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6.25 pm

Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate everyone who has made their maiden speeches today. They have been wonderful to witness and to listen to.

This issue is of particular concern to me. Any cut to tax credits by this Government will hit my constituents in Edmonton especially hard. In my constituency, 18,000 children are in families that receive tax credits. Overall, 72% of families in the area receive tax credits, which is 21% higher than the national average. Those families and children will suffer if tax credits are cut.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that cutting £5 billion from tax credits means that working families will lose an average of £1,400 a year. That is not political scaremongering, but the finding of an independent and highly respected organisation. In my constituency surgeries, I already meet many people who are in work but are struggling to get by. The people of Edmonton simply cannot afford this further reduction in their income.

The charity End Child Poverty estimates that 42% of children in Edmonton already live in relative poverty, after housing costs are taken into account. We found out only last week that progress in reducing child poverty has stalled since the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) came to power. All the evidence suggests

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that cutting tax credits will push thousands more families below the poverty line, robbing children in my constituency of the opportunities they all deserve.

It should be plain to everybody in the Chamber that cutting tax credits for working families is immoral, but we must also realise that this is a bad approach to bringing down the welfare bill. The main driver of welfare spending during the last Parliament was low pay and the shortage of affordable social housing. Both those problems have got much worse since 2010. The coalition Government’s attack on working families has meant that the number of people paid less than the living wage has gone up 45% since 2009. That is a particular issue in London, where the minimum wage is already £2.65 an hour lower than the living wage.

If the Government were serious about bringing down the welfare bill, they would take urgent action to move us towards a high-wage economy in which people can afford to live on the wages that are paid. It is clear that cutting tax credits will not help to achieve that. Instead of making further attacks on the low paid, the Government should work to make the minimum wage a genuine living wage, and take much stronger action against companies that flout minimum wage laws. However, this Government have no plans to deal with these issues, but seem determined to push ahead with tax credit cuts that will leave more working families in Edmonton and across the UK in poverty.

6.28 pm

Harry Harpham (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): Thousands of families in my constituency will go to bed tonight with a sense of foreboding. They are waiting for an axe to fall that will take a chunk out of their weekly budget, but they do not know where or when it will fall. I do not expect the Government to spell that out chapter and verse before the emergency Budget tomorrow, but my constituents and people across the country deserve better than the Prime Minister’s and the Chancellor’s media-teasing statements about merry-go-rounds.

Tomorrow, the Chancellor will announce a series of deep cuts to working-age benefits. We know that tax credits will, in one way or another, be reduced significantly. For many of my constituents who are in low-income work, it is tax credits that enable them to go to work in the first place. They cover childcare and transport costs, which low wages alone do not meet. They provide the security that this Government’s low-pay, low-productivity recovery has not. The irony is that without tax credits, many people would not be able to afford to work.

This is the heart of the matter: over 60% of the families with children who receive tax credits in my constituency contain someone in work. It is tax credits that make that work pay. A cut to tax credits will put at serious risk the ability of many of my constituents to support themselves. One of my constituents wrote to me just last week with her fears about the cuts. Her family’s situation sums up the vital role that tax credits play:

“My son and his wife are barely surviving with the Tax Credits that they do get. If the Tax Credits get cut, they will end up living in my attic again.”

The Government should be ashamed of creating such a situation.

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Tomorrow, the Chancellor will no doubt try to justify his cuts by telling us that tax credits are letting employers off the hook, making it easier for them to pay poor wages and leaving taxpayers to make up the shortfall. I say that he is looking at things the wrong way round. Instead of cutting family incomes and hoping that employers will suddenly step in, he should be asking why those employers are underpaying their staff in the first place.

We need a substantially higher minimum wage, and I hope that tomorrow we will see positive action from the Chancellor to get more employers paying the living wage. If he wants to reduce the amount the Treasury spends on tax credits, he should not cut them, which only punishes those on low incomes, but set out a Budget that boosts low incomes, thereby taking people out of a reliance on tax credits and other in-work benefits.

Given the recent speculation in the media about the possible reduction of child tax credits back to their real-terms 2003-04 level, it is worth looking briefly at the impact that such a change would have. It would affect 3.7 million low-income families, costing them £1,400 per year on average. More than two thirds of those who would be hit would be in work, and almost two thirds would come from the poorest 30% of households. Most shockingly, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that if the cut were introduced, 300,000 children would be pushed into living in poverty.

6.32 pm

Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I welcome this important debate, which I am sure, given the volume of correspondence that I and other hon. Members have received on the subject, is being watched closely by a great number of my constituents.

As other hon. Members have said, we do not know the precise details of what the Chancellor will unveil in his Budget tomorrow, but if the assault on tax credits is anything like what has been trailed in the press over recent days, many thousands of families in my constituency should be bracing themselves this evening for a big hit to their household budgets.

I will briefly examine the implications for my constituents of the potential proposal that has received the most attention over recent days: a reduction in the value of the child element of child tax credit back to its 2003-04 level in real terms. That entitlement is paid to approximately 9,300 families in my constituency and benefits 17,500 children. More than two thirds of those families are in work and the annual value of the child element for each is £2,780. Scaling it back to its 2003-04 level would constitute a reduction in support of 30%, costing those families a staggering £845 a child. A reduction in a family budget of that scale would be deeply damaging. By its very nature, the impact would be felt disproportionately by women, ethnic minorities and single-parent households like the one that I grew up in.

The Chancellor is likely to defend taking the axe to tax credits by pointing to the much-vaunted pledge to lift low-income households out of tax altogether or, in the Prime Minister’s words, to end the “merry-go-round” of people paying tax while receiving state support. They are both tilting at straw men. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood)

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mentioned, more than half the families who claim tax credits already pay no tax at all. For those who do pay tax, the likely options of bringing forward a rise in the personal allowance threshold or a rise in the national insurance threshold, while easing the strain, will nowhere near compensate them for the likely scale of reductions in in-work support.

Few, if any, now believe that the growth in tax credit support that occurred over the past 17 years can be repeated, but let us be clear: tax credits are necessary and they will continue to be so, not just to incentivise employment and reduce child poverty, but to address the underlying flaws in a low-pay, low-skill, low-productivity economic model that requires significant amounts of in-work support. For all their flaws, tax credits have provided a lifeline for those on low and middle incomes, and they will still be necessary in some form, even if the UK becomes a living wage economy overnight.

