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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 15 March 2016

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Engineering Skills: Design and Technology Education

9.30 am

Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered engineering skills and design and technology education.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I have called this debate because I believe that the future of engineering and design and technology education is central to the challenges facing our economy today. An under-skilled workforce limits a company’s—and, in turn, the country’s—growth prospects. If our labour supply does not match our jobs market, the result is simple: companies will either relocate or, potentially, close. That is a massive threat facing businesses in my constituency and our country.

We must be bold. We cannot just tinker around the edges and hope for the best—not if we want to fulfil the infamous long-term economic plan, support British businesses, boost productivity and give young people a fair shot in life by encouraging them to study subjects that are more likely to lead to employment. The UK is the 11th biggest manufacturer in the world. We are competitive in our ability to research and develop highly specialised technologies. However, to maintain our influence, we must focus on exports and address the UK’s productivity crisis. Since 2013, the UK’s productivity has been stagnating. That is simply unacceptable and needs addressing.

We have a severe shortage of engineers. According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the country will need almost 2 million more engineers in the next seven years. I repeat: 2 million. That is a flabbergasting figure. Each week, I visit businesses in my constituency, and time and again the same message is echoed: they are struggling to hire adequately skilled staff. Shockingly, some businesses are considering the possibility of relocating. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills estimates that companies are struggling to fill 43% of their STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—vacancies because of the skills gap.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate about such an important topic. Does she agree that it is not just the commercial sector that is affected? The shortage of skills in the wider economy also has an impact on our military, who train people in STEM subjects; the Royal Navy has one engineer for every two it would like in some sectors, because of private sector companies desperately trying to recruit people with the skills in which it provides training.

Michelle Donelan: I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. The shortage of STEM skills is vast across a number of sectors, and we need to face that. In

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the military, the private sector and the public sector, it is a big problem facing us. Also on that point, there is a problem with the numbers of females and of people from socially deprived backgrounds in STEM. We must try to make the industry much more representative. The number of women in engineering is just 6%. Something needs to be done to address that.

A business in my constituency, Alford Technologies, summed the situation up well in an email to me. It said:

“Engineering is sadly underrated in the UK. Britain needs to do something to raise the profile of engineering, to make it something more people aspire to do. In order to stay at the forefront of the modern, technological world, the Government really needs to invest in encouraging the next generation of great engineers, designers and innovators.”

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She says that the Government must do more to engage and promote engineering, but does she agree that there is also an important role for businesses to play? They should be getting out there, into primary and secondary schools, promoting their business and showing what they do behind what might appear to be closed doors to families and children, who often do not know what engineering means until it is too late.

Michelle Donelan: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which I will touch on in a minute. I completely agree: the link between business, companies and education needs to be aligned much better. There is a big stigma and misconception about this sector, and the only way in which we can myth-bust is by introducing young people to real people in the industry, who will tell them what life is like in the job.

Lucy Frazer (South East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that businesses are already doing a great deal in this area? In my constituency, Marshall does a great job of inspiring young people to go into engineering and aerospace, and yesterday I met representatives of TWI, a company just outside my constituency, which is doing the same. However, businesses need to do more and they need to do it at an early stage if they are to inspire young people at the ages of six, seven and eight to get involved in engineering.

Michelle Donelan: Yes. I thank my hon. and learned Friend. Again, I will touch on that point in a minute, but I totally agree. The problem is that there is inconsistency. A number of businesses and schools in my constituency are also doing an excellent job, but not every school is offering the same link with businesses and not every business is engaging as much as it could be.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend; she is being intervened on a lot by hon. Friends, and I am sure that we are all providing her with excellent advice—I hope she will take it in that spirit.

I am the co-chair of the all-party group on design and innovation, so I have an interest in this area. Will my hon. Friend comment on the link that there should be between the sectors that she is talking about and education? We recently had a meeting with the Minister to discuss whether this subject could be included in the

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English baccalaureate. I understand the reluctance about that, but will my hon. Friend comment on the relationship with education generally?

Michelle Donelan: The main thrust of my speech is about the EBacc, so I will leave that point and my hon. Friend can eagerly anticipate what I will say in a few moments.

John Howell: Touché!

Michelle Donelan: Linking education with business can be done in a variety of ways. The most important way is to get businesses into schools to talk to children face to face. Only a certain amount of information can be had from books and the media, and if we continue to perpetuate stereotypes, we will not get anywhere. That is the reality.

To go back to my speech, we must support businesses such as Alford. We must inspire the next generation of thinkers and create an innovation-hungry economy. Britain needs more businesses making more things, designing more things, inventing more things and exporting more things. We must recognise that engineering and manufacturing are an important part—indeed, a vital part—of Britain’s economic future.

What is the answer to all these problems? We need to improve our careers education system, starting at primary school age. Studies show that from age six children rule out careers. That is just perpetuating the stereotyping and the reluctance of girls to enter this industry. We need to strengthen further the links with local businesses and to increase the emphasis that we place on local labour market intelligence, so that we inform our young people about local opportunities and the best career choices and options are available to them.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): I am extremely grateful to my fellow Wiltshire MP from my home town of Chippenham for initiating this debate. Does she concur that one of the great opportunities in Wiltshire is provided by QinetiQ? That company provides thousands of apprenticeships in science and technology, and there is its initiative with the 5% Club to target high investment in apprenticeships, so that local people in Wiltshire can see the opportunities for apprenticeships in science and technology at age 18 locally. That is a good start on the journey that my hon. Friend will take us on this morning.

Michelle Donelan: I thank my hon. Friend, who is right. I know at first hand the work that that company is doing in Wiltshire, especially in the area of apprenticeships, which is vital for our economy and for giving young people the opportunity to experience these industries from a younger age. We need to run more schemes like that.

I believe that we need to go further and measure schools on destination reporting—reporting on what careers young people go into—so that we can better measure what is happening. However, this is really all quite simple. To make our economy more productive, we need to make our education system more productive. To put it another way, we need to wake up to the fact

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that we need to align the business sector and the education sector and ensure that they are working much more to support each other.

The Government have already done quite a lot in this area, and I do not want to overlook that. They have recognised the need to focus on STEM with initiatives such as STEMNET, providing £6.3 million a year to run a number of programmes. That includes more than 28,000 STEM ambassadors. The Big Bang Fair is another initiative that I have seen at first hand in Wiltshire, and Wiltshire College is doing an excellent job of celebrating STEM for young people in the UK. There is also the “Your Life” campaign, which is increasing the number of pupils taking on A-level physics and maths.

University technology colleges are another fantastic way to address the STEM shortage, and I am delighted that more than 55 UTCs will be open by 2017, catering for more than 33,000 students. A number of other initiatives focus on further education and university education, of which the most important is the removal of the cap on university places for STEM subjects. Those are all great initiatives, but we still face a huge skills gap that is threatening our economy.

I believe that the answer to addressing the skills gap lies in the new design and technology GCSE course. For too long, design, technology and engineering subjects have been misunderstood, stigmatised and stereotyped, which is quite ironic given that the skills shortage means that we are in dire need of encouraging more young people to pursue those careers. It is also ironic given that all those subjects give students the best shot at getting highly valued, highly paid jobs, and given the UK’s productivity crisis. Those in the know—business leaders—see design and technology as an essential part of the UK’s remaining a global leader in product design. If we are to plug the ever-growing skills gap and address our rather shameful productivity crisis, we must listen to business and act urgently.

Education is the key to addressing the skills shortage, and design and technology is a key part of that. Entries for the D and T GCSE have declined by 18% since 2010—a decline that, at 26% over the five-year period, is even more dramatic among girls. In addition, the recruitment of D and T teachers has hit an all-time low. Since 2010, their number has fallen by 2,300, and the number of teaching hours has fallen by 16%.

The Government are rightly pushing ahead on ensuring that education is vigorous and gives students the core skills they need for the workplace. It is vital that the Ebacc remains purely academic, ensuring that students leave education with the skills that they need to get on in life. I fully support that. However, the push towards the Ebacc in its current form threatens to undermine any progress being made to address the stigma associated with technology and engineering. I would like the vastly improved D and T GCSE to be included as an option of the science element of the Ebacc. There is huge support for that within the business community and the teaching community—not just in my constituency and not just in Wiltshire, but across the country. They are crying out for this change, and something needs to be done.

Figures vary, but estimates suggest that there are about 54,000 vacancies for the 1,200 graduate engineers each year. That is a brake on business and a drag on the economy. Let me be clear: I am asking not for a U-turn in the policy, but for a minor change to strengthen,

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improve and safeguard the Ebacc given the scientific and academic nature of the new D and T GCSE. There will be no outcry from vocational subject pressure groups, such as art, music and religious education, as that is a totally different debate.

There is a precedent for the change in the example of computer science. In recognition of the changing economy, the former information and communications technology qualification was revamped as computer science to cater for the economic need for computer programmers and the shortfall in the digital industries. Yet the skills shortages in design, manufacturing and engineering are far vaster, so surely the case is much more pressing.

Without a technology and engineering element to the Ebacc, young people do not have the opportunity to taste those subjects and thus gain a greater insight into those careers. Yes, they can do the core subjects such as maths and science, which can lead them on to a university place or an apprenticeship in such fields, but why would they do that if they had never actually tasted D and T and had no real concept of what it means? In fact, they will not, as the evidence shows us. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of A-level entries for D and T fell by more than 24%, which indicates that the decline in the GCSE is having a further impact that is knocking on through the STEM pipeline.

The Government are committed to 3 million new apprenticeship schemes. Ensuring that D and T is part of the Ebacc will help towards that goal. A taster in a technical course will encourage people to go on to do a technical apprenticeship. I encourage the Minister to utilise the same foresight used with computer science by introducing the newly improved and very scientific D and T course as part of the Ebacc. Doing so would add to the image and value of the subject, and send out a message that D and T and engineering are science subjects that are core to the curriculum. After all, is not one of the key purposes of our education system to create the workforce of tomorrow?

Progress 8, in theory, measures students’ progress across eight subjects: English; maths; three other Ebacc subjects, which can be science, computer science, geography, history or languages; and three further subjects, which can be from a range of the Ebacc subjects or any other highly approved art, academic or vocational qualification. However, many schools—schools are telling me this—are pushing their students towards the academic subjects. Many students are taking more than the expected minimum of five subjects, resulting in D and T being squeezed into a single or double option box to compete with the likes of photography or dance for a single place among the students’ options. It would be tragic for the new, academically rigorous D and T GCSE still to be sidelined after all the work, time and money that has been invested in it.

Some will argue that the Ebacc is only five subjects from a GCSE programme of nine, but that does not really show an understanding of the situation we face. D and T is being marginalised. The brightest students overlook it because they do not perceive it as a scientific subject and because it does not have that Ebacc accreditation.

