3.13 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.25 pm

On resuming

Dr Coffey: I have been reflecting while away from the Chamber. I did not mean to give the impression that I thought the hon. Member for Huddersfield did not know what he was talking about; I just did not understand what he was referring to. I normally enjoy debates with him, and I wish he was here so that we could have further discussion and dialogue.

To return to the meat of the discussion—the reason for the 50% cap—I could understand if the Government’s intention was to prevent the establishment of pockets of extremist teaching in schools. However, there are other ways to achieve that. Indeed, the current inspections by Ofsted, the Department for Education and Birmingham city council show that there are other ways to proceed when concerns are raised about the possibility of manipulation. I am not convinced that the hurdle of a 50% cap is necessary to stop such alleged activity.

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On whether people are excluded, I do not like the attitude that claims that Catholic schools try to cream off the top, or that people are deliberately excluded because they are poor. That is very far from my experience of the Church and of my time as a governor of Bishop Challoner Catholic secondary school in Basingstoke. I have been a governor of other schools as well. It costs absolutely nothing to be a Catholic. If anyone has the desire, ignited by a sense of mission and the faith of the Church, that is all that is required. It is irrelevant in our Church whether someone earns as much as another person. Long may that continue. People do not have to worry about whether their name is on the wall on a plaque, for having given something, or whether their family has their own pew, paid for in times past. That is all irrelevant. People try to smear the whole idea of faith schools, using data that consist of such red herrings, rather than entering into serious debate.

A comparison can be made with membership of a political party. We can go anywhere in the country, and we know we will find our local Conservative association, Labour club or Liberal Democrat association, which we can hook up to, and where we can be with like-minded people. We may not agree with the other members on everything, but we can come together in the cause of a common interest. The same can be true of any Church or religion.

I have only just learned, from reading The Independent during the debate, that my old school, St Mary’s college, Crosby, is trying to become a free school, but the archdiocese of Liverpool is blocking that on the grounds that more than two thirds of children who go there are Catholic. I agree with the archdiocese that it would be extraordinary to allow a school designated as Catholic to turn away pupils because they are Catholic, as a result of the arbitrary 50% cap. It is important to remove those arbitrary measures. Distinguished former pupils of the school are Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Roger McGough. I could add the noble Lord Birt and myself, but that would be boasting and probably a sin.

It is completely false to try to compare Roman Catholic schools with Church of England schools. The Church of England is the established Church in England, and anyone may attend a Church of England school—such schools have been set up in almost every parish—just as anyone may be buried in a Church of England churchyard. Under our constitution, anyone may have access to the rights of the Church of England. The Government had to go to extraordinary lengths with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to legislate specifically for the Church of England on the grounds that anyone may marry in a Church of England church if they have not previously been married. The analogies are completely false.

What can we do about it? I would like a change of Government policy, but I would also encourage Catholic schools and priests, and the Catholic Education Service, to keep the pressure up. I remember that when there was a proposal to change schools’ admission codes to prioritise siblings over children of the Catholic faith, I and other governors, particularly parent and faith governors, fought against that on the grounds that when people move to a new area, it is not unreasonable for them to want to join the school attached to their Church and where they make new friendships. I would encourage Catholic schools

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to consider that rather than automatically going down the usual local education authority model of prioritising siblings.

I think it was Pope St Pius X who, when asked to prioritise among a church, school or seminary, always went for a school, recognising that passing on the faith and giving children a good education so that they go on to become pillars of society was an important role of the Church. St Ignatius of Loyola famously said:

“Give me the boy at seven and I will show you the man.”

Many religious orders were established solely to teach children. It is right that we continue to keep up the concept of faith schools; it is right that dioceses tend to pay for schools, the land and so on; and it is right that we in the House continue to uphold the right of parents to send their children to the school of their choice, which is often motivated by faith.

3.32 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to participate in this debate under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on his charity in taking on this debate when the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) was unable to. As ever, he led the debate ably and elucidated the issues very well.

The hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned that free schools—this may come up in the Minister’s response—are given priority over the setting-up of a new voluntary-aided school. If a new Catholic school is needed because there is demand from a sufficient number of Catholics in an area, why should free schools or any other schools be given priority over voluntary-aided schools? The Minister could solve the problem here and now, and perhaps he will pick that up in his response. I do not see why that should not be possible.

The hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) told us that he taught at St Kevin’s school in Kirkby.

John Pugh: To put the record straight, I should say that I used St Kevin’s in Kirkby as an example; I believe it does not exist any more. I taught at Salesian high school.

Kevin Brennan: I apologise, Mr Dobbin. I obviously did not listen carefully enough to the hon. Gentleman’s philosophical—as always—contribution. In view of his usual intellectual contributions, perhaps he should have taught at St Thomas Aquinas high school.

John Pugh: There was indeed a St Thomas Aquinas high school down the road from Salesian high. It was known locally as “Tommy Ackers”.

Kevin Brennan: I understand that school could squeeze the pupils into very small spaces.

We also had contributions from the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), who referred to free schools, and the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who thought that some critics of Catholic admissions and education were sneering. I congratulate all hon. Members on their contributions and interventions.

Like other hon. Members here, I attended a Catholic school and I am a Roman Catholic. I attended St David’s Roman Catholic school in Cwmbran and St Alban’s

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Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Pontypool, which, as was said earlier, drew from a wide catchment area in that part of what was first Monmouthshire and then Gwent. It included my home town, Cwmbran, and Pontypool, Blaenavon, Abertillery, Ebbw Vale and other areas of the Gwent valleys.

Given my name, which is Irish, hon. Members may not be surprised that I had a Catholic education, and the names on the school register were diverse. I shared classes with people such as Michael Sczymanski, Endonio Cordero, Maria Bracchi and the usual mixture of people with names such as Mario Evans and so on. There were many Italians, Irish and Poles mingling with the Welsh, and they were a diverse and interesting group of colleagues.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I should put on the record the fact that although I have not yet had the opportunity of contributing to the debate, I am here as someone who also attended Catholic schools: St Mary’s in Hexham and Sacred Heart in Newcastle. I agree with much of what has been said today and will be interested to hear my hon. Friend’s response to some of the concerns that seem to arise from the complexities of the free schools policy.

Kevin Brennan: I thank my hon. Friend. I will say a little about that and about the Labour party’s policy on Catholic education and faith schools more generally.

Labour strongly supports faith schools in our state education system. I quote from a recent speech made in the midlands by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), the shadow Secretary of State:

“Across the country, we can all point to many successful, collaborative, pluralist faith schools working with children of particular denominations and of no faith at all.”

However, he also said:

“But we also need to be clear about the duties which a state-funded school is expected to fulfil.”

In that context, he was obviously talking about some of the current issues in the city of Birmingham, which the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal mentioned. It is right that there are also duties on faith schools when they are funded by taxpayers: they are to participate positively in the family of schools in their area and to ensure that they have a fair admissions policy.

I recognise and commend the work by the Catholic Education Service to look into the whole issue of admissions, in response to some of the criticisms aired in the press about admissions to Catholic schools, which hon. Members have highlighted. I commend that work because it has gone to trouble to look into why it seems that Catholic schools admit a lower proportion of pupils claiming free school meals than there are in the general school population.

The service is as baffled as some of us that that seems to be the case despite the fact that the areas that many pupils come from are deprived and despite the great diversity of children attending Catholic schools. It has made a great effort to look into the issue and I commend it; it is important not to be complacent. Whether we are Catholics, Anglicans or have no faith, we should not be unwilling to shine a light on admissions to taxpayer-funded schools. There is a duty for those admissions to be fair. The Catholic Education Service has done us all a great

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service by undertaking the work and by taking the issue seriously, rather than simply trying to fend off any criticism. It has met it head on, demonstrating—as it has done very well in its research—that Catholic schools are extremely diverse and take pupils from all sorts of backgrounds and areas.