Of course we must be open minded about the need to simplify what is a fiendishly complex system, and we should question rigorously the sustainability of the underlying economic model that has made tax credits necessary. While doing so, let us not delude ourselves that another, deeper, round of cuts to tax credits will do anything other than cause untold hardship for thousands of families in my constituency and across the country who rely on state support to make the most of their lives.

6.35 pm

Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op): There are 4,200 working families with children who are claiming tax credits in my constituency. That is 4,200 families with parents who are working hard, doing the right thing, trying to stay off welfare, proud to be in work with the dignity that that brings, and trying desperately hard to get through the month, keep afloat and provide for their families. They rely on tax credits to survive. Tax credits are not a luxury.

Tax credits were introduced by the Labour Government because we cared about in-work poverty. We cared about making work pay, particularly for single parents who were struggling in and out of a working life. That is why we introduced the historic minimum wage—despite fierce opposition from those on the Conservative Benches—and why we brought in Sure Start to give kids the best start in life. That is also why we introduced tax credits, which have been a lifeline for so many people and contributed to the huge fall in child poverty on our watch.

Tax credits are vital to help people get through the month. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) said, we have received a lot of correspondence in the past few days about this issue. Let me quote from one of my constituents who wrote to me this week about her fear of losing tax credits. She stated:

“I am literally terrified at the idea of losing my tax credits. I am a 29 year old single mother of an eight-month old baby. I have been in full-time employment since the age of 17 and even worked as a weekend pot washer when I was at school. Both my parents worked and I have been brought up with a good work ethic and to understand the value of money. I am currently on maternity leave but start back at work in a week. However, after 12 years of working full time I am going back part time for two years so I can also focus on the upbringing of my son…I am anything but a

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‘scrounger’ and have never had to rely on the benefit system, but for the next couple of years tax credits will be essential to help me survive financially. I do not drive a fancy car, I don’t have Sky\cable TV, I live in a tiny terraced house and I NEVER go on holiday, so I live anything but a luxurious lifestyle that these idiots in power seem to think”—

forgive me, Mr Speaker, those are not my words, however much I may agree with the sentiment.

My constituent continues:

“I could quite easily go on income support and be a stay at home mum, but I choose to work to distil into my son from a young age that it is important to have a good work ethic (as my parents did with me). I am very good with money but have no idea how I will survive if my tax credits are cut. I have worked for 11 years, paid into the system and for the sake of a couple of years getting something back to help me just make ends meet, I don’t think this is me being a drain on society or a lazy scrounger the Tories seem to think anyone who claims a penny is. I lay awake at night worrying about all this, the Tories say ‘they are the party for working people’ but they make me sick. I have never heard such a bunch of”—

I will leave the rest of it there as it is probably not appropriate.

Obviously, my constituent does not agree with the hubris and self-congratulation that I have witnessed from those on the Government Benches who seem so delighted with their long-term economic plan, and I will say more about that in debates over the next few days. I would love to say that I am looking forward to the Budget tomorrow, but I am afraid that I will do so with fear and trepidation on behalf of many of my constituents.

6.38 pm

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): This debate is an important opportunity for Members to express concern and show their support for families on tax credits. Tax credits give families in constituencies right across the UK the choice between eating and heating their homes. Unfortunately, the Government’s vision of a society in which work pays is skewed by the reality that many working families are living on the breadline. Parents on low wages are dependent on tax credits to raise their income to a level where they can “get by”—not live the high life, but possibly stop having to use food banks.

In my constituency of Swansea East, 13,000 children benefit from tax credits. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that any cut to tax credits will push a further 300,000 children into poverty in the United Kingdom. Tax credits provide the vital top-up funds that make a difference for families and allow them a basic standard of living—a basic right, but not something that Conservative Members are comfortable talking about.

A shocking indictment of that catastrophic austerity plan is that the people who face the daily hurdles of feeding their kids and keeping them safe and warm are feeling threatened that their safety net is about to be pulled out from under them. The child poverty targets for 2020 will be missed, the number of households below average income shows that no real progress has been made for two years running in tackling child poverty, and charities tell us that child poverty is increasing alarmingly, yet Conservatives think their policies are working. Ahead of tomorrow’s Budget, I say one thing to the Chancellor: he should think before he speaks. He is putting children’s lives at risk. Bear that in mind.

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6.40 pm

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): We have had a good debate. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Blackburn (Kate Hollern), and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), on their excellent maiden speeches and their contrasting reflections on their predecessors. The House looks forward to hearing much more from them in the years ahead.

The Minister said at the beginning that he wants the Government to be a Government for working people. That is a laudable ambition, but they are failing. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) is right that working people feel uncertainty and insecurity. Working families are deeply worried about what the Government have in store. They have suffered a long squeeze on their incomes, and they are worried about a fragile recovery and what the future holds for their grandchildren and children. Their insecurity has been heightened by the prospect of deep cuts to the tax credits that they rely on, and which it appears the Chancellor will announce in the Budget tomorrow. Working families will pay the price for the decision of the Prime Minister and his Chancellor to promise big reductions in social security spending before the election without having worked out a plan to deliver them. The announcements tomorrow will not be about making work pay—in this instance, that is baloney—but about making working families pay.

The Opposition welcome new concern from Conservative Members about low pay—we have heard a good deal in the debate about the living wage and the need for more secure, high-skilled and high-productivity jobs to support that. We all want a higher-productivity, higher-wage economy, but that requires a change of direction in the management of the economy. For example, it would mean delivering infrastructure, not just second or third announcements of future projects, or announcing and then cancelling them, as has happened in the past couple of weeks. It would mean high-quality training and apprenticeships for young people, not just rehashing old courses.

What the Chancellor must not do—it appears that this is exactly what he plans to do—is make working families much worse off by cutting their tax credits long before any increase in their pay. In millions of working families, people work hard but rely on tax credits for the family budget, as was acknowledged by Conservative as well as Opposition Members. It is high time to tackle low pay, but the Government should not attack the low paid, which is exactly what cutting tax credits will do. It will be an attack on working families on low and median incomes.

