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The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): Over 3,800 schools are providing access to the full core offer of extended services in England and 11,500 are working with their local authorities to develop extended services. This is encouraging progress towards our 2008 target of half of all primary and a third of all secondary schools providing access to extended services.
Helen Goodman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Clearly, extended schools are an opportunity for a significant improvement in the quality of life of many children. I know that the Minister is committed to play being a central part of the time that children spend in extended schools, but that is not happening across the board. Could she consider including childrens play in the prospectus for the core offer?
I am grateful for the great interest that my hon. Friend takes in this subject. I assure her that, certainly for younger children, we expect elements of the core offer of extended services to include play, both in the child care element, wrapped around the start and end of the school day, and in the variety of activities that children do. Having been to many extended schools, I know that for very young children it is sometimes hard to see how a child will distinguish between play and learning, and we have to hold on to
that. Certainly I agree that for young children in particular, as well as enriching activities for older children, play is an important part of their development.
Paddy Tipping: Of course play and learning are clearly linked. The Minister will know that there are examples of good practice in extended schools where, through play, imaginative and exciting activities are promoted. Does she agree that we should not just extend classroom activities, but also give children other opportunities?
Beverley Hughes: I agree with my hon. Friend. We all know that better off parents and the best public schools have always provided extensive programmes of extracurricular activities. They understand that those activities help children to develop a range of attributes that are important for their enjoyment, learning and development as rounded people. That is why we have given schools £840 million plus £1.3 billion for personalised learning, so that they can give every child the extended opportunities that will help them develop educationally and in terms of the other skills that, increasingly, employers tell us they need.
Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Does the Minister stand by her statement last summer that parents will not mind paying £80 a week to send their children to after-school clubs? If not, what does she believe to be a reasonable amount for them to pay?
Beverley Hughes: I did not make that statement, although it appeared in the press. For many parents, charging is an acceptable part of what they are willing to do for additional activities in school. Certainly for low income families, extended servicesmany activities of the child care element and the enrichment activitieswill be covered by the tax credit system that many parents are receiving. As I go round schools I see that they are considering this issue sensitively. We want to make sure that children from disadvantaged families are not excluded from these important activities because of charging. Local authorities are working with us to see if we can make sure of that. It is important that every child has these opportunities.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): Ministerial colleagues and I hold regular meetings with stakeholders to discuss early years issues and we receive a range of correspondence. Both provide an opportunity to celebrate the progress that we are making towards delivering our 10-year child care strategy and to make it clear that the free early education entitlement should continue to be just thatfree at the point of delivery.
Is the Minister aware that in certain parts of the country there is a gap between the money that nurseries receive from the Government and the
actual cost of nursery provision, which means that a modest top-up fee is absolutely essential? Owing to the new statutory guidelines published by the Secretary of State last year, excellent nurseries such as Flying Start at Pinewood in my constituency, which are very popular, will not be able to continue, as they will no longer be eligible for Government money because they have to charge top-up fees. That is causing great distress to local parents whose children will have nowhere else to go. What does the Minister intend to do about it?
Mr. Dhanda: Our view is that free means free. We do not believe in a two-tier system. I would be interested to hear the view of Opposition Front-Bench Members. Do they support the £3 billion a year that we are putting into nursery care? We are proud of the offer of 12 and a half hours free provision for all three and four-year-olds for 38 weeks, and we are working with local authorities to make that happen. We believe that the £3 billion a year we are giving local authorities is sufficient to provide that care for free; hence we do not believe in a two-tier system.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): Child care provided by child minders is an important service for many working families in my constituency and the Sure Start centres in Little Hulton and Tyldesley have child minder networks that support 163 child minders caring for 568 children. Does my hon. Friend agree about the importance of that branch of child care, and can he tell me what commitment there is to the further development of child minder support?
Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are doing everything we can to support child minders in local networks. As she is aware, since 1997 we have doubled the number of child care places and there are now about 1.3 million up and down the land, but it is important that we work with childrens centres, too, to enhance that work locally. My hon. Friend will also be aware that we shall be creating 3,500 childrens centres between now and 2010.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Does not the Minister accept that the nursery sector is approaching crisis and will he join me in paying tribute to its excellent work in the provision of nursery care? However, given the question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), does not the Minister appreciate that in reality nursery care is not free at the point of delivery, because nurseries have to charge fees that are higher than the rate allowed under free provision? He should not allow his partys ideology to stand in the way of free provision, so will he tell the House that the £7.5 million for parents that the Minister for Children and Families will announce later today will actually be used for nursery provision?
I think the hon. Lady has just made it clear to the House that Opposition Front Benchers believe in a two-tier system. There is a real difference, because for us, free means free and I shall highlight what we expect to be delivered for free. The foundation stage curriculum provides communication, language, literacy, numeracy, an understanding of the world, physical, social and emotional development and
creativity. That can be delivered from a budget of £3 billion a year, working through local authorities. We are investing a further £3 billion a year in childrens centres and the like, as well as £2 million a day through child tax credit. Perhaps the hon. Lady is saying that the Conservatives would invest more. Is she nodding? Would they invest more? She is not making that clear
The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): All the recommendations set out in the report have been accepted. In addition, the Government will extend the number of sexual assault referral centres from 15 to 30 by the end of 2008. We are also funding a pilot of independent sexual violence advisers to help victims through the trial process, with the aim of securing justice for victims.
Kali Mountford: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. My reading of the report tells me that it builds well on the lessons learned from the domestic violence courts. Does he see, as I do, the importance of the valuable lessons that we have learned in that context from looking at how specialists can help both witnesses and victims to feel supported and confident when they are giving their evidence, to make sure that we can get real convictions and success through the courts?
The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is entirely right. In the pilots in the domestic violence courts the assistance of advisers to the victims produced substantial increases in convictions, because the victims were reassured about the process and helped through something that can, in many ways, be very difficult. We can probably transfer those lessons into the area of dealing with victims of rape. I hope that the creation of 38 independent sexual violence advisers will help victims of rape by enabling them to access support services, and by providing them with people who can explain how the courts operate and perhaps take them on a visit, give them some emotional support and act as a contact point in the lead-up to a trial. I hope that that will result in more victims being able to come to court and more convictions being secured.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What is the Governments view in regard to women who are trafficked into this country to become sex slaves and prostitutes? Should the men who use those prostitutes be charged with rape?
Rape requires an absence of consent, which depends on the particular circumstances in individual cases. If a man rapes a woman knowing
that she is being forced to have sex with him, he may well be at risk of being charged with rape. However, if he is unaware that she is being forced or if he believes that there is genuine consent, the circumstances may be different. The use of trafficked women in this way is reprehensible and may well amount to other offences, but whether it is always rape is a much more difficult subject.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I appreciate my hon. and learned Friends reply about women who have been raped. Does he agree that there are far too many allegations of rape that never get to the courtroom door? I know what he is sayingthe measures will be helpful. But more help might be needed for women to prepare their cases and to prepare them for the trauma of a trial.
The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is quite right: we need to do much more to help victims. The Government have provided £7 million towards improving services for the victims of sexual violence, especially by extending the network of sexual assault referral centres, supporting the advisers that I have already mentioned, and funding independent sexual violence voluntary sector assistance and counselling for victims. We have also introduced 65 witness care units so that we can provide help with transport and child care to witnesses. There are now 520 rape specialist prosecutors to ensure that the right charges are brought. We need to ensure that we provide that extra help to victims.
The Solicitor-General: Robust advice from a lawyer to a client has to be based on relationship of trust and candour, and therefore advice is normally confidential. Law Officers advice to Ministers has similar legal privilege. That is reflected in the ministerial code. In certain cases, it is, however, right for Parliament and the public to be given an explanation of the legal basis for certain decisions that have been reached. Yesterday afternoon, we discussed some of the basis for some decisions in relation to the BAE case and the al-Yamamah contract.
