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24 Feb 2004 : Column 53WH—continued

Children's Fund (Somerset)

3.30 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a great pleasure to have this debate, although it seems a little harsh on the Minister for Children to have to respond to two consecutive debates.

I suspect that many of our constituents and some right hon. and hon. Members have only a hazy concept of the children's fund and what it sets out to achieve. I do not intend to criticise it, its objectives or the way that it operates in Somerset. Quite the reverse: it is a most valuable tool for performing some important tasks that would otherwise slip between the responsibilities of the statutory agencies.

If we are serious about helping disadvantaged children in a wide range of spheres, we must have such funding, particularly in a county such as Somerset, which often loses out on mainstream funding because it does not meet the criterion of inner-city deprivation. Contrary to the established view, I would argue that to be a poor child in a rural area is to be much more excluded than a child in similar circumstances in an inner-city area.

The fund has already accomplished a significant amount in Somerset. I will not read out all the schemes operating in the county which are on the very long list of those paid for by the fund. In my town of Frome there are schemes to support the transition of children at year 8 in the middle school system; summer activities on the Mount estate, which is one of the more disadvantaged estates; breakfast and after-school clubs; and Frome inclusion partnership, which provides one-to-one support for five to 13-year olds. In the wider rural area, particularly in south Somerset, there are schemes that deal with at-risk children and bullying; schemes that provide support for children who, through no fault of their own, find themselves involved with the women's refuge in Yeovil, which, although located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), also serves mine; and schemes for young carers, who are often forgotten about.

On a county-wide basis, there is support for the youth offending team. That is desperately important if we are serious about fighting the causes of crime, which means intervening at an early stage to help young people avoid getting into a criminal way of life. A restorative justice team works within schools to provide a new and, many would argue, better way of dealing with young offenders and with traveller children, which is a significant issue throughout much of my constituency.

I hope that I have provided an overview of a very successful and worthwhile partnership that is very much in line with the Government's stated objectives for young people, as set out in the Green Paper "Every Child Matters". They include the hope that young people will grow up healthy, emotionally secure and confident; that they succeed at school and stay out of trouble; that they live in a safe place; and that they have the opportunity to succeed in achieving their dreams. Those are exactly the objectives that we would want for our own children and all the other children in our communities. That is why the issue is so important.

Somerset has developed an effective local preventative strategy. All credit is due to Barnardo's, the lead agency in Somerset, and the statutory and the

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voluntary agencies that co-operated with it. Indeed, that seems also to be the view of the Government, whose Government office for the south-west commended the local team on its delivery plan. It was praised for its strong management board, which devised a comprehensive and carefully crafted programme of services to meet local needs. That is in all ways a good news story, something to applaud and something worth while—so why am I having this debate?

I am not here entirely to celebrate the work of the children's fund in Somerset, as the Minister will quickly appreciate. The first person to visit my surgery in Frome two or three weeks ago was Margaret Binney, a lady whom I know reasonably well. She is a tower of strength in the local community and works tirelessly in all sorts of ways in community education and with people who are disadvantaged. She has recently been giving her time voluntarily to a two-week summer school serving children in the most disadvantaged wards in Frome. It was attended by more than 70 children and, by all accounts, was a great success. It was hugely appreciated by the children and their parents.

Margaret Binney was distraught because she had learned that the scheme, which she thought was going from strength to strength and which she hoped to expand in the coming year, was facing a 24 per cent. cut in funding. She said that all her hard work, optimism and enthusiasm were not to be rewarded. She was followed at the same surgery by a succession of other constituents who had been involved with children's fund activities. They all confirmed the situation faced by the fund in Somerset and all expressed concern about the consequences for the scheme.

The Minister will know that Somerset is involved in a wave 3 scheme—we often seem to be latecomers to many programmes, but better late than never. As a result, the scheme did not start until April last year. The programmes were developed on the basis of a promised £3.6 million over three years, starting in April 2003, with an average annual allocation—that is how such matters are now accounted—of £1.2 million.

The organisers of the programme took careful account of the advice that they received from the Government office for the south-west, which was to build up the funding gradually. They were told not to spend every penny in the first year because the business of letting contracts and making other arrangements would mean that it was not feasible. It was suggested that they built it up in the first year, go for full funding in the second year and then back to an average of £1.2 million in the third year. That is exactly what was done, based on the experience in the south-west of the first and second wave in Bristol and Cornwall. Not only did the organisers plan expenditure on that basis, but they made contracts with other providers to make it a reality.

The first sign of a problem—I shall set aside for a moment the clawback of underspend, which I understand; I am not asking for the impossible—was a warning from the Department for Education and Skills last autumn that the figures previously announced might not be met in full. The reality is that they are not going to be met anything like in full. The Somerset children's fund schemes have been told that they face cuts of 15 per cent. below the average annual allocation

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in 2004–05 and 33.3 per cent. below AAA in 2005–06. As a result of the profile of spend, with that hump in the middle, next year we face a 24 per cent. cut.