As a result of the hard work and commitment of the Minister, the James Dyson Foundation and the business community, the content of the new course, which will be launched in September 2017, is highly scientific and

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a vast improvement on the previous qualification. It encourages the innovation and creativity needed to boost UK productivity, and it is worthy of Ebacc status. The Minister has made some very good points, describing the new GCSE as “gold-standard”, and said:

“This is a rigorous qualification which will require students to have a sound grasp of maths and science, and which will undoubtedly stretch them to further develop the kind of knowledge and skills so sought after by employers and universities.”

Well, I agree. D and T is the only subject in which students put their maths and physics knowledge to a practical test. It is the only subject that gives a window into engineering careers, and it is the obvious pipeline for engineering talent. That view is shared by Sir James Dyson; Dr Rhys Morgan, director of education at the Royal Academy of Engineering; Paul Jackson, the chief executive officer of EngineeringUK; the Design and Technology Association; and hundreds of businesses that have contacted me in the past few weeks. We must listen to the experts and take action. Including the course within the Ebacc would help to challenge perceptions of the subject, and boost recruitment and take-up. There is a 57% recruitment shortfall in trainee D and T teachers, who are concerned over the subject’s future and status.

There are a number of other ways in which we can encourage young people to take engineering and D and T to safeguard the subject and their futures, and I do not deny that I have only really touched on one way today. I am sure that colleagues will go into further depth on other areas. I have focused on including the new D and T course within the Ebacc because I believe that it is crucial and very doable. The simple change is what business and the economy need. It would highlight that the Government understand the need to align the education system much more with the economy and to give our young the best opportunity in life.

We have a chance to include a new, robust and rigorous D and T course within the Ebacc as a science element, just as was done with computer science, to combat any negative perceptions and recognise the needs of the industry. It is unacceptable, at a time when we have such severe engineering shortages and a growing productivity crisis, that we are prioritising only the S and M, and not the T and E, of STEM. What is the point of all the programmes we have to encourage young people to consider a career in the sector if we are going to say that the new science-based D and T course is actually not really science? That is what this categorisation means—that it is not actually science—and it sends out the message that the subject is not important to the STEM agenda.

In conclusion, if we are to remain at the forefront of global product design, we must take action. Bolstering the D and T GCSE by its inclusion in the Ebacc is an important step to addressing the skills shortage, safeguarding the future of the subject, and supporting skills and businesses. As I said to the Prime Minister last month, the skills shortage is a ticking time bomb, and I urge the Minister to act now.

9.49 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) for setting the scene so well on a subject that is of interest to us all. It is nice

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to see the Minister here, too. I look forward to his contribution. I also look forward to the speech of the shadow Minister. He and I celebrated Leicester City’s win against Newcastle last night as we march on to premier league success, so we have more reasons for smiling this morning than we normally do. As a Leicester City supporter of some 46 years, I must say that we have been through hard times, so it is good to enjoy the good times, too. I digress; we are here to discuss an important issue.

I have spoken on this issue many times in the House, and I have tabled questions and early-day motions. The need for MPs—and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as it is a devolved matter—to push for engineering skills and design and technology education has never been more important. When I first became a Member of Parliament in 2010, our unemployment rate was 5.4%; it is now down to 3.9%. To give credit where it is due, that is due to the Government’s economic policy and to our Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly, who have collectively encouraged job creation. In proportion to our size, job creation in Northern Ireland has matched job creation in south-east England.

Job creation in Northern Ireland is important, but we need a skilled workforce and young people coming through to take advantage of the many good jobs that have been created. The country needs to look to the future and produce a workforce that will allow the jobs of the future to come to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and be part of a resurging manufacturing sector in the high-skilled economy that we are trying to create. We in Northern Ireland are keen to benefit from that, and we have seen some benefits. We have seen economic growth in the Province, with more jobs than ever, but the jobs that have come have too often not offered the quality career that aspiring young people want and need. The jobs of the future will be located in the STEM sectors of our economy, which can make a real contribution towards establishing a more balanced economy across the whole country and producing a more sustainable economy in a volatile global market.

We have to respond to the market. Of course, many people would say that the market is uncertain, as the Chancellor seems to be indicating—we will probably know more about that after tomorrow’s Budget—which raises concern for the future. One reason why our economy was exposed during the recession was the lack of manufacturing jobs. We need to focus more on manufacturing. We cannot let all the manufacturing jobs go outside the United Kingdom. We cannot let other countries take advantage of lower workforce costs. We have to retain as much of our manufacturing base as we can.

When we talk about manufacturing jobs, of course, we have to take account of the fact that manufacturing is part of a global market, and it is near impossible to bring production line manufacturing jobs back to the United Kingdom. Simply, nations across the globe are undercutting us to such an extent that we would have to abolish the minimum wage even to try to compete, and we are not going to do that. We are going in the opposition direction, and the Prime Minister and the Government have committed to introducing the living wage, which is a welcome development. With that in

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mind, we must seek to bring in high-end manufacturing jobs—the jobs of the future of which I spoke—which require a highly skilled workforce. Such a workforce can only be achieved by investing properly in this field of education, and in apprenticeships, so that we can be globally competitive once again.

We debated International Women’s Day last Tuesday, and a notable achievement of the push for STEM education in schools is that more than 40% of ambassadors in the STEM ambassador programme are women. In last night’s debate on Commonwealth Day, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) said that women were in very high places across the United Kingdom, as they should be. It was once a male-dominated industry with a male-dominated ethos and environment, but real change is now happening in the STEM sectors, and careers are open to all. I am encouraged by what the Northern Irish Minister for Employment and Learning, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Northern Ireland Assembly are doing. We have created a lot of apprenticeships for young people across the gender base. Many young girls are now taking up engineering as a job. The wage structure is such that new starters earn £30,000 to £35,000. Some people tell me that that is not a great wage, but it is a terrific wage for Northern Ireland. Such wages provide opportunity and keep our skill base at home. We want to see more of that.

I sit on the board of governors of Glastry College in my Strangford constituency. At our meeting last Thursday, the careers teacher had an opportunity to indicate some of the things that she was doing to ensure that young people at the school, and particularly young girls, saw engineering and the STEM industries as an opportunity. How do we do that? It is not just about the jobs; it is about pointing people in the right direction and bringing those two things together. In her introduction, the hon. Member for Chippenham mentioned “designer technology”—I wrote it down. That is what we need. We need to get our young people looking towards where those jobs are, which is important to me.

Shorts Bombardier has announced the bad news of job layoffs, but we are hopeful that that will make the company leaner, although maybe not meaner, and therefore more cost-effective, which will be a base from which the manufacturing base can hopefully bounce back. Last Thursday, the Minister for Skills announced more help for apprenticeships across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are all going to benefit—Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England—and perhaps the Minister for Schools will comment on that. I know that it is not his Department, but there are great opportunities to do more.

Indeed, there have been commendable efforts and STEM initiatives, particularly in schools. We need to ensure that those initiatives translate into results and that there are real returns on our investment. The Government have invested some £15 million, and we need results not just for the sake of the economy but for our young people who need to grow up with the security of a top-class career and wage so that they can cement their position here in the United Kingdom.

Despite those efforts, results have been disappointing, and I have some statistics. GCSE entries for design and technology declined by 18% between 2011 and 2014-15.

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The decline has been even more pronounced among girls, with entries falling by 26%, compared with 12% for boys over the same period. Will the Minister comment on that? Between 2011 and 2014-15, A-level entries for design and technology fell by 24%. Either the Government’s efforts have not taken hold or we need to consider a different way of doing it. I always like to be constructive in debates, so that is not a criticism. It is about how we can do it better and how we can find solutions and improvement.

Efforts have also been made in Northern Ireland’s higher education sector, where the Department for Employment and Learning has taken significant steps to focus on STEM and make changes in the further education sector, universities and colleges. In the 2015 autumn statement, the Government announced that from 2017-18, the equal and lower qualification fee exemption would be extended so that students wishing to take a part-time second degree in a wider range of STEM subjects would be eligible for tuition loans. Will the Minister comment on that?

In addition to supporting those in education, there has been some support for educators in the STEM sector. Trainee teachers in England with a first-class degree or a PhD in physics, chemistry, mathematics or computing are eligible for a bursary of £25,000, which is significant. The bursary for trainee teachers in physics with a first-class degree or a PhD will go up to £30,000 in 2016-17. Those are significant, positive changes to the bursary opportunities that are available.

Compared with November 2010, the number of design and technology teachers has fallen by 2,300, but the number of engineering teachers has risen by 100. Again, it seems that a change in education provision is needed. Have the Government made provision to ensure that there is a sufficient number of engineering teachers so that pupils can take advantage of that opportunity? The situation reflects decreased demand in schools, but it also prompts us to ask what point there is in incentives for teachers in the sector if we cannot even motivate students to take the subject.

There has been some success. In the year 2014-2015, there were 74,060 apprenticeship starts in the engineering and manufacturing technology sector. Absolutely significant steps forward have been taken if there are 74,000 apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing. It is the highest figure of all comparable years since 2011; that is a big step. There has been some success, but unfortunately, lower figures in schools should raise alarm bells. I urge the Government to act on that, for the sake not just of the economy but of the future of our young people, who want quality long-term and sustainable careers.

I am in the second half of life. Although not everyone in this room is, those of us who are must prepare our young people to come forward—our children, our grandchildren and other people’s children and grandchildren. Let us give them the job opportunities that we want for them. I want to see our young people stay in Northern Ireland; I certainly want them to stay within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That means Scotland staying in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as well, by the way. [Interruption.] The hon. Members from the Scottish National party knew I was going to

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say that. It has been a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Chippenham for securing it and giving us a chance to participate.

Mr Adrian Bailey (in the Chair): Four people have indicated that they wish to speak. I want to call the Front-Bench spokespersons by half-past 10, so if subsequent speakers could confine their remarks to about seven minutes, I would be grateful. It will enable us to get everybody in.

10.1 am

Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on securing this debate and on her detailed speech, which correctly highlighted the issues facing us.

I represent a constituency with a long, rich history of engineering. It has the dockyard, the Royal Engineers, Short Brothers, BAE Systems and now a growing digital and high-tech economy. The Royal Academy of Engineering has suggested, as my hon. Friend said, that there is an annual shortage of about 53,000 graduate engineers. We must encourage young people to get excited about a career in engineering and technology and to see the plethora of opportunities that are available if they choose engineering and design and technology as a career.

In my constituency, we are lucky enough to have an engineering and construction university technical college, which was opened in September. It gives 14 to 19-year-olds the opportunity to study those subjects, gaining academic qualifications and—this is also key—the skills required to go out into the workplace. We hear that employers value that very much, and it is what they look for in young people who study those subjects.

We particularly need to encourage girls, who are less likely to see engineering and design and technology as a route. Last week, on International Women’s Day, I was lucky enough to have some young women from the UTC come up here to showcase some of the work that they had carried out since starting there in September. They are doing their bit locally as well by running a “UTCs are for girls” campaign, but they rightly point out that the necessary change must start earlier, in primary and secondary schools, so that young people are completely aware of the opportunities and excitement that engineering can bring. That can be achieved only by offering the opportunity to study those subjects at GCSE level and by giving pupils good-quality careers advice while they study.

