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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 November 2013

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

Free Schools

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Gyimah.)

9.30 am

Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): Good morning, Mr Gray. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

What a shame that the Minister for Schools cannot be with us. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) is here—it is good to see him—but it is a shame that the Minister for Schools could not attend, because this is clearly his area of responsibility.

Why would a relatively new Member of Parliament from a place like Gateshead be interested in the oversight of free schools? We do not have a free school in Gateshead. I have been interested in the concept of free schools since I read an article in The Sunday Times, on 4 October 2009—before I was elected—in which the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who was then shadow Secretary of State, said that Tory

“policies are aimed at the Gateshead mum…a no-nonsense working class woman passionate about her kids. Passionate enough to set up a massive comprehensive with 2,500 feral children on a depressed sink estate?”

Having represented Gateshead since 2010, and having been a member of the council there since 1983—with 30 years of elected public service under my belt in Gateshead—I was interested in those comments and wondered whether that was the Gateshead that Michael Gove really knew or was really thinking about—but back to the main item.

The oversight of free schools, which are a new type of school under this Government, will not have escaped the attention of hon. and right hon. Members in the past few weeks and months. Indeed, free schools were described by Channel 4 only last night as the Government’s “flagship” education policy. Although the quality of education that our young people receive is the most important factor in any discussion about education policy, we cannot disregard the cost implications for the public purse, particularly in the case of an ideologically driven policy.

Before mentioning oversight, it is important to give some context to this debate. In that regard, we should consider resources, including the funding allocations up to the next financial year. The Government have allocated a staggering £1.7 billion of capital funding to free schools, which equates to a third of the total budget for creating new school places in England as a whole over the spending review period. We should bear in mind the fact that, at the beginning of the autumn term, there were 174 free schools, compared with about 24,000 non-free schools. The words “disproportionate” and “partial” do not seem adequate to describe this investment in so few schools. However, I am more concerned that all this money is being ploughed into free schools, which are an as yet unproven, ideologically driven model of education, with serious implications for our young people.

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The inspection and oversight of free schools, or rather the lack of it, has exposed the worrying shortfalls of this Government’s free schools policy.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. Just to clarify, does he believe that local authorities should have oversight or should a separate body be set up to oversee the free schools?

Ian Mearns: That question needs to be decided. At the moment, local authorities do not have oversight and it is clear—I will come on to this—that the other organisations given the duty of oversight do not yet have the resources to do it effectively.

It is particularly worrying that the Government, in the shape of the Education Funding Agency and Ofsted, seem to find out about failures of governance only when whistleblowers inside the schools feel it necessary to act. Free schools have a great deal of freedom in how to constitute and run their own governing bodies, and there is little evidence that either the EFA or Ofsted is able to identify and act on emerging problems.

In spite of Her Majesty’s chief inspector’s criticism of local authorities for not picking up problems in academies, one basic tenet of the free school movement is that they are totally detached from the local authority. Schools such as the Al-Madinah free school in Derby, Kings science school in Bradford, and Barnfield Federation in Luton—we are not entirely sure how many others there might be, and it seems that the Department for Education and Ofsted are not sure either—show that the wheels are well and truly coming off the free-school wagon and that free schools are vulnerable to a catalogue of problems.

Chief among those problems is the lack of good governance. That failure of governance is compounded by weaknesses in inspection and oversight of free schools. The three schools that I mentioned are examples of that. I should like to make it clear that, when we talk about schools, we are talking about children who, as the Secretary of State reminds us, get only one chance at a good education.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate. In the past few weeks the tone used in respect of free schools has changed. I welcome the new approach by the Opposition Front Bench. However, I plead with the hon. Gentleman not to accept that all free schools have poor governance and poor arrangements in place. For example, in my constituency, Etz Chaim school has high standards, good governance and good people running it. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to characterise all schools and categorise them as he has done.

Ian Mearns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. He has given a good example— an anecdote—of a school in his vicinity, but there are 174 such schools and as yet the mechanisms do not exist to ensure that every free school is of the high quality that he mentioned.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that qualified staff, proper standards for school buildings and school meals, and adherence to a national curriculum are ways of guaranteeing that every child in

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a free school can have a good education? Without those four starter points, there is a danger that we cannot guarantee the standard of education in free schools. That is the problem. The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) mentions a school where he thinks things are going well, but without those guarantees and proper inspection there will be ever more disasters such as those my hon. Friend mentions.

Ian Mearns: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a telling point. We are talking about educating children at a cost to the public purse. When the public purse is involved, we should expect minimum standard requirements in education. My hon. Friend makes the point well.

We are talking about the standards of education that these children receive. All too often, school policy is discussed as if it is somehow divorced from the fact that the ultimate victims of school failure are the children themselves. Let us not forget that even though these are free schools it is still public money that is paying for them.

The Al-Madinah school was branded “dysfunctional and inadequate” by Ofsted and “a national embarrassment” by Muslim leaders. Its own head teacher, Andrew Cutts-McKay, dismayed at poor governance and lack of foresight, turned whistleblower to expose the worrying slide in standards. Ofsted lamented the “limited knowledge and experience” of the governing body and the fact that teachers lacked proper skills to deliver a quality education. It condemned the school’s governance in no uncertain terms, stating:

“Accounting systems are not in place to ensure public money is properly spent and governors have failed to ensure an acceptable standard of education is provided by the school.”

Kings science school in Bradford has been accused of “serious financial mismanagement” and possibly fraud. Indeed, as with the Al-Madinah school, it was a member of the Kings science school staff—the finance director—who blew the whistle on the management of the school.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern that it took a full year after the whistleblower first raised these concerns for the Department for Education to publish that report into the alleged failings? Is that not just another example of the lack of transparency that has surrounded the free schools project from the beginning?

Ian Mearns: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

Although the Department for Education, Ofsted or any other inspectorate should be absolutely sure of its facts before going public, the time delay is worrying. The worrying precedent is that in those cases we have had to rely on whistleblowers—had they not been stripped of powers in relation to free schools, local authority officers would be uncovering failures. The EFA and Ofsted obviously do not have the required infrastructure, and are therefore not currently up to the job.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He makes a crucial point on the role of local authorities. Does he

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agree that one of the big problems in our school system is that local authorities are responsible for the education of all children but have absolutely no power to intervene in very serious cases such as those that he describes?

Ian Mearns: My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. The Minister could reassure hon. and right hon. Members in the room today, and members of the public outside, that local authorities should be given at least a temporary ability to intervene because of the concerns raised in three of the 174 free schools.

The alleged serious financial mismanagement at Kings science academy also extends to the school’s land lease. The Yorkshire Post revealed that a company owned by a vice-chairman of the Conservative party, Alan Lewis, is to receive some £6 million over 20 years, or £300,000 a year, to lease the land on which the academy was built. Particularly in the absence of local authority oversight of free school finances, it seems that there are what some might call beneficial deals for some at the expense of the public purse.

The plot thickens. According to the BBC, there was “a forensic investigation” earlier this year:

“The school was paid a £182,933 grant when it opened in September 2011. The EFA investigation found that £59,560 of payments were not supported by any evidence of payments being made, and £10,800 of this was supported by fabricated invoices for rent.”

More recently, it was found that an independent panel had fined the school £4,000 for failing to reinstate an excluded pupil. I am sure many colleagues on both sides of the House will agree that that is not how public money should be spent—it is not aiding the education of any child. That £4,000 is money that could, and should, have been spent on front-line education services.

That appalling level of financial mismanagement is even more concerning as it is public money. The coalition Government like to stress the importance of sound public finances, but oddly enough, their flagship education policy seems to have free rein on the use of public money.

An investigation into E-ACT—which, according to its website runs 34 academies and free schools from Dartmouth to Leeds—by the EFA revealed that a total of £393,000 was spent on “procedural irregularities,” including consultancy fees, breaking E-ACT’s own financial rules. The investigation also found that expenses indicated a culture of “prestige” venues, large drinks bills, business lunches and first-class travel, all funded by public money. “Extravagant” use was made of public funds for an annual strategy conference, at a cost of almost £16,000. Monthly lunches took place at the Reform club—I would like to go there some day, as I have never been—a private members’ club in London, with the public purse paying the bill for that excess. Boundaries between E-ACT and its trading subsidiary, E-ACT Enterprises, became “blurred.” A number of activities undertaken by the subsidiary were paid for with public funds. E-ACT, one of the largest chains of academies, was finally issued with a notice to improve by the EFA, so E-ACT lost Sir Bruce Liddington, its chief executive and former schools commissioner for England who, it is believed, was paid some £300,000 in 2010-11.

Barnfield college in Luton, part of the Barnfield Federation, which includes Barnfield Moorlands free

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school, has come under scrutiny for its educational practices. The concerns include grade massaging, as well as how the school treats its learners. The Barnfield Federation mantra, according to its website, is:

“One purpose. One team. One standard.”

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): My hon. Friend rightly mentions the Barnfield Federation. Would he welcome a commitment from the Minister today that, when the Department completes its investigation into that particular scandal, it will undertake to publish the investigation immediately—rather than sitting on it for six months, as it did in the case of Kings science academy in Bradford?

Ian Mearns: The Minister has heard my hon. Friend’s question, and I echo that sentiment.

The Barnfield Federation has taken on some 10 schools in recent years, and I share the concerns that the federation might have overstretched itself by trying to take on too many schools too quickly. Although Barnfield college has stressed that it remains financially viable, its managerial viability is still a major cause of concern.

Advice given to those looking to set up free schools is careful to stress the importance of acquiring

“the right level of expertise to oversee the financial management of your school.”

It seems odd that the Government stress the importance of financial expertise in free schools—we have seen such failures—but have little concern about the expertise, standards or professional qualifications of the teaching staff. As I have previously mentioned, Ofsted raised concerns about both the financial and teaching provision at the Al-Madinah school, but Ofsted has not commented on the Secretary of State’s repeated assertion that free schools, and indeed all academies, do not need to have qualified teachers at all. That is apparently based on his view that what is good enough for Eton is good enough for any school. I appreciate that there is a little local difficulty in the coalition on that, but the Secretary of State and his Liberal Democrat Minister for Schools, at least, seem to be in accord, despite the apparent wider political Cleggmire.

The Government stress that expertise is necessary for the financial management of schools, yet they offer little insistence on such expertise when it comes to the governance and oversight of free schools. Many of the problems that I have outlined at the Al-Madinah school and Kings science academy, Bradford, stem from a lack of credible, organised governance and a lack of experience. The Department for Education may stress the importance of financial expertise, but if the systems of governance are poor, the financial health of a school will suffer as a direct consequence.

As free schools are autonomous, there is no way for local authorities to ensure that free schools in their jurisdiction have adequate, well rounded governance. It is imperative that that issue is addressed, urgently. The Government may write off Al-Madinah school as a one-off or as a contained incident, but the fact remains that that debacle has lifted the curtain on the fallacies and frailties of the programme. The Government simply do not have a clue about how many other free schools are in a similar situation.

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The Department for Education’s website states:

“The right school can transform a child’s life and help them achieve things they may never have imagined.”

