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26 Jan 2005 : Column 117WH—continued

Children's Play

3.26 pm

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this short debate and equally delighted that the Minister for the Arts is here to respond.

The Minister will recall that we had a similar debate about children's play 15 months ago, on 3 November 2003. There have been several developments since then.   The report "Getting Serious About Play", which my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) produced, was published on 21 January 2004 after a fairly long period of gestation. Indeed, when we last debated this matter, we talked about how long it had taken for the report to be published.

Just last week, on 16 January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport responded to what I shall characterise as the Dobson review. I am pleased to say that that ended a long period of uncertainty. The process has been fairly lengthy, and people from the play sector, and particularly the voluntary sector, have been involved in the discussions. The lack of decisions has caused uncertainty. There has been a positive outcome, but on the more negative side, people from the play sector were concerned about what the outcome would be.

It might be helpful for me briefly to recount the history of the review of children's play. Just before the previous general election the then Secretary of State

He went on to say that £200 million from round 4 of the   New Opportunities Fund would be earmarked to   create 2,000 new children's safe play areas. That announcement was received with great applause from people connected with children's play, because they saw it as a real opportunity. Almost four years on, and as we approach another general election, whenever it will be, we have an opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved since that time.

Last week, the Secretary of State said that the Government

She added that she

I welcome that clarification; the news is to be welcomed and I do not disparage it. However, I know that the Minister will not mind my saying, as this is a fact, that that does not quite match up to the original commitment made four years ago.

That is the case because, first, that spending is an expectation, to use the Secretary of State's words, and not a firm guarantee. Put another way, it is an aspiration rather than a pledge. Secondly, the spending of £200   million would be across all lottery distributors, while the original pledge was that £200 million would come from the New Opportunities Fund. It is therefore no surprise that the play sector was promised and hoped for more. Thirdly, the planned spending period in which
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the money will be available runs from 2006 to 2012—a slightly longer period than was originally envisaged. Fourthly, and most importantly, the announcement makes it perfectly clear that, although the aspiration is to provide £200 million, that money is not earmarked or ring-fenced. It is not there specifically for children's play.

There is no point trying to disguise the disappointment, concern and perhaps anger in the play sector about the disparity between the two pledges. There was a delay in coming to a decision and there is a strong view that the pledge has been watered down. I shall quote one or two people from the play arena. Angela Neil, a participation worker for Torbay children's fund, said:

Perry Else, who works on children's play in Sheffield, said, in effect, "We have done a lot of work." I quote:

Returning to my own area, my old colleague Rachel Adams said of Nottingham that she was

All those people are effectively saying, "We worked hard alongside the Dobson review. We were promised £200 million and the money that is available is not quite what we anticipated."

I acknowledge that point, but in this debate I want to be positive. I say clearly that £200 million is still a significant amount. I know that the Minister will make that point. Whatever has happened in the past, we need to try to move forward, as they say, and to work in a positive and constructive way. I have been impressed by the approach of the new distributor, the Big Lottery Fund. I have been particularly impressed with its chief executive, Steve Dunmore. Mr. Dunmore has been around the sector. He has talked to it and seems willing to listen, engage and consult. Everybody welcomes that step forward.

While ring-fencing the £200 million has been ruled out, the consultation on future spending plans for the Big Lottery Fund provides a possibility for it to consider different workstreams, frameworks and programmes. I hope that there will be continued discussion on that. We have between £100 million and £200 million between 2006 and 2012. How can it best be spent? What kind of framework can we put in place to ensure that that money is wisely spent? The play sector is keen to be involved in those discussions.

In her announcement last week, the Secretary of State expressed her desire to meet the authors of the report, "Getting Serious About Play—A Review of Children's Play", together with the lottery distributors. Although such a meeting would be helpful, a lot of value would be added if not only the authors of the report and chairmen of the lottery distributors were invited, but key figures
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from the world of children's play. They would not be hard to identify. My only direct request to the Minister today is that they be invited.