It would be fantasy to claim—I am glad nobody did so in the debate—that cutting tax credits will in itself lead to higher pay. Research has shown that the introduction of tax credits did not push pay down, and the drastic cuts now envisaged will not push pay up. Raising the personal tax allowance is not the answer—60% of tax credit claimants earn too little to pay income tax. Only about 1% of the cost of the planned personal allowance rises will actually be spent on lifting lower earners out of tax.

Tax credits recognise the needs of children in a household in a way that wages never can. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) suggested that tax credits

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provided a ceiling on earnings. That is completely untrue. That is not how the system works at all. In fact, tax credits have been by far the most effective move we have ever made in Britain to make work pay. They were introduced by the Labour Government alongside the boost to pay of the national minimum wage, improved and expanded childcare with Sure Start, and groundbreaking welfare-to-work support with the new deal.

The combination was a huge success, boosting employment by making work pay, supporting the incomes of large numbers of working families, and reducing child poverty in large part by making it worth the while of many more lone parents to be in work. The lone parent employment rate was less than 45% in 1997. Today, it is nearly 65%. Researchers have shown that that transformation was largely thanks to tax credits. The benefits have gone much wider. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) opened the debate. In an excellent speech, she drew attention to what the Financial Times said recently, which is that the system of financial support we have in Britain for low-income working families is a key reason for our high rate of employment.

The flagship reform of this Government, universal credit, aims to build on the success of tax credits. We have always supported the principle of universal credit and we still want it to succeed. It is a good idea. The Government, however, have utterly failed to deliver it. Five years after it was announced, less than 1% of claimants are receiving it and 99% are still on the old benefits. In 2011, we were told it would take six years to deliver universal credit. Today, we are told it will take another six years. Now, before it has even properly begun, the Chancellor wants to make drastic cuts in support for working families that would hole universal credit below the waterline.

Will the Minister tell us whether he understands the crucial difference between reforming welfare and labour markets to get people into work and make work pay, and taking an axe to social security and to employment support? These cuts will store up far greater costs if they send into reverse the progress of decades in raising employment rates and reducing child poverty. We will welcome any credible plans to tackle low pay. We have championed the living wage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) pointed out, the coalition Government presided over a 45% rise in the number of people paid less than the living wage,

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): There is consensus on the living wage. I personally hope that there will be fiscal incentives in the Budget, and in future, to persuade employers to look at that. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that unless the issue of working tax credits is reviewed, we will be continuing the practice of de facto subsidising large employers to underpay their staff?

Stephen Timms: If he had been present during the debate, the hon. Gentleman would have heard a lot of agreement that raising levels of pay is a good thing. That is the right way to reduce the cost of tax credits; not taking an axe to them now in the hope that pay will go up at some point in the future. Calculation of the living wage assumes that families receive tax credits.

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Those who calculate the living wage say that if families did not receive tax credits, the living wage would have to go up by another 25%.

Working people need a long-term plan to back businesses that commit to paying the living wage—I agree with the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on the importance of that—and share with them the Exchequer savings, as we have proposed with our “make work pay” contracts. We need to give the Low Pay Commission the remit and the powers to tackle low pay across the country, as proposed in the report by Alan Buckle, the former deputy chair of KPMG. We need economic and industrial policies to support more high-skill, high-productivity jobs created by innovative competitive businesses of the future. Belated conversion to the cause of tackling low pay must not be an excuse for Ministers cutting away the vital support on which so many working families rely. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) pointed out to the Prime Minister two weeks ago, not a single family will be helped into work and not a single worker will see their earnings rise simply as a result of cutting tax credits. Ministers should be tackling low pay, but they must not attack the low paid.

The Government promised to eradicate the deficit in one Parliament and failed completely to do so, but working families must not be made to pay the price for that failure. Can the Minister assure us that any action taken to tackle low pay or in other ways to support the finances of working families will make up for the losses arising from tax credit cuts? I fear he cannot. He will not be forgiven for a shabby raid on the incomes and security of working families simply to get the Prime Minister and the Chancellor out of a hole. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will join us in supporting this important motion tonight.

6.50 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Damian Hinds): The Government’s clear mission is to support working people as they strive to build security and achieve their ambitions throughout their lives. We know that most people want to do their best to provide for themselves and their families; that education and skills are the bedrock of success and security; that productive employment is the only sustainable way of delivering them; that the state should incentivise independence and self-reliance; and that when someone is working, they should keep more of what they have earned.

We need to make welfare savings so that we do not have to ask other working families to pay more, but when people need support, of course it is right that we support them. These are the principles that have underpinned our welfare and employment policies: making work pay; creating jobs and apprenticeships; improving childcare, education and training; cutting taxes, especially for the lowest paid; and, for those who need extra support, making the benefits system simpler and fairer for them and other taxpayers. On all these fronts, we have achieved a great deal, and we have done it at the same time as cutting the deficit and restoring growth.

Before responding to some of the points made during the debate, I want to make one thing clear. We have set out our commitment to reducing the deficit, which, among other things, requires £12 billion of savings to be

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realised on welfare, on top of the £21 billion we saved in the last Parliament. Further details, of course, will come from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in tomorrow’s Budget, and clearly I am not going to pre-empt any of that this evening.

We have had a very good debate today. In particular, we have heard three distinguished maiden speeches. The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) spoke of the sartorial act she had to follow, and she united the House—a rare occurrence—in sharing her pleasure at giving her predecessor a little more time to work on his wardrobe. She was also very generous about her Conservative opponent and the positive role he played in that difficult campaign. That was very much appreciated.

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) spoke about her ambition to be the pinnacle, or indeed the pineapple, of politeness—a reputation she brings with her from her leadership of Blackburn with Darwen Council—and reminded us of the long historical roots of the northern powerhouse. She also reminded us of our schools days with her comments about Hargreaves and the spinning jenny. She, too, has a hard act to follow, in the shape of Jack Straw and Barbara Castle—two great parliamentarians.

The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) spoke about maintaining a sense of perspective. She also spoke movingly about her battle with serious illness and about how that helped her get perspective on what was most important in life. In reminiscing about the election, she also reminded us that, in our work in the House, it is not about “me”; it is about “us”.

