Let me just make a quick point about Heathrow, although I will not enter the “whether or not” debate: Heathrow is currently operating too close to capacity,

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with the consequence that massive delays arise from small disruptions. If anything happens at Heathrow, people can be delayed for three or four hours because of a 10-minute glitch somewhere in the system. For those of us who do not have to fly to Heathrow, the alternative of flying to City airport is a real advantage, which we crave and appreciate.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to put that on the record. I hope that British Airways reads this debate and acknowledges that it should at least engage with its customers in the business community, both to publicise its decision—and consult in advance to give people some opportunity to use it or lose it—and to indicate whether it is prepared, in the light of the representations being made, to reconsider. BA was anxious to tell us what a wonderful service it was, and last time I spoke to BA, it told us that it was pleased with the response, yet without even an announcement it suddenly terminated the service because it wanted to use the planes elsewhere. I contend that an airline as big as British Airways needs to behave much better towards its business clients and I hope that it reconsiders its decision.

3.38 pm

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and take part in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) on securing it and on making such a forceful case, not just for Manchester airport but for regional airports throughout the country. Indeed, he laid out his case with such aplomb that I thought that a Government so handy about and keen on appointing tsars might make him airport tsar in the near future.

The debate gives us an important opportunity to hear about the great benefits provided by local airports and the significant challenges that they face. That has been reflected in hon. Members’ contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) proposed a radical open skies initiative as a potential game changer; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) clearly outlined the positive signs for Northern Ireland; and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) rightly spoke about the situation at Manston. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Members for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) and his colleague on the part they have played in getting the expansion at Luton. He rightly drew attention to the skills and the business opportunities there. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) reminded us, with the sad tale of British Airways’ withdrawal from Aberdeen, of the broader responsibilities that airlines have to their local communities. I cannot forget my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who rightly praised Blackpool airport, pointing out its value not only to his constituents, but to mine. Blackpool airport has a distinguished past, with aviation activity since 1909 and mass Air Force training in world war two. Today it offers a wide range of medium-range destinations, not least via Jet2.com.

The debate is such that we have to touch on what more can be done for the communities that regional airports serve and how Governments have a role in helping the airports to expand. Putting regional airports at the heart of our transport policy as economic generators and job creators in the communities in which they

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operate reaffirms their role as vital links to national infrastructure, crucial to spreading economic growth more evenly across the regions. UK regional airports served 220 million passengers in 2013, and Manchester welcomed more than 20 million of them. Although overall UK airport use fell during the recession, Manchester increased its share to 9.1%, and other major airports outside the south-east such as Edinburgh, Bristol and Leeds have also increased their share. Experiences vary across different regional airports, so a robust understanding of them and an overarching narrative regarding their needs and opportunities are essential at the heart of Government.

There is no doubting the great economic value that airports create for their communities. They bring trade and tourism into areas and provide jobs, apprenticeships and skills programmes for local people. In meetings with airport operators, I have often stressed how essential it is that they scale up that community engagement and promote what they already do, which can be substantial. I am therefore delighted that the Airport Operators Association publicised that work in its recent report, “Airports in the Community”. My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East referred to some of that work. Poignantly, in view of what the right hon. Member for Gordon said, Aberdeen airport, apart from the 2,000 jobs on-site, helps to recruit 1,700 overseas students who attend the Aberdeen business school. Newcastle airport employs 3,200 people directly, but supports a further 8,000 jobs in the north-east. The story of airports’ great value is consistent across the country. In the north-west, John Lennon airport has 2,000 people working on-site; Manchester has shown great corporate social responsibility work with its airport academy and its young people’s skills academy, which targets young people in Wythenshawe in my hon. Friend’s constituency. A whole raft of good activity is going on in airports.

Several airports are putting education at the heart of their community outreach. Birmingham has its own flight school, available for pupils across the midlands, and Leeds Bradford offers students across west Yorkshire aviation masterclasses. Those are programmes of real substance. East Midlands airport has won a “business in the community” award and airports of all sizes and resources can make a valuable and prized contribution to their local area. Biggin Hill, central to the heroic fights of the battle of Britain in the second world war, but now a strong local airport, is in the second year of its Nick Davidson memorial flying scholarship. He was a British Airways pilot who pledged to fund a scholarship to train a new young pilot every year. London Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted, while not regional airports, run their own excellent community schemes, too. Heathrow has put 3,500 jobseekers through basic skills training; Gatwick has a scheme to support young entrepreneurs; and Stansted raises substantial sums of money for the local air ambulance trust. The success of those schemes shows the value of expanding them more broadly across all regional airports.

That is one side of the relationship between airports and communities. The other is what can be done by Government and local stakeholders at all levels to support regional airports, to keep their operations viable and to help them to expand into new and prosperous routes where possible. In that, the Government cannot always claim to be keeping up their end of the deal.

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In last year’s spending review, the Government announced money for funding public service obligations for new air routes. That funding was increased to £20 million a year and rebadged as the regional air connectivity fund in this year’s Budget. Announcing the scheme in March, the Chancellor named three airports he believed might benefit: Liverpool, Leeds and Inverness. Two out of those three—Liverpool and Leeds—may not qualify for any support under the current rules. European state aid guidance makes clear that the fund should be directed at smaller regional airports with fewer than 3 million passengers. There is support for regional airports with between 3 million and 5 million passengers, but only in exceptional circumstances. Does the Minister yet have an answer as to how to define those exceptional circumstances? If so, can he tell us? It is a year since the funding was first announced, but airports such as Newcastle, Belfast, Liverpool and Aberdeen are in the dark as to whether they can they apply for funding. Can he reassure them that investing scant time and money in making an application to the fund will be anything more than a trip down a blind alley?

The European Commission also wants to prevent airlines from simply switching from one airport to a local competitor, but those rules could end up being highly restrictive. Great city regions, such as Manchester and Liverpool, need to have their own functional economies and access to trade routes. What progress are the Minister and his officials making with the Commission on the regulations to make it easier for all of our regions to get the support they need?

Today’s written ministerial statement on the Davies review lets slip the prospect of slightly more procrastination, with a consultation on guidance for the fund to be announced soon, but not the guidance itself. While we are on the subject of procrastination, what about the rest of the statement, which delays the creation of the Davies’ noise ombudsman until after the election and fails to answer the questions raised by businesses and more generally? The Opposition have been emphatic that dealing with issues of noise and emissions is central to building consensus between regional airports and the communities they serve. Those communities who feel pressure and are concerned about the future might well feel aggrieved if they cannot even start work on those issues now. We need robust evidence to take the debate forward.