As the Catholic Education Service pointed out in some documents—in its briefing papers on the issue and in its cultural diversity and free schools document, which I have read, explaining the low take-up of free school meals in Catholic schools—Catholic schools are extremely diverse, often with large numbers of people from immigrant backgrounds. In a sense, that is the history of Catholic schools in the United Kingdom. I am conscious of the fact that in my own case, my father came from the west of Ireland. He married a Welsh girl and was an immigrant into the UK.

As I said, I commend the Catholic Education Service for its work, for taking the criticism seriously and for being prepared to put the work in to explain its case. That is important because if the values and ethos of a faith school are to mean anything, it should be that they take very seriously the need to engage with, educate, and have a mission to the poorest in our society. That should be at the heart of any faith school based on a Christian and Catholic ethos.

I shall quote from Pope Francis’s Twitter feed. He said this week—rather controversially for some, although I do not know why:

“Inequality is the root of social evil.”

That was Pope Francis on his Twitter page—“@Pontifex”. Of course, he is absolutely right. The Pontiff’s statement should be at the heart of the ethos of all faith schools, and particularly Catholic schools. I believe that it is at the heart of those schools, but it is important to point out the limited examples of schools that are not following admissions procedures that meet the test of being fair. Those institutions should be held to account, whatever kind of school they are. However, it seems particularly important that a mission to educate the poorest in our society should be at the heart of a faith school’s ethos.

Robert Flello: A statistic I spotted a moment ago goes to the heart of what my hon. Friend just said: 18.4% of pupils at Catholic primary schools live in the most deprived areas, compared with 13.8% nationally. There is a huge difference between the two.

Kevin Brennan: Yes, indeed. I have looked at all the statistics in the report, some of which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, and I have commended the Catholic Education Service for the serious effort it has made to look into the issue. If people look at the statistics, they could say that the problem, if there is one, might be elsewhere, rather than necessarily in Catholic schools. I will not pursue that any further, however, because it is not the subject of today’s debate.

When a system is in place to adjudicate on the fairness of schools admissions, and when a body is in place against which those admissions should be tested, schools should take them seriously and not try to evade them. I thought it was disappointing earlier in the Parliament when the role of schools adjudicator was

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weakened and watered down by the Government. I put on the record the fact that we intend to strengthen the role, should we be elected at the next general election.

Mr Hoban: Given that the hon. Gentleman is talking about policy and going back to the Opposition’s position prior to this Government’s being elected, I should say that his right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), when Secretary of State for Education, flirted with the idea of imposing quotas on faith schools of those who were not of the relevant faith—I think it was about 25%. Is that a policy he intends to go back to?

Kevin Brennan: No, it is not, and it will not be Labour policy. For the very reasons I have outlined, I do not think that is in any way necessary—but it is necessary that there should be fair admissions, which is the point that I am making. All schools, when they are criticised by the schools adjudicator, should not try to evade the issue. They should take it seriously and ensure that their admissions policies are meeting the criteria.

Yesterday, the former Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), issued a report for the Labour Front-Bench team. I will read a short bit from it, to put it on the record—although it is a consultation, it is essentially an outline of the position that Labour are taking regarding admissions. We said that

“whilst the Office of the Schools Adjudicator…annual report noted that only 10% of Local Authorities objected to the arrangements of other admission authorities in their area, the OSA has separate evidence of much more widespread non-compliance. This review recommends that the School Admissions Code is strengthened by removing the possibility of individual schools ‘opting-out’ of the locally agreed admissions framework. This would not prevent changes to arrangements locally or agreed experimentation by Admissions Authorities, but would avoid the detrimental impact of rogue action with one school damaging the admissions of other schools in the locality. This recommendation does not interfere with the role of diocesan authorities, academies or schools as their own ‘Admissions Authority’, but reinforces the necessity of agreed and coherent arrangements within the relevant local area.”

It is important to put that statement on the record, because there are concerns about the watering down of the role of the schools adjudicator by the current Government and about the continuing disintegration and fragmentation of the school system as a result of the Government’s academisation and free school policy. I commend the document to hon. Members, if they would like to read it further.

Damian Hinds: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reading out the passage from the document, and I apologise if this is just me being hard-of-understanding, but could he explain what it means in practical terms?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, I can. It means that Labour will, as we previously pledged, strengthen the role of the schools adjudicator to make sure not only that admissions arrangements are fair, but that when the schools adjudicator makes a ruling, the changes are put in place—if necessary, by the schools adjudicator. I will explain that with a further quote from the document:

“It will be necessary to strengthen the OSA and re-instate its power to change admission arrangements directly on upholding an objection (rather than merely issue a ruling).”

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That was a source of great contention earlier in this Parliament, when the Government removed the power of the adjudicator and effectively made it extremely difficult for parents, when they have objections to admissions arrangements, to get those changed.

Damian Hinds: To be clear, does that mean that in the case of faith schools, in the Labour party’s outline plans, the definition of practising a religion—or an element, I suppose, of practising a religion—would fall further towards the Office of the Schools Adjudicator and away from diocesan authorities?

Kevin Brennan: It need not affect in any way the essence of practising a religion, but where there are requirements—as in the case discussed earlier—for people, for example, to undertake cleaning, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator could rule that that was an unfair part of an admissions policy.

Damian Hinds: Forget bell ringing and cleaning—let us talk about late baptism for a moment. As a practical example, could the Office of the Schools Adjudicator decide that children having had a late baptism should not count, in a sense, as being Catholic in the same way as those who had infant baptisms?

Kevin Brennan: I am sufficiently well versed in Catholic theology to know that there is no distinction between Catholics, regardless of when they were baptised. Of course that would not be applicable; it would be ludicrous if that were the case.

This has been a very good debate. It is extremely important that we have an opportunity to air these subjects. I want to place on the record my support and praise for the work of Catholic schools throughout the country and to commend, as I said, the Catholic Education Service for the serious engagement that it has had with the issue in relation to admissions. I ask the Minister to respond to the questions that hon. Members have raised about the 50% rule with regard to free schools and to give an answer about why voluntary aided schools cannot be set up as quickly and easily as free schools under this Government’s policy.

Mr Hoban Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kevin Brennan: I will, because there is a bit of extra time.

Mr Hoban: The hon. Gentleman wants to find out what the Government’s policy is. Will he elaborate on what his policy is in connection with the Labour party’s replacement for free schools? Will those schools be subject to the same cap as applies to free schools at the moment?

Kevin Brennan: I commend the document to the hon. Gentleman. I think that he will find all the answers contained therein. I shall finish my speech at that point.

3.51 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) on

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securing the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on taking on the mantle so well and setting out his concerns so clearly. I also join him in the comments that he made at the beginning of his speech about the tragedy that has occurred in Leeds. It is on the minds of all hon. Members. Our condolences are very much with the relatives of the teacher who died, and our thoughts are with the governors, teachers and pupils at that school.

We have had an extensive debate, with good participation from a number of hon. Members. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) and the hon. Members for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), for Fareham (Mr Hoban), for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for their contributions. We have had good representation from those of the Catholic faith here today. They even seem to have got through to the Front Benches, because I also have to declare an interest, having been educated only at Catholic schools—at a Catholic state primary school and an independent Catholic secondary school. I think that I can therefore speak with a bit of knowledge and some sympathy for the points made by hon. Members.