This year, BAE Systems has offered 12 higher-level apprenticeships at its Rochester site in my constituency. BAE is doing exciting design and highly technical manufacturing work in my constituency, and some people there have not always been aware of that work. BAE reports that the young people who came through the doors were aware of those 12 higher-level apprenticeships only because they had been guided by their parents or had friends or relatives who worked at BAE Systems.

Our UTC reports that it also has concerns and challenges in recruiting staff for the technology subjects. It is proving increasingly difficult as schools phase out some of those subjects. It is absolutely right that we should be able to attract high-quality people into such roles within

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our schools to ensure that they create the excitement that our young people need when choosing further careers. Businesses are doing their bit. For example, BAE Systems has an early years working group, a team of volunteers working to drive encouragement for future generations to consider engineering careers. BAE has increased engagement with the community, and has launched a brochure to inspire the workforce of the future which has been shared and delivered across 360 educational establishments in Kent.

BAE Systems is working to encourage young people, particularly in my constituency, to consider a route to a long, exciting career, with opportunities not only to work in the UK by fulfilling jobs available currently and in the future, but to dream of travelling and working in other countries. We are lucky: we have an international history of sending young people abroad with quality skills. I hope that we continue to increase that.

It is important that we can fulfil the requirement for such skills in future, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham has outlined. I support her call to re-include the design and technology GCSE in the EBacc. I was lucky enough to take the design and technology GSCE when I was at school, and I later became a marine surveyor. I had opportunities to travel all around the world, and I was not limited to one career option. I think we should focus on ensuring that we really understand what engineering means. Maybe that one word does not always highlight correctly what opportunities there are.

I know I am repeating myself, but it is important to labour this point. I would particularly like to mention careers advice. It is a challenge not just in my constituency but across the country. It is crucial that the teachers charged with teaching the young people in our schools can be educated on what opportunities and career choices there are in this field. It is not necessarily teachers’ fault if they are not aware of some of the opportunities available. I would like much more focus on how we train and brief our teachers to understand what opportunities there are, so they can impart them to our young people and be part of the challenge of engaging with local businesses to drive the situation from a school perspective, not just by bringing businesses into schools.

Thank you for allowing me to speak in this debate, Mr Bailey. I welcome what the Government have already done to focus on STEM subjects. The issue is always on the agenda now; we are talking about it more and more often. That is absolutely right, and I wish that to continue.

10.9 am

Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Bailey. Hopefully, from your perspective it will end up being a pleasure having to listen to me.

I thank the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) for securing this debate on what can be quite a wide-ranging topic. I will try to cover a few key aspects.

Before becoming a Member of the House, I worked as a civil engineer for more than 20 years, so I am well aware how the skills gap and the gender gap have exercised the engineering industry over those years.

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When I first graduated, it was the time of the recession in the early 1990s, which made jobs really difficult to come by and also deflated the wages that were available. The result was a constant drip-feed of fresh talent into other sectors, including the financial sector. That meant that when there was an inevitable upturn, there was a big skills shortage. I am well aware of that, but I can also say that over the past 20-odd years there has been a big improvement in trying to close these gaps and to raise awareness about engineering as a career.

I speak about engineering from my perspective, but quite often it might differ from other people’s perspectives about what constitutes an engineer. That can sometimes make it problematic to promote the concept of a career in engineering, because engineering is so wide-ranging. I recently visited some engineering workshops associated with the aerospace industry. Hands-on, high-quality manufacturing was in evidence, but again it was very different to what I saw as my career—latterly, I worked as a consultant, which is worlds away from that hands-on engineering environment. That in itself illustrates that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be conceived to fill the skills gaps across the broader engineering sector.

Having said that, it is clear that, fundamentally, what is required is the promotion of STEM subjects. STEM is an acronym that is widely used. However, as the hon. Member for Chippenham touched on, we really need to focus on the technology and engineering aspects of STEM; those aspects need to be more widely promoted and developed at school level.

I also served as a councillor for my local authority, East Ayrshire Council, which has introduced a STEM programme for primary children. Recently, I met Dr Peter Hughes, a former chief executive of Scottish Engineering. He said that East Ayrshire’s approach to STEM subjects, both in primary schools and through its business enterprise initiative for secondary schools, is world-leading. That shows what can be done when there is a drive in a local area, and obviously it would be good if that best practice was shared across the country.

The local college in my area, Ayrshire College, also works with industry to develop courses that the industry requires to fill its gaps. One example of that is working with wind farm operators to develop turbine technician courses. That gives some engineering-related courses a less intense academic focus, and instead balances the knowledge and understanding that is required with hands-on working. In civil engineering, I have also noted a return to the technician-engineer route. For me, there is no doubt that that can attract those who otherwise would not want to do a four-year degree course. In relation to the turbine course, obviously the cuts to subsidies for the renewables industry will not allow this industry to continue to grow. That is a shame, because the industry was getting to a stage where it could forge really sustainable careers for people.

These education initiatives accord with the wider Scottish National party Government’s determination to improve the take-up of STEM subjects in schools and to encourage a more diverse range of young people into STEM subjects and careers. Several initiatives underpin that. There has been a £1.5 million allocation to boost delivery of STEM subjects; there is a “Making Maths Count” initiative to drive up numeracy attainment; the Scottish Funding Council has provided funding for an

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additional 1,200 STEM subject places over four years; there has been an Inspiring Teachers recruitment campaign; and only last month, part of a £12 million transition training fund for the oil and gas sector was set aside to allow individuals from the sector to retrain as teachers and hopefully inspire a new generation. The SNP has also set up the general £100m Attainment Scotland Fund.

Higher education in Scotland is still free, which we are proud of. Again, that compares with the previous coalition Government trebling tuition fees to £9,000 a year, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that those fees can be a barrier to people entering higher education, which of course can impact on the engineering sector as well.

There is another risk caused by the UK Government that I have identified, which is the cut of funding for research and innovation. The move from innovation grants towards innovation loans has been decried by Bivek Sharma, who is the head of small business accounting at KPMG. We really should not be de-incentivising the industry when it has been making large strides to promote innovation and forge better links with education establishments.

Another issue in Scotland is the loss of the post-study work visa, which was particularly useful in the civil engineering industry to fill the skill gaps. Again, I have encountered that: at the place I worked, we had graduates who came from all over the world, but they had studied in Scotland and they were able at that time to stay in Scotland in that working environment. Not only had they contributed to education establishments; they then had an opportunity to contribute to the wider society, pay taxes and learn their careers, so I urge the UK Government to rethink.

As a civil engineer, I am a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which has developed some fantastic initiatives over the years that aim to inspire the next generation. In Scotland, outreach activity reached more than 5,000 pupils in 2015 alone. That activity includes the Bridges to Schools programme, which is a hands-on activity for primary year 6 and 7 pupils, enabling them to build a 12-metre long cable bridge. They build the bridge, and then they are able to walk on it, understand the loading on it, and deconstruct it. It is about teamwork, promotion of engineering and letting them understand that wider career.

ICE in Scotland also organises the rapid response engineering challenge, which covers first and second year pupils. It also hosts careers evenings and targeted events to increase diversity in the industry and works with Skills Development Scotland and Young Scot to get out appropriate messages about engineering career paths.

As a younger engineer, I participated in classroom visits myself, but given that I have not even managed to persuade my two sons to enter engineering, I am not sure I was the best advocate to encourage others. Nevertheless, I certainly enjoyed doing that and it is great that other people continue to do it.

Across the UK, ICE also works closely with STEMNET, asking members to sign up with ICE as STEM ambassadors. STEMNET works with schools, colleges and STEM employers to enable young people to meet inspiring role models, understand the real-world applications

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of STEM subjects and experience hands-on activities. Obviously, the intention is to motivate and inspire the pupils, and to bring learning and career opportunities to life for them. There have been more than 30,000 trained STEM ambassadors, of whom more than 40% are female—

Mr Adrian Bailey (in the Chair): Order. If the hon. Gentleman could wind up, I would be very grateful, as it would enable other speakers to participate in the debate.

Alan Brown: More than 40% of the STEM ambassadors and more than 60% of them are under the age of 25.

To conclude, industry, education establishments and the Scottish Government are making inroads in promoting STEM subjects. I agree with the hon. Member for Chippenham: we need a way to measure the impact of engagement with pupils and its results in their careers.

10.17 am

Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on securing this important debate on the future of engineering skills, and of design and technology.

The UK has serious shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. Although such shortages are not new, statistics show that many children choose not to study STEM subjects at a higher level. That is of concern to schools, universities, other training providers and especially employers. STEM subjects underpin many careers in technologically dependent sectors of the economy, including manufacturing and engineering. Almost 70% of research and development investment is in the manufacturing sector, and goods produced in this sector account for 44% of UK exports.

Engineering is also important for the northern powerhouse, which requires growth in manufacturing industry; alongside that growth, we also need to see the growth and development of the educational sector, to provide skills for such industries as they develop over time. Our modern economy needs the skills and abilities that STEM and design technology subjects bring. These subjects promote problem solving and practical skills, and are some of only a few subjects in the curriculum that develop hands-on skills.

Although the subjects can be challenging, there are plenty of opportunities on offer for motivated individuals to develop their abilities in real-world situations. Although we need people to do the academic subjects, so much of what we create not only has to achieve its basic function but must feel right. We need practical skills really to make a product, not just in terms of its performance function but in terms of feeling right when it is performing that function—for anything from creating to a sauce pan to creating all the components and elements that go into making a high-speed train, which, hopefully, will be discussed tomorrow by the Chancellor.

Pupils experience STEM directly through the curriculum, which means, as was highlighted earlier, that they mainly encounter only science and mathematics. However, many more career openings are on the engineering and technology side. Although it is important to enhance the prospects

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of pupils by ensuring that they receive a core academic curriculum, with employers in technical and skilled occupations reporting a shortage we cannot afford to overlook subjects that lead to careers in technology-dependent sectors of our economy. Just as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) has a background in civil engineering, I worked for nearly 20 years in the mass spectrometry industry. An academic background is necessary, but hands-on skills are also key, because so much of what is learned then has to be applied by the hands.

Hon. Members might be aware of the Your Life campaign, which aims to increase the number of people studying science and mathematics at A-level. It is welcome news that since 2010 the number of young people studying for science and mathematics A-levels has increased by about 29,000, but there is still much more to be done in the other STEM subjects of design and technology, and engineering. Teachers and employers must boost pupils’ understanding of the value of those subjects, including their relevance to the modern world and their transferability to a wide range of careers. Students should not be aiming for high grades irrespective of the subject they choose, just so the statistics look good. Subject options must be taken with career choices in mind and with the best possible careers advice.

Too much focus on the academic and not enough on skills and more practical applied learning will mean that the skills gap in the economy will increase. The future of the UK’s economy requires a fundamental change in how pupils choose their subjects, as this leads to their future career paths—into higher education or apprenticeships, or directly into employment. I regularly hear from businesses in my constituency that they are concerned that children are regularly pushed down the university route and actively—not just tacitly—pushed away from the apprenticeship alternative. I ask the Minister directly to address the concern that schools encourage people to go down the academic route and discourage the apprenticeship side.