There were some other excellent speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) advised that we should always listen to the originator of a policy and what they intended. I am sure that in this case the originator did not intend, and never expected, that the total cost of tax credits would eventually top £30 billion. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) talked about the uneven generosity of the Labour party in reaching that figure and about the particular increases just before 2005 and 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) spoke about the jagged edges in the welfare system that universal credit—that great reform—is set to smooth out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) spoke about the importance of productivity, which is what underpins real-wage growth and is an absolute focus for this Government. We shall hear more about the productivity plan very soon.

Today’s debate occasionally strayed into realms of speculation about what may come in the days to follow, but in a powerful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) reminded us to focus on the facts. Some of those facts include this Government’s strong record on reducing income tax, which has already seen a typical basic rate taxpayer benefit to the tune of £825 since 2010, with that figure set to rise to £905.

Responding to some points raised by Opposition Members, I first remind them that the number of children in workless households is at a record low, which is something we should all celebrate. I say to the Father of

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the House, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), that according to the most recent statistics, the number of children in low-income households in Manchester has fallen.

In contrast to what the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said about the quality of the enormous number of 2 million jobs created since 2010, there has been a 1.5 million increase in the number of people in full-time employment and a 1.27 million increase in the number of people in high- skilled employment. I remind the hon. Members who spoke about zero-hours contracts that they account for something in the region of 2.5% of the total jobs in this country, delivering an average of 25 hours’ work a week.

Even the Labour party nominally agrees that tens of billions of fiscal consolidation will be necessary over the course of this Parliament. I have to remind Opposition Members that the Charter for Budget Responsibility was passed by 505 votes to 18, and we will have to continue the journey towards balancing the budget. I hope that that is a journey we will be able to go on together.

In 2010, spending on tax credits had spiralled out of control, with nine in 10 families with children eligible for tax credits. We were taking money away from people in the form of income tax and then giving it back to them through another route. That is why we reformed the system to target support at those who needed it most—for example, by increasing the disability element while lowering overall Government spending.

Hannah Bardell rose—

Damian Hinds: I am sorry, but I am too short of time.

In the longer term, we will be migrating tax credits into the new system of universal credit, which will improve incentives to work, reduce reliance on benefits, make households better off and increase the number of people in work.

There are three key ways to help people to build success and security for themselves and their families: make sure everyone can get a good start in life; create the strong economy that sustains quality jobs; and let people keep as much as possible of what they have earned. We have been doing all three. We have increased our support on childcare and early years education by £1 billion; radically extended childcare provision; and increased funding for the most disadvantaged children in our schools and nurseries. We have created record job growth of 2 million—more than the rest of the EU put together—moved more and more households out of unemployment and supported millions of new apprenticeships. We have lowered income tax for 27 million people, including moving the lowest-paid 3 million out of tax altogether, and for the next five years, there will be no increases to income tax, VAT or national insurance contributions. These are the policies that our working people deserve—the ones they expect and have recently voted for.

The only sustainable way to raise living standards is to keep working through the Government’s long-term economic plan to build a resilient and dynamic economy. Just last week, we learned that living standards had risen again by 3.9% against the same period last year—further proof of how our long-term plan is helping

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hard-working families. We have reversed the system inherited from Labour, where it could be more rewarding to live off benefits than to get a job. We have cut income tax for 27 million people. We have capped benefits in a fair way and increased support for those who need it most. We have simplified the benefits system, cracked down on those who abuse it, and helped to provide millions of jobs to empower people to help them get on in life. This Government have continuously stood up for both the vulnerable and the hard working in our society, and we will continue that support every step of the way.

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 286, Noes 316.

Division No. 42]

[

6.59 pm

AYES

Abrahams, Debbie

Ahmed-Sheikh, Ms Tasmina

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Arkless, Richard

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bardell, Hannah

Barron, rh Kevin

Beckett, rh Margaret

Benn, rh Hilary

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Black, Ms Mhairi

Blackford, Ian

Blackman-Woods, Dr Roberta

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Boswell, Philip

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brake, rh Tom

Brennan, Kevin

Brock, Deidre

Brown, Alan

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burgon, Richard

Butler, Dawn

Byrne, rh Liam

Cadbury, Ruth

Campbell, rh Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Champion, Sarah

Chapman, Jenny

Cherry, Joanna

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Cooper, Julie

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Cowan, Ronnie

Cox, Jo

Crausby, Mr David

Crawley, Angela

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cummins, Judith

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

David, Wayne

Davies, Geraint

Day, Martyn

Docherty, Martin John

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donaldson, Stuart

Doughty, Stephen

Dowd, Jim

Dowd, Peter

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Elliott, Tom

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Fellows, Marion

Ferrier, Margaret

Field, rh Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Fletcher, Colleen

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Foxcroft, Vicky

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Gethins, Stephen

Gibson, Patricia

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goodman, Helen

Grady, Patrick

Grant, Peter

Gray, Neil

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Greenwood, Margaret

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Haigh, Louise

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harpham, Harry

Harris, Carolyn

Hayes, Helen

Hayman, Sue

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mr Mark

Hendry, Drew

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Hillier, Meg

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hollern, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Huq, Dr Rupa

Hussain, Imran

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Gerald

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Kane, Mike

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Kerevan, George

Kerr, Calum

Khan, rh Sadiq

Kinahan, Danny

Kinnock, Stephen

Kyle, Peter

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Law, Chris

Leslie, Chris

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma

Lewis, Clive

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Long Bailey, Rebecca

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian C.

Lynch, Holly

Mactaggart, rh Fiona

Madders, Justin

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marris, Rob

Marsden, Mr Gordon

Maskell, Rachael

Matheson, Christian

Mc Nally, John

McCabe, Steve

McCaig, Callum

McCarthy, Kerry

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonald, Andy

McDonald, Stewart

McDonald, Stuart C.

McDonnell, Dr Alasdair

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGarry, Natalie

McGinn, Conor

McGovern, Alison

McInnes, Liz

McLaughlin, Anne

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Meale, Sir Alan

Mearns, Ian

Miliband, rh Edward

Monaghan, Carol

Monaghan, Dr Paul

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Morris, Grahame M.