I want to place on record the fact that the Government recognise the important contribution that the Churches and faith schools—schools of all faiths—make to our education system. About one third of the schools in England are Church or faith schools and, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire said, about 10% of all schools are Roman Catholic. These schools are usually popular with parents and include some of the highest-performing schools in the country. Catholic schools in particular generally outperform other types of state school. Last year, at primary level, 81% of pupils in Catholic schools achieved level 4 and above in reading, writing and maths at key stage 2, compared with 75% of pupils at all state schools. At secondary level, 67% of students secured five good GCSEs, including English and maths, in contrast to 61% of students at all state schools in 2013.

A number of hon. Members have commented on the composition by deprivation of pupils in Catholic schools compared with other schools. Obviously, that is a complicated issue, because the fact that there are differences between schools in their disadvantaged cohorts does not necessarily prove that there has been an attempt by schools to skew their intake in one way or the other. The underlying demographics of the area and the people who want to access the faith schools may mean that they are represented in different ways from the national average in terms of their deprivation characteristics. It is worth noting that the proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals in Roman Catholic schools are not notably different from the percentages of all pupils who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

John Pugh: The Minister has just profiled the difference between Catholic schools and other kinds of school in terms of educational achievement, but to the credit of a lot of Catholic schools, they also have very good pastoral arrangements. Has the Department any data showing, for example, the number of exclusions from Catholic schools as opposed to other sorts of school? My instinct is that they are rather better at catering for pupils who have problematic histories than normal state schools.

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Mr Laws: My hon. Friend raises an interesting issue. I do not have those data to hand, but I am happy to look into the statistics that the Department has. I suspect that we probably do or could access such statistics, and I will write to my hon. Friend to let him know whether his hunch is supported by the data.

I know that the Catholic Church feels a strong sense of mission to provide a high-quality education through its schools. That stretches right back to before the Reformation, but was confirmed and strengthened more recently, following the reintroduction of Catholic bishops in 1850. Catholic schools do extend opportunities to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. As I said, it is true that Catholic schools have slightly lower proportions of pupils on free school meals, who are eligible for pupil premium funding, but at both primary and secondary levels, poorer pupils in Catholic schools are doing better than their peers nationally, resulting in smaller attainment gaps.

In 2013, 49% of pupil premium pupils in Catholic schools secured five or more A* to C grade GCSEs, including English and maths, compared with 41 % of their peers nationally. That is a healthy advantage in favour of Catholic schools. It equates to an attainment gap of 24 percentage points in Catholic schools. That is lower than the national average of 27 percentage points.

Catholic schools continue to serve high numbers of children from immigrant families—as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire said—both old and new, and from deprived communities. According to the Catholic Education Service, with which we meet and engage regularly, 30% of pupils in Catholic maintained secondary schools are from ethnic minorities, compared with 24% nationally, and 17% live in the most deprived areas, compared with 12% nationally.

My hon. Friend asked whether we had made an assessment of some of the trends in demand for Catholic schools recently. We have not made such an assessment. Obviously, there is an issue about active participation in religion, which is declining in our society, but he is right to point out that we have had an influx of immigrants from communities with strong Catholic representation abroad. That has put pressure on Catholic school places in some communities in the country.

The Education Act 1944 brought many Church schools, including from the Catholic sector, into the state education system, and we continue to benefit from that settlement today. There are nearly 2,000 Catholic schools in England, serving more than 700,000 children—more than 400,000 primary school children and about 300,000 in secondary schools. The notable involvement of the Catholic sector also extends into higher education, particularly through the teacher training colleges, such as St Mary’s.

There is a lot more for us to do, however, and a lot of scope for Catholic schools to play a big role in the education system. Many parents want to see more school places, particularly in parts of the country where there has been that bulge in the primary population since the increase in the birth rate in 2004. That is why the Department has allocated a total of £5 billion for local authorities between 2011 and 2015 to meet basic need.

To support the expansion of schools across the country, we have also allocated large amounts of basic-need capital beyond the existing Parliament, which will help to fund those school expansions. I urge Catholic schools

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to play a full part in expanding, to help us in those areas with a shortage of school places to meet basic need. I think that that will provide some of the opportunities that my hon. Friend has been seeking, but it is also, in many communities, a responsibility that those who are engaged in state education should want to meet.

Our free schools programme is also helping to meet parental demand for good local school places. Once they are full, the 173 open free schools will provide a total of around 82,000 additional places, with around 23,000 of those places at primary school level. There are two open Catholic free schools. One of those cases was not uncontroversial with the Church, and I will say something later in my speech about the potential involvement of Catholic schools in the free schools programme.

The free schools programme offers new opportunities to groups of all faiths and none to set up new schools in their community. However, faith free schools and new provision academies must be open and welcoming to the communities around them. Where the Government fund new Church or faith school provision, it is right that such new schools cater for local demand in the faith, but the needs of children in the broader local community must not be overlooked. We want all local children to have the same opportunity to access high-quality state-funded education. The fact that it is state funded is the point.

One of the fundamental principles of our education system is the idea of parental choice, something that is important not only to Liberals but to Conservatives and members of other parties. Parental choice is particularly important in the context of new Church and other faith provision. Creating new Church and faith schools gives parents who want their children to have a Church or faith education the opportunity to choose to seek a place at a Church or faith school. However, the Government and I are clear that parental choice also means that all parents should be able to exercise choice and apply to suitable state-funded schools. That includes parents of another faith or not of the faith who may choose to seek a place in their local faith school. It is vital, when we establish new academies and free schools, that we balance those two elements of parental choice. The schools must be set up to serve the needs of the wider community, not simply the faith need. That is why we pledged in the coalition agreement to ensure that all new academies follow an inclusive admissions policy. We followed that up by saying that we wanted to ensure that at least 50% of places in new provision free schools and academies with a religious designation are not allocated on the basis of faith but are accessible by the local community to children who are of the faith, of a different faith or of none.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I apologise for being delayed because of other commitments. I had two sons at the London Oratory school, and I never knew why Tony Blair drew up the ladder after him and stopped the school interviewing. The school made every effort to make its intake very socially diverse, and it was. The Minister says that he went to an independent Catholic school. Why can we not simply let independent schools do what independent schools do, and give them freedom of admission? Of course they will try to create a socially diverse system. They will admit who they want. Why do we have to tie their hands?

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Mr Laws: I am coming directly to that point. I think that there is a significant difference between schools funded by taxpayers, who have the right to access schools that are, in many cases, their local schools; and schools chosen by parents who seek paid-for private education. I will go on to explain how the 50% works in practice, because it is not quite as some hon. Members have described. The Government are taking forward the principle that was in place under the academy provision created by the previous Government, so there is consistency between the 50% approach that we have taken and the previous situation. The 50% cap represents a balance between providing places for parents who want their children to be educated in line with their faith, and preserving the inclusive, broad local community focus of the school so that local parents, who may not be of that faith, can exercise their choice over state-funded schooling.

We have no reason to believe that the balance is not working effectively. Proposer groups, representing many different faiths and none, still come forward and are keen to set up free schools. Those schools are proving popular with parents. The 50% limit on faith admissions does not mean that Catholic children must be turned away once the school has reached the 50% threshold. A faith free school may end up recruiting more than 50% of pupils who share its faith as long as no more than half the places were allocated on the basis of faith. Other Catholic children have the same opportunity as all other applicants to access the remaining 50% of places, which are allocated according to the other over-subscription criteria.

We do not believe that a 50% limit on faith admissions is incompatible with the provision of high-quality faith education. Church and other faith free schools have the freedom to deliver religious education and collective worship according to the tenets of their faith and to appoint teaching staff and leaders by reference to faith. Not all Church and faith schools, even those with a faith priority in their admission arrangements, admit only children of their faith. If a faith school is under-subscribed, the school must admit all children who apply, regardless of their faith.

