Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): It is essential that people be highly educated and trained, but it does not necessarily have to happen at university.

Mr. Sheerman: Indeed, it does not. However, we should not pat ourselves too much on the back. People talk about a 50 per cent. target. I was rather reluctant about it, but the fact remains that only 16 per cent. of the population in the average constituency go into higher education. Only 16 per cent., leaving 84 per cent. to do something else. We should inscribe that on our hearts. Out there, 84 per cent. of potential is still wasted, with so many young people denied the opportunity to make the most of themselves through higher education.

We should not forget that higher education today is very diverse. We need a diverse system of education and I believe that a flexible fee structure will help to deliver it. It will not deliver everything, but without a secondary or independent income for higher education in this country, we will not be able to grow at the necessary pace. It has to be complemented by more moneys from the Treasury, but we must keep to the Dearing principle that those who benefit from higher education should contribute to it. Society, individuals and employers are relevant. Employers have long neglected investment in higher education, research and development in this country. They should not be let off the hook by the present Government or any other.

I finish by saying that we should be visionary and long term. We should remember that the most important single factor that will deliver the good life to our constituents will be investment in higher education. The Government proposals will, in my view, deliver that.

3.6 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am glad to contribute to the debate on the Gracious Speech and I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee, who always has something

3 Dec 2003 : Column 553

interesting and lively to say. I should like to draw the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I add that I serve in a voluntary capacity as parliamentary ambassador for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

I shall direct my remarks to the children Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said today and my right hon. and learned Friend the leader of the Opposition said last week, we look forward to working constructively on the proposals, in the spirit of the words of Lord Laming in his inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. In his report into the tragic death of that ill-starred child, he said:

The Green Paper and the Bill propose serious structural change in the management and delivery of children's services at every level. Among the objectives of both Green Paper and Bill was the principle of co-ordinated and integrated working between professionals in all disciplines concerned with children. One of the truly scandalous features of the as many as two deaths from abuse of children that take place in this country in each and every week is that subsequent inquiries or analyses almost always reveal that there has been a lack of co-ordination between professionals. No one should underestimate the difficult and sensitive work undertaken by social workers, the police, the medical professions and teachers. Lord Laming recognised just those features, but he said:

So one of the tests that we shall apply throughout the passage of the Bill is its effectiveness in respect of achieving closer co-ordination. That is the intention of the Secretary of State and the purpose of the Bill, which explains the proposal to oblige local authorities to create the post of director of children's services accountable to local authority education and children's social services. I also welcome the important intention to have a lead elected member with the responsibility for such work. I doubt that such a post would be sought after, but it is none the less important that there should be elective responsibility and accountability in that essential sphere.

Those sensible proposals are exercising the collective mind of local authorities up and down the land, as Members on both sides of the House know. I listened with interest to the assurance given by the Secretary of State that the Government would not insist on a single solution. I was glad to hear that reassurance, but can the Secretary of State for Health give us some clarification later about the suggestions currently abroad among local authorities that the Government's intention is that all education and social services should be dismantled in order to start again from scratch to achieve their ends? I do not think that is the Government's intention, but the suggestion is being bruited so it would be sensible if the Secretary of State were to allay all those fears in his concluding remarks.

Some authorities, such as Hertfordshire and Essex, have already gone a long way down the road of closer co-ordination. Others, such as Norfolk and similar rural

3 Dec 2003 : Column 554

shire counties, are wrestling with the problem of achieving co-ordination where services are sparsely spread—although some useful pilot work is being undertaken in Norfolk, in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn.

I agree with the Government's intention that there should be timely action, but to achieve that they will have to retain some diversity of solution. It is essential that genuine knowledge and local expertise should not be wasted. Furthermore, the task is much more complex where primary care trust and police authority boundaries are not coterminous with those of the local authority, and the considerations are much more difficult for far-flung rural authorities. I hope that Ministers will spot councils that try to solve other difficult management problems by making the Bill the excuse. Work to protect vulnerable children is obviously much too important to be a camouflage for other problems.

I hope that there will be increased accountability. The "nobody was to blame" syndrome is another regrettable feature in the all-too-many cases of child abuse. I hope that Ministers will set up firm tests to check the effectiveness of accountability.

A useful start to closer working could be made by effective information sharing. One of the features of the tragic case of Lauren Wright in my constituency was that if there had only been effective sharing of information between Hertfordshire and Norfolk social services, and between education and social services in Norfolk, her life might have been saved. Where judgments are, literally, about life or death, there is surely all the more reason for strong and reliable procedures that can be checked and counter-checked and that can act as a support framework, giving confidence to professionals faced with extremely difficult decisions.

When the Secretary of State for Education and Skills introduced the Green Paper in September, he recognised its limitations. He accepted that two key services, the police and the health services, are, in a way, outside the legislative remit. The Green Paper does the best it can—neither it nor the Bill would want to plunge every public service into wholesale reorganisation at once—and that is welcome. I am glad that the Secretary of State for Health will reply to the debate, as only health visitors, among all the professionals involved, have legal licence to enter a home and demand to examine a child, which is useful in certain cases. If the right hon. Gentleman has time at the end of the debate, it would be helpful to hear his thinking about how health professionals might be used to greater and more direct effect in that work, despite their absence from the actual reorganisation proposals.

In a debate in this place on 16 July, I hesitantly suggested that the old-fashioned role of the school nurse might be reconsidered. It was an impertinent suggestion and retribution came fast in the form of a letter from Mrs. Jenny Atterwell, a member of a school nursing team based in Wymondham, in Norfolk. She pointed out that my understanding of the current school nursing service was "slightly out of date". She described her work and that of her colleagues—especially that of school health advisers, who have a child protection role. I was impressed by Mrs. Atterwell's description of what she was doing and of what was going on in Norfolk and shall ensure that Ministers see a copy of her letter.

3 Dec 2003 : Column 555

My point may be sounding a bit laboured—it probably is—but it is that there is a wealth of practical knowledge, good will and experience in all the professions concerned with child protection. I hope that local authorities will not be so preoccupied with setting up their reorganised systems—although I understand that it is a big task—that they fail to consult all those with practical and relevant experience, even if it is beyond the scope of the Bill.

That is my final point. When the Secretary of State introduced the Green Paper, he said that

That is true, but we are talking about practicalities—about working together, sharing professional expertise and getting together to solve a common problem. The seriousness of the task must not blind us to the abundance of simple, practical, commonsense measures that can immediately be taken by the skilled professionals concerned. The will is there and the cause could hardly be more vital.

Next Section

IndexHome Page