Mr. Robathan: This is very different from the relationship between a private client and his solicitor. Has the Solicitor-General managed to take the time to discuss the matter with his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), whose thinking is exactly the opposite of his? In the current climate, is it not vital that the Government be open about what has been said and about the legal advice that has been given on various issues, not least the war in Iraq?
The Solicitor-General: There are various views about this. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), is entitled to her view, I am entitled to mine, and the Attorney-General has expressed his. If advice were open, everyone would know it, but it would be subject to constant criticism by every lawyer with a different opinion. Such a situation could lead Ministers to be less open with Law Officers, and Law Officers might be more circumspect about their advice if they knew that it was going to be made public. The Government need robust advice, not anodyne circumspection. If Ministers and Law Officers knew that advice was going to be made public, they could take that fact into account. However, we would not want a situation in which Ministers who needed good legal advice did not come and get it.
It is a contradiction in terms to have an accountable office-holder who is not able to publish to those whom he is accountable the advice he has given. It is not enough for government ministers to say we are advised that it is lawful. Backbenchers, let alone the wider public, want to see for themselves what the arguments are.
The Solicitor-General: My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has expressed her view. She is entitled to have a view, but the view of the Government is that set out in the ministerial code. The view is clear and one that the Information Commissioner recently set out in an opinion. Let me quote what he said, because it is useful:
The wider principle that legal advice should attract legal professional privilege is supported by very strong public interest arguments. The principle promotes the administration of justice and the ability of an individual to confide in his legal adviser, receive advice, and take appropriate action to abide by the law. The arguments for maintaining legal professional privilege are strong and therefore the circumstances in which the public interest will favour disclosure of information that is legally privileged are likely to be highly exceptional.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab):
Let me help my hon. and learned Friend. It is a settled precedent that the advice of the Attorney-General should be confidential. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is a former deputy to the Attorney-General, has said completely the opposite. Is she not bound by collective responsibility on the matter?
Bearing in mind that it is Valentines day next week, on 14 February, will the Solicitor-General act as Cupid and patch up this problem between the Attorney-General and his former deputy?
The Solicitor-General: I am grateful for my right hon. Friends assistance. He showed yesterday that he was able to assist Bollywood starshe did a high-profile job in doing so. I am not quite sure that we need such publicity for this matter, although he will no doubt ensure that we get a little bit more.
It is the Governments view that disclosing all the detailed legal advice that Ministers sometimes request from Law Officers might involve the disclosure of arguments. The Government would then have to set out those arguments, after which they would just be challenged in the courts. Such a situation might well create uncertainty about sound legal advice because both sides of an argument could often be referred to. The advice thus might well highlight Government vulnerability. I take a different view from my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, and I must say that the Government do, too.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Everyone understands that there is a tradition of privilege regarding advice given to a client. However, will the Solicitor-General talk to the Attorney-Generalthe evidence that the Attorney-General gave yesterday showed that he was clearly willing to think about developing the role of Law Officersand suggest that there is a clear distinction between the advice that the Government are given when they are working out their view, which is perfectly properly confidential, and advice that gives the Government a justification for coming to Parliament to argue a case on the basis of that advice, as was the case when the decision was taken on war in Iraq? There must an argument for knowing the advice if the Government come to Parliament and say that they have been given advice that justifies what they are trying to persuade Parliament to do.
The Solicitor-General: I am with the hon. Gentleman part of the way. There is an argument for setting out the legal basis on which advice has been reached. Arguably, that was done to some extent in relation to the Iraq war, but also on a range of other issues where difficult decisions, such as in the BAE example, were involved. As Law Officers, we have to come before the House to answer questions, set out the arguments and participate in a substantial debate over such decisions, so it is not the case that we are saying nothing should be discussed. What we are saying is that, if it is suggested that all sorts of legal advice on a whole range of issues should be made freely available, I would have to disagree, because it would undermine the basis of trust between Ministers and the Law Officers. There are certain circumstances in which it is appropriate to bring before the House the advice that has been given and to explain at least the basis of it.
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