The Davies commission pointed out that Government investment would represent only 5% of the typical cost of a new start-up route. Do Ministers foresee that the investment will be a game-changer for regional airports? What support will be available for those airports that will not qualify, because they have more than 5 million passengers, such as Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Glasgow?

All these airports share the need for quality investment in surface access. Consumers think about the whole journey from point A to point B and how easily accessible their local airport really is. Investment in the local roads network is essential, but so is the prioritisation of public transport routes and reducing carbon emissions. We have seen great improvements at airports such as Manchester—the city’s excellent Metrolink will be going to the airport from next year, which is ahead of schedule—and there has also been investment in Gatwick, where renovations to the train station are under way, but

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smaller airports must not be neglected. One way of ensuring that is for airports to have real influence on local enterprise partnership boards and to benefit from the increased devolution of funding and decision making. The Department for Transport is already a significant contributor to the single local growth fund, which will be top-sliced under Government proposals, so it is essential that the interests of transport connectivity in general and airport connectivity in particular are reflected in the way funding is distributed. How is the Minister monitoring how airports and their communities are benefiting from the bidding stage of the single local growth fund?

The principles and approaches I outline are echoed in the proposals that we in the Labour party have put out to benefit the regions—not just those produced by the shadow Business Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), and those in the Armitt infrastructure report, but now those in the Adonis document, which looks at devolution and local decision making. We fully recognise local airports’ role as economic drivers, and their potential to prosper with truly devolved local structures and funding. The history of Manchester airport—it stood out against the depredations of Thatcherism in the mid-1980s to construct a model that involved local councils, and it has been able to build on that with the combined authority arrangements—demonstrates that potential. As regional airports look at the increasingly popular point-to-point flights, the national network is increasingly relevant for them.

Mike Kane: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Marsden: I’m afraid not, because of lack of time.

There is need for short-term action as well, which includes saying something about expanding the capacity in the south-east. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the letter signed by the 50 business leaders in The Sunday Times this weekend. Given that the ministerial statement says nothing to answer the question of regional airports at all, will he make a definitive statement in the near future? My hon. Friends have talked about air passenger duty, and regional airports feel aggrieved because they feel that long haul has been given benefits, while they have been given none.

In the broadest sense, we must have political consensus on how to move forward on airport capacity. We want to reach that consensus soon in the next Parliament, but it has to be in far more expansive and wide-ranging ways than the Government’s pale version of Michael Heseltine’s vision. The Labour party is determined to ensure that the bright future for regional airports, as highlighted in this debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, comes to pass.

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I am particularly pleased to be present today, given that it is the day of the reshuffle.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) on securing the debate on the domestic and international connectivity provided by the UK’s regional airports. The debate has been

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good natured and, by and large, we have all been on the same page. I am a big supporter of the UK’s local international airports, as they could be more accurately called. The hon. Gentleman talked eloquently about how important regional airports are not only for maintaining the UK’s air connectivity, but for jobs and economic regeneration throughout the country. I hope he will be encouraged to know that we have all those interests at heart.

I welcome the opportunity to respond for the Government to this important and timely debate. It is timely because the UK’s status as an international aviation player is at the forefront of the political debate and in the media. Although there may be differences in our approaches, I welcome the broad agreement that exists across the political spectrum on the importance of maintaining the UK’s position as a leading global aviation hub, which the Government believe to be of vital importance to the UK economy. It is important to remember that the UK continues to have excellent aviation connectivity, both point to point and through the London hub. We have the third largest aviation network in the world after the USA and China.

Domestic aviation connectivity within the UK, however, is also important to our national cohesion, and will remain so. In that regard, the Government have always made it clear that regional airports make a vital contribution to the growth of regional and local economies and as a way to provide convenience and travel choice for air passengers, as recognised in the Government’s aviation policy framework, published in March last year. The Civil Aviation Authority’s statistics for last year show that the UK’s regional airports handled 90 million passengers, or around 39% of the UK total, and services from regional airports operated to more than 100 domestic and international destinations.

I am aware that airports were impacted by the economic downturn, but now, just like our economy, many of our airports are seeing real growth again, thanks to our long-term economic plan. For example, Leeds Bradford and Belfast City airports each saw passenger growth of more than 10% between 2012 and 2013. We want to see that growth continue.

We warmly welcome the ambition of the UK’s regional airports, which are responding to local and regional demands by investing in their infrastructure to enable services to more destinations and better facilities and choice for their passengers. For example, Manchester airport is now the UK’s third largest, handling more than 20 million passengers per year, and its routes are expanding further, with Cathay Pacific starting direct flights to Hong Kong from the end of this year. The airport is also working hard to establish air links with mainland China. It has the only regular A380 service from an airport outside London—the daily service by Emirates to Dubai—and its £650 million city enterprise zone promises to create between 7,000 and 13,000 jobs.

Birmingham airport completed its runway extension this year, enabling larger aircraft to fly to more long-haul destinations. On 22 July, the airport reaches a significant milestone with a new air service to Beijing, the first from a UK airport outside London. I do not need to add that both Manchester and Birmingham airports will be served by High Speed 2.

Leeds Bradford airport recently completed an £11 million passenger terminal development to increase airside space by 65%. Glasgow airport has been busy over the past

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few years making handling preparations for additional passenger traffic during this summer’s Commonwealth games in the city, as well as for the first world war commemoration ceremony, which follows soon after. That is not all: ongoing investment programmes are also under way at other airports, such as Newcastle, Edinburgh, Belfast City and Belfast International, delivering additional improvements to airport capacity, airport facilities and the passenger experience.

I share the disappointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) at the discontinuation of services from Aberdeen to London City airport. The decision was a commercial one for BA, but Aberdeen also has 11 flights per day to Heathrow. I will, however, write to BA expressing disappointment that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues are having difficulty arranging a meeting.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some points about Northern Ireland connectivity. I agree that Northern Ireland has particular circumstances that make air connectivity vital. Northern Ireland is well connected by air, with more than 18,000 flights per year between it and the rest of the UK. The two Belfast airports have connections to major London airports, including to Heathrow from Belfast City.

