus on military history but on the social and cultural changes that the war brought about, telling not just soldiers’ stories but those of men and women on the home front. We should remember that there were almost 900,000 deaths of British service personnel during the first world war, so it is entirely appropriate that remembrance lies at the heart of the commemoration.

We are working hard to encourage public interest and engagement, showing why the first world war still matters in the 21st century and is relevant to people today—including myself—through their family histories. My hon. Friend will know that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is the co-ordinating Department, but several Departments are working together to deliver what I hope will be a strong, diverse and inclusive programme. There is strong support from bodies such as the Imperial War museum, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the BBC and the Heritage Lottery Fund, all of which have a big role to play in securing public engagement and all of which are represented in the programme’s governance structure.

There will be £53 million of funded activity across a range of undertakings, including a major capital project at the Imperial War museum, Heritage Lottery Fund grants for community projects and moneys for other

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cultural activity. For example, the first world war centenary battlefield tours project is offering students and teachers from every state-funded secondary school in England the opportunity to visit battlefields and other notable sites and to take part in remembrance ceremonies on the western front. That will be an enormously powerful experience for them. The tours start in spring next year and will run until 2019. Schools, including those in Norfolk, have been piloting the scheme, with pupils visiting battlefields at Ypres and the Somme. More than 1,000 schools have already registered for the tours from next spring, which is well ahead of the planned target. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North said so powerfully, the bravery and suffering of the heroic men and women who gave their lives so selflessly in the great war—including my great uncle—must never be forgotten.

To conclude, the Government recognise the massive contribution that is made by our servicemen and women. The words trip easily enough, but it is important to convey what underlies them with sincerity. The armed forces covenant ensures that we are doing all we can for our armed forces in return for asking them to do dangerous jobs in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Government take it extremely seriously.

I am proud that the Chancellor was in a position to announce that the LIBOR fines collected from banks for their shockingly bad behaviour and their distortion of British values are being used to provide permanent funding of £10 million per annum to charities working to support military personnel. That money was taken in fines on the worst of values to support organisations working with the best of British values.

On that note, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North on her championing of her constituents, the campaign to safeguard the hall and this opportunity for us all to place on record our recognition of the enormously valuable work that the Royal British Legion does. It would be wrong of me to conclude my remarks without congratulating my hon. Friend on her forthcoming marriage to Sandy, who is, I believe, a former paratroop officer. I am sure that her constituents will forgive her for her absence from Remembrance day services and for getting married, even if there are many colleagues in this place who never will.

4.22 pm

Sitting suspended.

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UK-Colombia Bilateral Investment Treaty

4.30 pm

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): I am grateful to Mr Speaker for selecting this debate.

Bilateral investment treaties are a long-standing mechanism to protect foreign firms and investors undertaking risky overseas investment from the danger of expropriation or policy changes in the destination country that could reduce the financial return from those investments. Bilateral investment treaties have generally been seen as benign, technical instruments, but developments in their use in the past 10 years or so have raised doubts about their benign character. Those doubts certainly arise in the case of the UK-Colombia bilateral investment treaty, which I understand is due to be ratified in the next few weeks. I will air some of those doubts in this debate and press the Minister to clarify the Government’s thinking in response to some of the concerns that are being raised.

Bilateral investment treaties allow investors to sue elected Governments if policy changes adversely affect their profits, but neither the host Government nor the communities affected by the investment have reciprocal rights. There is at least a question on whether that balance is correct.

Last October, under a bilateral investment treaty, a tribunal established by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, which is part of the World Bank, fined Ecuador $1.8 billion—a sum equal to Ecuador’s entire annual education budget—for terminating a contract with Occidental Petroleum Corporation after reaching the view that Occidental broke Ecuadorian law when selling its production rights. I notice that on 30 September 2013, the tribunal decided to stay the enforcement of that fine for the time being, but it is not clear that handing a technocratic tribunal the power to impose fines in that way is necessarily the right thing to do.

By the end of 2012, corporations had launched more than 500 cases under bilateral investment treaties against 95 Governments. Compared with the preceding three decades, the number of disputes since the year 2000 has risen two-and-a-half-fold. The treaties seem to be evolving into something rather different from what they were originally intended to be. We need to reflect on how we want the treaties to be used, on what is appropriate to put into them and, indeed, on when it is appropriate to enter into such a treaty.