But what is the make-up of “the right school,” and what will the “wrong” school do for its students, who are ultimately children for whom we all have a duty of care?

Aside from good teachers and good facilities, I believe it is imperative that there is excellent governance, guaranteed by extensive oversight and rigorous inspection. I have called this debate because I have serious concerns about the oversight of free schools. I also have more general concerns about free schools, especially the disproportionate amount of the education budget eaten up by such schools. The unit costs of free schools bear no comparison with the vast majority of schools or schoolchildren.

One of my biggest concerns is the admissions policies adopted by many free schools that appear to be at best opaque, and at worst deliberately exclusive. A study by Race on the Agenda titled “Do free schools help to build a more equal society?” shows that only two out of 78 free schools are fully meeting their legal requirement to publish information pertaining to measurable equality objectives.

The ROTA report further states that only six free schools have published at least one equality objective, which is a poorer level of compliance than any other type of school. The question posed by the report is seemingly answered by those dismal figures. Free schools are doing very little to build a more equal society.

Lisa Nandy: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. What lies behind this is the fact that schools are not islands: what happens in one school has an impact on children in other schools and across the wider community. Does he agree that the free-for-all that free schools have become is bad for children—not just in the failing schools he talked about, but in other schools?

Ian Mearns: It is clear that free schools have an impact on other schools in their areas. Where those other schools hoped to have a comprehensive intake, the free schools will have a skewing effect. Indeed, they might also undermine the financial viability of other schools by taking pupils away from them. This is about not just whether free schools have a positive impact on the children who go to them, but whether they have a significant negative impact and a destabilising effect on other schools nearby.

Nia Griffith: Does my hon. Friend find it odd that some free schools have been set up in areas with surplus places, but not in areas with a need for more places? That is another worrying feature.

Ian Mearns: My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Some free schools have not been established in areas where additional places are required or where a significant number of schools are failing and need to improve—to get a kick up the backside, as it were—but in areas where neither of those criteria has been met. There is really no educational rationale for the existence of those schools; this is an ideologically driven policy.

Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend said money is taken from other schools in the locality to set up free schools. Does he agree, however, that the £1 billion overspend on the free schools and academies programme has a much

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wider impact on the education of children, because it takes away huge resources across the country? That is an extremely worrying consequence of the programme.

Ian Mearns: My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Every pound spent on one item cannot be spent on another—that is simple economic opportunity cost. If we as a country indulge ourselves in establishing a relatively small number of these schools, the opportunity cost is that the money cannot be spent on the educational opportunities of millions of other children.

If you will indulge me, Mr Gray, I would like to look at other elements of free school admissions policy. Recent research suggests that the majority of the first wave of free schools did not take their fair share of disadvantaged pupils. The vast majority took lower numbers of children on free school meals, compared with local borough and national averages. That not only underlines the idea held by some that free schools are the preserve of a privileged few—set up by the few to serve the few and not the many—but exposes how schools can use the dilution of admissions policy that the Secretary of State has overseen.

I know the importance of good governance and the impact it can have on the direction of schools. There must be robust, independent oversight of schools if they are to flourish and if we are to be sure that the children in them are getting a good-quality education and that public money is being spent in the best way. I can speak from experience, having been a school governor for more than 30 years, as well as the chair at a once underperforming school in my community. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends are, or have been, governors in schools in their communities, and they will be well aware of the role’s importance.

We cannot afford to let the scandals in free schools damage and undermine the reputation of school governors or governance. More importantly, we cannot let poor oversight of free schools distract us from ensuring that all children receive a high-quality education from properly qualified teachers. All parents and pupils need to be able to trust their school, and, as institutions that spend public money, free schools are no exception.

In “Academies and free schools programmes: Framework for assessing value for money”, an eight-page document published on 8 November, the Department says that value for money is based on the consideration of three key elements:

“Economy: minimising the cost of the inputs needed to deliver a service; Efficiency: maximising the service output delivered with those inputs; and Effectiveness: maximising the impact of the service on outcomes for those who use it.”

Referring to outcomes, it talks about assessing

“how educational outcomes are improving and the consequential economic and social outcomes that occur over the longer term.”

I am pleased that educational outcomes are at least mentioned, but the document raises a number of questions, which I would like the Minister to answer, if he can, when he sums up. What has been the total cost so far of free schools—including capital costs, revenue costs and the hundreds of thousands of pounds given to the New School Network? What measures are in place to measure outcomes in value-for-money terms? How many free schools are under scrutiny for financial or educational

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reasons, and how many have received warning letters? The final question, which has a very clear answer, is: can we afford the financial and educational cost of this ideologically driven policy? I am not sure that the answer is yes.

9.56 am

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on a good presentation of a fairly solid case. I want to make a few remarks and then to bring a particularly graphic case to the Minister’s attention.

I am unenthusiastic about school structure changes in general, but I do not have the same hang-ups about free schools as I do about academies. Academies seem to involve alienating an asset without the consent of the community or the parental body. However, it is fair to acknowledge that free schools also have critics—the hon. Gentleman is obviously among them—and Ministers normally have answers to some of the criticisms they raise.

The big issue that the hon. Gentleman raised, which I will dwell on ultimately, is governance, but there are other criticisms. There is the effect on school places—the fact that there can be over-supply when a free school is created in an area with surplus places. However, I think the ministerial team take that into account, or they say they do, when they give schools the go-ahead.

There is the fact that a lot of free schools are denominational, but, hey, a lot of state schools are also denominational, and we have a quid pro quo in connection with that. There is the claim that free schools involve selection via the back door, but it is not over-selection. The hon. Gentleman also put the case that the funding is somehow rigged, but I am fairly confident that the Minister will have a good answer on that score as well.

There is the fundamental point that free schools can sometimes end up not teaching the shared values or the world view of the funder or the Government. That can be an issue—we think of the Al-Madinah school, where the issue was values, or creationist schools, where the issue is the world view. I am more concerned about free schools that do not teach the shared values of our society. I am not so much concerned with the content of what individual schools teach, where that is at variance from the norm, as long as the teaching itself is proper teaching and not simply indoctrination.

I have to be relatively relaxed about non-qualified teacher status, because I did 30 years’ teaching, and I was not trained to teach at any point. I got into a secondary modern school, and I taught for two years. When I had survived for two years, I got a nice letter from the Department of Education and Science telling me that I was a qualified teacher. During my teaching career, I taught five different subjects, and only in the last 10 years was the subject I taught the same as the subject of my degree. I have to say that my teaching career was not dotted with failure throughout.

Dr Offord: The hon. Gentleman illustrates that people do not have to have a teaching degree to make a valuable contribution to education. Indeed, the head teacher of the shadow education spokesman, the hon.

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Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) did not have any teaching qualifications, and I do not think that did him any harm either.

John Pugh: I must correct the hon. Gentleman; I have a master’s in education and a diploma somewhere, but they have no relevance to my teaching capacities. I never found that they were terribly instructive.

On the positive side, the argument for free schools is that they are set up by parental demand. That partly explains the good results. The biggest factor correlating with educational success is parental support. Enthusiastic parents produce enthusiastic kids, who get good results. We should not be surprised if free schools achieve marginal educational improvements. The key selling point for the Government has always been that free schools are innovative and diverse, in a way that state schools seem not to be expected to be.

I wonder whether, twenty years on, a free school will have settled down to a clear recipe that it understands, and will be producing clear results that it understands. Even if that does not happen, why should not the innovation and flexibility that free schools are given be on the menu for all schools? If they are good things, they should be given to schools regardless of their structure or character—to LEA schools as well as free schools.

The LEA’s role is extraordinarily helpful, and has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). It does not spend most of its time interfering with schools and telling them exactly how and what to teach; we can safely allow the Secretary of State and Ofsted to do that. By and large, its job is to advise, support and co-ordinate, and to step in when difficulties arise. That brings me to my main point.

By serendipity—it is a fine thing—I was contacted a few days ago, not knowing that the hon. Member for Gateshead would suggest this debate in such a timely way, by someone who had a problem with a free school. I shall not name the school, except to say that it is not in my constituency; it is a lot nearer to where we are today than to my constituency. However, the problem that is described tells us something about what is wrong with governance in free schools, and about what may be going wrong with the experiment. It results from some straightforward playground bullying, and parents getting involved, as they often do, in defence of their child—both the bully and the one being bullied. The issue spiralled alarmingly, because after a while parents became aggressive towards one another.

My e-mail came from a mother, who sent her child to a free school because she believed that such a school was a wholly good idea—she had no problem with that—and because she had had difficulty getting her child into other schools in the area:

“It was reported to us that at the Parents Forum Meeting…parents not present when the assault took place were openly discussing the incident”—

between two parents and two children—

“whilst the representatives of the school sat and said nothing. The Parents Forum Meeting then descended into chaos. A small number of aggressive parents hijacked the meeting and began shouting and yelling…Eventually the Chairman asked one of the most aggressive and disruptive parents to leave”

but that parent refused. The e-mail says:

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“The Chairman, Head Teacher and Deputy Head, were speechless in their shock”

and did nothing to try to change events. Parents

“apparently left the meeting in distress, whilst others felt for their safety. The meeting was…abandoned. The Chairman has also since told me that the only reason he was chairing the meeting…was because no one else would do it, that he’d had to cancel a dental appointment to be able to attend and that after what happened he really wished he’d gone to the dentist.”

Subsequently, the parent who contacted me spoke to the deputy head.

“He had no words. He was completely speechless and could not give me any guidance or assurance that the school had the matter under control.”

My correspondent tells me

“We feel that this situation should never have been allowed to get to this point and believe it has, simply because some parents have been allowed to feel for far too long, that they are in charge and that the school answers to them. This I feel is partly because Free Schools appear to request parental involvement in the way the school is guided, and the schools appear not to be adequately equipped to deal with situations when they become difficult, and have”—

this is a key point—

“no higher level of management to turn to for support, other than perhaps their own boards of trustees who, in this case, appear not to be professionally experienced in the education sector.”

The e-mail continues:

“I am unsure whether or not the school were aware of their legal footing, but I do know that a number of parents, including myself, sent them links and documents to various websites including the Department of Education guidelines with regards to bullying outside of school, and how to manage anti social parents behaviour. They seemed uninterested in this and told me that they had consulted a lawyer and there was nothing more they could do with regards the aggressive and intimidating behaviour of parents.

What struck me as most concerning was that the management of the school appeared to have no idea as to their legal rights, or what they could or could not do to address the situation. The Head Teacher appeared to need to consult the Chairman of the school trust for guidance and in turn the chairman had to seek independent legal advice on what action he could tell the Head Teacher to take.”

The writer—someone who chose to send her child to a free school—concludes:

“We feel that our children have become part of a wider social experiment; new schools are clearly needed but why largely rely on people with little or no experience of running schools to set them up and manage them? We now believe this is a dangerous experiment...Free schools are a tempting option when so many state schools are either over subscribed or failing to offer a decent level of education. It is apparent that no guidance is being given by the State, nor is anyone monitoring what is going on”.