The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made a number of points about bilateral agreements. With Europe, of course, we have an open skies policy, so there is no need for a bilateral agreement. When the UK negotiates bilateral agreements, we make it clear that there are other airports outside Heathrow and London. The aviation policy framework encouraged fifth freedoms from regional airports, and Emirates flies to a number of UK airports, including Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham, with direct flights to the middle east and numerous onward connections.

Surface access to the airports is vital. The Airports Commission has highlighted many important investments in airport surface access that are already being put forward by the Government. The commission chair, Sir Howard Davies, wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 26 November about its recommendations on surface access to airports. The Treasury’s national infrastructure plan published on 4 December began the process of implementing the recommendations and referred specifically to the Airports Commission’s proposals for new work.

Key new elements of the programme are, for example, the enhancement of Gatwick Airport station with part funding of £50 million; further work to develop a strategy for enhancing Gatwick’s road and rail access, with the report due in the spring or summer of 2015; and work on developing proposals to improve the rail link between London and Stansted, the report on which we again expect in the spring or summer of 2015. It is

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also important to look at other issues, such as smart ticketing facilities at railway stations.

A couple of weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), who spoke today on behalf of the Opposition, came to see the Secretary of State to lobby for a passing loop on the line from Blackpool South to Kirkham and Preston. The Secretary of State is looking at that issue.

I welcome the potential improvements at Luton Airport Parkway station. I am aware of the problem of flights arriving late and people having no way of travelling from the airport. Surface access is also a particular problem at Leeds Bradford, an airport I have used on many occasions. Indeed, I was there on 1 May, when I experienced some ear-bending from the management about the possibility of improving access through, for example, a railway line reasonably close to the airport.

The tale of Manston airport is, I am afraid, rather an unhappy one so far, although I am heartened by the fact that the local authority is looking into what it can do. I spoke to the leader of the council last week, and she had received an 8,000-name petition. The Department is more than happy to help with any Civil Aviation Authority licensing issues.

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) raised the issue of public service obligations and start-up aid. We recognise that air connectivity is not a luxury for communities in the highlands of Scotland, but essential. In this year’s Budget, the Chancellor announced funding to allow start-up aid for new routes from regional airports handling fewer than 5 million passengers per year. In June, we announced support for maintaining air links between Dundee and London for the next two years, and a public service obligation was agreed with Dundee city council. The Department for Transport is working with the Treasury to develop guidance that will clarify how the Government ordinarily expect to interpret the European Union state aid guidelines on start-up aid for new air routes, and explain how the funding process will operate throughout the UK.

The Government have established the right foundations to move forward, gain consensus and secure the benefits that aviation brings to the whole nation. We are clear about the economic and connectivity benefits that our regional airports bring to regions, communities and businesses. In that context, I welcome last week’s announcement by the Transport Committee that it will conduct a short inquiry to examine policy and to make recommendations to the Government on the role of airports that handle fewer than 5 million passengers per year. The Committee’s objective in undertaking the inquiry is to ensure that that policy area is properly scrutinised and that the role of smaller airports in improving connectivity is recognised within Government.

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Young Asylum Seekers

4 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and to have secured this debate on the rights of young asylum seekers in this country.

We must remember that, on the whole, asylum seekers have fled to Britain from horrific persecution and we should give them the opportunity to escape properly, especially during their crucial formative years. Certain elements of the popular press have a lot to answer for, in my view, because they paint these vulnerable children and adults as people scrounging off the state. In fact, they are forced to live off the state; the jobs they are allowed to do are so highly skilled that they are unable to do them because of the inequities in access to education. Under the current system, young asylum seekers are at particular risk of floundering in limbo while their peers are starting their own lives. Often, unaccompanied minors are not believed by local authorities and so are left in risky adult situations, when they came here to escape that world. They are forced to live well below the poverty line, because of the Government’s freezing of asylum support.

We in the UK should be proud of our commitment to supporting legitimate refugees. We owe them a duty of care and a life of dignity, yet families that have fled from war or persecution are plunged into poverty when they reach the UK, a place they thought would be safe. The Home Secretary’s “irrational” decision to freeze asylum support in 2011 has seen a further 6,000 families fall below the poverty line. The Government’s many decisions to limit and cut benefits are tragic for families across the UK who are using food banks or shivering in their homes due to fuel poverty, but they are all the more devastating when we consider that asylum-seeker parents are not lawfully able to get a job to support their families at all in the first 12 months, and, realistically, in practice will not be able to get one after that, either. They have to live on £5.23 a day, an amount that was low in 2011 but is even worse now, as food prices have rocketed; 40% of these families now say they cannot afford to feed themselves or their children.

As the Minister will be aware, we are awaiting the Government’s decision on how much to raise the allowance to. The Government had to be told by a High Court judgment that the amount was far too low. As she also will know, MPs and organisations are calling on the Government to raise the amount to at least 70% of income support. I look forward to hearing the announcement on that—perhaps she could indicate in her response what she plans to do.

Although asylum support remains desperately low, only today the chief inspector of borders and immigration has been talking about the lack of a strategy to stop asylum support fraud—only six people were successfully prosecuted for asylum support fraud offences in 2012-13. The Minister needs to get a grip on asylum support. The Home Department clearly does not have a clue what it is doing—there is no policy to stop fraud and no policy to give dignified support to those who genuinely deserve and need it.

How does the Minister plan to respect the rights of the over 10,000 children who are in receipt of section 95 support? Those are the people we are here to speak

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about today: young asylum seekers who have come here to get an education and to have the opportunity for a decent life. With such a low allowance, they are denied the nutritious meals that help them concentrate at school. They are denied school trips and uniforms—in fact, everything that would help them to settle and integrate with their school friends—and they cannot start afresh. The Minister might have us believe that they are all making it up and none of them has a legitimate case, but surely children should not suffer as a result of the bad decisions of their parents. We would not let a British child suffer in that way, and we should not let persecuted children suffer, either.

The situation gets worse for young asylum seekers aged 16 and 17. They are too young to be treated like an adult, but too old to be treated like a child. They receive a considerably lower level of support than under-16s, yet are still in full-time education. They face all the problems I have just explained, but the situation is far more serious. Instead of inspiring those who have faced adversity, we are pushing them to their limits and forcing them underground. I assume the Government’s plan is to create a hostile environment so that even the countries they have fled from seem better than here. They face either a life of hardship and inequity, or a life of constant fear of death.