Many Church and faith schools choose not to adopt faith-based admission arrangements. The Catholic Education Service’s data show that the average proportion of Catholic pupils in its maintained schools is 70%, and its independent schools have an even larger proportion of non-Catholic pupils. I have been looking during the debate at the percentage of Catholic pupils in Catholic schools, which ranges from 72.8% of Catholic pupils in Catholic primary schools to 42.6% of Catholic pupils in Catholic sixth-form colleges. In the independent sector, only 36.4% of pupils in Catholic schools are Catholic. Only 5% of maintained Catholic schools and colleges—100 institutions—have entirely Catholic pupils, and 20% of Catholic schools, or 401, are already operating with half of their student body composed of non-Catholic children.

I do not believe, however—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire agrees—that the 95% of schools that do not have a fully Catholic population are not providing a high-quality Catholic education for all their pupils. Indeed, the attainment levels of Catholic schools bear that out. Many of us who have been in Catholic schools know that a school

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can have a large proportion of non-Catholic pupils and still maintain its faith principles. The Government and I are clear that that is one of the conditions under which non-Catholic or non-faith pupils enter Catholic or faith schools.

Damian Hinds: Does not what the Minister sets out raise an obvious question? If such diversity already exists, and if large numbers—30%—of pupils at Catholic schools are non-Catholic, why is there a need to impose a cap? Such a cap would come into play in places where there is a large Catholic population over a slightly wider area. Children would not be turned away for being Catholic but, inevitably, other children who happened to live a little closer to the school would be preferred in their place.

Mr Laws: There are two separate points. I sought to make the first point by addressing the question that my hon. Friend raised in his speech about whether it was possible to have a Catholic ethos and education in a school in which a large number of pupils were not Catholic. If he agrees that it is possible to retain that ethos, I welcome that. I come back to the issue of there being two competing rights in a state-funded school system: people’s right to choose to have their children educated in the way that they wish, and the right of taxpayers who live near state-funded schools to have some ability to access them despite the over-representation of people from the faith that the system allows.

Kevin Brennan: Will the Minister clarify the Government’s position on new voluntary-aided schools?

Mr Laws: I am coming to that, and I hope I will be able to get to it before the end of my speech. As a Catholic—this is a personal comment and not one that I make on behalf of the Government—I think that our faith is at its best when it reaches out to people beyond the faith, and I urge the Catholic faith in this country not to think of itself as providing schools to serve only people of the Catholic faith. Surely, in a society where all religions seem to be struggling to keep people engaged, faiths such as Catholicism should welcome the fact that many parents want their children to attend those schools even if they are not of the faith. I acknowledge that that is an issue for Catholic schools and the Catholic faith; it is not for me, but I think it should be considered.

Although I recognise that the Catholic sector has aspirations whereby it continues to have objections to our policy on admissions in faith free schools, I am keen that that the Catholic Education Service should continue to engage with us in discussing the matter. We remain committed to continuing our engagement with the Catholic Education Service on this issue, and we would welcome innovative ideas from it. For example, a free school that, in response to local demand, met the anticipated faith demand but had a capacity greater than that demand and thus did not exceed the 50% limit would still be eligible for funding. Such a school would help to provide additional school places where they are most needed and extend school choice to parents who might not be Catholic but nevertheless want a Church education for their children. I must be clear, however, that we currently have no plans to change the 50% limit. Given the fact that we have a very small number of Catholic free schools, I hope that Catholic schools will consider engaging further in that programme.

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In understanding the importance of the 50% limit in ensuring that new provision Church and faith schools are also accessible to their local community, it is vital that we recognise the wider pressures on the schools system. Making sure there are enough high-quality school places for the growing population will remain one of the Government’s top priorities. The Department has allocated a total of £5 billion of basic-need money to local authorities between 2011-12 and 2014-15. That is considerably in excess of the amount for the previous Parliament. Local authorities and other schools in those areas have already created about a third of a million additional school places, and must continue to create such places in future.

The Department provides funding to enable local authorities to meet the demand for new places based on authorities’ forecasts of pupil numbers in their areas. The Government welcome Church and faith schools as part of the diverse and autonomous pattern of education provision in this country. We therefore provide for faith designation of both maintained schools and academies. A voluntary-aided school can seek to convert to academy status, just like any other maintained school, but a voluntary-aided school converting to academy status would convert under existing arrangements—

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order.

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Prison Education and Welfare Services

4.12 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am pleased to have secured this debate on education and welfare services in prisons—an important subject that affects the lives of thousands of prisoners throughout the United Kingdom, where 85,000 people are in prison. According to the Government’s figures, 81,000 are men and just under 4,000 are women. More than half of the UK’s prison population are in their 20s and 30s and therefore likely to have many years of freedom ahead of them upon their release.

In the first instance, prison must be seen as a punishment: a restriction of an individual’s freedom in response to their behaviour. However, it should not be a place that permanently reduces their life chances upon release. Offenders who are ex-offenders should be regarded as ex-offenders; they should be given the chance to move on with their lives and given a second chance. However, for some offenders, whole-of-life prison terms are more than appropriate; others, such as paedophiles and those who cannot be reformed, in my view deserve longer sentences than is currently the case. I hope that the Government will look at that in detail. I also think that tariffs for breaching the Official Secrets Act and acts of treason are far too lenient and might not deter those who would seek to undermine our nation’s national security.

For some offenders, however, prison can be an opportunity for them to change and turn their lives around—there is an opportunity, through education and welfare services, statutory or otherwise, to rehabilitate prisoners and provide them with the knowledge and skills to help them to lead successful and productive lives in their communities upon release. Through education courses, prisoners will be better equipped to find and sustain employment on release, becoming an asset to local communities and the wider economy. Education is still very much an escalator to opportunity and should be a key focus of the Government’s prisons policy. It has been estimated that up to 80% of prisoners have a reading age lower than that of an 11-year-old. That does not bode well for their employment on release or their successful reintegration into local communities.

A large proportion of prison education services are provided by the Government through the offenders’ learning and skills service, as well as through a number of Government-contracted providers. Although welcome, such statutory services tend to focus only on key basic skills such as maths and literacy. Those are of course important, but the training does not usually go beyond level 2, which is equivalent to a GCSE. The courses are highly valuable for prisoners, particularly those from poor educational backgrounds, and the Government deserve credit for increasing prisoner participation in them.

One of the key providers of such courses is A4E, which does some excellent work in helping former prisoners into employment, often bringing potential employers into prisons and giving offenders the chance to demonstrate their skills in a work-like environment. However, there are still areas in which the Government can improve the provision of educational services and make further

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progress. In particular, the focus on processes and outputs alone, where pressure is put on providers to get prisoners on to and through courses, risks missing those prisoners who require more focused, specialised, bespoke and, in some cases, higher-level teaching experience than the current system provides.

It is also difficult for education providers to draw down funding for courses beyond level 2, which results in a distinct lack of progress for prisoners who come from a stronger educational background. Furthermore, the comparative lack of more engaged learning, including more practical and vocational courses—such as gym courses, as well as workshops and other creative activities—risks alienating individuals who may not be academically minded but nevertheless have other practical skills that could equip them for the outside workplace. That is why the role of charities is important, because it often falls to charities and other external organisations to provide educational services in areas not currently covered by the offenders’ learning and skills service, or OLASS.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and make my usual declaration about my publication on prison reform two years ago. Does he agree that we should be looking into the idea of an academy prison, whereby the whole prison is run by a charity or altruistic institution? The current model is either state or private, whereas in schools we have transformed education by the provision of academies that are outwith the state or private institutions. Surely, the next step for public sector reform of prisons should be the charity not just providing the education within a small segment of a prison, but taking over the whole prison itself.

Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must have a mixed economy for education provision in the prison estate. He makes an innovative point on the potential for an academy—either an individual academy within an individual prison or an academy with a capital A across the whole of the prison estate. He is of course well versed and experienced on this subject, having written a book entitled “Doing Time: Prisons in the 21st Century”, which looked at the subject of literacy, numeracy and education. I applaud his continued commitment to improved education in the prison estate.

I was talking about charities, and the Prisoners Education Trust, for example, funds around 2,000 people each year to study a wide range of courses in subjects and at levels not provided by statutory education services, including Open university degrees and diplomas as well as more practical and vocational courses. The trust does an excellent job in helping thousands of prisoners across the estate, and I pay tribute to its work. Over the past quarter of a century, it has led many prisoners back into successful lives in the community. The Ministry of Justice’s research confirms that prisoners who study are less likely to reoffend, so everyone wins. Other charities involved in such work include the Shannon Trust, the No Way Trust and the Henry Smith Charity—I do not believe that the latter relates to our colleague, the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), but I know that he is interested in this subject. They all deserve credit for supplementing other education services within the estate.

Welfare services available to prisoners, whether counselling, faith-based or pastoral services, such as the work of the prison chaplaincy, all make for better

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prisons and help reduce reoffending rates on release. Once again, the role of charities makes an invaluable impact on the lives and welfare of prisoners. In particular, the Prison Fellowship does excellent work in support of prisoners to navigate their way through a host of different programmes and initiatives. It also supports those who have little or no social or family network to support them in or out of prison. Through its excellent victim awareness programme, the Prison Fellowship teaches the principles of restorative justice, by giving prisoners the opportunity to explore the effects of crimes on victims, offenders and the community, as well as to take responsibility for their own actions and crimes.

On restorative justice, the Government should look again at the moneys provided to the police and crime commissioners for that type of justice work. I do not think that the majority of PCCs are best placed to spend those justice funds. My view is that organisations such as the Prison Fellowship and others should be able to apply for direct funding from the Ministry of Justice. I hope that the Minister will consider that again and will respond when winding up.

Other charities, such as Time for Families, also do good work, including running relationship courses in prisons. The staff and volunteers, like those of so many other charities, do so much for so many, and I pay tribute to all those who do such work. I also pay tribute to all prison officer staff and volunteers who work within the prison estate, most with professionalism and commitment, in both the public and private sectors and—who knows in the future?—in some third-way academy; I hope so.

The prison chaplaincy is the backbone of the prison welfare and pastoral services provided, with that care playing a vital role in the rehabilitation process, and helping prisoners with many of the challenges that they face.

Mr Dobbin, with your permission, I would like to be reminded when there is one minute left for me to speak. That would be very helpful.

For those prisoners of faith, the prison chaplaincy provides solace, confidentiality and somewhere for them to go to practise their religion. I pay tribute to all those who offer spiritual and pastoral counselling to prisoners and staff. None the less, some recent concerns have been expressed about accessibility to chaplaincy services. In a recent submission to the Select Committee on Justice, the Caritas Social Action Network in collaboration with the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales raised a number of concerns about access to religious services for prisoners. Some of that has resulted from changes in the organisation of the prison day, with the bishops citing the shortening of the prison day. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to that claim, given the vital role, which I know he and the Government recognise, of the work chaplains do in the prison service.

I highlight the excellent Listener scheme established within prisons by the Samaritans. I recently tabled a written parliamentary question on the subject. The scheme helps to support hundreds of prisoners and can help reduce self-harming. Prisoners are trained by the Samaritans and other prisoners come to that prisoner for help, support and guidance. I hope that the Minister will ensure that all prison governors and staff are made fully aware of the Government’s support for this scheme, since, again, everyone benefits.

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I turn briefly to maternity services and women in prison. My view is that women with very young children should be jailed only for serious offences. I think that pregnant prisoners as far as practicable should always give birth in NHS hospitals and stay in hospital for as long as possible wherever needed. The Government need to publish annual official figures on the number of pregnant women in prisons and the number of mothers and babies passing through the prisons estate each year. Those figures are currently not published. Bespoke policies cannot surely be made without sufficient detail and empirical data and evidence.

There are estimates that more than 600 women receive antenatal care in prisons each year, with more than 100 women actually giving birth during their sentences. Can the Minister confirm that the female prison population is likely to rise? If he thinks that is the case on projections, will the 80 mother-and-baby places in units in England—and other places—spread between seven establishments be sufficient to meet future demand? Does he think that such units are the right environment for babies to be born?

I am aware that in 2000 the prison service and the NHS entered into a formal contract to provide prisoners with the same standard of midwifery care as that provided elsewhere in the community, and rightly so. Is the Minister content that that contract is providing the health care that mothers and babies require?

Can the Minister confirm on the record that, though the practice was outlawed since 1996, mothers are no longer in every case shackled while in labour or giving birth? The Government need to do more to ensure that standards of antenatal care are far more uniform across the prison estate—high levels of care, not a lowering of standards of care.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. You have one minute left for your speech.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful, Mr Dobbin. I would like to thank the Maternity Alliance for the work that it does in relation to mothers and babies in prison.

The Government are doing some excellent things to ensure that education and welfare services are available in prisons, and that work is admirably supplemented by the excellent work of numerous charities, some of which I have referred to today. However, I hope that more progress can be made, particularly in relation to uniformity of access and standards.

Changes of policy or process within individual prisons or across the whole prison estate should not lead to a lowest-common-denominator approach. Those who occupy prisons are individuals who have done wrong to society. However, that does not mean that they should be written off. Yes, prison should be a place of punishment, but also a place of rehabilitation, a weaning off dependency and a place of restorative justice for those who have open minds and hearts. The prison service should be a helping hand in that process, not a deterrent or an unwitting roadblock. The prison service works best in a collaborative process.

Most prisoners will return to the outside world and it is in large part the responsibility of this Government to ensure that policies are advanced that help equip prisoners

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for a fresh start and a new life on their release, going on to lead productive and fruitful lives for themselves and for wider society.

4.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Mr Dobbin. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate and on the way he has set out his case. I agree with a great deal of what he has said. He is entirely right that the first thing the public expect is that sentencing is carried out in a robust and proper manner and that, where tough sentences are appropriate, they are handed out.

My hon. Friend will know that the Government are acting on that expectation in relation to legislation currently passing through Parliament. We will, for example, no longer have automatic release for terrorists and those who have committed child rape offences. I think that he and many others will welcome that.

My hon. Friend is right that prison should not simply be a place of punishment, but also an opportunity to turn lives around. He will recognise the Government’s clear focus on reducing reoffending. A large part of that relies on rehabilitation that takes places during custody as well as that which may take place later.

My hon. Friend talked about education and skills, and again he is right that that is hugely important. We recognise the important role that skills and employment can have in reducing reoffending. We are committed to creating a more effective system for helping prisoners develop the skills required for sustainable employment. I am especially concerned, as I know that my hon. Friend will be, about the number of prisoners who have poor literacy and numeracy. We know that such skills are essential for life and work and without them any individual is disadvantaged in the job market. For that reason, from August this year we are introducing mandatory assessment of learning needs for all prisoners on reception. This will help to ensure that those with the greatest need do not slip through the net. Of course, education is not mandatory for anyone over 18. However, we hope that our revised incentives and earned privileges scheme and more innovative and engaging approaches will secure the involvement of those adult prisoners.

My hon. Friend may know that we have piloted the use of the Army’s approach to intensive maths and English and have found that to be effective with prisoners. We intend to roll this out further, particularly for those serving short sentences.

Mark Pritchard: Just for the record and for clarity—for my slowness—first, is the Minister saying that that will be offered to all new prisoners on reception? Secondly, how will that assessment be made?