That is distressing in a number of ways, not simply because of the worthwhile schemes that now might not go ahead, but because of its impact on those who provide and run the schemes, whose enthusiasm we need and whose encouragement should be a high priority. It is also distressing for the children themselves, who had raised expectations which they now find dashed. I understand—the Minister will correct me if I have the wrong end of the stick—that the problem of funding the scheme over the next couple of years is national. My attention has been drawn to the editorial in the February edition of Children Now. It is not desperately friendly towards the Government on the impact of the funding problem, although it is supportive of their intentions, which is exactly my position. I, too, am supportive of the intention, but concerned about the consequences.

Children Now makes an important point: if we are to achieve the things the Minister wants to achieve in her Green Paper—most reasonable people would support the completion of those plans—we need the trust, enthusiasm and skills of people not only in the professional sector and the statutory agencies, but in the voluntary sector as well. The editorial says:

I suspect that the Minister has good news and will tell me that money has been found. There was a verbal announcement last week of an extra £20 million across the country. I hope that she confirms that figure today. It would be very welcome. I do not know which back pocket it came from. Perhaps she will tell me—or perhaps not—but at least someone has recognised that there is a problem. However, the money will still not meet the needs of the schemes around the country. It will improve the funding in Somerset, but we will still be below the AAA level and well below the contracted amount. So there will still be substantial cutbacks in programmes next year. That is a disaster in all sorts of ways.

I draw attention to the situation in Somerset because I feel for my constituents when they come to see me and say how disappointed they are with the situation. My duty as a constituency MP is to bring that to the attention of the House and to tackle Ministers on it. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that additional figure because it is important. I understand that it has not yet been put in writing to the various schemes around the country, but I hope that it soon will be.

Perhaps the Minister will explain why we are in this situation. Has the statutory sector within the DFES swallowed up the funding; is it a knock-on effect of the difficulties that we all acknowledged with schools' funding last year; or is it a result of the impact of higher or further education? What is eating into the Minister's funds in that way to result in such a change? Can she continue the three-year rolling funding programme? The worst thing that can be done is to promise people

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three years' funding and then change one's mind after one year. That is no way to run anything. I am afraid it smacks of—I will not say incompetence because difficult decisions have had to be taken—the fact that somebody somewhere along the line has got the sums wrong. That problem should be recognised.

What will happen next year? I understand that the £20 million is a one-off payment for this year. Perhaps the Minister will tell me that it is recurrent expenditure. That would be helpful in relation to forward planning, but perhaps it is not recurrent. Will she confirm that it is the Government's view that the children's fund is achieving their objectives? If it is, are they prepared to supply the financial and political backing to make it work? Will they provide the assurance, which the voluntary and the professional sector is waiting to hear, that such a situation will not be allowed to happen again? There must be a clear funding stream available in the Department which the Minister can control so that she ensures that it gets to where it is needed.

I finish with the conclusion of the letter from my constituent, Margaret Binney:

I could not agree more. I hope that the Minister will assure us that that is not the situation today, and that it will not be the situation in future, if we are to support such worthwhile schemes.

3.46 pm

The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate. I hope that I can give him the assurances that he seeks. I endorse what he said about the importance of the children's fund. It is one of the Government's exciting and successful innovations to invest in services for a group of children who often miss out: the five to 13-year old group.

We have developed services for under-fives, we do quite a lot to provide for children in their teenage years, but we often forget about services for the crucial five to 13-year-old group, at which the children's fund is directed. The fund has been successful in building lots of exciting projects that support children, most of them run by the voluntary sector. They provide key support for children before things go wrong. We provide preventative services that are crucial in ensuring that children can meet their potential and do not fall through the net into greater difficulties, increasing the demand on public services and damaging their life chances.

That process is important, and it is why we emphasised the shift to prevention in the Green Paper entitled "Every Child Matters". I see a future for children's fund activities within a world in which children's trusts, which we hope will be in place in most authorities by 2006–08, have the responsibility and funding to support such projects in every community, determined locally and meeting local needs, aspirations and priorities. That is how we anticipate that developing. The children's fund sets the tone and demonstrates the sort of policies that will work in the context of our new proposals for children's services.

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I pay tribute to the Somerset children's fund. Barnardo's, which runs many of the children's fund partnerships for us throughout the country, is doing a very good job. A lot of good projects have begun in Somerset. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned one or two. I have been told about a couple of programmes in Somerset, such as Somkids, which is a parenting course for families with children aged five to 13 who have early signs of emotional difficulties. The course helps parents to understand and to listen to their children. It will help children feel happier and more confident about themselves. Groups for children and young people run alongside the parenting groups.