Nia Griffith: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the whole point of local authority intervention was that it could so often help the inexperienced head teacher or governing body, and pre-empt that type of situation? His correspondent has pinpointed the complete lack of anyone to turn to when things get difficult.

John Pugh: The hon. Lady is spot on. I have another, briefer e-mail from another parent at the same school, about the children’s day-to-day circumstances. The school is in an office block.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. “Erskine May” makes it plain that hon. Members should not use extensive quotations from documents in speeches, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman would summarise the e-mail rather than reading it out.

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John Pugh: Certainly, Mr Gray. The parent contacted the New Schools Network and the Department for Education à propos the children’s circumstances—the lack of play space, and so on. She got no advice that was of any use to her, and what she says complements and adds to the points of the previous correspondent. I apologise, Mr Gray, for reading out that e-mail so fully, but it is important to say that those are not my sentiments, but those of someone who had a child at a free school, but who had to withdraw them.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman gave a litany of complaints, and it sounded like an extreme instance. How extreme does he think it was? Does he think it may have been replicated elsewhere?

John Pugh: I simply do not know, but I agree with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) that if there are extreme cases it is not obvious how they are to be dealt with. It is obvious that there is not the institutional back-up to assist with difficulties whether they are extreme or not.

There is a solution. It would be possible to set up a local body to advise and support such schools to set standards and possibly provide some democratic accountability: we could call it an LEA.

10.8 am

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing an important and timely debate.

I want to respond to some criticisms by the Secretary of State for Education of the schools in my area. I believe that they are an attempt to garner support for a free school in an adjacent area. I am not by nature boastful, but I want to begin by boasting about the achievements of schools in my constituency. We have seen year on year improvements, which have continued in 2013 with the academy at Shotton Hall, the Seaham school of technology and Easington academy achieving record results. Dene community school, which continues to improve year-on-year, also saw record-breaking results, and St Bede’s Catholic comprehensive school achieved its best-ever results, with more students exceeding the Government’s benchmark of making three and four levels of progress in both English and Maths from year 7.

We would all agree that the achievements of east Durham’s schools constitute something of a success story and are testament to the ambition and hard work of the teaching staff and students and to the drive of head teachers in my constituency. The success of east Durham’s schools ought to be cause for celebration and Ministers ought to congratulate them on their efforts. Sadly, that has not been the case. For some unexplained reason, the Secretary of State for Education launched an inexcusable and unfounded attack on east Durham’s schools earlier this year, saying:

“When you go into those schools, you can smell the sense of defeatism.”

He added that the schools had a “lack of ambition”. He was quick to condemn the schools, but he will not visit them, despite having been invited.

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The Minister for Schools does not share the Secretary of State’s unduly pessimistic view of the schools in my constituency. Following Easington academy’s latest results, the Minister wrote a letter of congratulation, in which—I will read out the highlights only—he identified that the school stood out in two ways:

“First, you were ranked number one in your table. Second, over 10 per cent more of your pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths than is typical of a school with your intake. This is a fantastic achievement that you should be very proud of.”

He continued:

“You are also one of the 56 top performing secondary schools in England on this measure.”

That is praise indeed.

I pay tribute to the hard work of the students, teachers, parents and the head teacher of the Seaham school of technology, which has had some fantastic results in the face of real challenges, given the condition of the school building. Those results have come in spite of the fact that the much-needed new building, which had been promised by the previous Labour Government, was withdrawn by this Government to divert, I believe, funds towards the Secretary of State’s pet free schools project.

I want to compare the capital and revenue funding of schools in my area with that of free schools. The Durham free school, which at the last count employed nine members of staff but had only 30 pupils, is one such school. According to the Secretary of State, it represents excellent value for money. According my calculations, however, that is a ratio of nearly three students to every teacher. How does that represent excellent value for money?

Ian Mearns: I understand my hon. Friend’s chagrin at the criticism levelled at schools in and around his constituency, but I wonder whether it may have something to do with the fact that one of the Secretary of State’s special advisers, Dominic Cummings, was connected through a family member to the establishment of the Durham free school.

Grahame M. Morris: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an interesting and serious point. If the Secretary of State seeks to promote a political ideology in the form of a free school with political backing and in so doing is undermining the education opportunities and funding for pupils in my area, quite frankly, it is an outrage.

How much better would the results have been at the Seaham school of technology, which has more than 640 pupils, if it had enjoyed the fantastic ratio of one teacher for every three students or if it had at least received the much-needed new building that it had been promised? The Secretary of State’s free school pet project is motivated neither by achieving better results, nor by the desire to obtain better value for money. Such schools are free only at the expense of the success of existing local authority schools. I therefore do not understand how they can be considered to be cost-effective.

The truth is that the free schools project is ideologically motivated and free schools are being driven to succeed, with teachers and students everywhere else being made to pay for it. Free schools have been unaffected by budget cuts and receive a disproportionate share of

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capital and revenue funding, as pointed out by several hon. Members, at the expense of local schools, despite the fact that they educate only a tiny proportion of all pupils.

The Secretary of State has turned down several invitations to visit east Durham, but it would be instructive if he came and listened to students and teachers at schools in my constituency. They would ask him for just a little of what he is spending on free schools to improve students’ learning experiences and life chances. Through the Minister, I urge the Secretary of State to wake up to the facts. Free schools mean less oversight, less democracy and poorer value for money. They are failing the taxpayer, teachers, parents and, most importantly, children. If the Secretary of State does want to come down to earth from his ivory tower, there is no better spot for him to land than in east Durham.

Finally, I ask the Minister to pass on one more invitation to the Secretary of State to come and see how things are being done, to witness the state of the building at the Seaham school of technology, to speak to the pupils, teachers and head teachers and to change the habit of a lifetime by listening to those doing the hard work. A person is never too old or too clever to learn—even a Secretary of State for Education.

10.17 am

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing this important debate, which has identified the need for a pause for thought on the due diligence processes that apply prior to the opening of free schools. I will talk about the case that I know best, the Kings science academy, which is relevant to today’s debate because The Daily Telegraph hailed it in September 2011 as coming closest to the Prime Minister’s vision of what a free school should be.

Many would agree—I certainly do—with greater freedoms for our publicly funded schools around the curriculum, staffing, opening hours, holidays and so on. Those would be generally acceptable to many people across the political divide; many of us are up for it. However, what else would the Minister deem acceptable in the name of freedom? How far can schools go?

At the Kings science academy, a principal with no experience even as a deputy, let alone a head teacher, was appointed without an interview. Is that acceptable to the Minister? Prior to the new build, £460,000 was invested in temporary accommodation at an old school of which the principal’s father was a trustee. Is that acceptable? Insurance was paid on the school—a temporary provision—to an insurance company set up by a trust of which the principal’s father was a trustee. Is that acceptable? The principal himself was shown to be a director of that insurance company, although he claimed that that was a mistake. Is that acceptable?

A benefactor—more correctly referred to by the hon. Member for Gateshead as a beneficiary—called Alan Lewis, who happens to be a vice-chairman of the Conservative party, provided a site containing warehouses that were largely derelict and empty, but then received £10 million-worth of public money to build the new school. We have now heard that he will receive £6 million over a 20-year period, after which the building reverts back to his sole ownership. That same person, at the

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time of the negotiations on the lease payments on the new building, was chair of the governing body. Is that acceptable to the Minister?

An accountants’ report in the summer of 2012—the accountants brought in were those of, guess who, Alan Lewis—identified widespread financial irregularities dating back as long ago as the period before the school’s opening, but the Education Funding Agency did not send in the external assurance team until a scheduled visit took place in December 2012. It waited for a scheduled visit! Is that acceptable to the Minister?

Bill Esterson: The hon. Gentleman is describing a disgraceful and worsening litany of what has happened at the school in his constituency. Is there a way of providing oversight that would avoid all those terrible things that he is describing?

Mr Ward: My great concern is that the oversight is not wanted, because were it in place, it would ask the awkward questions that people do not want to answer. We do not see what we do not look for.

An internal audit investigation team at the beginning of 2013 concurred with the accountants’ report—by now six months old—and identified fraudulent claims for Department for Education funding; the appointment, without interview, of the principal’s mother, father and sister as school staff; payments to the principal of pension contributions due to the Teachers’ Pensions agency, claimed from the DFE; and much more. Yet the principal was not suspended. Is that acceptable to the Minister?

Thanks to John Roberts at the Yorkshire Post, we know that the DFE is blaming an administrative error for the failure of the police to investigate, when only a week before the Department had claimed that the police had decided not to investigate. Is that acceptable? When told by the police that they did not have enough information to proceed with an investigation, the DFE failed to send them the full and damning audit report. Is that acceptable? We were told that the police did not get the audit report, because they did not ask for it. The audit report, available in May 2013, was not published until 25 October, just before the broadcasting of a critical “Newsnight” investigation into the school. Is that acceptable?

When the DFE was questioned about what action it intended to take following the publication of the report, the Department replied that—wait for it—the school had launched its own investigation and that any disciplinary action was a matter for the school. Is that acceptable? In answering that particular question, will the Minister bear in mind that the principal’s brother is on the disciplinary committee?

My questions are not rhetorical; they require answers. Are those things acceptable? Is that the level we have fallen to in terms of accountability? Finally, if all those things are acceptable in the name of freedom, will the Minister tell me just how corrupt a free school has to be to be unacceptable?

How many more schools are like the one I have been talking about? Are we talking about the tip of an iceberg? Earlier, the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) talked about a wonderful school with great governance arrangements, but, in truth, how do we know? We know clearly from the Kings science academy that when matters

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were wrong and wrongdoing was taking place day in, day out, they did not come to public attention. We simply do not know the answer to the question of how many more such schools there are, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?

10.25 am

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): We have had an interesting debate, on which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who told us about his 30 years as a councillor—he must have been elected to the council at the age of 14 or so. He certainly kicked off the debate extremely well. It was important that he drew to the attention of the House the ROTA report, which itself could be the subject of another debate on free schools and their approach to equality issues. We also had a good contribution from the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), who spoke in his usual philosophical fashion. He trotted round the arguments on free schools and highlighted some important incidents of which he has been made aware.

My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) made a powerful plea for fair treatment of and fair comment on the schools in his east Durham area, and he cited the Secretary of State on their smell of defeat. The Secretary of State is an extraordinary man in many ways, but he must have an exceptional sense of smell if, having never visited those schools, he can detect the smell of defeat about them. That says everything.

Finally, we had a contribution from the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward), who should be congratulated on the manner in which he has attempted, in the face of great difficulties, to expose the scandals at Kings science academy in Bradford. I saw him on his local media pointing out that some of the people whom the Secretary of State had approved to run the school and to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money were not only not fit to run a school, but not fit to run a bath—to use his inimitable phrase. His contribution this morning made the case absolutely clear, and I will say more about that later.

I welcome the children’s Minister, who is one of the nicest people in the Government, as is his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), but we want to know where the Minister for Schools is. It would have been better had he come along today, to listen not only to my colleagues and me, but to his own Liberal Democrat colleagues on the policy for which he is responsible in the Commons at least.