Governments across the world are now reviewing their policy on bilateral investment treaties. I understand that Norway and South Africa are terminating their treaty, and Australia and the US have decided to restrict the scope of their treaty. I am delighted to see the Minister in his place this afternoon as I know he has other pressing business, and I hope he will use this debate to set out the British Government’s thinking. I would welcome a review in the UK along the same lines as we are seeing elsewhere.

The UK-Colombia bilateral investment treaty will be laid before Parliament shortly and will provide far-reaching rights to foreign investors in Colombia. I am worried that the treaty might not take into account the potential risks it poses to securing human rights in Colombia. The Minister knows very well the human rights position

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in that country. In the first six months of this year, 11 trade unionists and 37 human rights activists were killed—nobody has been charged in relation to any of those killings. Over the summer there were strikes and protests across Colombia, and 16 demonstrators were killed by the police and the army, with more than 90 people imprisoned. Paramilitary groups continue to operate widely. There is already substantial opposition on human rights grounds to the ratification of the EU-Colombia free trade agreement.

I ask the Minister to take the opportunity presented by the forthcoming ratification, and indeed by other negotiations for new investment treaties at EU level, to consider whether it is appropriate to have a general review of UK policy towards bilateral investment treaties.

I have three areas of concern about the current use of bilateral investment treaties that I think make a review necessary. First, it is not clear that the human rights impact of such treaties is in line with the UK Government’s policy. That is a particularly pressing concern in the case of Colombia, where the human rights situation is so precarious, particularly in relation to workers’ rights and land rights.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world after Sudan—there were 5.7 million internally displaced people in Colombia by the end of the 2012—largely due to land-grabbing around mineral and resource-rich sites. Colombia has enacted a land restitution law to restore more than 2 million hectares of land to people from whom it had been wrongly taken, but that restoration has not yet taken place. Human Rights Watch reported last month that only one family have to date had their land returned.

There is serious concern that a bilateral investment treaty could make the implementation of land reform even more difficult; it could trigger demands from foreign investors for compensation if, for example, cases were brought forward in which land occupied by an investor that had previously been appropriated from someone else and then sold to the investor was restored to its original and rightful owners. Such processes could potentially scupper the prospects for land restitution, which is widely recognised as key to Colombia’s future stability.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, for the powerful case he is making and for bringing this debate to the House. The recent UK action plan on business and human rights was strongly welcomed because of some of the difficulties that he raises, but it is unfortunately silent on remedy and redress for victims of such abuses. Indeed, recent legislation has restricted the ability of victims of actions by UK companies overseas to access justice through the UK courts. Does he agree that it is essential that we build on the momentum that the Government and others have created to ensure adequate redress when bilateral investment treaties are breached, and that otherwise we risk undermining the host country’s ability to meet its international human rights obligations? Would he also welcome a response from the Minister on that, either today or at a later date?

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Stephen Timms: I will address the action plan on business and human rights in a couple of moments. My hon. Friend is absolutely right on the need for people to be able to obtain redress, and I would certainly welcome a comment from the Minister on that topic.

ABColombia, the consortium comprising Christian Aid, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Oxfam and others, is particularly worried about the potential threat to land restitution. The UK-Colombia treaty risks making it impossible for Colombia to restore land that has been stolen from its previous owners, thereby potentially restricting the implementation of future peace agreements with the guerrillas and limiting reparations to victims of human rights violations. Land injustices have been at the centre of the long-running conflict in Colombia, as the Minister knows. I gather that a treaty with Ethiopia is likely to come up next, which raises a similar set of issues on land and rights, so there is a pressing case for carrying out a policy review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) has reminded the Chamber of the action plan on business and human rights, which the Government published last month and which, as she says, has been widely welcomed. The action plan makes the point that investment agreements should,

“incorporate the business responsibility to respect human rights, and…not undermine the host country’s ability to…meet its international human rights obligations or to impose the same environmental and social regulation on foreign investors as it does on domestic firms.”