The announcement has been made and there is disappointment, but it is important to move forward and build a consensus on the direction of children's play. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider my request, because I want a number of things to come out of any such meeting and discussions. I am clear that we ought to use the principles of the Dobson review about the future funding of children's play. A lot of work has gone into that; people have devoted a lot of time, and there is, by and large, consensus on the way forward. It would be sad if the underlying principle of the review were thrown away.

The worst thing that could happen would be that a blank canvas with £200 million was made available and groups were told, "You come and bid, and we'll allocate on a piecemeal basis." That £200 million is a lot of money; it is a shot in the arm for children's play. I hope that we can develop some programmes and a framework to enable us to spend that money wisely, so that it is not only strong bidders who get money, and there is a more thoughtful approach to building benefits across the sector.

One theme of the Dobson report is focusing money on   areas of disadvantage. I hope that we will pick up that theme. If we look at where lottery funds have traditionally been spent, we see that affluent areas have   generally tended to do better than areas of disadvantage, unless help and support is given to people, and capacity is built in neighbourhoods to bid for those funds. I hope that we will focus on such disadvantage.

From my experience of looking around the sector, I   know that there is an awful lot of good practice in children's play, although there is also poor practice. We ought to identify the best practice and promote good practice, and try to roll it out across the sector. The sector agrees with that approach and would strongly support it.

I am keen that we should continue the process of involving children and their parents in planning the kind of play provision that they want in their areas. It is interesting to listen to children talk about play. They have strong ideas about local needs and solutions. When one asks parents about their priorities for their neighbourhood, one thing comes high on the list: safe and exciting things for children to do. I hope that we will also pick up on that theme.

I also hope that the work being done by good local authorities working in partnership with the voluntary sector and the play sector to build plans for areas—not only plans that run from now, but approach plans over a period of years—will continue. If the play sector were invited to a meeting of the kind envisaged by the Secretary of State, it would not be long before there was agreement that such principles should underlie the funding of children's play and the distribution of the £200 million.

I want to focus on two points that were raised in our last debate. The Minister will remember that slightly lively discussion, in which I was anxious that lottery funding was additional and was not a substitute for
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mainstream local authority funding. I am keen to see such an approach, as I see signs across the sector of local authorities delaying in bringing forward play projects while the decision on the £200 million was made. In a sense, I want that £200 million to be cornerstone money that is used to build new development. I do not want local authorities and other funding bodies to be let off   the hook; I want lottery funding to stimulate development across the piece. We can do that, and there is good will for us to achieve it.

As we now know, commitments on lottery funding for children's play are not for ever. It is quite clear that the money envisaged from the Big Lottery Fund runs from 2006 to 2012. It is important that we use that six-year period to develop an approach to children's play that we can learn lessons from, because when lottery funding falls out, as it inevitably will, those lessons will ensure that we can keep the programme going. Again, there is wide support across the sector for that approach.

Before I conclude, I want to return to another theme that formed part of our last discussion. I have now followed children's play for 25 years or so; I have long ceased to be a practitioner; I call myself a philosopher on the subject instead. One thing that has struck me throughout those 25 years is the fragmentation of funding bodies for children's play. In terms of what happens in Whitehall, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is rightly the lead Department, but the Department for Education and Skills has a stake. The Home Office also has an interest in the matter, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is also a clear player, because of a range of activities connected with local authorities. I hope that one thing to come out of the review and the discussion of the £200 million—this aspect is acknowledged by the Secretary of State—will be greater emphasis on co-ordinating the approach.

We can add value to children's play simply by making sure that we work better together. We ought to be able to use the planning and regeneration process, for example, to create marvellous examples of children's play. I am not confident that we are doing that at present, and neither am I confident that it is happening at a local authority level. Again, at district and county council level, the approach to play is fragmented. I note that very few performance demands are made on local authorities around children's play.

I had a look at "Every Child Matters: Change for Children", and I saw an elaborate graph at the back of the report showing who is responsible for what, yet children's play features only slightly in it. I am keen to raise its profile across the board in our approach to children. It would not be impossible for us to look at the notion of public service agreements with local authorities in respect of play, and it would not be hard to identify some clear targets that the Government could set.