The other scheme that was drawn to my attention and sounded very good was the Minehead middle school transition service, which supports children and parents through the transition from first schools to middle school, in years 4 and 5. There are two liaison workers, who spend every morning in first schools getting to know the pupils and supporting them in year 5, in September. That is a targeted service for those in the eight to 10-year-old group who are experiencing special educational needs or learning difficulties, who may be subject to bullying or antisocial behaviour or who may themselves have shown some criminal behaviour. Again, that is a good project.

I pay tribute to what is happening in Somerset around the particular needs of people such as traveller children, those from ethnic minorities, children living in temporary accommodation, children with learning and physical disabilities, those with hidden disabilities, children in rural isolation and refugee children. Those are all very good things, which we want to sustain.

I come to the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised about funding for his particular children's fund. He is right to say that there has been an impact in Somerset and Frome and in partnerships across country. I sincerely regret and recognise the problems that there have been in the funding of the children's fund and the uncertainties that that has caused in partnerships not just in Somerset but across the country. I sincerely apologise for those difficulties and I assure him, you, Mr. Amess and other hon. Members that we are working hard to get stability back into the programme, and to ensure that the budget is better identified and better managed from here onwards.

Let me explain why we have got ourselves into this situation. We embarked on the children's fund some three or four years ago. The funding is for very small voluntary organisation projects on the ground in every community. It took some time to get those projects off the ground. Therefore, in the early years of the children's fund, there was a considerable underspend. I am sure that you, Mr. Amess, will know that that has been drawn to the attention of hon. Members in the House every now and again.

To deal with that underspend, some sensible decisions were taken, as well as some perhaps less sensible ones. Sensible decisions were taken to top-slice some money for projects such as the summer play schemes for children in danger of getting involved in crime, or to fund some of the work that we are doing around information referral and tracking systems, which are part of the Green Paper proposals. Some money was used for contact centres for children who were not living with both their parents—their parents were separated or

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divorced. That was sensible. We never cut the money and it has not been used for other purposes. It was always used in the preventative area for the five to 13-year-old age group.

There were still fears that we would underspend the budget, so we gave allocations to partnerships that represented over-programming—15 per cent over-programming, more money than was available—and we allowed partnerships to carry forward underspends. The mix of allowing over-programming and carrying forward underspends led us into some of the financial difficulties. It meant that we were heading for an overspend—not that we were removing the funding that was available for these particular projects on the ground in local communities—and that we were in danger of spending more than the £450 million that we had been given by the Treasury towards children's fund activities. That is why we started looking at how we could cut spending plans to stay within the budget framework that we had been set by the Treasury.

Having taken those earlier decisions, however, I recognised that, for many partnerships, that change halfway through meant that projects that thought they had secure funding suddenly faced cuts. That is why I am pleased to confirm that we have found extra money for 2004–05, which will bring the allocation back to the £160 million that the partnerships were expecting. It will mean that, on our present plans, we will actually spend during the three-year period in excess of the £450 million that was allocated by the Treasury. With the additional £20 million, we will probably spend closer to £470 million.

We hope by the end of this week to give information to individual partnerships about how the additional national resources can be used locally. The Somerton and Frome partnership will then have a clearer indication of the resources available to it for 2004–05.

Mr. Heath : I am pleased with what the Minister is saying. Can she tell me whether any view has been taken on the spending profile that was urged on the partnerships by the Government? Will it be recognised in the allocation of additional funds? It seems critical that spending bulges are recognised.

Margaret Hodge : We recognise that problems may still exist for authorities that were in the so-called wave 3 programme, because of the way in which they profiled expenditure, with less spent in 2003–04, much more in 2004–05 and gradually declining amounts in 2005–06. It is to deal with such problems that we will set aside from the additional moneys a small contingency figure. It will be mainly but not solely available to authorities in the wave 3 programme that are facing particular problems. Again, we will make that clear to partnerships such as Somerton and Frome when we write to them at the end of this week.

The hon. Gentleman asked about 2005–06, which still leaves us with some difficulties. I want to approach that in a collaborative way with all the stakeholders: the large voluntary organisations, the many small voluntary organisations that have initiated good projects out of the funding and the local authorities and others who have an interest in the matter. I understand that everyone is keen to get some indication of the funding

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that will be available for 2005–06, so that they can start to plan effectively. Therefore, we have set a figure of £110 million for 2005–06, but I emphasise that final decisions will depend on the outcome of our discussions with partnerships and, of course, on the outcome of the spending review on which we are just embarking.

I hope that I have given some certainty to the hon. Gentleman and to people in his community who have been very distressed by the instability caused by decisions that were taken by the Department at an earlier stage. I leave him with this reassurance. The projects and programmes that have been initiated through the children's fund are vital. If we are to shift the emphasis of what we do from intervening when things go wrong in children's lives to preventing things from going wrong, these small, targeted, preventative programmes in local communities are utterly central. That is why I wish to engage in discussions and collaboration with the organisations on the ground and the partnerships to consider how we can best achieve stability in the next two or three years and how we can then sustain the effort and projects into the new world when children's trusts will drive children's services in every community.

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