That is welcome reassurance. The review that I am suggesting would enable the Government to make good on that commitment in the specific context of bilateral investment treaties.

Secondly, there is a worry that investment rules in bilateral investment treaties could restrict the ability of Governments to set policies in the interests of their public. The investor-state dispute settlement mechanism allows foreign firms to sue Governments when and if they feel that their interests have been violated by a new law or policy. That is a pretty big limitation on the right of citizens to elect a Government to change the policy of the preceding Government.

I am chair of the trustees of Traidcraft, the fair trade organisation, which has drawn the issue to my attention—I declare that interest, although the role is unpaid. I share that concern about the restriction on the ability of developing country Governments to pursue policies that have worked elsewhere—such as land reform or requiring investors to give preference to local suppliers.

The concern, however, does not apply only in developing countries. The US tobacco firm, Philip Morris, is suing Uruguay and Australia over their anti-smoking laws. The company argues that warning labels on cigarette packs or plain packaging prevent it from displaying its trade mark effectively, causing a loss in market share. The threat of legal action against the UK under a bilateral investment treaty might be a factor in thinking about the introduction of plain packaging proposals here, so developing countries are certainly not the only ones in the frame. The US company Lone Pine Resources Inc. is demanding US $250 million in compensation from Canada for introducing a moratorium on fracking, because of environmental risk concerns. Corporations have used investor-state settlement provisions to challenge environmental, land use, energy and other laws.

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Thirdly, I am worried that such claims bypass domestic courts and are heard in private—behind closed doors—in tribunals made up of three arbitrators, behind closed doors at the International Centre for Settlement of Investor Disputes. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan reminded the House that any such decision is extremely difficult to change. In some instances, the existence of the cases is barely known at all; even when they are known, the reasons for decisions or the level of awards by a tribunal are not always disclosed.

There is concern that the system has led to bad decisions, which is particularly important given that an arbitration tribunal can make unlimited monetary awards. In 2012, dispute settlement compensations awarded to corporations ranged from US $2 million to, in the Ecuadorean case that I mentioned, nearly $1.8 billion; lots of pending claims total billions of US dollars. Disputes between multinational companies and Colombia under the UK-Colombia treaty would be confidential and heard by the international tribunal, despite the growing recognition worldwide, not least on the part of the UK Government, that transparency is vital to democratic processes, good governance and the rule of law.

Finally, there is at least a question mark about whether the treaties do, in fact, succeed in attracting additional foreign investment into signatory countries. A number of studies suggest no significant correlation between a country’s level of foreign direct investment—we all want to increase such levels in developing countries—and the decision to adopt treaties that include those broad investor protections.

I hope, therefore, that the Government will review their policy on bilateral investment treaties, in view of the lack of transparency, the use of the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, the imbalance of rights and responsibilities, and the potential to undermine human rights in countries where investment is taking place. I am grateful to the Minister for his readiness to respond. I accept that part of the responsibility on the subject rests with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office clearly has a key role as well. I look forward to what he has to say in response.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): The right hon. Gentleman timed that to the second!

4.45 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing the debate. The right hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in such issues, as evidenced in his declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests about his activities with Traidcraft, to which he alluded.

The Government’s aim in developing bilateral investment treaties is to provide a high level of protection for companies from one country that invest in the other country. In particular, we aim to ensure that British

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investors in a country with which we have a bilateral investment treaty will receive equal treatment compared with other foreign and domestic investors.

In general, the UK Government believe that such treaties have a positive impact, protecting investors against unfair expropriation and mistreatment, and encouraging investment. As the right hon. Gentleman said, however, bilateral investment treaties need to strike the right balance between providing protection for investors and giving Governments the space that they need to regulate in the public interest. The UK aims to achieve that balance in its treaties and, now that competence for foreign direct investment has transferred to the European Union, in treaties concluded by the EU.

To begin addressing some of the comments and questions of the right hon. Gentleman, increasing transparency in governance at home and internationally is a priority for the Government. Next week, I am pleased to say, we will be hosting the Open Government Partnership summit here in London, and that will be a key theme. We have also pushed for greater openness in investment arbitration, and I am pleased that new UN rules on transparency will enter into force next year. The hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) made an intervention about redress in particular, but we will write to her with a fuller answer.