I have noticed recently that in parliamentary answers—written answers as well—the children’s Minister is deployed as a kind of human shield for the Minister for Schools to answer questions about some subjects, including the free schools policy. I hope that that will not become a trend, but I guess it is understandable, given that he is being asked to defend what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), the shadow Education Secretary, has described as a

“dangerous ideological experiment which has been allowed to run completely out of control”.

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The hon. Member for Bradford East gave us a fine example of the manner in which this is out of control. He is right of course, because we have lots of schools with—despite what the hon. Member for Southport said—unqualified teachers written into them as a kind of policy, but also with unqualified leaders. Furthermore, schools are being built where there are already surplus places and with a dangerous lack of oversight and transparency, as we have heard this morning, but that is exactly what the Government planned.

It is no accident that we are hearing more examples of head teachers resigning—another one resigned yesterday, at the IES Breckland free school, following the resignation of the 27-year-old unqualified head at the Pimlico primary free school founded by Lord Nash, a Government Minister. We are hearing more examples of disastrous teaching, such as at the Al-Madinah free school, and allegations of financial fraud, at Al-Madinah and, as we have heard, at Kings science academy in Bradford. There is also an ongoing investigation into the Barnfield Federation in Luton, and we want a guarantee from the Minister that there will not be a cover-up this time—the report of the Department’s investigation should be printed immediately on completion, rather than being sat on until “Newsnight” gets a leaked copy, as happened in the case of Kings science academy.

The reason I say that this is what the Government planned is because they told us that they expected the policy to result in this kind of failure. The hand-picked adviser to the Secretary of State is Mr Dominic Cummings, who was brought into Government against the ethical objections of Andy Coulson and whom the Secretary of State has described as one of his “heroes”. Mr Cummings said in a recent 250-page memo that this kind of fraud and failure was an integral part of the free schools policy design. He said that some free schools

“will fail and have predictable disasters from disastrous teaching to financial fraud.”

There we have it: the lack of oversight is not an accident, as the hon. Member for Bradford East pointed out; it is part of the design of this ideological experiment. According to the Government, a bit of failure is fine, if there are unqualified teachers, and some financial fraud is okay: in the long run, presumably, some good schools will emerge from the carnage of the experiment. The fact that pupils’ education is disrupted along the way—as with the Al-Madinah free school, which had to close for a week—is presumably just collateral damage and a price worth paying.

The adviser to the Secretary of State has told us that we should expect failure and fraud. Clearly, he is right. At least he is being honest: all we have had from the rest of the Department is delay and obfuscation when it has been questioned about all this. Much of that is because Ministers are hopelessly conflicted about the policy. How can a Minister be both a promoter of free schools and an adjudicator on them? That is the situation now. How can the Secretary of State be both propagandist for his free schools experimental policy and overseer of that policy at the same time? He is responsible for all of these schools. He is like Dr Frankenstein: he is in love with his own creation and cannot see the dangers even when the evidence is staring him right in the face.

Just last night we heard further revelations about the Al-Madinah free school on “Channel 4 News”. Perhaps today we will finally get some action and Lord Nash

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might for a day be able to forget that he is a free school promoter and remember that he is a Government Minister with responsibility for the proper use of taxpayers’ money. Ofsted described that school as “dysfunctional” and rated it “inadequate” in every category, with unqualified teachers who lacked proper training. Now there are new allegations of financial irregularities over the letting of contracts. Will the Minister confirm—he may need some in-flight refuelling to answer the question—whether Department for Education Ministers or officials received from Derbyshire police correspondence relating to the funders of the Al-Madinah free school before it was opened? If so, will he commit to publishing that correspondence?

Let me turn to Kings science academy in Bradford, which opened in 2011, as the hon. Member for Bradford East pointed out, and, as he said, the patron or beneficiary of the school is Alan Lewis, who is a vice-chairman of the Conservative party. The school was built on Mr Lewis’s company land, and as we have heard, he stands to make £6 million in rent over the course of a 20-year agreement.

On 25 October, nearly six months—certainly over five months—since its completion, the Department published a redacted report from a financial investigation that it had carried out at Kings science academy only after whistleblowing from within the school. The way in which the Department redacted the report is interesting. Mr Lewis’s name was redacted, despite the fact that the financial arrangements are in the public domain. Even the name of the head teacher of the school was redacted in the version that the Department released. We have to wonder why it was necessary to redact the name of the head teacher—or principal, as he calls himself—and the name of Mr Lewis when that information is in the public domain; perhaps the Minister can explain.

The Department rushed out the report—that might explain the clumsy redaction— hours before “Newsnight”, which had already received a leaked draft copy, was due to go on air with the story. The report found a whole host of financial irregularities, including an admission by someone at the school that it had submitted fabricated invoices to claim money from the DFE as part of its set-up grant, and identified £86,000 of that grant that had not been spent by the school for the purpose for which it was intended. The report recommended that those matters should be passed on to the police for investigation. As has been pointed out, on 25 October, the Department said that the matter had been reported to the police

“who decided no further action was necessary.”

That seems odd to me. After all, invoices had been fabricated: why did that not result in proper criminal action?

The DFE’s initial version of events was that it reported the matter to Action Fraud on 25 April, and followed that up in September when it was told that the police had decided to take no further action. However, once all this became public—only because of the “Newsnight” investigation—West Yorkshire police contacted the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau to ask about the case and were told that there had been an administrative error that meant that the matter had been passed on to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau as being for information rather than as a report of a potential crime. Five days after the DFE report was made public, West Yorkshire police put out this statement:

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“The Department for Education reported the matter to Action Fraud…on April 25, 2013. It was recorded as an information only case not as a crime. This was not sent to West Yorkshire Police either as information or for investigation. The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau has now assessed the report in line with nationally agreed protocols and have today sent it for investigation by West Yorkshire Police.”

That is where we are now, and we know that people are being interviewed, but the matter was not passed on properly to the police for more than five months.

The Department says that in September it contacted Action Fraud to ask for an update and was told by the police that there was nothing more to be done. Why at that stage did the Department not ask more questions? Why did it not dig and find out that there had been an administrative error? We need to understand why it did not do so.

It has now emerged that the Department for Education did not even submit the report to Action Fraud. It simply made a telephone call to the helpline. I have a copy of the Action Fraud web page for its helpline, which says:

“We provide a central point of contact for information about fraud and financially motivated internet crime. If you’ve been scammed, ripped off or conned, there is something you can do about it.”

Presumably the Secretary of State and his officials believed that they might have been scammed, ripped off or conned by the management of Kings science academy—who are all still in place, by the way—which is why they rang the Action Fraud helpline to report the matter. The website goes on to say:

“Report fraud to us and receive a police crime reference number.”

Will the Minister tell us the police crime reference number that his Department was given by Action Fraud when it dialled 0300 123 2040 to report that it believed it had been scammed, ripped off or conned by Kings science academy?

Mr Ward: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that West Yorkshire police have no record at all of the call being received on 25 April?

Kevin Brennan: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has put that on the record, because when I rang the Action Fraud helpline last night to check, it said that calls are recorded. The Minister should be able to obtain from the Home Office a recording of the telephone call from the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers or officials to Action Fraud in April to report the crime and find out when they were given the police crime reference number. We will be interested to hear that.

The public deserve to know exactly what was said when the Department for Education reported the matter to Action Fraud, which led it to regard it as only “information”. What was said when it told the Department that the police were taking no further action, and how was it able to make that statement? How did Action Fraud obtain an update from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau without the administrative error coming to light? In the meantime, the principal is still in post at the school, and the Department says it gave the school a financial notice to improve, but that notice has never been published. Will the Minister publish it?

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The Department said that the school is carrying out an internal investigation and that any disciplinary action is a matter for the school. How can the Department defend that position? In what other walk of public life would that be acceptable? It is worth remembering that none of this was in the public domain before the report was leaked. It is a murky business, and it would be better if the Government published the records of all their dealings in relation to this now, otherwise they will face the drip, drip of revelations as the details inevitably leak out.

All these problems and this example are a product of the policy design. Everyone in the Chamber wants innovative schools with appropriate autonomy to provide the best possible education for the children in their constituencies. That is a value that we all share, but it is irresponsible to design a policy with the expectation that failure is inevitable—that is what the Secretary of State and special advisers have done—and with no proper oversight of the spending of public money and the impact of the policy on the young people in the care of those schools. There are more scandals to come. As the Minister knows, his Department is currently investigating other cases. Why does he not come clean, answer the questions and admit that it is time to have proper oversight of these schools?

10.42 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): It is a pleasure, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on securing this welcome debate. He has made a long and distinguished contribution to education, both in the House as a member of the Select Committee on Education—I look forward to seeing him tomorrow when we discuss progress on child protection—and in his constituency as a governor of three schools. He is not a man to boast about his achievements, so it falls to me to note that he is a governor of Thomas Hepburn community academy, one of the most recent academy conversions. In 2007, he received a governor of the year award from my Department, so he is well versed and experienced in these matters.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees, as an academy governor, that poor educational performance is always unacceptable, as is poor management of a school, and that the primary duty of every governing body is to ensure that its school improves. In that spirit, I hope he also agrees that the Government’s reforms have gone further to ensure that schools and their governing bodies are properly held to account and that all state-funded education providers—free schools and other academies—are more tightly regulated than they have ever been.

That tightening of the accountability framework has been achieved while freeing up head teachers, academy principals and governing bodies from unnecessary prescription and bureaucracy, and enabling the innovation that the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) rightly championed. That freedom to innovate and to respond to the particular needs of pupils enables them to raise standards. Hon. Members throughout the House share the aim of raising the standard of education for all children so that they have every opportunity to reach their full potential.

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Nia Griffith: Will the Minister explain why allowing free schools complete freedom over the curriculum is the best way forward given that a Conservative Government, with cross-party consensus, agreed that there should be a national curriculum to ensure that all children had at least that broad base of education that was agreed across the board for everyone?

Mr Timpson: As the hon. Lady is aware, we have recently streamlined and revised the curriculum to concentrate on core aspects of education, which is right. We also believe that head teachers and teachers in schools are best placed to ensure that children receive the learning they require to bring about the best possible education attainment. That is borne out by the achievements, which I will come to, of free schools and academies in outperforming local authority-maintained schools in being outstanding or good with outstanding features. That is the outcome we want, and it must always be the driver for intervention.

Nia Griffith: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Timpson: I will give way, but I have a lot to get through and the hon. Lady should be aware that I may not get through it as a consequence of giving way.

Nia Griffith: Can the Minister explain how he will ensure that the curriculum provided by head teachers is up to standard and that we will not have the sort of catastrophes that we are seeing on the financial side? How will that be inspected?

Mr Timpson: I have just explained that we can establish the success or otherwise of a school’s educational achievements by its results, as well as the fact that every free school and academy has a full Ofsted inspection within two years. That remains the case. We also believe that when a school is outstanding, accountability is clear and that should be reflected in the level of inspection.