Our schools can do more to engage with local businesses—and that is key, as local businesses have a wealth of experience and present a wealth of opportunities locally. Children can be encouraged, when choosing their options, to think about what opportunities there are locally. Providing young people with the right incentives and the right information about the choices they make is vital for their future and for the future of the UK’s economy.

10.23 am

Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) (UUP): I am glad to be speaking here today, Mr Bailey, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on bringing forward the debate.

I wanted to speak in this debate because I had three years in Northern Ireland as vice-chair of the education committee—so a little bit of experience there—and I now chair the all-party parliamentary group on education here. I also worked for three years in the 1980s at Short Brothers, later Bombardier Aerospace, where I was definitely a square peg in a round hole. At university, I remember computer science coming at me for the first

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time as part of my business studies degree, and in those days—I am a little older than most here—it was about punching cards, stacking them into a machine and pressing the button that said “Run”. I think it worked only once. So the message I would really like to hear is that we need to teach and train everyone in these skills—they certainly passed me by.

I feel that, particularly in Northern Ireland, we have lost our way in education by concentrating too much on certain skills. Because we are devolved and in danger of devolving further into northern powerhouses, midlands machines and all sorts of other things, we must ensure that we all work together, helping each other throughout education, and do not end up concentrating on our little areas.

There are schemes for sharing the skills that are there, such as Catapult, and that is the sort of thing I would like to see as we all work together. I want education to prepare pupils for jobs, life and employment. The all-party group will be doing a survey and an inquiry into future skills, and I hope that all hon. Members here and their colleagues will get involved in helping us to explore what those skills are and how we work at the issue so that people leave school ready for a job.

When I was at Stormont working on education, various statistics came at me. One was that the Chinese produce 76,000 engineers a year. We have to stay better than them, and keep our entrepreneurship better than theirs too. I was also told that 80% of jobs now include IT, and when we went down to our excellent science park in Belfast, we discovered that there is a shortfall of some 30,000 people in Northern Ireland being trained in those skills. That fits with all the other figures. We need to get more people involved, and I think that our approach is wrong.

I will be a little local. In Northern Ireland, we have had Sinn Féin running our education system for more than a decade. It is trying to get rid of the grammar schools, squeezing them from every angle. Grammars are our one chance of getting people to perfect certain skills and certain angles, so we have had to work hard to get changes in so that they all work together. Sinn Féin has tried to get rid of that concentration on high-level skills, to bring everything down to the lowest common denominator. That is where we have lost our way.

We need to get science teaching into primary schools—Sinn Féin cut that and moved it away. It also cut the funding to Sentinus, one of the major bodies involved in making STEM interesting to pupils, and then it cut a lot of the funding to STEM. We are going in the opposite direction, but we have some fantastic teachers—in fact, most of our teachers are good. A teacher at one of my local schools, Creavery, won the award for the best primary school science teacher of the year. We must keep working so that everyone gets interested.

We also have to work on careers and make them interesting. A few years ago, I met someone from Northern Ireland who had gone to China and produced a business skills course, which he sold to the Chinese but not to us. The course teaches everything from sourcing raw materials all the way through to working on them and producing the end product. No one ever taught me that sort of skill at school—how to understand the whole business of trade and creation—and that is the sort of thing we have to get into the teaching. We have to make the area interesting.

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I sometimes wonder whether we could not have one big web portal, into which someone would stick the skill they were interested in. Say they put in “Art”: it would lead them down to design and technology, to whether they were going to design pottery, paint paintings or do the interiors of houses or ships. Everything would open up. I have been to various air shows and seen the great big banks of screens about what industry is doing. That could all be on a web portal. Every single angle could be gone down and children and pupils could go, “Wow! That’s what I want to do”. That is what we should be doing. We should be lifting everyone’s education so that they really want to move into the fields of science and technology. It did not work for me.

Jim Shannon: You’ve done all right.

Danny Kinahan: Thank you. But it could work for everyone. Some of us are art and some of us are history, but we can make things work for everyone. It all interlinks. If I have a message today, it is this: “Please promote and educate in STEM—all the sciences and technology—so that it really grips the students and pupils and makes them interested, so that they want to go out and work in those fields”.

Mr Adrian Bailey (in the Chair): The Minister has been asked to respond to an enormous number of points, so I ask the Front-Bench spokespeople to ensure that he is given adequate time to do so. I would also, of course, like to bring in the mover of the motion, Michelle Donelan, for a couple of minutes at the end to sum up.

10.29 am

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on securing this important debate. It has been informative, with many valuable contributions, and there are clear messages coming through. The hon. Lady talked about the need to tailor the curriculum to what business requires and, when looking at school curricula, it is important to consider what we are trying to achieve as the end product.

As a physics teacher, I have been long aware of the growing need for specific professions within the workplace. Engineers, scientists and computer scientists have become key to economic success in this ever more digital world. There is a massive skills gap, and we should be taking positive steps to address it. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about retaining the teachers we have and encouraging more people to take up a career in STEM teaching, and I agree; teachers are key to everything we are discussing this morning. If we cannot get teachers in, how can we possibly encourage our young people to take up these subjects? It is also important that we have an environment that is conducive to people moving into teaching. We need to look at what is happening in schools and the stresses and strains that have been put on teachers.

The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) talked about working together to produce the best results, and that is important. We want a situation where our young people educated in engineering and science can travel not only throughout the UK but throughout the world. We are producing top-class engineers, but we are just not producing enough of them. We

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should be able to export these young people worldwide. He also mentioned grammar schools. I taught in a comprehensive school for most of my career, and I do not believe that grammar schools solve all the problems.

Schoolchildren’s awareness of careers in industry has been mentioned, and we need to be careful about some of the language we use. We talk about industry, but for many children that word conjures up images of boiler suits, oil and probably fairly manky toilet facilities. If we are trying to encourage our young people, we need to be careful when we loosely talk about the engineer coming round to fix our central heating boiler or our satellite TV. Important though those workers are, I am pretty sure that most of them do not have a degree in engineering.

Kevin Foster: The hon. Lady is making an interesting and at some points amusing speech. Does she agree that part of the issue is that we perceive engineering in this country as someone fixing a washing machine? In other parts of Europe, “engineer” is a title in itself, almost like having a knighthood.

Carol Monaghan: Absolutely. We of course have chartered engineer status, but that does not filter through to children when they are thinking about careers. The stereotypes are damaging. The hon. Member for Strangford talked about the high-end jobs we have in the UK, but how do we raise awareness? A few weeks ago, I visited Clyde Space, an engineering and manufacturing plant in an office block in the centre of Glasgow that manufacturers satellites. It has a lovely open-plan area with computers down one side. Lots of young people were sitting at them, chatting and working away. They were in jeans and some even had make-up on. It is a relaxed, nice environment, and they are all engineers. We need to change our perception of what an engineer is.

The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) talked about raising awareness of STEM careers at a much earlier age, and that is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) talked about the STEM outreach in his local area. Things like that start getting children ready for other possible careers.

The hon. Member for Chippenham mentioned the subjects included in the EBacc, but what is the purpose of the EBacc? Is it an attempt at producing a gold-standard qualification, or is it simply for league tables? I spoke to the Minister for Schools last week about the composition of the EBacc—we are becoming great friends across the Chamber—and I talked about the science pillar, which retains the traditional subjects. Although the rhetoric about STEM is positive, such things as the composition of the EBacc should be driven by economic factors, not just by outdated views of what a gold-standard education should be. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) talked about the importance of hands-on skills, problem solving and apprenticeships. Those are vital. Problem-solving skills developed at school can be used widely in society, and not just within an engineering situation.

The Scottish picture was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. In response to him, I should say that my son is just about to embark on an engineering degree at university, so

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perhaps I was more persuasive. In Scotland, we have redesigned our curriculum not by making a list of the subjects we consider to be core but instead by starting at the end point: looking at what employers need and the skills our young people have to have. Our new curriculum requires children to study a broad general curriculum from age three. It must cover lots of curricular areas, including expressive arts, health and wellbeing, languages, maths, religious education, sciences, social studies and technologies. All those subjects must be covered to age 14, so children in Scotland are getting the exposure that many Members have talked about today. As young people approach their exams, they can choose which strands they wish to progress. Within the technologies curriculum, there are many different subjects—computing science, design and manufacture, design and technology, engineering and science, to name but a few—that allow them to specialise. The beauty of it is that all subject areas have equal status and the markers by which schools are judged encompass all curricular areas.

As our young people progress, they have far wider options in which they can choose to specialise. The hon. Member for South Antrim talked about his difficulties with some of those areas. Not everyone is born to be an engineer, but not everyone is born to be an expert in classics, either. Variety is what makes our society rich. We have a baccalaureate in Scotland, but it happens at a later stage. Students can do four different baccalaureates: languages; expressive arts; social sciences; and science, which includes design and manufacture and engineering science. Those qualifications at a late stage in secondary are meant to be cross-curricular and include a cross-curricular project.

In conclusion, I totally agree with the hon. Member for Chippenham and the point she raised about the importance of design and technology qualifications. We need to look at a curriculum that is driven by what industry requires, not by what politicians think is needed. We also need curricula that allow for personalisation and choice, so that young people can become experts in their areas of interest.

10.38 am

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, I think for the first time. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on setting out her stall so well at the beginning of the debate. She reminded us that engineering and design and technology education are central to our future economic success and underlined the need for skills to match the requirements of our economy. She also talked interestingly about creating an “innovation-hungry economy”. I liked that phrase; it inspired and encouraged me, and that is what we want for young people, is it not? She also spoke with passion and knowledge about the new, improved design and technology GCSE, which I think everyone in the Chamber would commend. It is an exciting move forward with a lot of potential. She also argued that, because it is exciting and has rigour and clear value, it should be given EBacc status. I will come to that later.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said that he had had words with the Minister about trying to elbow D and T into the EBacc. I can understand why

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the Minister has difficulties with that, but I will come to that later. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke as always with passion and reminded us that design and technology are even more important than Leicester City’s success this season. The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) highlighted the need for better careers information, advice and guidance, which is something I very much agree with. She also pointed to her personal experience of her own design and technology GCSE and the way in which that helped to prepare her for a career as a marine surveyor.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) worked as an engineer and came out with the perceptive statement that the one-size-fits-all approach will not work in this area. That is at the heart of some of the difficulties that the Government are perhaps getting into with their EBacc approach. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) reminded us that a modern economy needs hands-on skills as well as academic skills. I think that is very perceptive. The design and technology curriculum is particularly good at developing practical skills, which he told us were necessary whether making a saucepan or HS2. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) drew on his great experience in Northern Ireland and again underlined the importance of practical skills and careers education, among other things.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) made a significant contribution to the debate by drawing on her experience as a physics teacher and underlined the fact that there is a massive skills gap that needs to be addressed. She drew attention to how the term “engineer” covers a wide range of disciplines. Frankly, we need the practical hands-on engineering skills of plumbers as well as the high-tech engineering skills of qualified chartered engineers. We need it all; that is why design and technology is so important in our curriculum. The hon. Lady concluded by emphasising the importance of the personalisation of learning, and I think she is correct. Learning that combines rigour and the interests of the learner as well as the destination of the economy is the very best sort of learning because that allows everybody to succeed.