Young refugees and asylum seekers prioritise education; it helps them focus on the future and is often a positive aspect of what can be a very difficult life in the UK. UNICEF research has found that many have the aim of reaching university; that is particularly important when we consider the list of jobs open to asylum seekers—those jobs are very highly skilled and often require specialised qualifications. The Department for International Development prioritises education in many of the countries these young people come from, as can see the benefit of education to development and reconstruction, yet students in the UK could be forced out of their courses—or be unable even to begin them—before being returned to those countries. I am sure the Minister will acknowledge that that is inconsistent.

I am sure that young refugees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would welcome the change that the Scottish Executive made in 2007, when they waived tuition fees for those who had been studying in Scotland for at least three years, but that does not help those young people who have been here for only a short period before their 18th birthday, and who are cut off from education at a crucial age and are prevented from taking anything positive from their time in the UK.

For those able to work or go into education, even the practical issue of having passed their documents to the Home Office can be a barrier. They have no proof of the legality of their stay in the UK, and employers or higher education institutions are understandably reluctant to take a chance on them. Even without that barrier, the shortage jobs that asylum seekers are allowed to do are so highly skilled that they need to go into further education, but many of these young people cannot afford to do so because they are treated as overseas students and so are unable to apply for student finance. That cruel cycle effectively means they are in limbo, unable to move on with their lives and stuck in the asylum system. That might be tolerable if the UK Border Agency could stick to its target of six months

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for a decision, but some young people wait five, six, seven or even eight years for that decision. That is eight years in limbo—eight years with their life on hold.

For young people who have discretionary leave to remain but not refugee status, the transition from child to adult is a challenge because they are reapplying when they are just 17. We need to ensure that ongoing support is offered, in line with social best practice, until the age of 21. That would give them the chance to finish their education, and become less vulnerable and better able to tackle the challenge of possibly returning to their home country.

I am proud that it was Labour in Scotland that pioneered the commitment to take a comprehensive approach to integration for refugees and people claiming asylum, and their closest loved ones—that always means their children. Thankfully, Labour’s leadership has been followed up, and we now have a refugee integration strategy in Scotland with a joined-up approach that facilitates things for refugees, so that they can fully contribute to and benefit from life in Scotland. The coalition should replicate that across the UK. Will the Minister commit to visiting Scotland to learn about that excellent practice in the Scottish Guardianship Service? Will she ensure that the Home Office is demonstrably playing the fullest part possible for kids who have literally lost everything, and tragically in some cases have suffered horrendous abuse too?

As the Minister will be aware, young asylum seekers, particularly those in the 16 to 17-year-old age bracket, are at high risk of having their age wrongly identified and so being placed into adult environments. That is in part due to cultural differences. Birthdays, birth dates and birth registrations are not as important in some cultures as they are in ours; for example, 64% of births go unregistered in sub-Saharan Africa and 65% in south Asia. Many children and young people arrive in the UK without identity documents to prove their age because they never had them or, in some cases, had to destroy them en route, having had to use false documents to travel. That is a challenge for local authorities in determining age. Some children from similar ethnic backgrounds who have grown up in the same environment may display significant physical, emotional and developmental differences, made larger by experience of adversity, conflict, violence and the migration process.

The Minister is concerned that some young people lie about their age, and I am sure that may be true in a small minority of cases, but as Labour Members say when talking about welfare fraud that we should not penalise the many for the decisions of the few. There is, of course, concern about someone in their early 20s being placed in accommodation with teenagers, but there is a far greater risk of placing children, perhaps as young as 14, in detention, or in independent and less carefully regulated accommodation, with adults of all ages. The system should be designed to protect children and to catch people in the net, not to penalise them for cultural differences or the rough journey they had to get here.

I would like to hear today what the Minister plans to do about that. Is she, at the very least, keeping track of how often this happens? How many cases have there been in the last year of the UK Border Agency treating an individual as an adult based purely on their appearance or demeanour? How many cases have there been in the

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last year of an individual who claims to be a child being placed in immigration detention? If the Minister cannot tell me this, will she agree to start collecting such information and to publish it regularly?

The Home Office should revise its policy on assessing age and treating young people as adults based solely on their appearance or demeanour. Anyone who has sold alcohol in a pub will say how difficult it is to assess someone’s age from what they look like. Our immigration system should not be based on that crude assessment. I welcome the work by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in developing an age assessment strategic oversight group and reviewing the current arrangements. The belief that multiple agencies should be involved in age assessment is sensible and fair in trying to tackle this issue.

The Scottish Guardianship Service has a positive reputation on age assessment practice, but it remains inconsistent, and we need national statutory guidelines to ensure that all child protection and social work professionals follow a standard, high-quality pathway. The Minister will be aware of the costed proposal from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to provide guidance to paediatricians. To my knowledge, she has not yet responded to that; I urge her to support proper guidance, because it is the best opportunity we have to make progress on age assessment since it first became a substantial issue 10 years ago.

We have a proud history around the world of fighting for human rights through our armed forces and the development objectives of the Department for International Development, but we are failing to protect the rights of young asylum seekers who have fled persecution. We must ensure that their time in the UK allows them to reach their potential, whether or not they are granted refugee status and whether they build their lives in the UK or return to try to find a solution to the problem in their home countries. We should equip them with the tools they need and respect their right to grow into responsible young adults.

I will conclude with the following questions for the Minister. In their response to the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, “In their best interests?”, the Government said that no action was needed on the majority of points. That was disappointing given the amount of expertise that was harnessed to create the report. Will the Minister commit to looking again at the report? Will she also consider giving asylum seekers a proper right to work, not just on shortage jobs, so that they can earn a living and contribute to society while they are waiting for a decision?

Will the Minister indicate how much asylum support will rise by? What does she have to say about the chief inspector’s claim that there is no strategy to tackle asylum fraud? Will she agree to visit Scotland and to learn more about the Scottish Guardianship Service? Does she think the service deserves funding from the Home Office? When will she respond to the costed proposal on age assessment guidance? Why did the Minister cancel the National Asylum Stakeholder Forum’s children’s sub-group meeting today? Why does she not prioritise these issues? Will she ensure that support is offered, in line with social best practice, up to the age of 25, or at least 21?

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4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Karen Bradley): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) for securing this debate on the important subject of young people in the asylum system. I enjoyed reading his piece in dodonline today, which covered the issue. I am aware that he has long been interested in it and I therefore take his views particularly seriously. I welcome the opportunity to address some of the issues raised during this debate and I will do my best to cover as much as possible in the time available, but if I do not have time to cover them all, I will endeavour to ensure that he receives a written response.