Free schools and academies are free to spend their money as they choose. We do not bind them to purchase services such as payroll or human resources from their local authority; they can broker better-value deals elsewhere, leaving them with more money to spend on pupils. They can use their judgment and budgetary freedom to pay teachers appropriately to attract the best practitioners, even if they do not hold formal teaching qualifications.

Recently, we have had some interesting and lively debates about the importance or otherwise of having qualified teachers in schools. We can all cite the names of unqualified teachers who have made a huge contribution to children and schools. We heard an example this morning from my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) about his contribution over a long period.

The evidence is clear that that approach is working. Ofsted has rated almost three quarters of the 25 free schools inspected so far as good or outstanding, and that is happening under the tougher new inspection framework that Ofsted introduced. That compares well with maintained schools inspected against the same criteria in the same year, of which only 64% were rated good or outstanding.

The majority of open free schools represent entirely new provision and will not post their key stage 2 or GCSE results for some time, but every free school is an

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academy with the same freedoms. That is important because we already have clear evidence that academies work and out-perform local authority schools at both primary and secondary level.

The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) referred to the success of Easington academy, which is hugely welcome. When outstanding education is provided, wherever it happens to be, it should be commended. I will, of course, pass his invitation to the Secretary of State to visit him and his constituency in the near future. As a former undergraduate of Durham university, I know what a wonderful part of the country it is, and I always recommend that people visit it.

Kevin Brennan: I know that the Minister wants to trumpet achievements, but I am sure he also wants to answer questions. He mentioned HR contracts and that free schools should have the freedom to do what they like about such contracts. Is he aware that Channel 4’s report last night on the Al-Madinah school said that Javid Akhtar was the governor responsible for chairing the school’s HR committee, and was also the managing director of Prestige HR Solutions, which was awarded the contract to run Al-Madinah’s HR services? Does that not illustrate absolutely what is wrong with having no proper oversight of such issues?

Mr Timpson: I will come to the quid pro quo of accountability against the freedom given to academies and free schools.

The hon. Gentleman made a particular point about the Al-Madinah free school. As he said, the Minister, my noble Friend Lord Nash, is currently up there talking to the school governors to decide what the next steps will be, so it would be wrong and inappropriate for me to comment specifically on the details of the case. Nevertheless, it is important that although there is clear evidence of success and achievement in free schools by virtue of the freedom provided to them, it is also right that there is tighter accountability as the balancing side of the equation.

For free schools, the need to demonstrate educational and financial rigour starts from the very moment when they submit an application to open a school. Every application is assessed against rigorous, published criteria. Free school proposers need to show how their school will drive up standards for all pupils as well as demonstrating financial resilience. The criteria also cover governance, an issue raised by a number of hon. Members. We need proposers to show that they have the capacity, skills and experience to set up and run an effective academy, as well as showing demand from parents.

Proposers are rigorously tested at interview against all those criteria, and testing continues once they are approved into pre-opening. As proposers refine their plans and are able to gauge with increasing accuracy the number of pupils that they expect to secure in their first year, we test their financial assumptions, challenging them to ensure viability. When we are not happy with the progress made, we can rightly require groups to bring in more expertise or make other changes. However, we are also not afraid to cancel or defer projects when we do not think that the new school will provide the very best for its pupils or provide good value for money for the taxpayer.

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The hon. Member for Easington spoke about value for money. He may be aware that under paragraph 2.5 of the academies financial handbook, there is a requirement to complete a value-for-money statement each year explaining how the trust

“has secured value for money”.

That is both sent to the Education Funding Agency and published on the DFE website. The hon. Gentleman can find that information for himself and do with it what he wishes.

Before every free school opens, it is inspected by Ofsted against the independent school standards. Although it is impossible for Ofsted to make a judgment on the educational delivery of a school that has not yet opened, the inspectorate looks closely at all other aspects of the school’s policies and procedures covered by the standards. The quality of the premises of a free school has been mentioned. Hon. Members may be interested to know that under part 5 of the Education (Independent School Standards) (England) Regulations 2010, on premises and accommodation, there are set minimum standards for premises for free schools that are identical to those for maintained schools, so there is no differentiation in the standards required.

Ofsted’s pre-registration inspection also considers how well the school is set up to ensure the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of its pupils, as well as to secure their welfare, health and safety. The inspectors will check the school’s safeguarding policies as well as health and safety protocols, and ensure that procedures for checking the suitability of staff are appropriate. Ofsted will also make recommendations to the Secretary of State on conditions that it believes free schools should meet before opening their doors, in order to meet the independent school standards that I referred to.

The Secretary of State will not enter into a funding agreement to open any free school unless satisfied that the school will provide a good standard of education and be financially viable. No free school has opened without satisfying the Secretary of State that the school has addressed, or is on track to address, the issues raised by Ofsted. I challenge any hon. Members present to put forward any maintained school, including even recently established provision, that has been subjected to the same breadth and depth of scrutiny as we now apply to every free school before they even open their doors.

Grahame M. Morris: The Minister is being generous in giving way, and he has responded to the points that have been raised. He quoted the relevant paragraph that relates to scrutiny of whether a free school offers value for money, but does he believe that a school with 31 pupils and six staff offers value for money for the public purse?

Mr Timpson: Every school is free to decide the right ratio of pupils and staff, whether it is a special school or a particular type of school. If the result is that those children are achieving high-quality standards of education, that is a good outcome.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West, with his usual “Morecambe and Wise” approach to such debates, asked some serious and specific questions, particularly about

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correspondence in the Al-Madinah case. He asked whether there had been any correspondence from the police on Al-Madinah before it opened. I am not aware that there has been any correspondence, but I will make further inquiries and endeavour to write to him in the usual way. He also asked about the Barnfield Federation in Luton and the publication of investigation reports. We have a commitment to publish investigation reports, but we have to publish them at the right time. In the case of Kings science academy, for example, that was when the disciplinary action was complete. It is worth remembering, of course, that Barnfield is not only a free school, but a multi-academy trust. Nevertheless, the commitment remains, and it will be done with due diligence and in a timely fashion.

In terms of where the oversight continues with free schools, we do not back away once a free school opens. First, and most importantly, every free school is inspected by Ofsted under the same section 5 inspection criteria applied to every maintained school and academy. We know that there is no sharper tool available to us in securing proper scrutiny of schools than Ofsted, so it is essential that every free school is inspected.

Inspections typically take place in the school’s second year of opening. Before their Ofsted inspection, free schools will receive at least two visits by the Department’s education advisers, who are individuals with a proven track record of delivering school improvement. Those visits, which take place in the school’s first and fourth terms, allow us to ensure that the schools are delivering a high standard of education.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, free schools and academies succeed and standards rise, but the Department is not short of options should they fail. When there is sustained poor academic performance at an academy, Ministers can issue a warning notice to the relevant trust, demanding urgent action to bring about substantial improvements.

A question was asked about the number of warning notices sent by the Secretary of State. One warning notice has been sent to Kings on finance—it is the only one—and

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there are no notices to improve on education. Ultimately, failure to improve can lead to termination according to the provision set out in each trust’s funding agreement.

Bill Esterson: Is the Minister aware of a survey of free school parents in London who want local authority involvement in the oversight of free schools? Are those parents right or wrong?

Mr Timpson: It is welcome that parents are involving themselves in the setting up and running of free schools. In terms of oversight of those free schools, there seems to be confusion on the Opposition Benches about what exactly the involvement of the local authority should be. On the one hand, the shadow Secretary of State for Education wants to put rocket boosters under free schools, and on the other, the Leader of the Opposition seems to want to go in the opposite direction. Some clarity on exactly where they stand on the issue would be helpful.

We can all agree that driving up the quality of standards of education for our children has to be a key priority. The Government believe—and have been backed up by parents who have come forward, despite sometimes difficult opposition, to help set up many free schools; many more are in the pipeline—that free schools provide better choice, better value, strong accountability, and ultimately better standards, which has already been borne out by what we have seen in the past three years.

We know that that great reformer of education, Lord Adonis, got it right when he said that free schools are a

“powerful engine of equality and social mobility”.

We hope and trust that many more children will benefit from such opportunities in the years ahead. We would welcome any parents who want to come forward, particularly in Gateshead and the north-east, where, sadly, we still have no free schools to speak of. If they have a strong desire to do that, we will consider their cases very carefully.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. I would be grateful if hon. Members who have taken part in the debate would move swiftly from the Chamber, so that we can progress immediately to the next debate, which is on the important subject of UK relations with Gibraltar and Spain.

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UK Relations with Gibraltar and Spain

11 am

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. It is a pleasure to have this short debate under your chairmanship. Its timing could not be more crucial. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group on Gibraltar. I realise that other hon. Members are interested in the debate, and I shall do my best to accommodate as many of them as possible.

The Spanish Government’s treatment of the people of Gibraltar is of very serious concern, particularly since May this year. We all know that the Spanish incursions into Gibraltar waters have been going on for a good number of years, but during 2013 the Spanish Government have deliberately been focusing world attention away from their serious economic problems at home, where there is major unemployment and, more seriously, accusations of corruption at the highest levels of government. In that context, the Government of Spain have sought to create what I would call a diversion. I have a number of examples, which will help to illustrate the experience of the Gibraltar people over the past year.

On 25 June, a Spanish Guardia Civil vessel pursued a jet-ski into British Gibraltar territorial waters, firing what could be described as non-lethal shots. The Gibraltar Chief Minister obviously protested about that incident. Then in July Gibraltar begins to lay concrete blocks in British Gibraltar territorial waters to create an artificial reef similar to the reef in Spanish waters. What followed was an increase in the Guardia Civil’s politically motivated checks on the Spain-Gibraltar border.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this most timely and important debate. What assessment has he made of the EU Commission’s ruling that these politically motivated and illegal checks did not breach EU law, and has he thought about the once again insidious influence of the EU in these matters?

Jim Dobbin: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I aim to address that issue later in my contribution.

The incident that I was talking about led to crossing delays of up to seven hours. The disruption to workers’ livelihoods is evident. There are reports that it also affected Spanish people who travel to work in Gibraltar and then travel home.

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is right; more than 4,000 Spanish nationals cross the border every day to go to work in Gibraltar. Does he agree that, given the parlous state of the Spanish economy at the moment, what he describes is a massive own goal on the part of the Spanish Government?

Jim Dobbin: I could not agree more with the hon. Lady’s comments. I think that it is a tragedy that the Spanish Government are imploding on their own people as far as work is concerned.

In July, lorries from Gibraltar carrying construction materials were turned away from the border by the Guardia Civil. At that time, the all-party group met the Minister for Europe to request that he summon the

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Spanish ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over the border delays. That duly happened and strong complaints were made to Spain about the closure of the border.

In August, the Spanish Government increased pressure on the UK and Gibraltar with additional border checks, a tax clampdown, action on telephone lines, an increase in naval patrols, a restriction on access to Spanish airspace and rigorous application of legislation on smuggling and the environment.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): I, too, am a member of the all-party Gibraltar group. It is worth highlighting the contrast between the intolerance of the Spanish towards Gibraltar and Gibraltar people, given that Gibraltar is such a wonderful melting pot of many different cultures, religions and ethnic groups, who work and live together and thrive and prosper together so well.