If I glance back to 2010, the curriculum was in many ways in quite a good place. It was not perfect, but we had a highly personalised curriculum with a lot of rigour that was driving up performance and moving people forward. That did not mean it did not need to change, but there were a lot of strengths in that approach. I know that from my own experience in leading a sixth-form college at that time. We saw standards improving in local schools, often driven by curriculum innovation, so we saw the five A* to Cs rising, and a couple of years behind that we saw the five A* to Cs plus maths and English rising. Once someone has a sense of achievement and success, it drives aspiration not only for the youngsters in that community school, but for everybody around them. That is the spiral of success that we had in 2010. Hopefully, we can continue to move forward on that.

When the EBacc was introduced, the Education Committee, on which I served, raised concerns in a critical and challenging report. The concerns were around why a particular set of subjects were chosen. Why was ancient history more important than design and technology? Why was Latin more important than business studies? The evidence base was not clear. The examination of

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what the world of work needs and what the world of education should supply was not there. I think we would all agree that a core curriculum is necessary, but the Government knew without asking anybody what the answer was, and, when probed, came up with the thought that the facilitating subjects of the Russell Group universities were the set of subjects that should determine the EBacc’s central purpose. There is no logical reason why that should be so. Indeed, as somebody who has probably sent more students to Russell Group universities than anybody else here, I know that the Russell Group accept a wide range of subjects beyond those facilitating subjects.

To go down such a route is questionable. To extend the EBacc to 90% of students obviously constricts the timetable even more. Again, I know that from having done timetables in which a limited number of resources had to be managed. Concentrating resources on certain things means other things will not fit. So there are big challenges. I recently spoke to the leader of one of the highest performing multi-academy trusts. He said that they might not go down that road. He pointed to the former Labour Government’s diploma activities as something else that they did not follow because, from their views on what is in the best interests of young people, it does not work, so there is a challenge there.

The Edge Foundation’s submission to the EBacc consultation concluded:

“Imposing an arbitrary set of qualifications on students is not supported by a solid evidence base. The 90% EBacc target is neither necessary nor desirable. It will harm, not help, large numbers of students, reduce the uptake of technical and creative subjects and limit choices open to students and their parents. It could exacerbate the country's growing skills gap, because fewer students will achieve passes in technical and creative subjects linked to the needs of the economy.”

Let us hope that that is wrong, but it is a clarion call from the organisation. The Baker Dearing Educational Trust has been very much behind the movement towards greater skills development and so on.

The Labour party wants to see a broad and balanced curriculum. We welcome the steps towards measuring the progress that children make on progress 8 and attainment 8, because a broader range of subjects are provided. It is important that young people have a core knowledge of the curriculum, including English, maths and sciences. It is all well and good thinking about D and T and the EBacc, but the thing that undermines that the most is not having enough qualified teachers to teach it. Many contributions today have drawn attention to that. The key challenge is to ensure there are enough teachers to teach design and technology, yet at the moment the Government are not getting anywhere near the target they need to achieve this, with just 41% of the target being met, and they are also missing their targets in science and computing.

The fall in the numbers of students taking design and technology is a concern too, given the skills shortages in the economy. Design and technology and engineering are important for delivering the productive high-tech economy that we need to compete in an increasingly globalised world. Forecasts suggest that the UK will need more than a million new engineers and technicians in the next five years. The Conservative Government are failing to deliver the pipeline of talent that we require. It would be a challenge for anybody, so we all need to

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support the Government in meeting the challenge, but we need to check whether this direction is the right way to meet it.

From manufacturers and construction firms to digital industries and the CBI, businesses in Britain are increasingly warning about the skills shortages that our country is grappling with. I hope the Minister has time to answer the many questions that have been raised in the debate. He is courteous and able and always does his best in that regard.

10.48 am

The Minister for Schools (Mr Nick Gibb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey; I think it is the first time I have done so. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on securing this important debate during British science week. I pay tribute to her for her work on these issues on the Education Committee and elsewhere. I also congratulate her on the powerful and compelling speech that introduced the debate.

Science, technology, engineering and maths are vital subjects in our modern economy. Our manifesto included a commitment to make this country the best place in the world to study maths and STEM subjects in primary, secondary and further education. There is widespread demand for employees with an in-depth knowledge of STEM subjects, and those working in science and technology careers are paid, on average, 19% more than in other professions. Despite those attractive employment prospects, research from organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry shows that companies still have difficulties in recruiting people with technical and professional STEM backgrounds and qualifications.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) referred to the importance of careers advice. The Government have established the Careers & Enterprise Company, and we are also taking steps to improve the quality of careers advice through the development of a new careers strategy that will set out our vision for 2020 and the clear lines of accountability, through Ofsted and the new destination measures, for the quality of careers advice in schools.

We have recognised the importance of STEM subjects to young people’s life chances, and we accept the plea of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) that we promote science and technology subjects at school. Our ambitious programme of reform is addressing the historical underperformance in STEM education. Our reforms to the curriculum and to qualifications mean that standards in public qualifications will match the expectations of the best education systems in the world.

We are also reforming vocational qualifications to introduce a small number of technical and professional routes, which will support students’ progress from school into employment. Those routes will be valued by employers to ensure that more students progress into higher-level technical occupations in areas such as engineering. As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said, high-quality teaching is also essential to tackling the skills shortages, which is why the Government support schools to recruit top graduates into teaching.

Last year, the Prime Minister announced an additional package worth £67 million to recruit and train up to 17,500 maths and physics teachers. The Government

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run scholarships and offer bursaries to encourage high-quality maths and physics graduates to train as teachers. We also support schools and existing STEM teachers to improve the quality of teaching through Government-funded programmes such as maths hubs and the network of science learning partnerships.

More than 22,000 more young people are taking A-levels in STEM subjects this year compared with 2010, and the number of STEM apprenticeships is increasing. The percentage of apprentices starting in STEM-sector-related subject areas has increased by 64% since 2010, to more than 90,000. Over the same period, the number of women starting STEM-related apprenticeships has more than doubled to 8,000, and the number starting apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing technologies has more than trebled to 5,100.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) emphasised the importance of the apprenticeship programme. We are committed to reaching 3 million apprenticeship starts in England by 2020, an ambition that we are helping to fund to the tune of £2.5 billion with the apprenticeship levy. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood highlighted the example of 12 higher-level apprenticeships at the BAE Systems site in Rochester.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) mentioned schools actively discouraging students from looking into the possibility of becoming an apprentice. The Education Act 2011, introduced by the coalition Government, says that schools should secure independent careers advice, and adds explicitly that that must include information on apprenticeships.

Another issue that the Government are tackling is the gender gap in STEM A-levels and careers. We should celebrate the fact that 12,000 more girls entered mathematics and science at A-level in 2015 than in 2010, but total entries in maths and science were still 36% higher for boys than for girls. The Secretary of State recently announced an ambition to tackle that unjustifiable gender gap by increasing the proportion of girls entering maths and science A-levels by 20% by 2020. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham referred to the STEMNET programme. There are now 32,000 STEM ambassador volunteers throughout the country who support their local schools with STEM careers advice, and 40% of them are female—a point also made by the hon. Member for Strangford.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham welcomed the reforms made to the design and technology curriculum and associated qualifications. She is right that design and technology is a valuable subject that prepares young people for further technical study, and it remains compulsory in school from key stage 1 to key stage 3—from ages five to 14. The content of the previous design and technology qualifications did not include the knowledge and skills sought by leading engineering employers, so, as my hon. Friend said, we have worked closely with key organisations in the sector—including the Design and Technology Association, the James Dyson Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering —to align the qualification with high-tech industry practice. Industry leaders have been very supportive of our reforms.

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The hon. Member for Scunthorpe criticised some of our approaches to design and technology. Under the last Labour Government, between 2007-08 and 2010, the numbers entering design and technology GCSE fell from 311,000 to 238,000. I am optimistic that our reforms to the content of the design and technology GCSE and A-level will result in a rise in the number of students who opt to study them. The decline started before we introduced the EBacc or the Progress 8 measure.

We continue to support design and technology teacher recruitment through bursaries of up to £12,000 and marketing campaigns that feature design and technology. Subject knowledge enhancement courses are available for candidates who need to refresh or boost their subject knowledge. We also provide a specific webpage on the “Get Into Teaching” website for potential design and technology trainee teachers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham expressed concerns about the impact of the recently introduced accountability measures—such as the EBacc and the Progress 8 measure—on the take-up of design and technology. I share her concern at the declining numbers that I just highlighted. In my view, that decline reflects the declining quality and status of the previous qualification. As I said, I am optimistic that we will see the numbers rise.

The EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs is an important performance measure and the Government are determined that every child should leave school fully literate and fluent in maths, with an understanding of the history and geography of the world they inhabit, its workings as revealed by the findings of science, and a grasp of a language other than their own. Biology, chemistry, physics, computer science—there is nothing old-fashioned in emphasising the importance of those subjects, which was the criticism levelled at us by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan).

I have every hope that the combination of the revised design and technology qualifications and our focus on attracting new specialist teachers will restore the subject’s focus. To give my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham time to respond, I shall finish by saying that I am enormously grateful for her support for this agenda. She has raised some important issues, and I hope she is happy with the steps that the Government are taking to address them. Over the course of the Parliament, we will continue to build on the progress we have made on this issue.

10.58 am

Michelle Donelan: I thank all colleagues who participated in the debate. Together, we have stressed the importance of promoting the STEM sector and combatting the stereotypical image that has arisen so that we can tackle the skills gap. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) summed it up when she said that we need to excite people about the industry. Today’s discussion highlighted the fact that the focus needs to be on the T and E of STEM, not just on the S and M.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) talked about the need for practical skills and hands-on ability. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), who said that education should be led by industry, not

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by politicians. That sums up the progress that we need to make in the sector. I am impressed that I managed to inspire the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin).

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response. I congratulate him on his work in the sector. It is easy to overlook the fact that he is one of the people who dramatically changed the design and technology course we have been discussing, so he understands its value and its long-term potential for progress. I agree with him about the importance of the academic rigour and core focus of the EBacc and stress that that is exactly why we need design and technology to be part of it. It is very much an academic subject, and we can send out that message to students and teachers throughout the country. I urge the Government to listen to businesses and to teachers and help to give students the best shot at life by looking again at making design and technology part of the EBacc.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered engineering skills and design and technology education.

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Sheppey Crossing: Safety

11 am

Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered safety measures on the Sheppey Crossing.

I thought that the hon. Members leaving were here for my debate, but no doubt very few people have heard of the Sheppey crossing or know where it is.

