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11 Jan 2007 : Column 426

Beverley Hughes: That is central to our objectives. In the Childcare Act 2006 the Government laid two duties on local authorities—not only to achieve an improvement in outcomes for all young children, but to reduce the inequalities between young children. That provision was robustly opposed by all Tory members of the Committee during the passage of the Act. Reaching the most disadvantaged families is crucial to reducing inequalities. The recent National Audit Office report identified the fact that although many local authorities are doing very well in reaching disadvantaged families, more local authorities need to do better. I have recently taken a number of steps to improve the performance of local—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I gently say to the Minister that that answer is too long.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I was very pleased to hear about the development of the first three children’s centres in my constituency over the coming year. Local people are telling me that it is extremely important to involve parents in the development of those centres at the earliest possible stage if they are to fulfil their role in ensuring that every young child gets the best possible start in life. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Beverley Hughes: All the evidence suggests that over and above any services, the single most important factor in determining outcomes for children at any age is parental involvement, positive attitude and interest. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is important to involve parents at the earliest opportunity, but centres must also keep their eye on the most important ball—outcomes for the children themselves.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How does the Minister’s Department intend to respond to the National Audit Office report, which said, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) pointed out, that children’s centres are not reaching the most deprived families, particularly parents of children with disabilities. It noted that four out of 30 of the children’s centres were forecasting deficits, which raises questions about the roll-out of future centres and the sustainability of the child care market.

On primary care trust co-hosting, which we would like to see, how will that happen in areas such as North Yorkshire where PCTs are heavily in deficit?

Beverley Hughes: The NAO report was helpful because it found that some local authorities need to do better in reaching the most disadvantaged groups. It also identified local authorities that were doing very well and how they were doing so. I have taken three courses of action in response to the report. First, I have issued strong practice guidance to children’s centres about how they should strengthen their outreach and improve their performance management. Secondly, I am funding, with the Cabinet Office and the social exclusion team, a project to determine how health visitors, who are well placed to identify and work with the most disadvantaged families, can be more strongly connected with children’s centres. Thirdly, we have appointed a public voluntary sector consortium called
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Together for Children, whose job is to support and, particularly, to challenge local authorities and to improve their practice in this regard.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I hope that my right hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the third new children’s centre in my constituency, which opened just before Christmas. I am sure that it will provide excellent services for people in the Laurel avenue area. Can she confirm what her Department is doing to support outreach work from the centre so that families who are most excluded and hardest to reach can access not only the benefits of Sure Start but those of other services?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, I can. The NAO report found that centres that are successful at reaching disadvantaged groups showed commitment from the centre manager and staff, used outreach and home visiting in co-operation with health and community groups to reach those excluded families, and provided outreach services on the doorsteps of deprived communities. Those are exactly the elements that the practice guidance has identified, and all local authorities must push that through their children’s centres to ensure that it happens.

International Baccalaureate

9. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What plans he has to encourage schools to offer international baccalaureate examinations in place of A-levels. [114157]

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): On 30 November, the Prime Minister announced plans to enable some schools to offer the international baccalaureate in addition to A-levels, thus widening choice in post-16 education. We are asking each local authority to nominate one suitable institution in their area that could deliver the IB, and we will support at least one institution offering it in every local authority outside London by 2010. Any school offering it must be in a consortium that is successful in passing through the diploma gateway.

Mr. Robathan: When the Prime Minister said that he wanted the international baccalaureate to be an extra examination choice, was not he admitting what we all know—that the Government have let down hard-working, intelligent young people by making A-levels that much easier through devaluing the so-called gold standard? Indeed, he was admitting that A-levels are no longer an adequate test of the hard work, education, intelligence and ability of pre-university pupils.

Jim Knight: I am afraid to say that that is complete nonsense. We should celebrate the performance and improvement in teaching in this country, pupils’ hard work, and the support that they get from their parents and that schools get from governors, resulting in vastly improved A-levels. We now have 25 per cent. of pupils getting an A grade in every A-level subject and we are therefore introducing the grade of A* to provide some differentiation and more push at the top end of A-levels. However, the A-level remains the gold
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standard. The IB will not suit most candidates because of its breadth—it includes English, maths, a science and an additional foreign language. Most people post-16 will not be interested in that breadth.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the preparation for a baccalaureate or A-levels depends on achievement at key stage 4? Will he join me in congratulating the schools in Slough, which get results that are 10 per cent. above average in key stage 4? They include Beechwood school, which suffers from a selective intake, but has moved from being judged “the worst school in the country” in 2001 to one in which one in five of its pupils are getting five A to C grades.