It is a pleasure, Ms Dorries, to serve under your chairmanship. This is probably the first time I have done so in my present capacity, so it is a real treat.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it, and that all claims are carefully considered before decisions are made. The asylum system provides protection for those who are found to be genuinely in need of it in accordance with our commitments under international law, notably the 1951 refugee convention and the European convention on human rights. Protection needs are considered taking into account the individual’s circumstances, and against the background of published country information from a wide range of recognised and publicly disclosed sources.

The Government recognise that young asylum seekers may be particularly vulnerable children, and take very seriously their responsibility to safeguard and promote such cases. All staff who come into contact with young people in the asylum system have been trained to recognise their needs and to act in a way that protects and promotes their best interests in line with our obligations. The Government have a sustained track record of significant improvements in this area. We have transformed our approach to unaccompanied migrant children by ensuring that their best interests and human rights are fully protected while ensuring that legitimate immigration functions are not compromised.

The initiatives taken by this Government include the following. In December 2010, we published plans for ending the detention of children in a way that seeks to balance the protection of children with ensuring the departure of families who have no right to be in the UK. In the few cases in which families are held in pre-departure accommodation, we have worked with statutory and non-statutory corporate partners to ensure that the conditions in which they are held meet all their welfare needs. We have since gone further by giving legislative effect to the policy on detaining children.

I visited the Border Force team at Gatwick airport recently to see their work on identifying trafficked children in particular, but also asylum-seeking children, to ensure that they have the support they need. I cannot speak too highly of the way in which the team works with local social services. It has ensured that the rooms to which children are brought are child-friendly, with bean bags rather than nailed-down chairs. It respects the fact that these young and very vulnerable people need help and support when identifying whether they have been trafficked and ensuring that we can catch the traffickers and punish them. I have seen that with my

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own eyes and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the operation is very impressive.

Following the report, “Landing in Dover” in January 2012 by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, we strengthened the arrival and screening process for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. When the asylum claim is made at their first point of contact with the Department, we allow up to four days for recuperation and to enable them to seek legal advice. In July 2012, we introduced new immigration rules to provide a framework for considering applications under article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which relates to family and private life. We have brought consideration of the best interests of children into the immigration rules in order to ensure that we consistently meet our obligations when considering family cases. There is now a clear route for applications for leave based on a child’s best interests.

In the Immigration Act 2014, we also set out clearly how we believe the interests of children should be balanced against the Government’s wider responsibilities for public safety and security and for the effective management of immigration. That has provided greater clarity and transparency on immigration decision making in what is a difficult and sensitive area.

Although the decision-making process in children’s asylum cases is essentially the same as that for adults, there are certain differences. For example, when children attend the asylum intake unit in Croydon—not far from Gatwick, of course—to submit their asylum application, they are often accompanied by social workers and an appointment line is used to minimise waiting times. If they attend alone, an urgent referral is made to local authority children’s services. We also take the fingerprints of all children over the age of five as soon as possible. That ensures that they can be identified if they are encountered at a later date, which is particularly important in potential trafficking cases.

We always make social services aware of a child’s arrival at the earliest opportunity. From that point onwards, a variety of professionals will have involvement with the welfare of the child. For consideration of their asylum application, children are interviewed by a specially trained decision maker. At the interview, the child will be accompanied by a responsible adult. A legal representative would normally be present for the interview, and an interpreter if appropriate. The decision maker will then consider the details of the case and make a decision on the application. If the decision is to refuse the child’s asylum application, the reception arrangements upon returning them to their country of origin must be considered.

The Home Office will not remove an unaccompanied child from the UK unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that safe and adequate reception arrangements are in place in the country to which the child is to be removed. In the event that it is not possible to put in place sufficient arrangements, specific leave is granted on that basis, for 30 months or until the child is 17 and a half years old—whichever is the shorter period. Grants of limited leave in these circumstances provide children with certainty that they will be allowed to stay in the UK until they are 18 years of age. Once they reach 18, we will seek to return them, unless they can establish a legitimate reason to remain in the UK as an adult.

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At this point, I would like to add something else from my personal experience. Recently, I visited Albania, which is one of the source countries for many of the unaccompanied children. There is a terrible industry in Albania of falsifying histories of blood feuds. Organised crime gangs are involved in it, and I have enormous sympathy for the children who end up in that dreadful situation: trafficked by somebody who is falsifying their life records in order to use them for labour and other exploitation in the UK. We are working with the Albanians and other authorities to stamp out the organised crime that enables that to take place. It is an absolute travesty that people are able to use and abuse these most vulnerable young people in that way, and we have to work across borders to stamp it out.

We are not complacent, but we believe that the Government have a good story to tell about how we manage asylum claims from children. Last year, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration inspected our management of claims from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. His report was largely positive and praised the Home Office for conducting interviews sensitively, for giving the benefit of the doubt and for having good safeguarding procedures in dealing with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Overall, the report was a fair assessment of our current performance in handling these claims. We welcome the fact that the ICI praised the Home Office for the cultural and customer-focused aspects of its work with young people, particularly its professional commitment to safeguarding and welfare and its close liaison with external partners such as local authority children’s services.

Our partnership with local authority children’s services is one of the cornerstones of our efforts to promote and ensure the welfare of children. The Home Office provides direct financial support to families, but unaccompanied children are the responsibility of local authority children’s services. Local authorities provide support to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, regardless of their immigration status, as they would to any other looked-after child. The immediate focus, especially where a child may have been trafficked, will be to ensure that the child is safe from harm, but local authorities will also plan to meet the health and education needs of the child. As for every looked-after child, the education plan will include securing the best education provision to meet that child’s needs. Health planning will include addressing both the physical and psychological needs the child may have as a consequence of their experiences before claiming asylum. It is worth reiterating the point that if a child is claiming asylum, they will have gone through some very difficult experiences and often suffered physical and almost certainly psychological damage. It is incredibly important that they be dealt with sensitively and that all children’s services are aware of that point.

Jim Sheridan: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but will she indicate when we can get to a decision time of six months? As I said, it has taken six, seven or eight years for these young people to get a decision. Are there any plans to bring that down to the six-month target?

Karen Bradley: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I hope to get to that shortly.