Highways England has always maintained that the Sheppey crossing is safe and that there is nothing wrong with its design, but that view is simply not backed up by the facts. During the bridge’s design and build phase, Mott MacDonald undertook a road safety audit on behalf of what was then the Highways Agency. Stage 2 of the audit highlighted a number of deficiencies. For instance, paragraph 3.1 pointed out that the gradient of the bridge is 6% greater than that recommended for all- purpose dual carriageways. It went on to say that,

“This gradient, combined with the comparatively tight horizontal radius, and reduced stopping sight distances, may result, for example, in a higher than expected rate of nose to tail type collisions.”

Mott MacDonald recommended that the horizontal and vertical geometry be reviewed and that the stopping distance be maximised wherever possible. It also recommended that

“super elevation appropriate for the horizontal alignment”

be provided. That recommendation was rejected. An exception was made for the following reasons:

“The horizontal and vertical geometry has been reviewed however there is little opportunity to increase the stopping sight distance without significant amendments to the bridge. To maximise the stopping distance the alignment or bridge width would have to be changed.”

Here is the important bit:

“Changes of this nature would require additional land within the environmentally sensitive marshes and substantially increase the cost of construction.”

Despite the acknowledgement that the stopping sight distances should have been greater, it was decided that the recommendations of the audit would be ignored on the grounds of cost.

In paragraph 3.24, Mott MacDonald highlighted the inadequacies of the manual flat type signs used to warn motorists of hazards. The audit pointed out that those signs would

“present avoidable road safety hazards to both operatives and the travelling public.”

Mott MacDonald recommended that the flat type signs be replaced by remotely controlled signs using rotating planks/prisms or fibre optics—in effect, a matrix warning system. That recommendation was also rejected on the following grounds:

“Consultations have taken place with Kent County Council and the police and it has been agreed that flap type warning signs will be used to advise of high winds.”

I am not sure whether Kent County Council was happy with the flat type signs, but I know that the police were not. That was explained to me in an email I received from Dick Denyer, who was the Kent police traffic officer for the Swale area during the period in which the Sheppey crossing was built. He insists that

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throughout the consultation process he raised a number of concerns about the bridge’s design with the Highways Agency and the contractors. In his email, he wrote the following:

“Right up until the 11th hour prior to the opening of the bridge I asked and campaigned for the following:...Low level fluorescent lights positioned along the inside of the concrete parapet so as not to contravene the RSPB objections.”

They were never provided. There are no lights on the Sheppey crossing. He asked for

“A safe walkway for stranded motorists to get off the bridge.”

There is no safe walkway on the bridge. Motorists have to sit in their car. He also asked for

“Emergency Telephones to be positioned at regular intervals on the bridge.”

There are no emergency telephones on the Sheppey crossing. He campaigned for

“Matrix warning signs on the approach to the bridge from either side to warn of fog and set speed limits suited to the conditions.”

There are two matrix warning signs, but they are manual ones. He said that there should be

“Gates at either side of the bridge.”

There are no gates on the bridge in case of emergencies.

Mr Denyer went on to claim that he was stalled, ignored and fed misinformation, and that it was only in the month leading up to the opening of the bridge that it was admitted to him in meetings with the contractors and the Highways Agency that his requests were valid and that the bridge had serious safety shortcomings. However, the bridge construction was already considerably over budget, and there was no money left to make any of the alterations that Mr Denyer had requested, but he was told that they might be considered in the future.

Mott MacDonald’s audit statement, which I cited earlier, is very important. It said that the gradient of the bridge,

“combined with the comparatively tight horizontal radius, and reduced stopping sight distances, may result, for example, in a higher than expected rate of nose to tail type collisions.”

On 5 September 2013, there was a massive pile-up on the Sheppey crossing involving 150 vehicles in a succession of nose-to-tail collisions—the largest such accident in Britain’s history. After that crash, I asked that a review be undertaken of safety on the bridge. The Highways Agency said in response that no review was necessary because the police had concluded that driver behaviour was the main contributory factor to the incident, and that they had not called into question any aspect of the bridge’s design or operation. It went on to claim that that supported the view that the bridge, which opened in July 2006, was constructed in accordance with national highway design standards for roads and bridges and was intrinsically safe.

The most charitable way of describing that statement is that it is disingenuous. When I queried it, the police told me in a letter that,

“The parameters of the investigation did not cross over into the design or layout of the Sheppey Bridge in any way, but were focussed on the actions of the drivers involved.”

In other words, there was no need for them to look at the design of the bridge, so it was disingenuous of the Highways Agency to say that the police said that the bridge was intrinsically safe. That is not the case.

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In fact, since the bridge opened, there have been a number of other nose-to-tail accidents, including one on 1 July 2014, in which a mother and son were tragically killed. After that accident, I again asked for a review of safety on the crossing, but on that occasion I was told that we would have to wait until after the inquest into the two deaths. I accepted that; it was reasonable.

At the inquest, which has now been held, the coroner made the following telling comments in a report sent to the chief executive of Highways England:

“During the course of the investigation my inquiries revealed matters giving rise to concern. In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.

Accident data reveals that in addition to the collision subject of this inquest which resulted in two fatalities, there have been a number of rear end collisions on the Sheppey Bridge associated with stationary vehicles being struck, including a multiple vehicle collision in September 2013.

A review of the safety of the Sheppey Bridge published in February 2015 has concluded that a combination of the geometry of the bridge affecting the forward visibility to drivers and the high speeds of vehicles travelling over the bridge, which has a 70 mph limit, impacts on the safety of the bridge. The review recommended a reduction in the speed limit to 50 mph to mitigate the safety concerns.

The speed limit for the bridge remains at 70 mph.”

The coroner went on to say:

“In my opinion urgent action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe your organisation has the power to take such action.”

The action that Highways England took was to introduce a temporary 50 mph speed limit. That was eight months ago. The problem is that few drivers comply with the speed limit and, because of the absence of repeater speed signs on the bridge, it is not possible for the police to enforce it on the Sheppey crossing itself, which somewhat defeats the object of a temporary speed limit. I understand that Highways England has commissioned Arup to undertake a review of safety on the Sheppey crossing. I asked for such a report almost three years ago, so although I am pleased that something is now being done, it prompts the question of why a report was not commissioned when I first requested it.

In November 2014, following the two tragic deaths, I made a speech here in Westminster Hall, in which I pointed out that as a result of the 2013 pile-up, as a bare minimum, there should be proper matrix warning signs on the bridge. I also said that even more measures were needed, including average speed cameras to enforce the 70 mph speed limit; CCTV monitoring of the bridge to spot breakdowns sooner and to enable the police to close the bridge more quickly; and the installation of emergency telephones and refuge bays, so that people do not have to stay in their cars if they break down.

It is now 2016 and no safety measures have been introduced, except for an unenforceable 50 mph speed limit. That is unacceptable. I plead with the Minister to encourage Highways England to treat the matter with the urgency that my constituents deserve. If action is not taken quickly and there is another major pile-up or, God forbid, another tragic death, then Highways England will have blood on its collective hands.

11.13 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Andrew Jones): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon

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Henderson) on securing the debate. It is probably most appropriate to start by saying that I am grateful that it gives me the opportunity to express my sincere condolences to the families of the two people killed on 1 July 2014 on the Sheppey crossing. I also wish for a full recovery for all those injured in the multi-vehicle accident in fog in September 2013.

My hon. Friend has articulated clearly his constituents’ problems with the crossing. He also talked about how local people raised the issues during the planning and construction phase, including those with significant knowledge of the area from an emergency services perspective. I am sure that he is frustrated that the situation is where it is, but we cannot rewrite the past; we have to work to improve the future.

My hon. Friend met my predecessor to seek assurances on the safety of the Sheppey crossing, and I confirm that the Government take road safety very seriously. The target set for Highways England is to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on our road network to no more than 1,393 in a year by the end of 2020. That would be a 40% reduction on the 2005 to 2009 average baseline. As we all know, however, that is still too many people, and we will continue to put road safety at the heart of our decisions as we review the strategic road network.

I am most aware and have always been conscious that behind every statistic is a shattered family. That is why I am pleased that we were able to produce our road safety statement for this Parliament in December of last year, articulating a number of actions that we can take across the spectrum of road-safety issues to improve the situation.

To turn directly to the matter of the A249 Sheppey crossing, perhaps it would be helpful to go over some of its recent history. A road safety audit was undertaken after the road had been open for a year, and it concluded that the accident frequency was lower than the predicted national average. I acknowledge that Kent police have expressed concerns since the opening of the crossing and, in particular, have sought a permanent 50 mph speed limit. Following the multi-vehicle collision in September 2013, however, the Kent police’s conclusion was that drivers had not adjusted their driving to take account of the fog. That happens all too frequently and is a constant source of concern for the network.

Following the tragic fatal accident on 1 July 2014, which sadly resulted in two deaths, as my hon. Friend said, an investigation was carried out by the consortium that operates the Sheppey crossing, in addition to the police investigation. A further study by the consortium reported its findings in February 2015, with the conclusion that no evidence was available to support the premise that inappropriate speed was a contributory factor to the fatal collision or any of the other collisions covered in the report, with the exception of the multiple collision in fog.

The report also concluded that the accident rate at the crossing was no higher than for other similar dual carriageways operated by Highways England.

Gordon Henderson: For the Sheppey crossing, I accept that the rate of collisions is lower than the national average, but does the Minister accept that the rate on the accident severity index is higher than the national average?

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Andrew Jones: My hon. Friend rightly makes an important point. The worst multiple-vehicle collision on record in our country’s history and an accident with two fatalities indicate the severity of the issues in the area.

The report identified a degree of non-compliance with the legal speed limit about one mile south of the collision. On 11 June last year, at a pre-inquest meeting, the coroner asked for urgent action to be taken by Highways England under regulation 28 of the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013. Highways England responded and commissioned a road safety study. The initial study, published on 27 July last year, recommended that a temporary 50 mph speed limit should be imposed on the bridge and that it should be monitored. If the monitoring indicated that the speed limit was still being substantially exceeded, the use of average speed enforcement systems and other mitigation should be considered.

The 50 mph speed limit has since been imposed, and Highways England is monitoring the effects of the speed limit with average speed cameras that could be used to enforce the speed limit, but at the moment are not used for such enforcement—they are used for measurement, rather than for enforcement.

Gordon Henderson: With regard to the speed limit and the monitoring of it, the Minister might not be aware from his briefing that the speeds for July and August were monitored. The average speed on the Sheppey crossing—bearing in mind that it is meant to have a 70 mph speed limit anyway—dropped from 80.55 mph to 75.38 mph northbound and from 78.15 mph to 72.71 mph southbound. So even while the 50 mph speed limit has been in place, the average speed has still been higher than the permanent 70 mph speed limit.

Andrew Jones: I was aware of those data and my hon. Friend is correct that speeds are still very high in the area. When I read those data, I was struck by how far above the temporary speed limit the speeds were. He makes a fair point about speed on the crossing.