As I said at the outset, a lot has happened over the past couple of years—or since the last manifesto was prepared and the commitment of £200 million for children's play. As all the parties now look towards their manifestos, I am keen that we see children's play as a way of preparing children and their families, as well as their local neighbourhoods, for the future. Investment in children is investment in the future, and investment in
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children's play is investment in all our futures. I hope that this short debate has contributed to the manifesto process.

The Minister has a longstanding commitment to children's play: £200 million is a significant amount. We can get a great deal of action and a lot of change if the   Government, the lottery, the local authorities and the voluntary sector in particular work together in neighbourhoods to bring about change that will benefit not just children but the whole community.

3.46 pm

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on securing another debate on the subject of children's play. It does not seem a year since our last debate on the subject, but it has been. I    acknowledge my hon. Friend's contribution to keeping children's play high on the parliamentary agenda and his commitment to the issue throughout his working life; the two are very much intertwined. As I    said in the previous debate, it is essential that Parliament has the expertise of people who have delivered a service as well as being able to talk about it, and my hon. Friend has done both.

I apologise for the delay in responding to the report. There are several reasons for that, none of which is related to the Government's, or the Department's, attitude to play or their obstinacy in getting round to replying to my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). It is not the job of those who work in the sector to understand the intricacy and bureaucracy involved in Government decisions, and it must have seemed an inordinate amount of time to them. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for not exploiting the delay in the meantime and damaging the trust between the Government and the sector even further.

The crux of the matter, as my hon. Friend said, is that   things have moved on and the commitment to £200 million ring-fenced from the lottery fund has got into the same policy area as reform of the lottery. Had that not happened, there would not have been a delay and I would not be in the slightly difficult position of justifying what I accept is different from what was pledged originally. The intentions are clear, and I think we can reach a similar end, albeit by taking a slightly different route.

The irony in the reform of the lottery is that we are responding to the voluntary sector. On the whole, people do not want ring-fencing; they do not want the Government to intervene, or the top-slicing of grants for   something that the Government want. All hon. Members know, from their time in politics, that everyone hates those pots of money unless they get one. I suspect that one part of the voluntary sector has had its money taken away at the very point when it was going to get a ring-fenced amount. If I were part of the voluntary sector and that happened, I would feel very cross.

However, in the wider sense, it is right that Governments should be less hands-on in terms of the NOF part of the funding. It also goes to show that the   voluntary sector, which will include the play community, will have access to the millions of pounds
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that were formerly spent through the New Opportunities Fund, to which they had no access. They were rarely the chosen partners of delivery. The top-line message is that the announcement may not be as bad as the play sector thinks. It gives it slightly less certainty, because the £200 million ring-fenced pot was a belts-and-braces measure.

I will respond to one point in particular, which I hope will be helpful, and then answer questions and put on the record how we wish to proceed. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, and as my hon. Friend said, we anticipate, or whatever word we chose to use, that because our approach to the lottery is hands-off, it is far more difficult for us to give an absolute pledge, but it is more than an aspiration. I aspire to a great deal—in terms of layers, there are some things that I will aspire to all my life and will never achieve, but this proposal is not in that arena. As much as Ministers can with the new arrangements for the lottery, this may be more of a determination to do all that we can to ensure that it is delivered. However, the decisions will be for the Big Lottery Fund to make.

I was pleased with, grateful for, and appreciative of, the comments that my hon. Friend made about Stephen Dunmore and the meetings that they have had so far. I want to say one thing that he did not mention, which I think will bring some assurance to the set down. One of the essential matters will be to ensure that the amount of money spent on play is monitored. I do not want a Minister in 2012—they will still be a Labour Minister—to have to come back to an Adjournment debate and suddenly be faced with the question of whether £200 million was spent over six years. The sector needs to know what progress it is making towards the £200 million during those six years.

I confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is prepared to meet not only the lottery funders but the Children's Play Council, Tim Gill and my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. I suggest that the Children's Play Council may want to put on the agenda the question of how the lottery distributors will monitor how much money is spent on play. That is important because I know that we are building trust where the terribly long delay has damaged it. If I can help in that, I will.

My hon. Friend raised a point about the need for cross-departmental work. We will have to see how that progresses, but I wanted to raise the importance of the issue. I am here on two counts: play is part of the remit of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but in this case play is also about the lottery fund. However, so many Ministers could have answered a debate on play—those from the Department for Education and Skills, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department of Health or the Home Office. Such is the contribution that play can make to children's lives in so many areas that those Departments all have a responsibility. If we turn that around, every one of them can contribute to play through their policies.

My hon. Friend is right to say that, try as we might, cross-departmental working does not come easily to Ministers, for no other reason than the pressure of time.   We have made an essential first step: now, my Department regularly meets each of the Departments that I have mentioned and is beginning to draw up a Government agenda for play by drawing together
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existing strands. The advantage of doing that in such a way is that one does not start again. Seeing where various Departments are on the issue of play and how to bring the existing work streams together works better   than announcing—heaven forbid—one of those Cabinet cross-departmental committees that can be the bane of our lives, to start again with a different group of civil servants. Although we are late in starting and we are taking a different journey from the one that we might have imagined, I think that it can still lead us to a situation where £200 million has been spent on play by 2012.

There are one or two more points to reply to. It is absolutely essential that areas of deprivation are targeted. Historically, more affluent areas tended to get a larger share of the lottery. My hon. Friend will know as a constituency MP the effort that the NOF and the Community Fund have made to get more money to the coalfield communities and areas of greatest deprivation. The instructions that we will give to the Big Lottery Fund will be about looking after such areas and having regard to the fact that areas of deprivation should benefit most, especially in such matters.

We must learn from best practice. To some extent, the worst way to spend £200 million would be to give it out to 200, 400 or 1,000 projects, each of which did its own thing, and then, in 2012, to say, "Where do we go from here?" It is essential that there is some planning—some strategy, to use the word that my hon. Friend did. I hope that some of the work that people have been doing in anticipation of the money can be put to good effect. It needs to be about learning what works, getting an evidence base and bolstering the case for play when the lottery money runs out in 2012. I hope that when they talk to the lottery funders, that will be one of the approaches they can take.

Lastly—I believe this to be the case because I have heard it from more than one party—some local authorities assume that the lottery will pick up the play tab from now on, and they will be able to spend their money on other things. That is a dire warning because,
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as my hon. Friend said, lottery money runs out, by definition. It was never meant to be long-term funding. Lottery money should serve to yank more money into play. It should lever more money from local authorities and the community, private and voluntary sector. Otherwise, it does not do its purpose. It is an injection, a shot in the arm, for play: getting that evidence base, getting good practice, building capacity and making the argument. By 2012, however, the rest of society must have been sufficiently persuaded that the question "Shall we now stop funding play?" would be a very silly one to ask, because communities could not imagine a time without it.

Some of the things that my hon. Friend and I have talked about in this worthwhile Adjournment debate could form the agenda that must be the basis of a dialogue between the lottery distributors and the play sector in the years to come. I know that is asking more of the voluntary sector and the play sector. I hope that, step by step, we can persuade the doubters—through our decision to fund aspects of the sector, and some posts there—that we are serious about that, even if, because of another event, we are approaching it in a different way.

I am not sure how carefully plotted the timing of this debate was. I cannot recall whether the debate was requested before we responded, or whether the debate forced us to respond a week or two earlier than we might otherwise have done. I would like to think that this fairly long, convoluted Adjournment debate—upon which I again congratulate my hon. Friend—is the end of one phase, and has set out the map, dialogue and plan for the beginning of the second. I apologise that the first stage of the journey has been as long as it has, but I am confident that the second can get the trust and partnership back. At the end of the day, I have never heard of any difference of opinion between the Government and the sector about the importance of play.

3.57 pm

Sitting suspended.
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