Local authorities already have a duty under the Children Act 1989 for planning the transition to adulthood of care leavers. For unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

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in care, that planning will include the different steps required in response to different immigration outcomes for the child. As part of that case planning, the guidance is clear that local authorities should work with dedicated case workers at the Home Office. The planning also includes a continued commitment to the education and well-being of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children leaving care while they remain in the UK, with support provided by a personal adviser. Any support will be tailored to individual need but, to take just one example, good practice might be working with apprenticeship schemes, so that those young people can develop meaningful skills while contributing to the local economy.

I turn to some of the hon. Gentleman’s specific points. On the asylum support given to children, it is absolutely clear that no child should be left destitute, and local authorities support unaccompanied children as they would any looked-after child born in the UK, regardless of their immigration status, nationality or documentation. Local authorities produce a care plan to ensure that everyone involved in providing the child’s care is aware of their needs. The plan will cover key stages in the child’s asylum claim, legal support, health—that includes psychological needs and any learning difficulties—and education, and the Home Office provides funding for that to local authorities.

If the children are in families, the families receive support direct from the Home Office to avoid destitution. That generally includes fully furnished accommodation with utility bills paid and a cash allowance to cover other essential living needs. The level of cash allowance varies according to the size of the household and how many children there are, but as an example, a couple with two children typically receives £170 to £180 a week. We do not believe that is ungenerous, but in light of the recent judicial review decision on the asylum support rate, we are carefully reviewing all the allowance levels to ensure that they are sufficient to cover essential living needs, and we expect to complete the review by mid-August. If a family asylum claim is refused and the family includes a child under 18, the family will continue to receive the same level of support as before in order to protect the welfare and best interests of the child.

We are endeavouring to decide all asylum cases older than six months by 1 April 2015. We have already made progress, and in March we cleared all straightforward pre-2011 asylum decisions. We cleared all straightforward pre-2012 decisions by the end of last month—June 2014—and we aim to clear all pre-2014 cases and ensure all new claims receive a decision within the six-month service standard by April 2015. Clearly, we inherited a backlog from the previous Government and that is a shame and a pity. We are now working to make sure we clear that backlog, and that by April 2015, all cases are dealt with in the six months that we endeavour to deal with them in.

The hon. Gentleman talked about uncertainty about age. He is absolutely right—as a publican’s daughter, I can vouch for how difficult it often is to see whether someone is a child or an adult when they come to the bar to get a drink. In the work on modern slavery, in many of the cases I have seen coming through the system, the age of the person involved is very uncertain, but it is not that people are being treated as an adult until proven to be a child. Where there is any doubt about whether someone is an adult or a child, we would

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immediately refer them to a local authority social services department for a careful, case-law-compliant assessment of their age, and we would treat them as a child until we have the outcome of their assessment.

I am conscious that we are about to reach the end of the time allotted for this debate. If there are any further points, I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is written to, and I thank those in the Chamber for their time.

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School Places (London Borough of Harrow)

4.30 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, as we debate a very pressing need for new school places in the London borough of Harrow. The Minister and I have had previously a debate in this Chamber about providing new school places on a specific site, but I want this afternoon to debate the principal issue of the need across the borough for new places. They are urgently needed, as I will outline.

The key point is that although Harrow is unique, it is not unique in requiring new school places. The birth rate across the country has increased dramatically in the past 10 years and therefore the demand for primary school places right across the country has increased. In the 10 years between the last two sets of census figures, the birth rate increased by some 688,000, so places are required across the country. Even with existing capacity, by next September there will be a further need for 256,000 new school places across the country. The vast majority of those are of course primary places, of which 37% are in London, so London has the principal problem. However, the situation in Harrow is even worse if that is possible. The population rise in Harrow has been 15.6%, compared with the national increase of 7.9%. That is just for the general population. Our increase has been double the national increase. Harrow is also ranked 23rd out of 326 local authorities in the country for density of population.

Right now, nearly half of all the youngest pupils in Harrow are being taught in overcrowded classes. That is more than anywhere else in England. It is clearly a disgrace that that is the position, and we need to put it right urgently. Across the borough, there are some 107 reception classes with only one teacher that are larger than the Government limit of 30 children per class. That is the largest number for any local education authority in England and it affects 3,332 pupils in Harrow. That, to me, is something that stands out and needs to be addressed straight away.

That is the current position. There is also a problem in relation to the roll and the increase expected next year. We will need places for an additional 1,639 pupils in reception, but if no action is taken, by 2022 we will need an additional—this is across the education sphere—4,555 pupil places. The position is quite stark in Harrow because of the population growth. Of course, I have been talking just about primary places, but as the primary bulge progresses, so those children will go on to require secondary education as well. At the moment in secondary schools, there are 100 oversized classes, affecting 3,108 children at key stage 2. That is not the worst figure in England, but it is still extremely high and it will get worse.

In terms of responding to the demand, there have been agreements for funding, which I will outline in a minute—I am referring to the additional funding for additional classes, which are taking place right now—but they only put a sticking plaster over the extent of the problem. I think at this point it is worth remembering what happened under the previous Government. The Labour Government, despite the fact that our population

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was increasing and the number of births was increasing, cut the number of primary places across the country by 200,000, and they cut the funding for extra school places by one quarter. They made no attempt to control immigration, and the fact of live births plus immigration exacerbates the position in boroughs such as Harrow, where large numbers of immigrant communities come to live. They are very welcome. They work—they work hard—and they expect to have school places for their children when they are there.

The other issue that I think is important in this process is that in 2012, when the coalition Government were looking at the expansion programme for primary and secondary places, the Labour administration running Harrow council were so incompetent that they could not even get a bid in for additional school places for Harrow, so in the past two years the problem has got progressively worse. Fortunately, we now have, from last year, a boost of nearly 3,000 places across 15 Harrow schools, including seven in my constituency alone. That is welcome news, but once again it only starts to deal with the particular problems.

Some of the schools have received funding, and that is very welcome, and additional funds have gone in to top up the number of places—some £20 million in Harrow over the three years of the plan. The Minister will be aware of Avanti House school. That will provide an additional 1,600 places from reception through to sixth form once it is in place. We look forward to planning permission being granted for that Hindu free school in the borough. We have a proposal, which I believe Ministers or least officials are considering this week—I do not expect this Minister to give any view on it—for a new bilingual primary school in Harrow, which will be a free school. The interview takes place this week, and I wish the school every success. It will be fundamentally supported by the London diocese and will have a Christian ethos, but will not be limited to Christian admissions. That will help to answer the problem, but of course it does not deal with the problem overall.