The average speed cameras will provide Highways England with better information on traffic flows and speed on the Sheppey crossing as they cover a more focused area than the normal journey monitoring system on the A249. With the benefit of such speed and flow data, Highways England and Kent Police will hold discussions about whether the cameras should be used to enforce the speed limit.

I recognise that this is not just a matter of safety: incidents on the crossing have a significant impact on the Isle of Sheppey, both from an economic perspective and on its residents’ quality of life. My hon. Friend has made that point in discussions with me on several occasions prior to the debate.

Gordon Henderson: On the question of enforcement, even with average speed cameras the police cannot enforce the limit unless signs are in place. That is clear in D3.7.19—that is the reference that Highways England uses—which says:

“The police can only enforce speed limits where the speed limit signs are correctly placed”,

and we cannot get those signs on the bridge. Unless there are proper average speed cameras and speed camera signs, which are not in place, the limit cannot be enforced.

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Andrew Jones: My hon. Friend and I will be busy agreeing with each other on that point. I am aware of the restrictions in signage and lighting and of the environmental sensitivity of the crossing. I am also aware of the narrowness of the central reservation, the lack of refuges and the constrained nature of the site, which have restricted all the measures he mentioned.

Let me inform my hon. Friend and the House that Highways England recently held a workshop requested by its health and safety board, at which a number of actions were considered, including: removal of the temporary 50 mph speed limit currently in place; enforcement of the national 70 mph speed limit; enhanced road markings and signing; and setting a review period to monitor safety performance. Any permanent speed limit change would be subject to consultation with the police and would also require a statutory traffic regulation order. However, subject to the board’s endorsement, Highways England will develop an action plan for delivering the works, which may span over several months.

Highways England is also carrying out a further study on the whole of the A249 to identify permanent and viable cost-effective safety measures to ensure that drivers recognise that the posted speed limit is there for a reason. The outcome of that study is due to be published in about a month’s time—it is only four weeks away. I have not been able to see that report—it is not ready for publication—but it is clearly important. I suggest that, after it is published, my hon. Friend and I should read it and then meet to discuss its content. I would like to hear from him about local people’s concerns and the acceptability of speed limits. He obviously knows the site, and I do not know it anything like as well, so I would be grateful to hear his views when we get to that point. Perhaps a follow-up of the debate will be such a meeting.

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Subject to the recommendations of the study, Highways England will consider a rationalisation of the existing speed limits on the lengths of single carriageway. It will also continue to monitor traffic and speeds, as well as incidents, with a view to bringing forward other measures that may be required.

May I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House? It is clearly a timely issue, given that we are only a few weeks from the publication date of that important report. He raised a number of points. First, he said that urgency is required in dealing with this matter, which is an important point. I am happy to confirm that that is exactly what will happen. Indeed, I have already raised the report and safety on the crossing with the chief executive of Highways England and will continue to do so as an action point from the debate.

Safety is at the heart of our work on road investment. As a Government, we are investing an unprecedented amount in our transport infrastructure and safety is at the heart of the decision-making process. It is one of the key elements that underpins our road investment strategy. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that action is being taken to make journeys better and safer for all. He has done a valuable job, speaking up on behalf of his constituents today about a difficult crossing that, as he articulated so clearly, has a chequered history in terms of safety. I look forward to working with him and with Highways England to improve the situation for all his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

11.25 am

Sitting suspended.

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Local Government: Ethical Procurement

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered local government and ethical procurement.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. As I look around, I see right hon. and hon. Members with very different views on Israel and Palestine, and people who disagree about what incentives or pressure should apply to either side to secure equal rights, including the rights of statehood and the right to security for the peoples of both Palestine and Israel.

As chair of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group, I take a close interest in the situation in the middle east. However, this debate is not primarily about whether any of us takes this view or that view on how to bring peace there; I sought today’s debate to hold Ministers to account and to require them to be clear about what their policy announcements mean and do not mean. This debate is also about the ability of those who are responsible in public institutions to exercise the judgments that they are appointed to exercise within the law when they make decisions. That could be in respect of how local authorities are accountable to their electorates for making decisions or of the ability of pensions trustees to make judgments in line with their fiduciary duties.

I welcome the Minister here today to answer questions about the procurement policy note issued by the Cabinet Office on 17 February entitled “Putting a stop to public procurement boycotts” and about the proposed changes to the rules governing the local government pension scheme’s investments—for which I understand the Cabinet Office is also responsible, for some reason. I look to the Minister to answer what he will be asked clearly and without ambiguity. That is always important, but it is even more important on these matters because the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), has volunteered very little about them to the House. That is in stark contrast to the amount of publicity he has sought to generate for his proposals outside the House.

For where this all starts, we need to go back to the Conservative party conference last October. A press release was issued in which the right hon. Member for West Suffolk was quoted. It was headlined “Government to stop ‘divisive’ town hall boycotts and sanctions” and said that action was going to be taken against the

“growing spread of militant divestment campaigns against UK defence and Israeli firms.”

However, that press release also contained a note to editors, as press releases often do, that suggested that a large number of the local authorities and public institutions that were apparently due to be targeted by the new rules had not resolved to divest from companies on the grounds that they were Israeli or of any other nationality. They had made or were in the course of making procurement or investment decisions on the basis of the behaviour of companies, irrespective of their nationality.

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In fact, the behaviour most frequently mentioned in the press release was financial involvement with illegal settlements in the west bank, about which local authorities and others were concerned.

I know that in October last year, collective Cabinet responsibility was perhaps expected rather more than it appears to be these days. However, it is rather surprising that the Minister for the Cabinet Office took such exception to public institutions seeking to avoid dealings with companies involved with illegal settlements, given that the Foreign Office’s own website carries very different advice.

Jo Cox (Batley and Spen) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this vital discussion. As he will be aware, the UK Trade & Investment website, which is sponsored by the Foreign Office, states:

“we do not encourage or offer support”

to firms that trade with illegal settlements. Does my hon. Friend agree that we find ourselves in a perverse situation? The Foreign Office is warning UK companies and private individuals against trading with the settlements, while the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Cabinet Office are threatening to make it illegal for public bodies to do so.

Richard Burden: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is worth quoting directly from that Foreign Office advice, which is there to this day. It says:

“Settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace”

and “threaten” the “two-state solution”. It goes on:

“There are therefore clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements, and”—

as my hon. Friend just said—

“we do not encourage or offer support to such activity. Financial transactions, investments, purchases, procurements as well as other economic activities (including in services like tourism) in Israeli settlements or benefiting Israeli settlements, entail legal and economic risks stemming from the fact that the Israeli settlements, according to international law, are built on occupied land and are not recognised as a legitimate part of Israel’s territory.”

Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate. Does he agree that local authorities are in fact a branch of the state and therefore have a duty to observe our obligations under international human rights law?

Richard Burden: I understand what my hon. Friend says, but this is also about different public institutions making judgments in line with the law and their best belief of what the situation is. I hope that all public institutions would pay due regard to international law.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Richard Burden: Before giving way, I just want to finish this quote from the Foreign Office advice:

“This may result in disputed titles to the land, water, mineral or other natural resources which might be the subject of purchase or investment. EU citizens and businesses should also be aware of the potential reputational implications of getting involved in economic and financial activities in settlements, as well as possible

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abuses of the rights of individuals. Those contemplating any economic or financial involvement in settlements should seek appropriate legal advice.”

Andy Slaughter: Following the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) just made, the Foreign Office guidance also talks about

“possible violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law”.

Indeed, the Foreign Office guidance is very clear, whereas the procurement policy note is very unclear. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) agree that that may be intentional—that the actual aim is not to change the law, but to discourage and blackmail local authorities into not taking steps that may be perfectly legitimate and that the Foreign Office is encouraging them to take?

Richard Burden: The point that my hon. Friend makes is about the fear that a lot of people have about the agenda behind this procurement policy note.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): My hon. Friend is constructing a very powerful case. Does he agree that this is about not necessarily Israel but a much wider issue? It is about the freedom of people in local government to do as I and five of my fellow councillors—who all subsequently became MPs—did in the London Borough of Ealing in 1982, when we were quite happy to disinvest in Barclays. Will my hon. Friend remind me about what element of parliamentary scrutiny or involvement there was when the statement was made by the Minister for the Cabinet Office in February this year? I do not recall it being mentioned on the Floor of the House at all.

Richard Burden: My hon. Friend is quite right. Parliamentary scrutiny of this matter has come down to a number of us having to ask questions—to which we have had not very detailed replies, I have to say—and to this debate. We had to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall to get any parliamentary scrutiny of this matter at all.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for giving me an opportunity to ask him this question. I asked the Cabinet Office and a number of other Departments whether they had recently met people from the arms industry, the tobacco industry or, indeed, the Israeli embassy who may have lobbied for this measure. I am afraid that I did not get a substantive response from any of the Departments. Has my hon. Friend had any answers to questions such as that?

Richard Burden: I am afraid that my hon. Friend’s experience rather mirrors mine and that of a number of other hon. Members.

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): This point is merely about the mechanics of parliamentary time. I simply wonder whether the hon. Gentleman knows how many procurement policy notes there have been in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and how many of those have merited parliamentary scrutiny in their own right.

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Richard Burden: I have no idea about that, but if the hon. Lady thinks this is not a very significant public procurement note that merits parliamentary scrutiny, I wonder why the Minister for the Cabinet Office took the trouble of announcing it in a press conference with the Prime Minister of Israel on 17 February.

On 16 December, I asked the Secretary of State for International Development whether she agreed with the Foreign Office that it was perfectly reasonable for both public and private institutions to pay due regard to that Foreign Office advice when they make their own investment and procurement decisions. Her answer was unequivocal. She said:

“They should do that; that is good Foreign Office advice.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 1534.]

So my first question to the Minister is this: were civil servants consulted at all before the press release was issued at the Conservative party conference? I am happy to give way to him if he has a reply.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (John Penrose): I was planning to wait until the end and collect what I am sure will be a whole series of questions. Perhaps that will allow me to wrap them all up together in a series of responses.

Richard Burden: I am very happy for that to happen. I give the Minister notice that there will be six questions on which I am seeking answers.

Did Ministers really take the view that public institutions should not have the same rights and concerns as private institutions when it comes to good business practice and corporate social responsibility? What was it that Ministers were trying to outlaw? The public procurement note published on 17 February appears to suggest much less than the Conservative press release of October; it appears to say that institutions should not impose a blanket ban on contracts with companies on the basis of the nationality of the companies concerned, in line with existing EU and World Trade Organisation rules. We know that the WTO forbids the use of quantitative restrictions, such as a ban on imports—phrased in terms of products originating in the “territory” of another WTO member.

On 9 March, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) about whether the occupied territories could be considered part of Israel, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), was absolutely clear:

“The World Trade Organisation does not define the territory of its members. The UK does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. We therefore do not consider the Occupied Palestinian Territories to be part of Israel.”

So my second question to the Minister is this: is there anything in this public procurement notice or that is intended by the Government that in any way changes that?