In response to the related concern about giving away privileges to distant tribunals, while the system is clearly not perfect—hence, for example, our work on transparency—overall we see such tribunals as positive. They have long been a feature of the international system and are considered generally to provide a dependable way for investors to achieve justice, where it cannot be achieved through the domestic legal system of the country in which they have invested. The tribunals are, therefore, important to guaranteeing investors’ rights and to preserving stable investment climates, which, in turn, help to encourage economic development. Without access to an international tribunal, such benefits would be lost. Furthermore, if we did not have tribunals, what should replace them? The right hon. Gentleman did not answer that question in his speech—I am happy to accept an intervention, should he wish to make one.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government intend to review their policy on investment protection. As I have mentioned, competence for foreign direct investment has now transferred to the EU. Since that transfer in 2009, the UK has not negotiated any new treaties. It retains the right to do so, but it has no immediate plans to negotiate new treaties. It does not, therefore, make sense for the UK to launch a full-scale review of our policy on such matters at present. That said, I reassure him that, in ongoing EU negotiations, we are pushing hard to achieve that important balance—guaranteeing fair treatment for investors, without an adverse impact on Governments’ rights to regulate in the public interest. That is also a principle that we will apply in any new treaties that the UK negotiates.

Our intention is to place before Parliament shortly a ratification instrument that will bring the UK-Colombia bilateral investment treaty into force. We believe that the treaty broadly achieves the right balance. Indeed, it includes specific provisions designed to preserve the right of the UK and Colombia to regulate for “reasons of public purpose”.

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Stephen Timms: I am grateful for the way in which the Minister is responding to the debate. Will he explain the significance of the timing, given that he said that competence has moved to the European Union? I am told that the Colombia treaty was drafted almost 20 years ago. What is the significance of the timing, given that ratification will take place shortly?

Mr Swire: The right hon. Gentleman has more confidence in these matters than me. He referred to the next few weeks. I am reliably informed that it will be shortly, which is not necessarily in the next few weeks, but no doubt my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will bring the matter to the House at the appropriate time and will be able to explain exactly, if I cannot. It is worth saying that the UK received authorisation from the European Commission to enter the Colombia treaty into force, as the right hon. Gentleman said, in spring 2013 and the Colombian note confirming its ratification in the summer.

The treaty is an important symbol of the close relationship that the UK has enjoyed with Colombia in recent years. To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of such treaties to the countries with which they are contracted, it is worth saying that the Government of Colombia is actively looking forward to the treaty being ratified. I believe that it is a positive move. It will cover all existing British investments in Colombia, which currently total £2.5 billion. The Government hope that when the treaty enters into force it will provide a further incentive for additional investment in Colombia by increasing the level of legal protection.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly raised a concern about the human rights situation in Colombia, including land rights. I assure him, as I have the House on a number of occasions when we debated the matter, that progress has been made, as noted in our 2012 human

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rights report. Around 170,000 victims have been provided with reparations under its victims and land restitution law and the Colombian Government are taking steps to reform the judicial system. We continue to press them to speed up the processing of cases and to eliminate impunity.

In 2012, experts from the Land Registry provided technical advice to the agriculture Ministry on land registration issues. Security for claimants and those returning to their land is a key concern, and our embassy in Bogota has funded a security risk analysis in potential restitution zones. However, almost five decades of conflict have caused many people to be displaced, as the right hon. Gentleman said. We welcome the significant progress made to date in the peace negotiations, in which provisional agreement on land reform has been reached.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the concerns. The Government want bilateral investment treaties to provide a high level of protection for British companies investing in Colombia, but we also want to strike the right balance between providing protection for investors and giving Governments the space they need to regulate in the public interest. We are committed to supporting international efforts to increase transparency. We recognise that the current system of tribunals is not perfect, but it generally provides a dependable way for investors to achieve justice.

Competence for foreign direct investment has now transferred to the EU and the UK has not negotiated any new treaties since 2009, so we have no plans to review our policy on investment protection. However, in ongoing EU negotiations and any new treaties the UK negotiates, we will push for the right balance between investors and the public interest.

Question put and agreed to.

4.53 pm

Sitting adjourned.