Finally, we have the Whitefriars school expansion, which will be a unique arrangement. That multi-academy trust was formed last year. It brings together two primary schools, but—blessed by the council—it will now expand to ensure that we have a secondary school together with those two primary schools. However, that brings a problem. The new 750-place secondary school, with 150 places in the sixth form, will be a new state-of-the-art building in an excellent area. It will be sited in Wealdstone, which is the most densely populated ward of any area of Harrow. It has more than double the density of population compared with the rest of Harrow. The problem relates to the fact that the local schools forum has been allocated money for the start-up process. This is a unique case. It is the only academy where we are expanding from being primary to include secondary. Including secondary has start-up costs, and the start-up costs will relate to specialist teachers as it starts to take pupils in. The funding gap between what it has been allocated and what it requires is £800,000 in the first year of expansion, reducing to £400,000 in the second year, and to £200,000 in year 3. The only way in which currently that can be funded is by taking money away from other schools and other expansion programmes.

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As I have outlined, the problem is that in Harrow the range of increases suggests that the increase in population will continue and that we will need an additional 20 reception forms on top of the current planned phase 1 and phase 2 permanent places that are funded at the moment. There is an enormous need for the expansion, right up to the 2022 period. We will then need secondary school places, and so it will continue.

The real problem for the London borough of Harrow is that at the moment we are expanding existing schools and that process has reached capacity. There is no real room for adding an extra year on to an existing site, so the council will have to look for new sites in the borough to meet the ever-increasing need. That increases the cost and the difficulty, because building new schools takes a lot longer than expanding existing ones. Thanks to the rapidly developing crisis, in my view caused by the Labour Government and exacerbated under a Labour-run council in 2012, we have this extended problem, which at the moment is being marginally addressed. Not a week goes by without someone coming to me in my surgery and saying that they cannot get a place for their child in a school, and asking what I will do about it. It is a serious problem.

I end with a plea on behalf of the Whitefriars school expansion. The school was given undertakings by the Education Funding Agency that it would get the additional funding, but the EFA subsequently changed the rules and the school was told that it could not have the funding and would have to apply to the local schools forum. The schools forum essentially told the school, “We are very sorry, but you cannot have the money unless we take it from someone else.” We are talking about £1.4 million, which is a significant sum of money on revenue. At the moment, there is no problem on capital, but there is clearly a problem on revenue.

I invite the Minister to visit and see the development of the project at first hand, to hear about the excellent work that is going into improving schools in extremely challenging conditions and to take a view on what can be offered to assist the Heathland schools development, in particular. I invite him to meet me, members of the council and possibly my other colleagues in Harrow to see what can be done to meet the enormous demand, which is increasing year by year. Although we are taking steps jointly, we have a serious problem that will only get worse unless we take prompt action to put it right.

4.41 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, for what I think is the first time. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate and setting out so clearly his concerns about the situation in his constituency. I know that he has been a champion of schools in his constituency and has worked hard to make sure that problems relating to basic need are dealt with.

I believe that this is the first debate since the change in responsibilities within the Government, so I would like to take the opportunity, if you will allow me, Ms Dorries, to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). He was an outstanding Secretary of State for Education under the

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coalition Government, and he focused a great deal on the need to improve standards of education and to narrow the gap between young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. He will be much missed in the Department for Education, and we wish him good luck in his new and considerable responsibilities.

I would also like to pay tribute and send best wishes to my hon. Friends the Members for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who have also gone on to important roles in government. I welcome back to the Department the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who was an outstanding Schools Minister in the early years of the Government.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East for giving me the opportunity to set out some of the crucial work that the Government are doing to deliver new school places across the country and in his constituency. I also want to respond to the points that he raised. During this Parliament, the coalition Government will have invested more than £5 billion to create much-needed school places, which is a considerable increase on the amount allocated under the previous Government. As a result, last year there were more than 250,000 more places in English schools than at the election in 2010, when the coalition Government were formed.

That extra investment is necessary, as my hon. Friend has explained. The number of pupils in English schools is rising, and is set to continue to rise well into the next Parliament, first in the primary sector and then on into the secondary sector. The London borough of Harrow anticipates a 26% rise in primary pupil numbers between 2009-10 and 2015-16. London authorities face a particular challenge given the scale of population growth in our capital city and in the south-east, the mobile population, the challenges of finding suitable sites for new schools and expansions, and the high costs of building in our capital city. From 2011 to 2015, London has been allocated £1.6 billion of funding from the Department, which is more than a third of all the money available in England for new school places.

Ensuring that every child can attend a good or outstanding school in their local area is at the heart of the Government’s comprehensive programme of reform of the school system, and it is a key requirement of every parent across the country. To achieve our aims, we have announced an additional £2.35 billion to support local authorities in planning and creating the new school places that will be needed beyond the end of the Parliament, from 2015 to 2017. That is, of course, on top of the £5 billion that I mentioned for 2011 to 2015.

Funding for school places is allocated to support local authorities in their statutory duty to ensure that there are sufficient school places where they are needed, and local authorities have responsibility for determining how that funding should be invested in the schools across their area, and whether they should expand any of the schools in the area, including academies, free schools and voluntary aided schools, or establish new schools. To make it easier for local authorities to carry out their duties, we have extended the basic need allocations to cover a three-year time horizon, rather than local authorities having to plan a year at a time. That gives them more certainty and allows them to plan strategically for the additional places that they may need.

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We have listened to representations about the particular challenges faced by London authorities, including Harrow. The methodology used to allocate funding for 2015 to 2017 has taken into account, for the first time, the higher cost of building in our capital city. There is a special uplift for London authorities, which London Councils has welcomed. We are targeting funding more effectively, based on local needs, using data that we have collected from local authorities about the size of schools and forecast pupil projections. We have also taken account of some of the specific pressures in local authority areas, rather than looking at those areas as a whole and possibly missing pockets of local need.

Along with other authorities, Harrow faces challenges because of increasing pupil numbers, as my hon. Friend clearly set out. As I have said, Harrow anticipates a 26% rise in primary pupil numbers between 2009-10 and 2015-16. Under the previous Government, between 2007 and 2011, some £11.1 million of basic need funding was allocated to Harrow. The coalition Government have allocated £57.5 million in basic need funding to Harrow over this Parliament—including through the targeted basic need fund, which I think my hon. Friend mentioned—and we have announced a further £12.5 million for basic need between 2015 and 2017. That will amount to almost £70 million of basic need funding for Harrow during this Parliament.