European Union rules are also mentioned in the public procurement notice. They allow public institutions, on a case-by-case basis, to exclude companies from tenders on the basis of their behaviour, specifically where grave misconduct may be involved. What could that mean? Let us turn again to the Government’s own documents—to their 2013 national action plan on

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implementing the UN guiding principles on human rights and business. An extract from that states that the UK Government

“are committed to ensuring that in UK Government procurement human rights related matters are reflected appropriately when purchasing goods, works and services. Under the public procurement rules public bodies may exclude tenderers from bidding for a contract opportunity in certain circumstances, including where there is information showing grave misconduct by a company in the course of its business or profession. Such misconduct might arise in cases where there are breaches of human rights.”

My third question to the Minister is therefore this: does the February 2016 public procurement note in any way change or add to that advice?

My fourth question is about whether the Minister considers that a breach of the fourth Geneva convention is a breach of human rights. If he does, would the public procurement note restrict a public institution from resolving not to deal with a company that was involved in aiding and abetting breaches of that convention?

If the public procurement note is prompting these and more questions, so, too, are the changes that the Cabinet Office says it is going to introduce in relation to investment decisions of local government pension funds. So my fifth question is this: pension fund trustees are already covered by a fiduciary duty, but will the changes being introduced in any way fetter the judgments that they make in line with that fiduciary duty in relation to, say, not investing in fossil fuels, tobacco or the arms trade?

My sixth question logically follows from that: in order to be clear on these points, will the Minister outline what plans he has for parliamentary scrutiny of these changes to pension fund guidance? Specifically, will he commit to consulting on any draft guidance he intends to issue in respect of local government pension scheme investments before it is published and before Parliament, through whatever procedure, is asked to make any kind of decision on these changes?

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): My hon. Friend is setting out a clear set of questions, and he has made it clear that there is some ambiguity about precisely what the impact of the guidance note is. Is his reading of it that the kind of disinvestment by a local authority pension fund that was referred to earlier—Barclays and activities in South Africa—would be ruled out?

Richard Burden: I should say in answer to my right hon. Friend that I honestly do not know. That is the whole point—the Minister has to answer these questions. The wording of the Conservative party press release would certainly indicate to me that that kind of thing would be outlawed, but the Minister has to give specific answers today to these specific questions. That is important because it simply is not acceptable for councils, pension funds or other public institutions to feel threatened away from acting in line with their best judgments, in line with their duties, as a result of innuendo broadcast by the Cabinet Office Minister at the Conservative party conference—or indeed, broadcast more recently in Israel.

Stephen Pound: I am not entirely sure whether the Church of England is counted as an institution in this context, but does my hon. Friend realise that it would certainly be caught up in this guidance note?

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Richard Burden: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that; that could be a seventh question for the Minister.

The Minister no doubt spoke to his right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office before this debate, so perhaps he knows why his right hon. Friend decided to launch this public procurement note not in a statement to the House or under any House procedure, but in a press conference alongside the Prime Minister of Israel. If the reason was that he wanted to make a point on the world stage about this Government’s opposition to generalised boycotts of Israel, then okay—if he wants to make that point—but why did he apparently not feel any need to utter a word about other parts of Government policy, such as the fact that settlements in the occupied territories are illegal?

Why was there not a word about the fact that Israel had only recently withdrawn co-operation from an independent delegation of UK lawyers acting on a Foreign Office-supported project, which has found that Israel’s treatment of Palestinian child prisoners breached article 76 of fourth Geneva convention and several articles of the UN convention on the rights of the child? Why did the right hon. Gentleman not find time to mention that in the first six weeks of 2016, over 400 Palestinians have been displaced from their homes? That is over half the total number of Palestinians displaced in the whole of 2015.

I suspect that the Minister for the Cabinet Office’s apparent failure to say a word publicly about those things during his visit illustrates a rather strange set of priorities and a highly selective approach to UK policies on the Israel-Palestine question. He will have to answer for himself about his priorities and inconsistencies, but the Minister here today has an obligation to answer, on behalf of the Government, the specific questions about the procurement policy note and the changes they intend for local authority pension regulations. I have asked this Minister six specific questions and I ask him to do the House the courtesy of giving six clear and unambiguous answers to those questions today.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Gary Streeter(in the Chair): Order. Nine colleagues wish to catch my eye and have roughly 40 minutes in which to do so. Perhaps I could impose a voluntary restraint of four minutes each, and we will see how we get on.

2.50 pm

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker—I mean Mr Streeter—for calling me to speak. Aside from promoting you, I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on having secured this debate.

I will take as my starting point the wisdom that regularly emerges from the mouth of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for whom I have great respect. He said that the issue was not about any one country’s policies but about local government powers. I believe that it is wrong for councils to attempt to use local government pension funds and procurement practices to make their own foreign policy.

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First, it is wrong because foreign policy is reserved to Westminster as a matter for national Government. Having policy made in town halls can damage foreign relations, to the detriment of Britain’s national and international security.

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chloe Smith: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be quick because I have only four minutes.

Tristram Hunt: Does that principle extend to banning city councils, for example, from giving the freedom of their cities to notable figures from abroad? Would that fall within her ban on a foreign policy for local government?

Chloe Smith: If the hon. Gentleman will wait for the rest of my speech, he will hear that I intend my contribution to be about council expenditure of taxpayers’ money. I know that Labour Members are not so hot on the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, but perhaps he will allow me to make the rest of my comments.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chloe Smith: I am sorry, but I must continue because there is so little time left.

My second reason for believing that it is wrong for local government to make their own foreign policy is that local boycotts in and of themselves can damage integration and community cohesion. That is highly unfortunate.

Thirdly, to attempt to hold an item of foreign policy locally is likely to be unlawful. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman found it impossible to read procurement policy note 01/16, but I took from it very clearly that EU and UK procurement legislation, backed up by the World Trade Organisation, can result in severe penalties against the contracting authority and the Government. That takes me on to my answer to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). It is at the heart of this debate that we should not seek to put taxpayers’ business rates or council tax at risk of substantial fines that could arise from unlawful treatment of suppliers. The Government are very clear in the note that they will always involve the relevant contracting authority in these proceedings, so there is nowhere to hide.

Finally, the other reason why such a policy is wrong is that it does not provide taxpayers with value for money. Procurement is quite simply for purposes other than political. It is the act of buying something because taxpayers need it, not because the council leader wants to wear a particular political pin badge that week. I want local taxpayers’ money to be used for the goods and services that they need, and only for what they need.

I do not know whether the Labour party really thinks there is any money to spare after they left the cupboard bare, but until public finances are back in order, the job in hand is to get the best deal for taxpayers. What I want in local procurement is the best possible value for

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money from the total spend, which may amount to tens of billions of pounds; a strategic approach to procurement rather than political whim, which may be ultra vires; reduced procurement bureaucracy, such as the welcome removal of pre-qualification questionnaires for low-value contracts and standardisation for high-value procurements; sound commercial and contract management of that spend; accountability for the services or goods bought; wherever possible, local SMEs benefiting from spending decisions because that value stays in the community and can often provide huge innovation; and prompt payment to contractors. Why do I want those simple goals? Because when budgets are squeezed, local taxpayers should come first. Every public body should do better for the British economy and not be distracted elsewhere.

2.54 pm

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on securing this debate. I want to put on the record something that will appear in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests when it next comes out. I recently visited the west bank and Jerusalem, the trip being sponsored by the UK branch of Fatah.

I want to emphasise some of the questions my hon. Friend asked. Does the guidance on pension investments and procurement change the law in any way? Does it in any way fetter local authorities’ decisions on best value in procurement? That is not simply about cheapness. We are not going back to the compulsory competitive tendering days. The last Labour Government brought in best value, which takes account of social and environmental matters, as the Government have confirmed. Does it in any way fetter the discretion of pension trustees to exercise their fiduciary duties, which go far wider than the narrow responsibility for public sector pensions? Will the Government confirm that the guidance for private businesses on their engagement with the settlements, on goods from the settlements, and on trade with the settlements, applies to public bodies as well? Can we have clarity on that?

During the 1980s, some local authorities sought to sever links with firms that traded with South Africa. I think local authorities were right then and I think there is a lot of shame on the Conservative Benches about the action that the then Conservative Government took in defence of the apartheid regime.

There is a story about what happened. Shell took Leicester city council to court because it said that by refusing to allow it to compete for a tender, the council was losing out on a potentially cheaper contract. Shell won in court. Sheffield city council decided not to put Shell on the tender list for a contract because of its dealings with South Africa and justified that because it had wider responsibilities for good race relations and to take account of the views of its citizens. Shell did not take Sheffield city council to court because it was recognised that it had behaved legally in taking those views into account.

The Secretary of State has said that the actions of councils have caused community division. The Minister must say precisely what examples he has of that division. The Government have a responsibility not just for race

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relations but, under the Equality Act 2010, for equality impact assessments and public sector equality. The Act requires public authorities to have regard to a number of equality considerations affecting race, and also religion.

The House of Commons Library has produced a good note, which says:

“A Minister must assess the risk and extent of any adverse impact and the ways in which such risk may be eliminated before the adoption of a proposed policy and not merely as a ‘rearguard action’”.

Have the Government done that? Where is the equality impact assessment? Do local authorities not have a duty to have regard to the effect on equality in their area in terms of both race and religion when considering whether to buy goods from the illegal Israeli settlements? Can the Minister explain what he thinks the effect will be on race relations in my constituency, which has a large number of people of Muslim faith from a background of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, Somalia and Somaliland? What would be the impact on them if they saw their council tax being used to buy goods from the illegal Israeli settlements? How could that possibly be good for community relations? That is where the division is in this argument and the Minister must come clean about the Government’s objectives, how they assessed them and whether they think local authorities have the wider responsibility that I contend they have.

2.59 pm

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): It is a great pity that this has been promoted as a debate about local government when in reality it is just a thinly disguised attack against the legitimate and democratic state of Israel. Why has there been no discussion about the repression in other middle eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran? Why does the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organisation spend all its time demonising Israel and ignoring Hamas and Hezbollah as they pour rocket fire down on Israel? The premise of the debate has more to do with cheap political point scoring than with the lives of individuals. Palestinian workers would risk losing their jobs if such actions by BDS were successful and economic sanctions were directed against Israeli firms that employ them. [Interruption.]

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order.

Dr Offord: Those Palestinian workers are paid on average three or four times more than they could earn elsewhere. About 500 Palestinians lost their jobs in October 2015, when international pressure from the BDS movement led to the closure of SodaStream’s factory in Ma’ale Adumim. That demonstrates that the BDS movement only seeks to harm Israel, with little consideration of how its actions will affect the livelihood of Palestinians, even though Palestinians employed by Israeli companies enjoy substantially higher wages and improved living conditions than those employed elsewhere.

Mr Betts: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Offord: No, I will not. Supporters of the movement claim to embrace the boycott tactic as a non-violent way to pressure Israel into negotiations. The campaign is clearly a biased effort to demonise Israel and place the entire onus for the conflict on one side—the Israelis.