Mulholland, Greg

Mullin, Roger

Murray, Ian

Newlands, Gavin

Nicolson, John

O'Hara, Brendan

Onn, Melanie

Onwurah, Chi

Osamor, Kate

Oswald, Kirsten

Owen, Albert

Paterson, Steven

Pearce, Teresa

Pennycook, Matthew

Perkins, Toby

Phillips, Jess

Pound, Stephen

Powell, Lucy

Pugh, John

Qureshi, Yasmin

Rayner, Angela

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reed, Mr Steve

Rees, Christina

Reynolds, Emma

Reynolds, Jonathan

Rimmer, Marie

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, Angus

Robinson, Gavin

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Ryan, rh Joan

Salmond, rh Alex

Saville Roberts, Liz

Shah, Naz

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheppard, Tommy

Sherriff, Paula

Shuker, Mr Gavin

Siddiq, Tulip

Simpson, David

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Andy

Smeeth, Ruth

Smith, Angela

Smith, Cat

Smith, Jeff

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Smyth, Karin

Spellar, rh Mr John

Starmer, Keir

Stephens, Chris

Stevens, Jo

Streeting, Wes

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Tami, Mark

Thewliss, Alison

Thomas-Symonds, Nick

Thompson, Owen

Thomson, Michelle

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turley, Anna

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Watson, Mr Tom

Weir, Mike

West, Catherine

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Whitford, Dr Philippa

Williams, Hywel

Williams, Mr Mark

Wilson, Corri

Wilson, Phil

Wilson, Sammy

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Woodcock, John

Wright, Mr Iain

Zeichner, Daniel

Tellers for the Ayes:

Susan Elan Jones

and

Bridget Phillipson

NOES

Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Allan, Lucy

Allen, Heidi

Amess, Sir David

Andrew, Stuart

Ansell, Caroline

Argar, Edward

Atkins, Victoria

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Mr Steve

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Berry, James

Bingham, Andrew

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Borwick, Victoria

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, rh James

Bruce, Fiona

Buckland, Robert

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Sir Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burt, rh Alistair

Cairns, Alun

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cartlidge, James

Cash, Sir William

Caulfield, Maria

Chalk, Alex

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Churchill, Jo

Clark, rh Greg

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Cleverly, James

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Costa, Alberto

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, rh Stephen

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, Byron

Davies, Chris

Davies, David T. C.

Davies, Glyn

Davies, James

Davies, Mims

Davies, Philip

Davis, rh Mr David

Dinenage, Caroline

Donelan, Michelle

Dorries, Nadine

Double, Steve

Dowden, Oliver

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Drummond, Mrs Flick

Duncan, rh Sir Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Evans, Graham

Evans, Mr Nigel

Evennett, rh Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, rh Michael

Fernandes, Suella

Field, rh Mark

Foster, Kevin

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Frazer, Lucy

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Fysh, Marcus

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, rh Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

Ghani, Nusrat

Gibb, Mr Nick

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, Chris

Green, rh Damian

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Halfon, rh Robert

Hall, Luke

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, rh Matthew

Hands, rh Greg

Harper, rh Mr Mark

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Sir Oliver

Heappey, James

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Heaton-Jones, Peter

Henderson, Gordon

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoare, Simon

Hollingbery, George

Hollinrake, Kevin

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Howlett, Ben

Huddleston, Nigel

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, rh Sajid

Jayawardena, Mr Ranil

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Jenkyns, Andrea

Jenrick, Robert

Johnson, Boris

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kennedy, Seema

Knight, rh Sir Greg

Knight, Julian

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lancaster, Mark

Latham, Pauline

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, rh Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Lumley, Karen

Mackinlay, Craig

Mackintosh, David

Main, Mrs Anne

Mak, Alan

Malthouse, Kit

Mann, Scott

Mathias, Dr Tania

May, rh Mrs Theresa

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Johnny

Merriman, Huw

Metcalfe, Stephen

Milling, Amanda

Mills, Nigel

Milton, rh Anne

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, rh Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Morton, Wendy

Mowat, David

Mundell, rh David

Murray, Mrs Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Dr Matthew

Opperman, Guy

Parish, Neil

Patel, rh Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, rh Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Philp, Chris

Pickles, rh Sir Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Pow, Rebecca

Prentis, Victoria

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pursglove, Tom

Quin, Jeremy

Quince, Will

Raab, Mr Dominic

Redwood, rh John

Rees-Mogg, Mr Jacob

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Robinson, Mary

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, rh Amber

Rutley, David

Sandbach, Antoinette

Scully, Paul

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Simpson, rh Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Royston

Solloway, Amanda

Soubry, rh Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mark

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Graham

Sturdy, Julian

Sunak, Rishi

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Thomas, Derek

Throup, Maggie

Timpson, Edward

Tolhurst, Kelly

Tomlinson, Justin

Tomlinson, Michael

Tracey, Craig

Tredinnick, David

Trevelyan, Mrs Anne-Marie

Truss, rh Elizabeth

Tugendhat, Tom

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, rh Mr Andrew

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Warburton, David

Warman, Matt

Watkinson, Dame Angela

Wharton, James

Whately, Helen

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, rh Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Craig

Williamson, rh Gavin

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wood, Mike

Wragg, William

Wright, rh Jeremy

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Sarah Newton

and

Simon Kirby

Question accordingly negatived.

7 July 2015 : Column 288

7 July 2015 : Column 289

7 July 2015 : Column 290

7 July 2015 : Column 291

Business without Debate

High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill

Ordered,

That Ian Mearns and Yasmin Qureshi be discharged from the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill Select Committee and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Mr David Crausby and Mr Mark Hendrick be added.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

7 July 2015 : Column 292

Public Accounts

Ordered,

That Mr Richard Bacon, Harriett Baldwin, Deidre Brock, Kevin Foster, Mr Stewart Jackson,Clive Lewis, Nigel Mills, David Mowat, Teresa Pearce, Stephen Phillips, John Pugh, NickSmith, Karin Smyth and Mrs Anne-Marie Trevelyan be members of the Committee ofPublic Accounts.—(Bill Wiggin, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

Petitions

Ending violence against children

7.14 pm

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): I am delighted and indebted to Minehead Middle School in my constituency for this petition. It has collected more than 200 postcards.

The petition states:

The petition of residents of the UK,

Declares that the petitioners support Unicef’s campaign to end violence against children; further that the petitioners note that not all children have the opportunity to speak and therefore need people to speak for them; and further that Minehead Middle School recently held a campaign day on this subject and 200 pupils signed postcards calling for action. The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to support Unicef’s campaign and to commit to working to end violence against children now.