Although I fully accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that the previous Government were rather slow to identify the trends in pressure on primary school places, I hope that he will accept that the coalition Government have really stepped up efforts to address the problem and put much more money into areas such as his constituency. The Department wants to continue to roll forward the basic need allocation for an additional year each year to allow local authorities to plan over a longer time horizon. If we can do so and collect the data from local authorities on time, we expect to make another allocation at the end of the year or the beginning of next year.

Bob Blackman: On the potential allocation of additional funding, will the Minister clarify whether a bidding process will be involved, or whether the allocation will be based on existing data that have been provided? If there will be a bidding process, what is the cut-off time by which the local authority must apply, so that there are no excuses about being unaware of the need when the money is allocated? I hope that Harrow will get its fair share of money.

Mr Laws: It is not a bidding round on this occasion. We will take a similar approach to the one we took last year. We will ask local authorities to supply us with their school capacity data, which show trends in pupil and population figures in their local area. We will look at the pressures across the entire country and at the costs of school building in different parts of the country, as we did last year, and we will review the assumptions we make in our planning process. Based on the pressures that we identify, which we will carefully reconcile with councils, we will make an allocation of moneys to councils across the country, but we do not require councils to bid on this occasion.

The money allocated during this Parliament includes the £34 million from the targeted basic need programme to expand the 15 existing schools. Those projects will

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create more than 2,800 new places and will be complete by 2015. The targeted basic need programme means that more places will be available at popular and high-quality local schools, which is part of the criteria. Successful expansion bids had to demonstrate a strong need to provide more places that would help to address high levels of over-subscription. Additionally, the places had to be in good or outstanding schools, based on Ofsted ratings.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, one of those schools was the Whitefriars community school, which received £15.9 million through the targeted basic need programme. That money will create an additional 210 primary places and 825 secondary places. I carefully note what he said about start-up costs for the project. Officials have been in touch with the school to support it through the conversion process, and they explained to the school that any start-up or growth funding costs would need to be met by the school or the local authority, which we would expect to manage and resolve those issues locally. That is the usual procedure for all these arrangements, and I look forward to hearing about the school’s progress.

My hon. Friend set out his concerns on that issue, and if he is not satisfied with my answers, or if he feels that inconsistent information has been given, I would be willing to meet him and people from his local area. Before he considers whether that is necessary, I undertake to write to him after this debate to set out clearly my understanding of the issue in detail.

Bob Blackman: I thank the Minister for giving way once again. My understanding is that the school, as a multi-academy trust that is expanding to provide secondary places, is a unique case that was not considered by the Department in that round. Equally, and most importantly, when the board of governors embarked on the mission to expand, one set of rules was in place, which was that funding for start-up costs would be provided directly by the EFA. It appears that the rules changed during the process to require the funding to be from within the schools forum allocation, which the board of governors regards as a potential breach of trust—that is how I would frame it—in the sense that it was told one thing and the rules changed as the process went along. I do not expect a response now, but I would appreciate it if the Minister considered that when he writes to me.

Mr Laws: I have carefully noted what my hon. Friend says. Of course, I cannot make any commitments today on which I might not be able to deliver, but I will look into the details. I will write to him after the debate to set out clearly the Department’s view. If he is not satisfied with that response, he should communicate with me or come to see me. I would be happy to discuss the matter with him.

Harrow council has assured us that it has good plans in place to ensure that all children in the borough will have a school place for this September, and that it has plans to secure sufficient school places in the long term. Given the pressures across the country, we are obviously looking closely at the delivery in each part of the country, and we will keep those things closely under review, particularly in areas where there are pressures.

The Department is also rebuilding the four schools in Harrow that are most in need of repair through the Priority School Building programme. Those projects

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represent an investment of some £39 million in Harrow schools. A number of the projects will include an expansion of the school’s capacity, thereby increasing the number of children who can learn in a safe environment. We have also announced a second round of Priority School Building programme bids. The deadline for applications is next Monday, and we will announce the bids that have been successful later in the year.

The London borough of Harrow has two open free schools. Free schools are making a major contribution to delivering basic need, and they are delivering good quality in areas where they are needed. Seven in 10 open mainstream free schools have been set up in areas where additional school places are needed. Those free schools are in addition to the £5 billion provided for basic need, and the Government have funded 174 new free schools, thereby massively increasing resource in areas where it is needed. Some 24,000 pupils are currently attending free schools, and all open and planned free schools will eventually provide 175,000 new places overall.

I thank my hon. Friend for the support he has consistently given to Avanti House school and for his tireless work in supporting the search for a suitable site for the school. I am delighted that the Whitchurch playing fields site is suitable for the permanent secondary site. The school only opened in 2012, but it is already proving popular with local parents. When it reaches capacity in 2018, the school will provide 1,680 much-needed local school places. The local authority supports the school, and its sister school, Krishna Avanti, is also popular—so much so that it is doubling in size to provide places to meet demand.

I also thank my hon. Friend for supporting the application for the Harrow bilingual primary school. I am sure he understands—he indicated that he did—that I cannot comment on applications that are under consideration until the assessment process is finished, but in the Department we have carefully noted his support for the project. The Department hopes to be able to announce the successful applications by the end of September 2014. If the group is successful, the Department will of course write to let him know.

In addition to the investment of basic need funding in Harrow, Krishna Avanti primary has been awarded more than £700,000 through the academies capital maintenance fund to expand by 270 places. I understand, however, that there have not been any applications from Harrow schools in the current round of applications to the ACMF. The fund can help academies to expand, and I suggest that Harrow academies may want to explore that option in future.

Although Harrow is fractionally below the London average on the wider issue of first-choice preferences, the vast majority of parents, despite the pressures that my hon. Friend carefully set out, have been offered a place at a preferred school—the figures are 94.6% for primary and 94.7% for secondary. We should not be complacent about that, however, as we know that a number of parents were not offered their top preference school, and we know about the demand pressures in the system. That is why we are working at pace to reform the supply of places at good schools through a rapid expansion of the academies programme, and by creating the additional free schools that I mentioned.

I am glad to have been given this opportunity to update the House on our progress in delivering sufficient school places across the country, and particularly in

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Harrow. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in his part of London. I will write to him about the specific issue that he raised with me.

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Question put and agreed to.

4.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.