Jim Dobbin: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The all-party group has been to Gibraltar several times, and that is what people actually see in Gibraltar.

Also in August, the border restrictions again increased waiting times to three hours. The Prime Minister intervened and complained to Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy about the delays. The delays, however, continued to occur, for up to three hours. In August, the Spanish media said that Spanish Foreign Secretary Garcia-Margallo was considering a partnership with Argentina to take action through the United Nations against the UK and Gibraltar and possibly at the International Court of Justice. The border delays continued, for up to four hours, and the British Prime Minister suggested that the European Commission monitor the situation at the border—more of that later.

In mid-August, 35 Spanish fishing boats protested in Spanish water and entered British Gibraltar territorial water. That incident was policed by the Royal Gibraltar Police and the Guardia Civil, with, on that occasion, good co-operation between the two, and peace was maintained.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Gibraltar has been part of the United Kingdom—has come under the Crown—for the past 300 years, and will he join me in the campaign to see whether it might be awarded the George cross?

Jim Dobbin: Yes, I am well aware of that campaign, but Spain does not seem to be aware of the treaty of Utrecht. On the point about the George cross, that is a campaign that the hon. Gentleman and the other campaigners will want to pursue. I would suggest that they appreciate the sensitivity of that issue, because the George cross is associated with Malta at present. Therefore, perhaps that campaign should be at arm’s length and respectful of the difficult situation that the Government of Gibraltar are in.

Spanish Foreign Secretary Garcia-Margallo issued the Spanish legal position on Gibraltar in The Wall Street Journal, but without inclusion of the impact on the Gibraltar people or their wishes on self-determination. It was an extremely biased article.

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On 27 August, the mayor of a Spanish town posted a mocked-up picture of Spain invading Gibraltar online—another very provocative act.

Caroline Dinenage: I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s patience with my bobbing up and down. Can he settle the question in my mind about whether the Spanish are equally keen on giving back Ceuta to the Moroccans?

Jim Dobbin: I do intend to address that in my speech as well, but the hon. Lady is right. That will be a huge problem for Spain if it continues with its policies against Gibraltar.

Fabian Picardo, the Gibraltar Chief Minister, came to London for talks with the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. At this level, Spain continues to agree with the premise that Spain, Gibraltar and the UK resume a trilateral dialogue. Meanwhile, the border delays continue. Spain was originally suggesting that there should be bilateral discussions here, but that is not on the cards.

On an extremely serious note, since that time a Spanish ship is reported to have rammed a naval police vessel escorting a Navy ship. Reports state that guns were pointed. Thankfully, no shots were fired, but we are getting into quite a dangerous situation following that.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Like him, I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar. Does he agree not only that Spain’s behaviour is incompatible with acting in good faith as a fellow member of the European Union, but that it is difficult to reconcile such behaviour towards Crown forces with acting in good faith as a fellow member of NATO, particularly bearing in mind the work of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment as part of NATO operations, in recognition of which its outgoing commander was awarded the military cross? It is scarcely credible that Spain should adopt so belligerent an attitude towards a fellow NATO member.

Jim Dobbin: I could not have put the point more clearly than the hon. Gentleman has done. The recent events highlight the serious situation that the British Government and the Government of Gibraltar are dealing with. The ongoing dispute ignores the wishes of the people of Gibraltar to remain British, as expressed in their referendum.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Given the catalogue of events that he has clearly outlined, does he agree that the European authorities have demonstrated utter cowardice in failing to recognise that Spain has breached European rules and regulations in the way in which it has approached a fellow member state? Does he look forward to the establishment of more crossing lanes between the Rock and Spain and the introduction of better risk proofing, to allow people to cross that border more quickly?

Jim Dobbin: As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), I intend to address the European decision. As chairman of the all-party Gibraltar group, I want the Prime Minister,

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the Foreign Secretary, the Minister for Europe and the Leader of the Opposition to know that the people and the Government of Gibraltar appreciate how supportive they have been during this trying time. I also recognise the diplomacy of the present Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, his predecessor, Peter Caruana and his predecessor, Joe Bassano. They have all led the Government of Gibraltar in a very diplomatic way.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must give the impression that Britain will not give an inch in the debate about the ownership of Gibraltar. Does he share my hope that the Minister, in responding, will kill off any perception that might be growing in Gibraltar or Spain that Britain will ever give ground on the issue?

Jim Dobbin: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, and I am sure that the Minister will concur with what he has just said. As long as the people of Gibraltar wish to remain British, they should remain British.

I finish with a few questions. If Spain continues to flout international relations, what more can the British Government do to achieve a peaceful conclusion to the dispute? Is there more scope to include the Spanish embassy in the UK more intensely in any solution? How will we ensure that the direct experience of the people of Gibraltar improves? We also have to deal with the European Commission’s advice. In its statement, it recommended changes in the Spanish administration of checks at the border. How will those changes be monitored and reported on?

The Commission’s statement, in my view, was woolly and inconsistent, and it ignored the real, provocative acts and the long delays at the border crossing. Greater awareness is needed across Europe about the real difficulties that the Spanish Government’s policies are creating for the people of Gibraltar and the serious effect that they are having on its economy. Several members of the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar are also members of the Council of Europe. We have a role in the Council of Europe, which is, after all, a human rights platform, to raise the matter and make the 47 countries across Europe more aware of the situation between Spain and Gibraltar.

On Ceuta and Melilla, I think that it would be foolish of the Spanish Government to pursue their current tactics, because they may end up with red faces if Ceuta and Melilla challenge them over breaches. If Spain continues with its provocative policies against Gibraltar, Morocco will probably respond, and Spain would ultimately be the loser. The Gibraltar Government and the British Government must continue to take part in trilateral talks to resolve the current difficulties. The all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar will continue to support the people of Gibraltar in their wish to remain British, and we will stand by them at this particularly difficult time.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mark Simmonds): I am pleased to serve with your guidance this morning, Mr Gray. I know that you have a particular personal interest in the UK’s relationship with Gibraltar. I congratulate the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin)

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on securing this important debate at such a significant time and on the articulate and passionate way in which he outlined his case. He was particularly generous in the number of times that he gave way to parliamentary colleagues to allow as many people as possible to make important points.

I want to highlight the hon. Gentleman’s excellent work as chair of the all-party Gibraltar group and the significant way in which that group supports Gibraltarians and those in the UK who are interested in the future of Gibraltar. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman was among 20 UK parliamentarians who attended national day in Gibraltar on 10 September; I have done the same in years gone by. I hope therefore that he heard the message given by the Prime Minister to mark that occasion, in which he strongly reiterated the British Government’s commitment to protecting the right of the people of Gibraltar to determine their own political future. I will meet Chief Minister Picardo next week in London at the joint ministerial council, where we will discuss further the importance of the relationship and what we can do to make progress in some of the areas that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): There is clear sadness and anger about what is happening to Gibraltar, and the British Government must do more to express the feelings of Parliament. It is an all-party matter, and we are fed up with what is happening to the people in Gibraltar. The Government have to be stronger; I do not know how, but for goodness’ sake, can we get a stronger response to what is happening to our people in Gibraltar?

Mark Simmonds: My hon. Friend makes a good point about the cross-party agreement in Parliament on the importance of supporting Gibraltarians in their desire to remain linked to the United Kingdom. I will come on to address his point specifically. I want to make it absolutely clear, however, at the beginning of my response to the debate that the United Kingdom will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their wishes. Furthermore, the United Kingdom will not enter into any process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content. We will continue to respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. I do not think we could be any clearer about that.

The debate is about the United Kingdom’s relations with Gibraltar and with Spain, however, and we wish to maintain a strong bilateral relationship with Spain that stretches across a whole range of areas and delivers support for the interests of the UK and Gibraltar. We have a strong economic relationship with Spain that is worth £36 billion to the UK. Spain put £57 billion in inward investment into the UK in 2010, and the UK is the largest single investor in Spain. Spain is a member of the G20 and NATO, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has highlighted, and it is an important EU state. We have close ties through consular relationships. Spain is home to 1 million UK citizens, and 14 million of them visit annually. There is significant co-operation on crime, immigration and counter-terrorism. Last year, the National Crime Agency—formerly the Serious Organised Crime Agency

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—agreed the first UK-Spain joint investigation team in many years. We work with Spain across a range of areas, including our strong operational defence relationship.

Caroline Dinenage: I understand fully what the Minister says about the need to maintain a good working relationship with the Spanish, but the number of incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial water is unacceptable. Only yesterday, the Gibraltar Chronicle highlighted the fact that there was another Guardia Civil boat in Gibraltar’s waters. He will agree that we have to put out a strong message that that level of intrusion is not acceptable.

Mark Simmonds: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she makes a powerful point. Hopefully, the House recognises that the UK Government have made the strongest protestations to the Spanish Government, both about the issues on the border highlighted by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton and about the incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters, which are completely unacceptable. We have made official complaints. We are maintaining significant pressure on the Spanish Government and, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, we have called in the Spanish ambassador.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Will the Minister give way?

Mark Simmonds: I will give way in a moment; I want to complete my response to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage). We need to find a mechanism to de-escalate, not escalate, the situation. We are working on that, while making it clear in the strongest possible terms that the current situation continuing is not acceptable.

Martin Horwood: I accept what the Minister says about de-escalation. Will he welcome the support given to the people of Gibraltar by their MEP, Sir Graham Watson, and urge the European Commission to step up or repeat its border monitoring exercise to see what is happening on the border, perhaps without giving the Spanish advance notice this time?

Mark Simmonds: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is certainly unsurprising that the Commission has been unable to conclude that EU law has been infringed; the border operated much more smoothly than normal during the Commission’s visit. That is not the same as confirmation that Spain has acted lawfully. We continue to provide information and evidence to the Commission. We do not believe that it backs Spain’s claims that the checks are not politically motivated. Actions for Spain were up front in the Commission’s statement and we hope that the Spanish will make public the letter that they received from the Commission. We fully expect Spain to act on the Commission’s recommendations.

The Commission is clearly concerned about the situation. It is committed to remain engaged and to follow up in six months’ time. It has reserved the right to reconsider its position and has explicitly offered what the hon. Gentleman suggests: a further visit to the border. He makes a good point about Spain not being notified so the Commission can see what is going on. The Commission has made it clear that it is concerned and will revisit if required.

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The Chief Minister of Gibraltar has welcomed the recommendations made to Spain on areas that could make a difference at the border and stressed that the Government of Gibraltar will work closely with the Commission to deliver against the recommendations made to Gibraltar. It is true that the Commission has at this stage been unable to conclude that EU law has been infringed, but that is quite different from confirmation that Spain acted lawfully.

Ian Paisley: I welcome the Minister’s interpretation, but may I ask him to go a little further? The European authorities said that Spain must share intelligence with Gibraltar. That would be a recognition of Gibraltar’s self-determination to be a separate place from Spain, because they would share intelligence as equals. Can he ensure that intelligence will be shared between Gibraltar and Spain to prevent some of the troubles that have occurred?