And the petitioners remain, etc. [P001531]

Pedestrian access at White Cross (Hallatrow)

7.15 pm

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): This petition concerning pedestrian access at White Cross comes from scores of my constituents to The Honourable The Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament Assembled.

The petition states:

The Humble Petition of Miss Lucy Loakes and Mrs Mary Loakes,

Sheweth that the installation of a pavement running from the A37/A39 traffic lights to Bookbarn International would significantly improve access for pedestrians, particularly those who are disabled. Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House considers that this pavement be considered by Bath and North East Somerset Council.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c.

[P001532]

7 July 2015 : Column 293

Disabled Students (University of Cambridge)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

7.16 pm

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I am grateful to have secured the Adjournment debate this evening. It is on the important and sensitive subject of unseen disabilities. May I make this speech in the memory of my schoolboy friend, James Adams, who was killed 10 years ago at Russell Square in the 7/7 bombings? James had an unseen disability, which was the disability of a stammer. He had a deep interest in the workings of this House. Although he took a different political position from me, he would have taken an interest in this debate.

Let me highlight the great progress that we have made on how we treat people with seen disabilities. It is perhaps best illustrated by the success of the 2012 Paralympics. But even here, we still have a long way to go. On celebrating his 50th year as a fellow at the University of Cambridge, Professor Stephen Hawking felt compelled to comment:

“I wonder whether a young ambitious academic, with my kind of severe condition now, would find the same generosity and support in much of higher education.”

Professor Hawking was speaking about seen disabilities. The issue I wish to raise today is specifically regarding the treatment of young people with unseen disabilities and the stigma associated with them.

It is now 70 years since Asperger’s syndrome was discovered, 12 years since the publication of the novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon drastically improved public understanding of the condition, and three years since that play came to the London stage. Yet little progress has been made on how we treat vulnerable people, particularly vulnerable young people with unseen disabilities such as Asperger’s syndrome.

Let me talk about a talented and remarkable young man from my constituency with hidden disabilities who was accepted to study at Cambridge, starting in the autumn of 2012. Azhir Mahmood had a long journey from the noise and bustle of Tottenham to the hushed quadrangles of Cambridge. It started with Azhir teaching himself his maths A-level in his bedroom at home aged only 14, while studying for his GCSEs at the local comprehensive, Gladesmore school. A gifted student, Azhir nervously opened his results letter a couple of years later at a local state sixth form college, Woodhouse, to see that he had got the straight As—an A* and 2 As—that he needed to go to Cambridge.

Growing up in Tottenham, Azhir had not known much about the University of Cambridge, aside from its reputation as a school of international distinction. He was unaware that Cambridge has a college system, which means that most teaching, accommodation and socialising takes place within each college. He did not know which colleges had the best facilities, which were arty or which were science-focused. He certainly did not know which societies and activities he might get involved with once he arrived. Azhir did not even really know how far away his college was from the centre of town. In fact, all he really had to go on when he applied was a

7 July 2015 : Column 294

bewildering patchwork of college websites that all looked remarkably similar, with shiny pictures of fairytale buildings, green fields and wooded grounds. Through a random selection, Azhir picked Homerton College simply because he thought that it looked like a nice place to study.

Azhir had worked hard. That was how he won his place at Cambridge. He had even become a bit of a hero to everyone back home in Tottenham in doing so. It was a source of huge pride in our community that one of our boys was going to study at Cambridge. All that hard work had paid off. He had finally made it. He was there, or so he thought.

Soon after starting at Cambridge, Azhir began to feel isolated at Homerton, which has a preponderance of arts and education students. He felt slightly out of place. He did not know whether it was because of his accent, or how he dressed, or because he was from Tottenham, but living four or five miles away from the centre of Cambridge, where most of his science friends were living, he began to feel utterly alone. His anxiety increased and began to affect the

“flashes of genius and brilliance”

his director of studies could see.

Homerton College seemed unable to support him through this increasingly difficult time as the severity of his panic attacks and anxiety disorder increased. Five months in, feeling utterly isolated and defeated, Azhir was forced to return home to Tottenham, which is known in Cambridge as “intermitting”, without even sitting his first exams.

While he was intermitting, Azhir was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The following October he returned to Homerton College and was hopeful that, after his struggles, his college would understand the importance of having his needs assessed. He hoped that proper support would be put in place to assist him with his hidden disabilities and to help him feel less anxious and less alone but again, despite many efforts on his part, no successful measures were put in place by Homerton College to help him cope. He was told to get a bike to cycle into town to see his friends, even though his GP said he had

“already had three cycle accidents so I think it’s safe to say this mode of transport is not for him”.

Azhir tells me that by March 2014 he was forced to intermit for the second year in a row. Time passed and by November 2014 Azhir was still stuck in Tottenham. Having been home for eight months, he was desperate to change college within the university. He knew that other students had done it but despite all his emails and phone calls nothing happened. His senior tutor at Homerton had promised the previous July that, if he went home to Tottenham a second time, she would be able to make inquiries to other colleges within the university. Four more months passed by and Azhir was only too aware that current year 13 students’ applications were being considered. Time was running out, yet Homerton staff had not approached even one of Cambridge’s other 29 colleges.

Meanwhile, a friend of Azhir’s, a student representative, had been trying to arrange a meeting with his senior tutor for months. When the meeting finally took place Azhir was not even allowed to attend. His friend, advocating on his behalf,

“got the vibe they didn’t really want him to return at all”.

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Azhir reread his senior tutor’s letter of 20 March 2014 and its list of demands, including her order that he must

“focus on recovery from the depression”,

suggesting that he do so by booking himself a room at Cambridge’s YMCA as opposed to remaining on university property, and

“developing skills to live as an independent adult”

before he would be allowed to return to his lectures, which he loved. His tutor’s final paragraph, which said

“it may be in your best interests to move to a different university”

kept repeating in his head. Azhir’s dreams of going into research and of doing something meaningful and worth while seemed to him to have gone. But Azhir’s medical reports from his psychiatrist and GP stated that, if Azhir could transfer to a central college, close to the science society he liked to take part in, and close to his friends and lectures, he would not be socially isolated. He would then be far less likely to suffer anxiety and depression. He would be better able to concentrate on his studies. His supervisor, Louis Kovalevsky, was able to observe:

“Azhir is probably one of the brightest students I met.”