Jeremy Wright: The assessment should apply to all prisoners, so that we understand what someone’s learning needs might be. As I have said, it is difficult to compel anyone above the age of 18 to engage in any education courses, but it is important that we understand what a prisoner’s learning needs are when they arrive in custody. If someone has significant learning needs, it is right to give them every incentive and encouragement to address

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those needs, so that they can start to make their way in the world in a legitimate way, just as my hon. Friend described, when they leave custody.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of charities that have an important part to play in this regard. He is right about that. He mentioned the Prisoners Education Trust, and I support what he said about it. He is right to mention the Shannon Trust in particular, given that we are discussing literacy among prisoners; it does good work, as he knows, through the “Toe by Toe” programme, which enables prisoners to learn to read outside a classroom setting.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that we have to focus on vocational training. Our offender learning strategy concentrates on preparation for employment, as we know that having a job when leaving prison can reduce reoffending. Vocational training, based on labour market intelligence, particularly in the year before release, will remain a priority especially in the new resettlement prisons. More broadly, I want to ensure that a core of employers is in place to offer employment opportunities to offenders and ex-offenders, in particular through the Employers Forum for Reducing Re-offending, chaired by James Timpson.

I am fully aware, as my hon. Friend is, that many prisoners have experienced a lifetime of social deprivation and face more significant barriers to obtaining employment than the average jobseeker and that prison leavers spend longer on benefits than other new jobseeker’s allowance claimants. For this reason, from March 2012 we introduced a change so that all prison leavers are immediately mandated to the Work programme if they make a claim for jobseeker’s allowance in prison or within 13 weeks of release. This is intended to ensure that newly released offenders have the support that they need to find and stay in work.

Of course, work after prison is an important factor, but work in prison is important, too. Work in prison can prepare prisoners to take up opportunities outside. Too many prisoners are able to pass their time in prison in a state of enforced idleness, with little or no constructive activity. We want prisons in England and Wales to become places of meaningful work and training, where many more prisoners work for up to 40 hours a week, and possibly beyond. We have had considerable success in increasing the number of hours worked in our prisons since 2010.

We want more prisoners to undertake challenging work, within the discipline of regular working hours, which will also help them develop the skills that they need to gain employment, to reform and, ultimately, to turn away from crime.

Guy Opperman: I visited HMP Northumberland with the Secretary of State for Justice this month and spoke to the highly successful providers of education in prison there. Does the Minister accept the potential for alternative providers for an individual prison? Does he agree with his predecessor, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who indicated on 13 March 2014, as reported in Hansard, that such organisations would be genuinely welcomed by the Ministry of Justice, provided that they satisfy the financial and safeguarding criteria?

Jeremy Wright: It is not so much who provides the prison accommodation that matters, but what they provide and the support that goes with it. My hon.

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Friend will recognise that neither this Government nor the previous one have excluded the possibility of prisons being run by people other than the state. It is important that we look at every potential provider of prisons, to ensure that they can provide for us not just a secure environment, but one in which rehabilitation can be achieved. I recognise his enthusiasm for this cause. We think that it is more important that what is provided is good, rather than who provides it.

Let me move on to restorative justice, which my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin mentioned. I am an enthusiast for restorative justice, which has a significant part to play, not just outside custody but inside, too. He will know that restorative justice principles are sometimes used inside our prisons. The Government have, in this sense, put their money where their mouth is and made some £30 million available over the next few years for restorative justice to be carried out. He is right to say that, at the moment, the bulk of that money goes to police and crime commissioners. It is right that people who are in a position to determine local need have that money available to them, but that is not the only resource available for restorative justice. I will consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said, to see whether there are other ways in which we can achieve the objective that he has set out.

I am, like my hon. Friend, an enthusiast for chaplaincy, which does a good job. He knows that chaplaincy teams in prisons are available to provide pastoral support to prisoners of all faiths and to those of no faith. All prisons have multi-faith chaplaincy teams to both provide this support and to enable religious provision. All new prisoners are seen by a chaplain, from whom they hear about the support and services provided. In addition, prisoners who are segregated or in health care—both particularly stressful times—are visited daily by a chaplain to offer support. Chaplains can also be alongside prisoners at times of crisis in their lives, such as bereavement, when they may be particularly vulnerable. Our chaplaincy teams also deliver a wide range of group activities and classes that are not just faith-based but look at issues such as loss, victim empathy and developing life skills. Chaplaincy teams are well placed to both provide this support and to challenge behaviours and to provide positive role models.

My hon. Friend mentioned the care that may be on offer from other prisoners, aside from the care offered by the authorities. Again, he is right about this. Often, we find that prisoners respond and relate more easily to their peers. A good example of this is the Samaritan-trained Listener scheme, which he mentioned, whereby carefully selected and trained prisoners act as listeners inside the prison. They listen in confidence to their fellow prisoners who may be in crisis, feel suicidal or need a sympathetic ear. The listeners assist in preventing suicide, reducing self-harm and generally help alleviate the feelings of those in distress. In addition, selected prisoners act as what we call insiders, helping with the induction process by telling new prisoners all they need to know about life in prison, what is available and where to find help.

My hon. Friend asked about maternity and childbirth provision. He knows that, under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, since 1 April 2013, NHS England has a legal duty to commission health services or facilities for all people who are detained in prison. Women prisoners and their babies should have access to the same range

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and quality of health services and treatments from the NHS as everyone else. This will include antenatal and post-natal care through attendance at hospital or in-reach midwifery. The six mother-and-baby units in England and Wales provide an overall capacity of 64 places for mothers. In fact, there is a total of 70 places for babies, to allow for twins.

My hon. Friend asked about population projections. Of course, we keep this matter under review, but we will always look to ensure that we have sufficient capacity to accommodate those who we believe will find themselves in the custodial system. He is right to say that the custodial system is not the best place for mothers and babies to be. He will know that courts will always think twice before incarcerating someone who is in that condition, but sometimes that is necessary. The decision to provide a place in a mother-and-baby unit is taken by a board consisting of representatives from the local authority, the prison, other interested parties and an independent chair. The overall age limit for most of these units is 18 months, although that may vary depending on the circumstances. He will appreciate that, when considering applications for admission to mother-and-baby units, the best interests of the child are paramount.

My hon. Friend asked me one other question, which was on handcuffing. Handcuffing is profoundly undesirable, and the general policy is not to handcuff women, but as he will understand, an individual risk assessment has to be made in each and every case.

I hope that my response assists my hon. Friend, and I welcome his interest in what happens inside prisons. I am also grateful for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) who, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin has said, takes a consistent interest in such matters. There is a good deal more to do, but as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and I entirely agree, prisons must be both places of punishment and places where we seek to turn around the lives of those who would otherwise go on to reoffend.

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Garment Industry (Working Conditions)

4.40 pm

Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate matters related to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, the anniversary of which was a few days ago. I am grateful to be joined by colleagues who have a long-standing interest in Bangladesh and who have spoken a great deal about the Rana Plaza disaster and what it means for the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. Our time is limited, so I am grateful for their support. I know they will also want to make relatively short contributions in the limited time available.

I was privileged to visit Bangladesh last September with fellow members of the all-party group on Bangladesh. We planned the visit specifically to feed into our subsequent report, “After Rana Plaza,” which focused on the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. We made recommendations on what we think is needed to get the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh into the right place so that we can ensure that we do not see another Rana Plaza.

The disaster at Rana Plaza claimed some 1,100 lives, with 2,500 people injured, and it came only a few months after the Tazreen Fashions fire in Dhaka, which killed 112 workers. There is a pattern of industrial incidents that have claimed lives in one of the world’s poorest countries, and it is a stark reminder to the rest of the world that our cheap, fast fashion has a human cost that is often hidden. Those two disasters in Bangladesh have particularly helped to bring home the human cost to consumers in Britain, Europe and elsewhere in a way that had not necessarily happened previously.