Mark Simmonds: The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I will not comment on intelligence in this forum. There is a keen urgency about the necessity for ad hoc talks between Spain, the UK and Gibraltar. Officials are working to ensure that those discussions take place again.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport raised Spanish incursions into Gibraltarian territorial waters. The Government take seriously their responsibility to ensure Gibraltar’s security. We do not rule out any measures that are necessary to defend Gibraltar and ensure its security against a genuine threat. We believe that the unlawful incursions by Guardia Civil vessels and other vessels of the Spanish state are merely a futile attempt to assert Spain’s legal position in respect of the waters. They are not acts of war and they do not weaken or undermine the legal basis for British sovereignty over Gibraltar and British Gibraltar territorial waters. The British Government are committed to upholding British sovereignty. The Royal Navy challenges all unlawful incursions by Spanish state vessels though radio warnings and close monitoring of Spanish state vessels until they leave Gibraltarian waters. We also make formal protests to the Spanish Government about all such incursions on diplomatic channels, ensuring that the Spanish understand that those incursions are unacceptable violations of British sovereignty.

Bob Stewart: If the British Government are determined to defend Gibraltar, why do they not make more use of the defence facilities in Gibraltar? For example, we could send down more often a roulement infantry company, to be based in Gibraltar for perhaps six weeks at a time and exercise there, rather than somewhere like Kenya.

Mark Simmonds: Regiments play a significant role in Kenya. My response to my hon. Friend is the point I made earlier: we must strike a balance between being forceful, strong and determined—to ensure that the Spanish Government understand the UK Government’s

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position and that the Commission undertakes its role responsibly and consistently to ensure that the issues on the border and in Gibraltarian territorial water cease—and finding mechanisms to de-escalate, rather than escalate the situation. That is why we must get back to discussing solutions as soon as possible, without negotiating the Gibraltarian sovereignty position at all.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The Government are being very robust about the principles, but will the Minister ensure that when we speak to the ambassador here and Ministers in Madrid, we make it clear that it is in Spain’s interest for the good relationship that exists between Gibraltar and La Linea locally to be expanded to the region? They need jobs, they need investment and they need tourists. They need people coming to Gibraltar airport. Making the region look like a place of huge confrontation and frightening investors away is not in Spain’s interest.

Mark Simmonds: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I assure him that the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe have made exactly that point, and the other points I made, over the past couple of months, to try to ensure that Spain takes a constructive and positive stance in its relationship with Gibraltar, rather than a negative one.

Robert Neill: I welcome the tone of the Minister’s remarks and warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s comments at national day in Gibraltar. Many people hoped that he might have been able to deliver them in person. Does the Minister accept that credibility for Spain will be achieved by prompt and full adoption of the recommendations within the six-month period; prompt and full publication of the letter received from the EU; and full recognition that Commissioner Barnier has noted that Gibraltar’s regulation of financial services and anti-money laundering meet the highest European standards, and could frankly teach Spain a lesson?

Mark Simmonds: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. The three points he makes are correct.

I am running out of time so I shall briefly say a couple of things. I reiterate the point that there have been constructive discussions with the Spanish about the proposals to move to ad hoc talks, and those discussions are ongoing. It also needs to be said that the long-term aim of the UK Government and the Government of Gibraltar is to return to the trilateral forum for dialogue, from which the Spanish Government withdrew on taking office in December 2011. In the short term, we need to find a way to manage our differences with Spain through talks, instead of border delays, incursions and other unacceptable and unlawful actions. While we seek diplomatic solutions to those challenges we will continue to take firm action whenever necessary to safeguard Gibraltar, its people and their economy.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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UK Relations with China

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue.

I will start by recognising China’s rich, deep cultural heritage. It is one of the oldest civilisations in the world, with an impressive history spanning more than 10,000 years. China is well known for its succession of dynasties. The first was the Xia dynasty, which began in the 22nd century BC and lasted until the 16th century BC. It was followed by the Shang and Zhou dynasties, which lasted five and 11 centuries respectively, and then a succession of others until the comparatively modern and more familiar Ming and Qing dynasties from the 14th century onward.

The dynasties made a fundamental contribution to the development of Chinese civilisation. For example, under the Qin dynasty, the great wall of China was constructed to protect the country from northern invaders; under the Han dynasty, a national civil service was established; and under the Tang dynasty, China became a great world power for the first time, which is being repeated today. China’s history and culture cannot be overstated. Whether through literature, philosophy, music, the visual arts, cuisine or religion, China’s influence has reached all parts of the globe.

China is home to more than one in five of the world’s population, with more than 1.35 billion inhabitants, and to 56 recognised ethnic groups and at least 292 languages and dialects. It is one of the world’s great civilisations. China matters. It is big in history, size, culture, population, commerce and ambition. The scale and pace of the change that has taken place in China over the past 30 years has been unprecedented—a second great leap forward. It has been a giant leap. China is now the world’s second largest economy and its largest exporter and importer of goods. As the fastest-growing major economy in the world with an average annual growth rate of 10% over the past 30 years, China has rapidly expanded its global influence. That growth rate is likely to put its economy ahead of the United States within the next two decades. However, countries cannot exist on economic prosperity alone.

People and societies make a country or a civilisation, not volatile stock markets, trade or the buying of goods and services. Yes, those things are the lifeblood of outward prosperity, but it is the prosperity of the human spirit that helps to advance civilisations: the freedom of the individual to determine their own destiny for good or ill, to determine whether to turn left or right and what they believe and to dream, imagine, create and innovate. This is about social growth, not just economic growth. Whether China’s leaders can recognise that will determine China’s future and success. Markets rise and fall, but the human spirit always seeks to soar, wherever it is.

UK relations with China are probably stronger today than ever before. Chinese investment in the UK is welcome; the UK does not have what one senior Chinese official recently called a cold war mentality towards

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Chinese inward investment. I am glad that that is the Chinese view. However, the security implications for any investment must always be weighed carefully against the economic benefits of such investment. That is prudence, not paranoia.

For example, the recent agreement on China’s part-financing of the UK’s new nuclear reactors is welcome, and I congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer on negotiating it. It is very much needed if we are to keep the lights on and keep the UK’s economy moving and growing, but at no point should Chinese companies still owned mostly by the state—a single-party neo-communist state—have any involvement in the design, build or running of the UK’s new nuclear power stations.

Similarly, the UK telecoms industry should always put UK national security implications before the pursuit of market share or profit. Chinese companies should have clear and stated restrictions on access to Government and critical national infrastructure, telecoms and energy grids. If we undermine our national security, we all lose economically, socially and militarily. Our national interests will be harmed and, in extremis, we will lose our freedoms.

I welcome the recent announcement that investors in London are the first to be allowed to apply for licences to make Chinese-currency investments. As the Chancellor has said, the decision will make London a major global centre for Chinese currency trading. That is good news.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that it is shocking that the InterContinental Hotels Group, whose headquarters is in London, is building a new hotel in the centre of Tibet? That is not acceptable to the Tibetans who have fought so long for the right to be free in their own country.

Mark Pritchard: The InterContinental Hotels Group is an important British company employing a lot of people around the world. Clearly, it must make commercial decisions with the information available. I would hope that it had some dialogue not only with the Chinese authorities but with Tibetans in exile and the people in Tibet who are being oppressed by the Chinese authorities. I will come to Tibet later in my speech. If InterContinental did not consult, I hope that it will learn lessons from the example of Tibet.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): To return to the point that my hon. Friend made about the sharing of crucial information about critical infrastructure with foreign powers, is he aware of the book written some years ago by Richard Clarke, former Assistant Secretary of State in the US State Department, which makes it clear that the Chinese have an advanced cyber-warfare capability that could be aimed at critical infrastructure, including utilities, across the United States and Europe?

Mark Pritchard: I have not read that book, but I am not surprised, because I am not as well-read as my hon. Friend, as he knows. He reads about three or four books a week, which is even more than my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson). My hon. Friend makes a serious point. It is interesting that the last director-general of the security service, unusually, named China among the countries, notably Russia, that

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regularly try to infiltrate Government IT systems. Cyber-security is an issue. The Russian and Chinese states must desist from trying to penetrate our systems. I am glad that the coalition Government have invested a record amount in ensuring that we have resilient and robust systems and can counter cyber-attacks. He raises an important point.

The recent announcement by the Chancellor will also allow Chinese banks to submit applications to set up branches here in Britain, giving them full access to their reserves. Both announcements will have wide-ranging benefits for the City of London and will make it much easier for British firms to invest in China, both of which are good news for UK jobs and investment.

There will be a new, simplified and streamlined visa application process, which is also welcome. The UK is already the No. 1 destination for Chinese investment in Europe, attracting £2 billion in 2012 alone, and under the new visa regime, that is likely to increase further.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Visas for tourists from China are particularly important for Northern Ireland, given that many visitors to the Irish Republic have to get another visa to come into Northern Ireland, making that much more difficult and expensive. Like him, I welcome this positive development in tourism for part of the United Kingdom.

Mark Pritchard: The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Tourism is critical for the whole UK economy and particularly for the Northern Ireland economy. I recently visited Belfast and saw the excellent Titanic museum. Of course, Northern Ireland is playing host as one of the cultural capitals of Europe, and I hear that that is going well. He makes a valid point. I am glad that the Government have liberalised the visa regime for Chinese visitors. Nevertheless, this new liberal visa regime should still be thorough, robust and vigilant. I am sure that he agrees.

I pay credit to the lord mayor of the City of London and his officials and support staff. It is good news that the Baltic Exchange has announced the opening of a new Shanghai office and that there is an agreement on London’s Cass business school being sited in Shanghai’s Fudan university, to undertake joint research on the growth and development of both cities, and beyond. I am sure that colleagues will want to join me in welcoming—later this year or possibly in 2014, date to be confirmed—the mayor of Beijing to London.

Despite the UK’s positive relations with China, in many areas China lets itself down, remaining in a cold war mentality, where communism still triumphs over consumerism, irrational fear still triumphs over freedom and ideology usurps individualism.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): May I congratulate my hon. Friend, not only on securing the debate, but on getting the tone right? I am sure that those of us who remember the era of Mao Tse-tung can see how gradually but significantly China has modernised and, to an extent, liberalised, but does my hon. Friend agree that the persecution of organisations such as Falun Gong and the repeated allegations of horrors,

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such as the harvesting of organs from people who have been executed, are still a stain on China’s reputation, which we must do everything, by increasing links, to encourage it to abandon?

Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend speaks with a great knowledge of history and makes excellent points, both on religious persecution of the Falun Gong and on organ harvesting. Both those things are wrong and do not befit a modern society in any country, in any part of the world. If China is to be taken seriously as a modern society that is listening to the international community and to its own people, it will take action to remedy both those issues. I will touch on religious persecution later on. I am glad that he mentions organ harvesting. Time is limited in this debate, as he knows.