So why cannot Cambridge, one of the world’s oldest and wealthiest universities, which receives at least £260 million of taxpayer funding each year in addition to fees from students and generous bequests, meet Azhir’s disability needs and facilitate a change of college?

In an email dated 21 November, his tutor said that the college had to

“weigh up our considerable sympathy for Azhir’s predicament with the necessity to protect other students.”

Azhir has never put any other student at risk, let alone caused them harm. Why then, in approaches to other colleges, has Azhir repeatedly been told that each college has to “prioritise their other students”, seemingly because of Azhir’s depression? Do they think that depression is somehow catching?

If we are serious about encouraging the brightest and the best from all different backgrounds to attend our top universities, Azhir is exactly the sort of devoted and dedicated student that his university should be encouraging and supporting. He has been told to

“look at other alternatives where he would be under less pressure”

outside Cambridge. He has also been told that he lacks

“a compelling reason why a change of college”

would solve his problems. Worse still, reference has been made to

“the necessity to protect our other students, themselves going through very challenging and stressful times in their lives”.

I was the Minister responsible for higher education when the Equality Act 2010 was passed in Parliament. The Act defines disability as

“a physical or mental impairment,”

which

“has a substantial and long-term adverse effect”

on a person’s ability

“to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

Under the Act, parity of esteem is given to physical or visible conditions and unseen disabilities, such as the Asperger’s syndrome and depression from which Azhir suffers. The Act states that disabled students should not

7 July 2015 : Column 296

be treated less favourably than other students. It places a duty on higher educational institutions to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that, in accessing higher education, students who are disabled are not put at substantial disadvantage compared with those who are not disabled

Section 149 of the Equality Act contains the public sector equality duty, which requires public bodies to comply with a general duty to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity, and foster good relationships between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not share that characteristic. Does the Minister think these stipulations have been met in the case of Azhir?

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab): I commend my right hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to the House. He has made a number of serious points and anyone listening to his account of his constituent would have huge sympathy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the issue here is the problem of a collegiate university? Often, we talk about the university, but those responsible are in fact the individual colleges. Perhaps the relationship between the two is at the heart of the problem. The university itself has a rather good record of trying to deal with some of these issues and has been singled out for the work that it has done.

Mr Lammy: The collegiate system is causing a tremendous problem for my constituent. My hon. Friend will understand that we must have a system that bends to the needs of those with disabilities and creates parity with those without disabilities. In this case, it seems that there are huge problems, which I believe this House and the university must seek to overcome.

Cambridge University does not seem to understand that unseen disabilities must be recognised as just as debilitating as seen disabilities. The 2010 Act makes it clear that students with Asperger’s, anxiety or depression are just as entitled to additional support as paraplegic or blind students. What is most shocking to me is that when young Azhir asked for help with his mental health, he felt that the problems he was suffering were used as a weapon to attack him. In normal circumstances, colleges are supposed to act as a kind of surrogate family for young people, but instead of being given help, he was told to go to a different university. Despite there being 29 other colleges at Cambridge where he could successfully complete his course and fulfil his potential, to date that has not happened. My constituent is currently sitting at home in Tottenham.

That brings me to my involvement in Azhir’s case. At the beginning of March this year my office first contacted the vice-chancellor’s office to try to arrange a call between me and him. My office was told that he would not be able to talk to me about the matter because the independent status of each college as a charitable institution meant that when a transfer was requested it was entirely up to each individual college whether to accept a student.

Nevertheless, after some negotiation Lisa Dery of the university’s student advice service took my call. Lisa has been trying to assist throughout this complex process, and we agreed that I would be regularly updated. The student advice service also undertook to make efforts to secure Azhir another college through a “diplomatic, co-operative and professional” approach. Unfortunately, despite Ms Dery’s considerable efforts, no place has yet been found.

7 July 2015 : Column 297

When my team was informed that there was only a 20% chance of success, I again sought to contact the vice-chancellor. Again I was given the runaround. My letter of 27 May 2015 met with this reply:

“I would politely point out that my office did not refuse to speak to you… A clearer statement would be that it was suggested that you write to me in the first instance.”

By that point I had of course already written to the vice-chancellor, so I wrote again to express my concerns, in the hope that I could discuss Azhir’s case with him personally. That was followed by a phone call from my office seeking clarification that the vice-chancellor really did not wish to discuss the matter. I received this response on 10 June 2015:

“to confirm, decisions of both admissions and accommodation are matters for the independent Colleges. The Central University has no remit on these issues.

The senior tutors of the Colleges are aware of the case and they have been working with the student for some time in order to find a solution. They are aware of your concerns. Please contact the principal of Homerton College…if you wish to take this matter further”.

On receipt of that reply, my office immediately telephoned the office of the principal of Homerton College, Professor Ward, on 11 June to request a call, and then again twice last week and yesterday. Today I received an email from Professor Ward, and I spoke with him this afternoon. He promised today that he will do his utmost to look after Azhir and support him throughout his studies if he returns to Homerton College this year. That is helpful, but given that Azhir’s psychiatrist’s report supports the move to a central college, and given that Azhir has felt very isolated and excluded at Homerton twice before, does the Minister believe that would really meet Azhir’s needs?

It is clear to me that I have been given the runaround and that until this afternoon the university did not wish to discuss Azhir’s case with me. It ought to be deeply embarrassed that the apparent lack of a joined-up, inter-college transfer policy is leading to students with hidden disabilities being denied a move to meet their diagnosed needs, even when failure to do so is having an adverse impact on a student’s studies, health and, ultimately, their future. It seems it would prefer to sweep the issue under the carpet.

I remind that House that, very sadly, in 2010 Ronjoy Sanyal, a 26-year-old student at Cambridge, took his own life. He, too, had complained that he was not best served by the university. He, too, had Asperger’s syndrome. It is for that reason, and for all the reasons I have indicated, that I have brought the matter to the House today, and I do so with huge regret.

