Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:32 pm on 17 May 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 8:32, 17 May 2022

My Lords, I am pleased to be here to close today’s debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. I pay tribute to Her Majesty for her gracious Speech and her 70 years of service in this jubilee year. I thank your Lordships for their thoughtful remarks and contributions throughout this debate; I also thank my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott for her introduction.

Before I go any further, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for his tough but fair work as the opposition spokesman for education. I also warmly welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, to her role; I very much look forward to working with her on these issues.

In politics, there are some principles that stand the test of time. To paraphrase our greatest leader, Winston Churchill, this Government want

“to draw a line below which we will not allow persons to live and labour, yet above which they may compete with all” their strength. As he said:

“We want to have free competition upwards; we decline to allow free competition to run downwards. We do not want to pull down the structures of science and civilisation, but to spread a net over the abyss.”

It has been 67 years since Churchill was Prime Minister but his words are as resounding today as they were then because this Government’s legislative agenda, from education, health and public services to economic growth and levelling up, is essential to provide a good standard of living for all and a sense of opportunity for everyone in the 21st century. It is this aim that lies at the root of the legislation we are taking forward, which will benefit the country and all the people who live in it.

Education is one of the Prime Minister’s top priorities, but nobody in this Government is under any illusion that improvements do not need to be made. Too many children still do not get the start in life that will enable them to go on and make the best use of their talents and abilities. Too many children leave primary school unable to read, write or understand mathematics at the required standard. Disadvantaged students are still less likely to achieve the standards we expect for them. As the noble Baroness opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence of Clarendon, highlighted so eloquently, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was greatest on our most disadvantaged children.

This Session, we have already introduced a Schools Bill to deliver a stronger school system that works for every child regardless of where they live and to bring forward essential safeguarding measures to allow more children to receive a suitable and safe education. The Schools Bill will level up standards and give parents confidence in their children’s education by strengthening the academy trust system, supporting more schools to join strong trusts, reforming attendance measures and delivering the long-standing commitment of a direct national funding formula. I thank my noble friend Lord Lingfield for his welcoming words regarding these measures.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Morgan, Lady Morris, Lady Blower and Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, all challenged our approach to academisation, and we will of course have time to explore this in detail when we come to debate the Bill. However, I cannot stress strongly enough that our starting point was not an ideological one. Rather, we started by asking our ourselves how we reach the aspiration that all of us in this House share for our children. The results from the most successful multi-academy trusts are substantially better for our children at primary and secondary level, and particularly for our disadvantaged children.

I turn now to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, about the fragmentation in the system. We absolutely acknowledge that the system is fragmented at the moment and we very much hope that, with a focus on quality, we can drive a more coherent system that maximises outcomes for our children. My noble friend Lord Kirkham highlighted some of the strengths of multi-academy trusts. In fact, he took at least a minute or two out of my speech, thanks to his remarks.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—along with many other noble Lords including the noble Baroness opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh—talked about the importance of excellent teachers for every child. To address the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blower: we are investing in training and professional development for teachers at every stage of their career, and we share her ambition that this should be successful.

I turn now to the questions from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, regarding citizenship and education. The curriculum already contains content on human rights, the UK legal system and international law, helping people to understand—as the noble and learned Lord put it so clearly—their rights, duties and responsibilities. That curriculum is compulsory at key stage 3 and key stage 4 as part of the national curriculum.

My noble friend Lord Kirkham made a point about the care to be taken when exploring the possibility for individual schools in exceptional circumstances to leave a multi-academy trust. I reassure him that this is exactly the approach that we will be taking.

In relation to teacher recruitment, as the House knows, we are raising salaries to £30,000. We have 20,000 more qualified teachers in our schools today than there were in 2010 and 50,000 more teaching assistants. As noble Lords reflected on, we are also introducing legislation to have a register for children who are not in school. I really hope we will have time, when we come to debate the Bill, to set aside the misunderstandings. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, used the phrase “naming and shaming parents”, which is the last thing that we plan to do.

We absolutely recognise a parent’s right to choose the approach to education for their children, but equally we need to know where the ghost children are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, said on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. There is an estimate that those figures increased by about 30% during the 2020-21 academic year and that is just not acceptable. To reassure my noble friend Lady Eaton, there are substantial measures in the Bill to address illegal schools.

Turning to universities, as my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott mentioned, we will bring forward further legislation to ensure that our post-18 education system really promotes genuine social mobility, highlighted as so important by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. It must also be financially sustainable and give people the skills they need to meet their career aspirations. I will need to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, about work with universities but I am sure that will be part of the approach. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for acknowledging the importance of this area.

Our aims, which sit at the root of the Bill, are to make sure that we offer individuals the best post-18 options for them and that they can take pathways which offer really high-quality routes, be those technical or more conventionally academic. I hope that addresses some of the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Aberdare and Lord Jones, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth.

We also want to meet our manifesto commitment to challenge the restriction of lawful speech and academic freedom. I thank both the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Falkner, for their support for the Bill, which we hope will directly address gaps in the existing law, including the lack of a clear enforcement mechanism.