Jim Knight: I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Beechwood school in Slough on some excellent performance and fantastic improvement in the past five years. Everyone involved in that school should be proud of their achievements. We should celebrate success in our schools throughout the country instead of trying to run it down.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the shadow deputy Chief Whip that the increasing popularity of the international baccalaureate is partly due to concerns about existing A-levels and GCSEs. That is why 200 independent schools decided to adopt the international GCSE in some subjects. Does the Minister agree that, since state schools are allowed to offer the international baccalaureate, they should also be allowed to offer the international GCSE, thus putting them on an equal footing with the independent sector?

Jim Knight: At the moment, more state schools than independent schools offer the international baccalaureate. I am sure that some independent schools are motivated by the extraordinarily large number of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service points that now have been offered to the international GCSE. The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the IGSE are predictable. I remind him that it is not compatible with the national curriculum. It is a completely written exam and it therefore fails to offer, for example, French oral for the French exam. That is nonsense. If we offered it in maintained schools, significant changes would have to be made to it.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the Minister accept that the array of examinations that is now available—general national vocational qualifications, 14 to 19 diplomas, the international baccalaureate, A-levels—is costly and confusing? Does he agree that it avoids tackling the genuine problem, which is that examination boards or the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, aided and abetted by the unwillingness of successive Governments to maintain standards, have not maintained the rigorous standards that should be applied to the A-level? Does he accept that is now time to re-establish rigorous standards for the content of A-levels and—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I pushed the boat out to allow the hon. Gentleman one supplementary question.

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Jim Knight: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I reject the notion that A-levels have been dumbed down—it is an insult to pupils who have been doing so well in those exams. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority maintains the standard for us and does a good job. On the range of options post-16, we are setting out a three-pronged choice in our 14 to19 reforms, with English and maths GCSE at its heart, as well as the traditional apprenticeship route, the traditional academic GCSE and A-level or IB route and the new specialised diploma route. That will mix the best of academic and the best of work-related learning.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Adjourned Hearings

20. Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of hearings adjourned at the request of Crown Prosecution Service staff. [114140]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Although information on the number of hearings adjourned at the request of the Crown Prosecution Service is not collected, I can say that there has been a decrease in the average number of adjournments in indictable cases in the magistrates court from 2.6 per cent. in 1997 to 2.1 per cent. in 2006.

Ann Coffey: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. I am pleased that the trend is on a downward curve and I would like to congratulate John Holt and the Greater Manchester Crown Prosecution Service on their success in improving performance in this area. However, we should not forget that while the CPS and the police are responsible for the fact that about a fifth of hearings do not go ahead as planned, the defence is responsible for more than half. What further steps can be taken to solve defence-related problems, including defence lawyers not preparing for cases on time and defendants on bail who do not turn up for court hearings, causing distress and inconvenience to victims and witnesses and further delaying justice?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is right. The recent National Audit Office report recognises that most ineffective trials are caused by defence problems, whether it be the absence of the defendant, defence lawyers not being ready or the defendant being ill. That has quite an impact on the witnesses for the prosecution—and, indeed, the victims—who have attended the court. Through the “Criminal Justice: Simple, Speedy, Summary” review, we are piloting improvements in the operation of procedures, which have proved successful in those four pilot areas. In addition, Lord Carter’s recent review of legal aid procurement, published in July, changes the way in which defence lawyers are paid. Instead of being paid for each hearing, they will be paid for each case, which will incentivise efficiency and, one hopes, result in fewer hearings and fewer adjournments.

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Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Does the Solicitor-General recognise the concern expressed by Crown prosecutors in Enfield magistrates court about the number of adjournments—likely to go down as defence adjournments—resulting from bad implementation of the means-testing process? That has led to a number of adjournments and ineffective hearings in the magistrates court.

The Solicitor-General: I accept that there has been an issue about means testing. I was at Horseferry Road magistrates court just round the corner only last Thursday and had to deal with a case in which that issue arose, when we needed to ensure that legal aid was available and that the necessary procedures were completed. That is why I know that my colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs are looking into those procedures with a view to improving them.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Is the Solicitor-General aware of the seriousness of the problem? In Wellingborough, for instance, a terminally ill constituent turned up at court three times, only to find that the case had been adjourned. We must have procedures in place to stop that sort of thing happening.

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. That is why the new “Criminal Justice: Simple, Speedy, Summary” review is piloting improvements to procedures in the courts at Coventry, Cumbria, Camberwell Green and Thames in order to ensure that cases are dealt with and prepared right at the first hearing. All the relevant papers should be there so that the defence is in a position to indicate a plea and the matter can be put to trial—one hopes fairly speedily—in the case of a not guilty plea or otherwise be dealt with on the day or in due course after a probation report has been prepared. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we need to speed up those processes.


21. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How he will evaluate the independent advice offered to him on whether prosecutions should be initiated under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 or the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. [114141]

The Solicitor-General: If the Crown Prosecution Service consults him on such a prosecution, the Attorney-General has said that he will appoint an independent senior counsel to review all the relevant material and advise him on any prosecution. That is not unusual, as the Attorney-General often appoints senior counsel to advise on particular cases, and he will evaluate advice in the normal way.

Mr. Prentice: But will he act on that advice and will the Attorney-General retain the right of veto on whether to advance a prosecution? Is it not as plain as a pikestaff that there is a clear and obvious conflict of interest here and that the Attorney-General should remove himself entirely from the process?

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The Solicitor-General: It is important to stress that these issues are wholly hypothetical at this stage. There is no file sent to the Crown Prosecution Service; there is no reference by the CPS to the Attorney-General; no independent advice has been sought and no one—including my hon. Friend—knows whether it will happen. A police investigation is still under way: neither I nor the Attorney-General knows whether it will lead to any recommendation for anyone to be prosecuted. The Attorney-General has made his position clear and it would not be right for him to stand aside from any involvement in the case. Indeed, as the Director of Public Prosecutions has said, the Attorney-General is

And as Lord Morris of Aberavon, a former Attorney-General, has said of the Attorney-General:

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): On this issue, the Solicitor-General will know that there are three main criteria in the Attorney-General’s guidelines for prosecution. The third, and the most germane to this matter, is public interest. May I suggest that it will never be proper for the Attorney-General to consider the public interest since he is deeply involved in all of this? If ever there were a case of great public interest, this is it.

The Solicitor-General: There are a small number of cases for which any decision to prosecute requires the personal consent of the Attorney-General or me. Parliament has made that an essential legal condition. If the hon. Gentleman has a problem with what Parliament has done, he, as a Member of Parliament, has the ability to do something about it. This is not a power that can be delegated by the Law Officers to a third party; it is not something that can be delegated. Furthermore, even in relation to those prosecutions for which the consent of the Law Officers is not required, the Attorney-General has statutory responsibility for the superintendence of the Crown Prosecution Service and is answerable to Parliament and to the public for its actions. Either the hon. Gentleman wants someone to be answerable to Parliament to deal with these questions or he does not.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): In order to get this matter into perspective, may I point out to my hon. and learned Friend that, in all the time that I have been a Member of this House, there have been allegations—justified or otherwise—that those who have donated to political parties have received honours? The issue goes back many years, and for the life of me I cannot see anything unique about the allegations that are now being made.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend has greater experience in the House than I have, and he knows that these kinds of issues have been raised in the past. When the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Law Officers deal with such issues, they have to do so on the
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basis of the evidence and the law. That is the basis on which such things should be decided, not on the basis of mere allegations.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Given that any future decision by the Attorney-General, a Member of the House of Lords appointed by the Labour party, on peers and honours will be highly controversial, and that it would follow two other highly controversial decisions—namely, his advice on Iraq, which appears to have changed, and his advice and decision on the al-Yamamah contract between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia—is it not time for an honest and open debate about a change in the relationship between the Law Officers and the Government, so as to make them more accountable to Parliament and less accountable to the Prime Minister of the day?

The Solicitor-General: I am not sure quite what the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am doing standing here at the Dispatch Box answering his questions, other than being accountable to Parliament. The fact that the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General are answerable to Parliament for the issues means that we have to ensure that we are able to deal with them in an appropriate way. The Law Officers are answerable to the House. They are able to look at the issues from the point of view of Members of Parliament in relation to answering questions here but also, most importantly, to ensure that we make judgments based on the public interest, on the law and on ensuring that we maintain the integrity of the prosecution service.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I entirely accept that the Attorney-General cannot surrender his constitutional functions or abandon his role to someone else in this matter. Will the Solicitor-General provide us with further reassurance? In the unlikely event that the independent person appointed to advise the Attorney-General were to take a different view from that of the Attorney-General, would the Law Officers ensure that further advice was sought before a final decision was made? Will the Solicitor-General also confirm that, if a decision were to be reached in which there was a variance between the independent adviser’s view and that of the Law Officers, Parliament would be fully seized of the matter?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is right that the Attorney-General cannot abrogate his constitutional functions. Going even further down the route of asking what would happen were a file sent to the CPS, which it referred to the Attorney-General, who took independent counsel’s advice and then had a view, would be getting into hypotheticals to an extreme. The Attorney-General has acknowledged that he could not simply rubber-stamp the views of counsel. Given his ultimate legal and constitutional responsibilities, he must take a view. I stress again that the position is hypothetical.

In answer to the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the Attorney-General has said that if a decision were taken not to prosecute, he would consider at that stage how best to ensure that the basis for that decision was explained, including, so far as compatible with the interests of justice, making known what course counsel had advised him to take.

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