The way I see it, Azhir and surely many other young, gifted but vulnerable students like him have put the work in and overcome many obstacles to win their place at that world-beating, historic institution, yet because of what appears to be a profound misunderstanding of the impact of hidden disabilities, they are being prevented from realising their ambitions and completing their courses. Azhir and many young people like him have shown extraordinary sprit, dedication and determination to succeed against the odds. They are exactly the sort of hard-working, dedicated young people we should be encouraging. I ask the Minister to look

7 July 2015 : Column 298

carefully at this case, to speak to the university, if he has not already done so, and really to bring this to a satisfactory conclusion.

7.34 pm

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has made some very powerful points. I do not think that anyone listening to his account could fail to be moved by it. There are some serious issues to be looked at. As I said in my intervention, this points to the difficult problems in a collegiate-based university system, although there are also strengths. Over the years, I have looked at the college-based system—I am partly a product of it—and sometimes asked myself whether it is the most effective way to operate in the modern world. However, the University of Cambridge is one of the most successful universities in the world. There are some real strengths in the college system but also some weaknesses, as my right hon. Friend clearly identified.

I am sure that people in Cambridge will want to look closely at this, not least because many of those in the university have worked very hard on some of these issues. In fact, when the Quality Assurance Agency looked at the university a few years ago, dealing with students with disabilities was singled out as one of the areas where it did well. Clearly, even getting a good report like that does not mean that the system works in all cases, because it obviously did not work in this case. The University of Cambridge is one of the few higher education institutions that has a person dedicated to Asperger’s syndrome, and the number of students with Asperger’s has risen from 27 in 2009 to 135 today. While there are clearly people making an effort in the university, it is obviously not enough, because it has not worked in this case, as sometimes happens.

I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the House. As I say, I am sure that people in Cambridge will want to look at it closely. We all want to make sure that we get a successful outcome for his constituent.

7.36 pm

The Minister for Universities and Science (Joseph Johnson): I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for the opportunity to debate this important topic. Access to higher education is an issue that he has long championed as a constituency MP and as a former higher education Minister.

I was extremely sorry to hear of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent Azhir Mahmood’s difficulties with Asperger’s syndrome and the difficulties that have arisen in his dealings with Homerton College in Cambridge. The right hon. Gentleman quoted Professor Stephen Hawking’s comments about whether anyone with a condition such as his—motor neurone disease—would find the same sort of generosity of support available now as he did when he was a younger academic. Let me assure the House that they most certainly should, for we want many more Stephen Hawkings in our universities—all of them, wherever they are in the country.

The wellbeing of students is rightly of great importance for our higher education institutions, and I know that they take their responsibilities in this area exceptionally seriously. As autonomous bodies independent of the Government, universities have the responsibility to ensure

7 July 2015 : Column 299

the wellbeing of their students. This includes making reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities, seen and unseen, including those on the autism spectrum. That includes those with Asperger’s syndrome. Institutions have clear legal responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 to support such students, and they are best placed to determine the appropriate support and adjustments that they need to provide to them.

When an individual believes that they have been discriminated against and a dispute arises, there are established procedures in place for raising a formal complaint. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, this is initially through the university’s internal complaints procedure. If the complaint is unresolved after completing that process, the student can ask the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to explore the complaint, and that office, which was set up as an alternative to the courts and is free to students, can form its own view. Any complaints can also be referred to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This is an independent body established under the Equality Act 2006 to stop discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity. It is for each institution to ensure that it is complying with the law and meeting its duties.

Cambridge colleges are independent, and they make their own decisions. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is rightly not able to interfere with the admissions process. Similarly, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I understand, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) himself made clear, that the University of Cambridge has undertaken considerable work in this area, including a project looking at the support for students with Asperger’s syndrome. I am told that it was one of a very small number of such projects operating across this country’s higher education landscape. As the hon. Gentleman has said, before the project started in 2009, very few students with Asperger’s were studying at Cambridge, but today there are approximately five or six times that number. That is a sign of progress and I welcome it.

It is also very positive that data from the most recent national student survey in 2014 showed that disabled students at Cambridge were more satisfied than non-disabled students with their period of study at the university. That is satisfactory.

There are many other examples of the support that universities have in place. Many universities—almost all of them, I would imagine—have induction systems to help students understand university life and people to turn to if they are experiencing difficulties. Institutions offer counselling services to students to help with their health and welfare issues, and most also offer personal tutors. I know that universities are mindful of the fact that many of their students, particularly those who have moved far away from home for the first time to study, will be undergoing a significant transition and may need extra help.

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The Government also provide extra support for disabled students, on an individual basis, through the disabled students allowance, which can provide support to students with mental health issues, including those with an autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome. All students applying for the DSA undergo a needs assessment interview to ascertain their specific requirements with regard to their chosen course of study. Support can include items such as specialist equipment—assistive software, for example—and funding for a specialist mentor to provide support to a student to address barriers created by a particular impairment.

It is important that all students, from whatever background and whether they have a disability or not, get the support they need to apply to higher education and be successful in their studies. We are making progress in that respect. The proportion of accepted applicants with a declared disability has increased from 6.5% in 2010 to 8.5% in 2014.

Good progress is also being made on the entry of students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds to higher education. UCAS reports that the entry rate for English 18-year-olds increased for all ethnic groups in 2014. Since 2010 there has been a 4.5 percentage point increase in the proportion of students from Asian backgrounds, and a 7 percentage point increase in the proportion of students from black backgrounds.

We are not satisfied with that, however, and we want to build on that progress, so the Prime Minister has set a goal for increasing the number of students from BME backgrounds progressing to higher education by 20% by 2020. He has also set a goal to double the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education by the end of this Parliament compared with 2009 levels. Those are ambitious goals, and rightly so, and for entry in 2015 we have lifted the cap on aspiration, and publicly funded universities can now choose to recruit as many students as have the ability and wish to apply.

In conclusion, the higher education sector has much to be proud of in its work to ensure the wellbeing and mental health of its students and to fulfil its duties under the Equality Act. I expect the sector to continue to meet its obligations in this area and to build and develop the support it provides.

Again, I am extremely sorry to hear of this particular student’s experience. The right hon. Member for Tottenham has explained in great detail the steps he has taken to support him, and I commend his work on his behalf as a constituency MP. I must stress, however, the need for both the student and the university to continue to work together for a solution that will enable this talented individual to thrive and flourish in higher education.

Question put and agreed to.

7.44 pm

House adjourned.