Turning to health, the issues raised by your Lordships were extremely broad-ranging, from social care to the sharing by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, of his expertise in and insight into the continuing issues around HIV and AIDS. The long-term impacts of medical failures were highlighted by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, the role of volunteers by my noble friend Lord McColl and the Singapore scheme by my noble friend Lord Naseby, while elements of the obesity strategy were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. This is not to mention refugee mental health, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and community health workers, referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. We will need to write to address many of those points.

A number of your Lordships focused on issues around social care. As the House is aware, the Government are implementing a comprehensive reform programme of adult social care, with £5.4 billion of investment over three years from April 2022, funded by the health and social care levy. This issue was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Pitkeathley. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, rightly focused on the importance of a culture shift in mental health, which I remember debating with her when I first arrived in this House. Hopefully things have moved a little in that time.

Modernising the Mental Health Act is a crucial part of the work we are doing. As your Lordships know, the Mental Health Act allows for the compulsory detention and treatment of people with severe mental illness who would otherwise present a risk to themselves or others. We will shortly publish a draft mental health Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The noble Baronesses, Lady Tyler and Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, all asked about the timeline. We are on track to publish the draft Bill this summer and expect pre-legislative scrutiny to begin in the autumn, although timings are obviously a matter for Parliament.

The Bill will take forward the majority of Sir Simon Wessely’s recommendations in his 2018 independent review. It will contain draft measures that will allow for greater patient choice and autonomy and help us address racial disparities that exist in the Act by enhancing patient voice and representation. We are already piloting new culturally appropriate advocacy approaches that take proper account of a person’s background and needs. Importantly, it will make it easier for people with learning disabilities or autism to be discharged from hospital—something the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, raised.

More broadly, there were a number of questions about staffing in the NHS and social care, including from the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Andrews. As the House will know, there are record numbers of staff working in the NHS, but retaining that experienced workforce is an absolute priority for the Government. Our people plan has a range of actions to improve staff retention, with a stronger focus on creating a more modern, compassionate and inclusive NHS culture.

A number of your Lordships raised the issue of unpaid carers and carers’ leave. We know it is disappointing that the Queen’s Speech did not include an employment Bill for the third Session of this Parliament, but the Government remain committed to carers’ leave and will bring forward legislation on this when parliamentary time allows.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Watkins and Lady Greenfield, and my noble friend Lord Goodlad, talked about our dementia strategy, in particular in relation to Alzheimer’s. We want every person to receive high-quality, compassionate care from diagnosis to the end of life. This year we will set out our dementia plans for England for the next decade. There will be four planks, which I hope address at least some of the requests of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, in relation to diagnosis, risk reduction, prevention and research.

In relation to women’s health, the sex-based health disparities that were highlighted in the debate today will be addressed in England’s first ever women’s health strategy which we will publish this year. In response to my noble friend Lady Cumberlege’s request, my noble friend Lord Kamall would be delighted to meet her. The Government are committed to improving patient safety and prioritising resources to improve future medicines and medical devices. We would be glad to continue the conversation with my noble friend.

Turning to welfare, which is another issue that your Lordships have touched on today, the Government are reforming the special benefit rules for people who are nearing the end of their life and providing fast-tracked access to certain benefits. The rules being changed in the Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Bill have been in place, unchanged, since 1990. As my noble friend the Minister highlighted, the Bill will change eligibility so that those expected to live for 12 months or less will receive this vital support, as opposed to the current six-month rule. The Bill will ensure that thousands more people nearing the end of life can access benefits sooner without needing a face-to-face assessment or waiting period, with the majority of individuals receiving the highest rate of those benefits.

In response to the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, about speeding up the PIP assessments and payments, we are focused on transforming the PIP claimant journey overall to make sure it is more streamlined and more user friendly by using a range of channels including online and by telephone. My noble friend the Minister would be delighted to meet the noble Baroness if that would be helpful to discuss this further. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, for his generous comments acknowledging the hard work of colleagues in the department and what they have achieved.

Finally, turning to public services and, in particular, procurement, meeting all these ambitions will require us to look at how and where public services are delivered. We believe that the procurement reform Bill will replace the bureaucratic and process-driven EU regime with a simpler and more flexible commercial system that better meets the needs of our country while also complying with our international obligations. Public sector buyers will have more freedom and flexibility to negotiate and design the buying process with suppliers. The Bill will also make it easier to exclude suppliers who are unfit to bid for public contracts.

I will write to all noble Lords where I have not been able in the time available to touch on the important issues raised. I will also link in with colleagues in other departments in response to the questions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Greengross and Lady Warwick of Undercliffe.

I have heard many times this afternoon and this evening the ambition that we all share in this House for this country and for the public services that are so important in its success. I know that I can speak for all my ministerial colleagues in saying that we look forward to working with all your Lordships as we focus on how we implement and refine the legislation in the gracious Speech and make it a reality to address the issues that people in this country face.

Debate adjourned until tomorrow.

House adjourned at 8.54 pm.