We have good relations with China, but how the Chinese authorities treat the Chinese media—I am focusing on the communist party, not the Chinese people—reveals quite a lot. Article 35 of the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, association and publication, but these rights are subordinated to China’s ruling communist party. With its tight control over print, broadcast and online media and through the use of its central propaganda department, there is no freedom of the press or media in China.

It is an unnecessarily paranoid regime—a paranoia that shows weakness not strength. The Chinese authorities need to stop imprisoning journalists and bloggers and need to either try those journalists in an open, televised court or release them from jail. China’s claims to modernity need to be manifest in the updating of its freedoms and laws, not just in the updating of its roads, bridges, buildings and infrastructure. Without such changes, China’s claims of modernity are false—a mirage.

China needs to unblock access to the BBC Chinese Mandarin website, blocked since 1999, and China’s jamming of the BBC’s English short-wave service, which also affects the reception in other Asian countries, should end.

China needs to do far more to stop the persecution of religious minorities. Again, this is a contravention of its own constitution, international law and UN conventions. Many cases exist today of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and others, including Falun Gong, being imprisoned, beaten and tortured. Churches and other places of worship, outside the heavily controlled state religious institutions, face attack daily. The Christian house church movement is particularly prone to attack, being within the Protestant Christian religion.

From Roman emperors to Arab warlords and now, today, to China’s communist ruling elite, the Christian Church has always been subject to those who want to extinguish its flames of faith, but that will never happen. It is communism that is dying the world over, not the Christian Church. China’s ruling elite needs to get on the right side of history. Tertullian, in the second century, said,

“the blood of Christian martyrs is the seed of the Church”.

I shall highlight some of the many famous cases, although I do not have time to read the list in full, including that of Peter Xu Yongze and Gong Shengliang, head of the South China Church, which are infamous in China’s recent history. Christianity is not a western plot. It is

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not a western religion or faith. It is a faith born out of Bethlehem in the middle east, not in Bristol, Berlin, or Boston.

There should be an end to the persecution of and discrimination against China’s Muslims, particularly the Uighurs, living in the Xinjiang and Kashgar regions of China. Uighurs are discriminated against daily and weekly, especially in the jobs market. The New York Times reports that in the Kashgar region, where Uighurs make up 90% of the population, they are explicitly excluded from applying for any Government job. They are also frozen out of the region’s booming gas and oil industry.

If China wants to avoid jihadist violent extremism coming to its cities and towns in future, it needs to end discrimination against its increasingly marginalised Muslim population, especially young male Uighurs, some of whom will be returning from Syria and Afghanistan over the coming months and years. In countering violent extremism, the UK and the Chinese authorities can work closely together in their joint national interests. China’s ruling party needs to tackle the root causes of radicalism, not to be a contributing factor in its increase.

Let us be frank: China, the so-called country of the dragon, probably has the worst animal welfare record of any country in the world.

Dr Lewis: Just before my hon. Friend leaves human rights, did he notice that in the recent political assembly that was held in China, there was talk of doing away with the labour camps? I do not know how seriously that is meant. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has yet taken a view, but I hope that the Minister will shed light on that in summing up.

Mark Pritchard: Of course, the other place with labour camps—some large enough to contain 20,000 people—is North Korea, so it is rather odd that the so-called open and now modern society in China would have similar camps. If there is to be any credibility in the statement from the plenary session, which I will mention later, we must have a timetable on when those labour camps will be phased out and when they will close. The sooner, the better, because they are not befitting of a modern society in today’s world.

Mr Dodds: In relation to the recent tragedy of the typhoon in the Philippines, it is striking that, although China is a neighbour of the Philippines and is the second largest economy and all the rest of it, it has donated a relatively paltry amount in aid—up to about £1.5 million. That is in stark contrast to what the UK, the United States and other countries have given. Indeed, some private companies have given more. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in urging the Minister to take that up with the Chinese authorities? Pressure should be put on China to live up to its responsibilities in the region.

Mark Pritchard: In my experience, the Chinese people are generous and open-hearted, but we are talking about the Chinese Government and the ruling elite. Aid cannot be disaggregated from China’s muscular expansionism or its territorial disputes in the region, not only with the Philippines but with Russia, Vietnam and other countries.

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As an aside, the international community has to make it crystal clear that it will act in unison to stand fast against any Chinese aggression. The Chinese are unlikely to act against a country that has, for example, a military treaty with the United States, such as the Philippines or Thailand, but some countries do not have such a treaty, including Vietnam. The international community must prepare for such an event to ensure that it is united in its response. If we did not respond—I am referring not to military action but to a timely, swift and overwhelming diplomatic and political response—it would be seen as appeasement, as the weakness of the west, and would give a green light to China to continue its expansionism in the region. We would be giving over other islands in the area and giving up on countries. That would be a dangerous time for the world, and the balance of power might shift overnight if we did not have a resolute response.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Before my hon. Friend moves on to animal welfare, I want to address Tibet. He talks about the international community being minded to take a tough approach, but as we speak there are human rights abuses in Tibet. There is self-immolation, and dissidents are being driven into the Dharamsala mountains. There is collective punishment and an attempt to eradicate the culture and language of Tibet. Is that not something on which the international community should be taking a tough stance, rather than kowtowing and acquiescing in the bullying of China when, for instance, the Dalai Lama visits various international communities?

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. The interventions are getting longer and longer. I hope there might be a bit of discipline. The frequency is fine, but the length is getting a tad like a speech.

Mark Pritchard: If my speech becomes long, I am sure you will tell me, Mrs Main. The quality of the interventions has been so high that I have not noticed their length, but I am grateful for that reminder for later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) makes an important point. I will address Tibet in detail later. If I do not answer his specific points, I know that he will remind me. I do not appear to have that particular page in my notes, but there is no need to worry because I can talk about Tibet right now.

I have met the Dalai Lama twice, for which I am glad. I am proud to have had the privilege of meeting him, and what the Chinese Government are doing in Tibet is completely unacceptable. There has been suppression of the Buddhist religion and oppression of the Tibetan people. There has been burning—since the late 1940s probably 6,000 monasteries and churches have been destroyed. From memory, there are some 300,000 Chinese troops currently in Tibet, which is unacceptable. There needs to be a peaceful resolution to the Tibet question, and human rights in Tibet must be recognised.

My hon. Friend used the term “kowtowing.” I am a subject of Her Majesty the Queen. I am a UK citizen, and I will meet whomever I want to meet. I will not kowtow to anyone from any other country. The Chinese must stop bullying individuals; they must stop bullying Tibet; and they must stop bullying other Governments, too.

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Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his measured, balanced and important speech. On Tibet, many of us are very supportive of better links with China. London South Bank university in my patch has the Confucius institute, which is very positive. We also represent Buddhists in this country. The Chinese do not yet appear to understand that nobody is seeking to threaten China’s control of Tibet; we are just seeking, with the Buddhists, to argue for their religious freedom and for a certain degree of autonomy for them to live their lives in the old parts of China, as they would choose to do.

Mark Pritchard: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are hopefully arguing for the upholding of the Chinese constitution itself. The Chinese authorities need not fear freedom of religion. The suppression of religion, not the freedom of religion, is what causes instability in societies.

I have my Tibet notes, so I will hopefully have some added value later, but first I will speak briefly on animal welfare. As I mentioned, China probably has the worst animal welfare record of any country, yet it is known as the country of the dragon. I fear that, if dragons existed, they too would probably be cruelly reared and cut down in their prime for their teeth and claws, or be caged throughout their life without any care or compassion. In a world in which dragons lived, the country of the dragon would be pre-eminent in their slaughter. The country of the dragon would slaughter the dragon to extinction.

China’s demand for ivory is a major factor in the demise of elephant and rhino populations across the world, often for alternative medicines and therapies, some with unproven benefits, and with the false claim that those and other such medicines improve libido—science has proved quite the opposite. The Chinese Government should educate their population on the threat to some of the world’s most endangered and vulnerable species and unblock websites so that people may access that information themselves. Even the Tibetan antelope has been driven to the brink of extinction due to the Chinese authorities destroying its habitat with forced land use changes and unregulated hunting.

The Chinese invasion of Tibet has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans and the imprisonment and torture of thousands more. In 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s political and spiritual leader, fled into exile in India followed by more than 100,000 Tibetans, and established the Tibetan Government in exile.

China must end its economic strangulation of, and mass economic discrimination against, Tibet. That deliberate policy has forced thousands of Tibetans to abandon their traditional rural lives and move into new housing colonies in urban areas where non-agricultural jobs are controlled by the Chinese state. Tibetans are now a minority in such urban centres because of China’s encouragement of mass Chinese migration.

The Buddhist religion continues to suffer. The Chinese have destroyed more than 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and shrines since 1949. Today, the number of monks allowed to enter monasteries is strictly controlled and limited. Any references to, or images of, the Dalai Lama are banned. As I mentioned,

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I have had the privilege of meeting the Dalai Lama twice, and I have made it clear whom I will meet and not meet.

Chinese political oppression—and that is what it is: oppression—has responded to uprisings with extreme violence. Some 300,000 Chinese soldiers are now posted in Tibet. China has repeatedly violated UN conventions through the extensive use of torture against Tibetan political prisoners, including monks and nuns. The Chinese regime has also wreaked huge environmental damage throughout Tibet.

The third plenary of the 18th central committee of the Communist party of China met last week. Many of the decisions made at that important gathering are welcome, but those decisions must be implemented, not just announced—the Chinese are very good at press releases, but we need to see action on the ground that changes people’s lives for the better.

Kate Hoey: This question might be more for the Minister to answer, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the Chinese reaction to the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Dalai Lama was rather upsetting, the Prime Minister should, when he visits China in the near future, specifically raise with the Chinese Government the position of Tibet, including all the political prisoners in Tibet and the way in which Tibetan culture is being ruined?

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Lady has a long and distinguished record in the House of standing up for human rights, and she is standing up for Tibet today. The Prime Minister will set out the case for human rights, which the Foreign Secretary and other Foreign Office Ministers do consistently, but the realpolitik is that we need to engage with China on all sorts of levels. That said, I believe that the Prime Minister will want to avoid any perception that the United Kingdom and its Government, and therefore its people, are kowtowing to the Chinese and I am sure that that perception will not be allowed to form when he visits China.

I welcome the liberalisation of the one-child policy that was announced at the plenary session, but it needs to be the first—not the last—step in reducing forced abortions, fines and imprisonment for those who by design or accident find themselves with larger families. It is a blight on China’s international reputation that it aborts more babies in the womb than any other country on earth.

I also welcome the announcement that fewer crimes will be subject to the death penalty. Such measures should be introduced this year, not next year. I also hope that that will lead to the complete abolition of the death penalty. As someone who is supposed to be a centre-right politician, and as the proud vice-chairman of the all-party group on the abolition of the death penalty—one group among many that shows the value of all-party groups—I am active with others, and Baroness Stern does a great job of chairing that group. China can really take the lead on the abolition of the death penalty.

The announcement that China will do more to open up its economy and to liberalise its trade and commerce with the outside world is also welcome. It is good news and many good things came out of that plenary session.