I will address the recommendations made in the all-party group’s report, but I will first talk about our visit to Bangladesh. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) is here, because we went out to Bangladesh together, and she was with me when I visited one factory in particular. The Department for International Development, which was working with the all-party group during our visit, encouraged us to go to the factory. The incongruous image that comes to mind when I think of that time is of seven Bangladeshi women in shalwar kameez sewing zips on to bright pink skinny jeans that were destined for sale in Russia.

My hon. Friend and I were in the factory for our work on the all-party group’s report. We had been sent there by DFID because it was one of the better factories and had much better standards on health and safety, fire risk and work force engagement than many other factories in Dhaka. DFID was rightly keen for us to see what a good factory in Dhaka’s ready-made garment industry looks like. When I went into the factory, even though it was one of the better factories—I took that point on board—the first thing that hit home was the unbearable heat. The factory was not hot just because of the lovely weather in Bangladesh, because I am not a wimp when it comes to general heat and nice weather. Going into that factory, the first thing I felt was a blast of heat that was unlike anything I had ever experienced. When I stood near those women who were sewing zips on to the pink skinny jeans, it was all I could do to

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maintain for 10 minutes a reasonable conversation in broken Urdu that the women could just about understand before I thought, “I have to wrap this up and get over to the other side of the factory, because I cannot physically stand here for very much longer.”

I also remember clearly that the women were supposed to be wearing face masks because there was a lot of cloth fibre and dust in the air, which is damaging for people to breathe in every day at work, but because it was so hot they had to take off their masks. Even in a good factory that was doing its bit to meet some minimum standards, particularly after the Rana Plaza disaster, there were still issues that I, as a British woman, felt to be serious as I was standing in the factory.

On the side of the building, again in relation to health and safety standards, there was what we were told was decent fire escape provision. There was a door at the side of the building that led out to a stairwell that went down into the outside courtyard. Again, unlike what sometimes happens in other factories, access was clear and there were no boxes of garments in front of the door. The access was not blocked, unlike pictures we had seen of other, less good factories. When I saw that stairwell, which was the fire exit for hundreds of workers in the factory, I thought to myself, “God help me if I ever find myself working in a factory like this and having to run out into that stairwell, which feels pretty rickety to me.” That might be because of the British experience and the good safety standards that we expect for ourselves, but it was a stark reminder that even what passes for good standards, and what outside organisations such as DFID and others say are good standards for Bangladeshi workers, are things that I do not think many British workers would ever accept for themselves—I certainly would not accept them.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab) rose

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Before the hon. Lady intervenes, I clarify that interventions are acceptable with the agreement of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) but speeches are not acceptable unless the hon. Lady and the Minister have agreed. The Chairman should also be informed.

Rushanara Ali: Thank you, Mr Dobbin. I will make an intervention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) mentioned our visit to Bangladesh, and it is clear from that visit that, across the board in the garment industry, people face a threat to their life every day in such places. That was highlighted by the most appalling tragedy last year in the Rana Plaza accident.

My question is both to my hon. Friend and to the Minister. I seek progress and pressure from our Government to ensure that the issues with labour standards and building regulations that we found in our report are addressed quickly so that we see no further tragedies. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should put more pressure on companies that have not paid compensation? Only $15 million of the $40 million has been paid. Will the Minister support the “No more fashion victims” campaign led by Labour Behind the Label and Katharine Hamnett, which seeks to apply such pressure?

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Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. Interventions are meant to be short.

Shabana Mahmood: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which highlighted a number of important issues. I will come to building standards a little later.

As I was saying, I did not feel that even what I accepted was a good factory represented a safe environment in which I would happily rock up for work, do my shift and go home without thinking that I had taken my life in my hands. That is a stark reminder, if one were needed, that even with minimum standards in place—there has been a lot of good work on getting standards in place for the sector in Bangladesh post-Rana Plaza—there is a long way to go, first to meet those standards in the first place and then to get the kind of working conditions in that part of the world that workers in many other parts of the world, particularly in this country, enjoy.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Shabana Mahmood: I will, but I ask my hon. Friend to be brief.

Alison McGovern: I apologise to all Members; I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate. Briefly, does my hon. Friend agree that the standards issues she describes make it all the more important that we support and back up the work of the International Labour Organisation, which does this work around the world on all our behalves?

Shabana Mahmood: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The ILO plays a very important role and I am pleased that other organisations work closely with it, including DFID. I hope that that co-operation continues.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I spoke on this issue on 25 April, two days after the disaster, in the Council of Europe; what happened was in breach of article 4 of the European convention on human rights. On standards, my hon. Friend visited a factory where she was shown that everything was fabulous, but that was because she was visiting. The reality is that in October 2013, 112 women died at the Tazreen factory in Dhaka because they were locked in the factory when it caught fire. On 11 September 2012, 289 workers died at the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi because they were locked in the factory when it caught fire. How much confidence can we have that we are not just being shown the best on the day? All the reports say that such factories do not represent the standards when interested parties, such as my hon. Friends, are not there observing.

Shabana Mahmood: That is an important point. When we visited that factory in Dhaka, I had the benefit of having my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow with me. She was able to engage with the workers in Bengali and Sylheti. She had a conversation with them that probed whether what we were seeing was for the benefit of visitors, rather than what happens on a day-to-day basis. I left confident that what we had seen was a true picture. DFID put in place arrangements to work with grass-roots organisations to ensure that

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those standards are not just what someone sees when they visit on any given day, but what happens every day for those workers.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Shabana Mahmood: I am afraid that I will not, because I have so little time left.

Post-Rana Plaza, there has been a lot of action to try to get better safety standards in Bangladesh. A number of companies have signed up to the accord on fire and building safety there. It covers just less than 2,000 factories, which still leaves many thousands of factories not within the scope of the accord. That is a concern, although the fact that some 1,800 or so factories are covered by the accord is a good thing.

When we were in the country with the all-party group, we had a number of conversations with Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, the Bangladesh university of engineering and technology and other stakeholders in Bangladesh on regulations and building codes and their enforcement. Their point was not that the building regulations do not exist, because there is a strong and relatively robust system of regulations and codes; their point was more on the level of enforcement and capacity—having enough trained surveyors, architects and engineers to implement the regulations.

I am the daughter of a civil engineer. My dad is an expert in water and waste management systems, so I have grown up looking at maps, regulations and things like that. I was struck that the experiences of those experts was not that different from those of my dad as a civil engineer in Britain. They had similar relationships with colleagues and brought similar professionalism to bear. The problem is that there are not enough of them in Bangladesh and they are not organised into professional bodies, such as those we are privileged to have in this country with—for example, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. That is the missing link, almost, in getting Bangladesh to a place where the regulations are properly implemented and enforced when buildings are being put up.

I am pleased that DFID has decided to focus its energies on fire and safety regulations, capacity and so on. That is an important step. I am a big believer that our activities through DFID in other parts of the world should not be seen as just giving money. We should help countries to build up the infrastructure and systems that they need to deal with these issues themselves.

One thing that remains a concern is that, although many organisations are carrying out inspections and reports into building safety in Bangladesh are being prepared, I am not clear or confident that the information captured will go quickly to a place where it can be implemented. For example, Tesco wrote to me in advance of this debate to say that it had ceased to work with one of its suppliers in Bangladesh because it does not believe that the building that the supplier works out of is safe enough. It is worried about that, but once it has ceased to work with that factory I am not clear what will happen to ensure that the factory ceases to operate or that it takes remedial action to ensure that it is a safe working environment.

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There are so many assessments of building safety covering such a wide geographic area; I remain worried that the Bangladeshi Government will not end up with the data they need to take remedial action in situations where remedial action has not been enforced because the big clothing companies have ceased their relationship and walked away.

Issues remain on workers’ rights and the organisation of the labour force in Bangladesh. Trade unions in this country have been active in trying to support Bangladeshi workers to be in a position where they can organise. There is a lot of discussion on labour law amendments in Bangladesh—whether they go far enough and whether workers will soon be able to organise and to negotiate with company owners on wages and their safety at work.

Regardless of the politics of the trade union movement in this House, we are privileged to have such things in this country. I would very much like to see Bangladeshi workers and poorer workers across the world in a similarly strong position when it comes to negotiating rights at work. I would be very grateful if the Minister said a little more about what DFID is doing to support labour law and rights in Bangladesh. There has been a lot of discussion about whether to take the United States route, which is to deny trade privileges, or whether to try to work with the Bangladeshi Government in a slightly different way, which is what the UK and the European Union have decided to do.

There remains, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) said, a big issue on the Rana Plaza compensation fund, which does not have half the money that it aimed to have. It was said to need £24 million, but only £9 million has been raised. I find that disgraceful and shocking. For the big companies that are involved in this industry, which is worth billions and billions of dollars, £24 million is small change. It is a tiny sum.

I remain shocked and deeply upset that that fund has still not got the money that it needs. I pay tribute to the companies that have paid into it. Primark, which has a base in my constituency, wrote to me recently to inform that it has paid in and taken the action that it feels that it can, but we need to continue to press other British companies to do the right thing and ensure that that fund has all the money that it needs.

On compensation for workers, in this country we are privileged that we have a body of personal injury law that makes it easy for lawyers to argue on behalf of victims for compensation that truly and accurately reflects lifelong loss of earnings or amenity. We have formulae in our legal system that enable us to provide adequate compensation to victims of injury at work and elsewhere, but I am worried that the robustness that we expect in Britain or elsewhere in Europe or in the States through such legal formulae for deciding rates of compensation, especially in the cases of injuries that prevent someone from being able to work fully for the rest of their life, will not necessarily translate into what will be received by the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster and their families.

I would be grateful if the Minister could say a little about the British Government’s view on compensation, as that is important. We must ensure that the families of those who lost their lives are adequately compensated, as well as the 2,500 people who were injured. Some of

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them, who are desperately poor, will never be able to work again and, as each day passes, they are getting into more desperate circumstances.

Terrible things happen in faraway parts of the world, but sometimes good can come out of those disasters and it is our duty to try to find that good. One such good is that, for consumers in wealthier parts of the world who enjoy fast and cheap fashion, this is a reminder of the human cost of our £10 dress from a British high street chain. We have responsibility as consumers to think more about that when we are buying and brands need to think not just about the moral and right thing to do, but their reputational risk when they find that they may have contributed in some way to the problems that caused disasters such as Rana Plaza.

5.2 pm

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Alan Duncan): I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood)on securing this very important debate and I thank her for doing so. I acknowledge and admire her conviction and concern on this issue and agree in particular about what she said about the enforcement regime.

The ready-made garment sector is in many ways a huge success story for Bangladesh: it is worth over £13 billion and it provides jobs for more than four million people, of whom over 70% are women. The garment industry supports a further 25 million people across the country. The problem, however, is that the growth in this sector has outpaced the development of the standards that underpin it. Like others around the world, we were all shocked by the appalling loss of life in the tragedy at Savar last year, where more than 1,100 people were killed and a further 2,500 were injured.

In the immediate aftermath, the Department for International Development helped to provide trained volunteers and equipment to help rescue those who were trapped. Many of the injured were taken to the DFID-funded centre for the rehabilitation of the paralysed, which is just 1 km down the road, for treatment and rehabilitation. The collapse was a wake-up call, not only for the garment industry, but for all of us who buy clothes that may be made in Bangladesh. It threw the spotlight on building and fire safety and on the wider working conditions and rights of Bangladeshi garment workers.

I visited Bangladesh at the beginning of April, which was my second visit since the collapse, and I met survivors who have received help from the UK to recover from their injuries and retrain for new jobs. It was moving and inspiring to hear how the survivors have sought to maintain their dignity and re-establish their livelihoods despite receiving such severe injuries and psychological trauma.

We can all learn from their stories. The two that most stuck in my mind were first that of someone called Yusuf, who was paralysed after he ran into the building to help others to escape. The compensation that he has received means that his family has a secure future. I also met Amzad for the second time. He is a double amputee who is being trained at the centre to use prosthetic legs.

I also met the Government, factory owners and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. I am pleased to say that, one year on from the Rana Plaza tragedy, genuine progress has been made in addressing the many challenges

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facing the industry, through commitments made by manufacturers, brands, development partners and, as is essential, the Government of Bangladesh. A new labour law has been introduced that allows for greater freedom of association and increased occupational health and safety for workers. Encouragingly—this goes to the nub of what the hon. Lady was referring to—more than one thousand structural, fire and electrical safety inspections have been carried out in the last year. However, a further 2,500 registered garment factories need to have structural, fire and safety inspections and those factories that are not registered need to be identified.

Let me outline the action that the UK Government have taken during the past year to help improve standards in the garment sector. Along with Canada and the Netherlands, the UK is providing £4.8 million to an International Labour Organisation programme to improve working conditions in the sector, which will conduct about 1,500 structural, fire and electrical safety inspections. We have also supported the development of a website and an inspection database for the new Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments. That is exactly the sort of objective that the hon. Lady outlined: to get a common standard across the whole sector so that the good do not pass on lower standards to the bad. We are supporting the development of an efficient, credible and transparent cadre of labour inspectors through training and technical support. The inspectors will ensure compliance with the new labour law and include occupational health and safety and working conditions in their remit. Training for the inspectors begins next month.

When I was in Bangladesh earlier this month, I launched three new projects that will help staff at all levels in garment factories to work together to improve the working environment by addressing issues such as fire safety, absenteeism and working hours. The projects will provide training for middle managers in labour standards and, critically, improve the health care provided to factory workers—in essence, by having a nurse in every factory. DFID is also helping to launch a new programme that will focus on building industrial relations inside factories—on the spot—so that management and workers are better able to prevent, identify and solve problems in the work place.

On compensation, as the hon. Lady said, Primark—which first of all got attacked in the press—has in fact been an absolute market leader and exemplar in how it has paid out long-term compensation to workers and their families. I am aware that some other companies have made smaller additional contributions. I use this opportunity today to ask other UK companies to step up and contribute to help the Rana Plaza workers.

At the heart of the issue is the idea that companies must take responsibility for all the workers in their supply chain. The best brands do the best things, and British companies can be a force for good by enforcing improvements in their supply chain. I urge all brands, companies and retailers to think about their sourcing practices and to introduce more transparency into supply chains. Those standards have to go all the way from the till at which a garment is sold right back to the sewing machine where it is made.

The garment industry is having a positive impact on social change and women’s empowerment, by providing women with opportunities to work outside the home, to

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earn their own money, to help support their family and to have an alternative to early marriage. The empowerment of women must be allowed to continue and flourish within the garment sector. We want to see continued growth, rather than boycotting or abandonment, so that the sector can continue to flourish as an important part of the economy, thus increasing the number of safer and better jobs for women in particular.

The UK will continue to support work towards the goal of building a healthy, safe and sustainable garment

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sector in Bangladesh that benefits everyone. The priority now, assisted by today’s debate, which was initiated by the hon. Lady, is to maintain momentum and use this first-year anniversary to push for continuing further progress.

Question put and agreed to.

5.10 pm

Sitting adjourned.