Previous Section Index Home Page


6. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): How many apprenticeship places have been created for 16 and 17-year-olds since 1997; and what plans he has to increase provision. [127475]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): According to the latest data available, at the end of 2005 there were 78,900 16 and 17-year-olds participating in an apprenticeship in England, compared with 34,100 in 1997. My priority for the current comprehensive spending review is to offer an apprenticeship place to any qualified 16 to18-year-old who wants one.

Mr. McGovern: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. As a former apprentice in the construction industry, I strongly believe in the apprenticeship scheme. One of the ways that we can best encourage youngsters to engage in apprenticeship schemes is to allow them to sample what being an apprentice is like while they are still at school. What progress is the Secretary of State making in involving schools in the scheme that allows pupils a 50-day experience of being an apprentice?

Alan Johnson: We have made a great deal of progress since 2003 when we introduced work-based learning so that, as part of the 14-to-19 agenda, youngsters start going out to businesses and companies in their constituencies—or, rather, in their area. [Interruption.] Well, MPs are not getting that young. Youngsters therefore experience what work is like, which might give them the opportunity to decide on what their future career should be. That is one of many elements of policy that give choice and diversity to youngsters and ensure that they get a proper grounding before leaving school.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I completely support all that goes on with regard to apprenticeship schemes for those aged 16 and above, but I wish to draw the Secretary of State’s attention to something that is still a big problem in this country: how to tie in young boys aged about 12 and upwards who do not believe that academic routes are the routes for them but who find that schools so specialise in academic subjects that they are left out—so they truant or leave school early. That is one of the major issues that we have found as we go around communities.

I ask the Secretary of State to visit Holland, if he has not already done so. I deeply admire the Dutch for embedding their vocational training in schools, and
15 Mar 2007 : Column 431
their truancy levels are much lower than ours. A Dutch educationist said to me that the difference between them and the United Kingdom is that they are just as intelligent, computer-literate and educated, but they also believe that people have to build the houses that they live in, carry out the plumbing work and do the wiring as well, and that they celebrate that rather than make it a second-class occupation.

Alan Johnson: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the problems that we have traditionally had in respect of vocational qualifications. They are particularly to do with the parity of esteem argument, as academic qualifications are seen as infinitely superior to vocational qualifications. That is in large part due to cultural issues, and we can do a lot in schools to address that. Let me say something about the introduction of diplomas, although they come in a bit later—at 14 to 19—and the right hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about youngsters as young as 12, and boys in particular, having to be switched on to learning. That is a general point that applies to both academic and vocational education.

I cannot emphasise enough the significance of the introduction of diplomas. They are not vocational diplomas. There is that mixture of the theoretical and the practical, which is what we have lacked in this country for so long, and those diplomas, along with apprenticeships and work-placed training as accredited training, can provide the kind of choice that our youngsters need. I said a lot yesterday on issues to do with young boys—working-class boys in particular—and trying to close the attainment gap at age 14, especially in English, as in other subjects we do not have that gender gap. All those areas are important and we are looking closely at the lessons that can be learned from what happens in the Netherlands.

Building Schools for the Future

7. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): How many projects have been completed under the building schools for the future programme. [127477]

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): The first local authority projects are due for completion in 2009. I opened the first BSF “quick-win” schools in Solihull in June of last year, and the first BSF school to be procured through a local education partnership is on schedule to be open in Bristol in September 2007.

Joan Walley: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have an excellent record in the transformation of primary schools—in rebuilding and refurbishing them. It is essential that we now get on with the transformation and that we put the new capital investment into secondary schools. We want that programme, under building schools for the future, to go ahead as quickly as possible. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend would meet me in my constituency and have talks with his noble Friend Lord Adonis, who also has ministerial responsibility for schools, so that we can make sure that each school in my constituency is at the heart of the community, is an extended school,
15 Mar 2007 : Column 432
and is able to contribute to the regeneration that is so desperately needed—and which is already under way—in Stoke-on-Trent.

Jim Knight: I know that my hon. Friend has taken a keen interest in those matters, and that she has met my noble Friend Lord Adonis and senior officials to make sure that we spend well the £181 million that we have committed to secondary schooling in Stoke. I will, of course, be happy to meet her and to make sure that senior officials are working with her to ensure that we are investing that £181 million on the basis of having quality rather than mediocrity.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Is there not an enormous gap between what the Minister has just told the House and what his Department published in its document “Building Schools for the Future”, which said that in 2007, 100 school buildings would open, and in 2008, 200 school buildings would open? Will he confirm that those figures should be five school buildings in 2007 and 23 in 2008? Will he give the House an explanation for that extraordinary delay, and an authoritative time scale against which we can judge the Government’s performance in the future?

Jim Knight: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I gave evidence to the Select Committee on that very issue and was extensively questioned on it. We look forward to the Committee’s report. Building schools for the future is a major project on an unprecedented scale and we deliberately started in the most difficult areas, because those are the ones that need the investment the most. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and we have to ensure that we get the quality right.

If, as in Stoke-on-Trent, we occasionally need to reassess the initial plans in order to improve them, and therefore it takes a little bit longer to get them right, that is what we will do. However, 25 authorities have joined up or have completed procurement. Most of the wave 1 projects that have not yet signed up are near to financial close, with more than 50 more schools opening in the next two years.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Youth Matters

19. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on youth matters. [127490]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Although I have not specifically discussed with the Home Secretary the document “Youth Matters”, I am aware of the programme and I meet him regularly at the National Criminal Justice Board meetings, where youth issues and wider issues are often discussed. The last meeting was on 27 February and the next is on 27 March.

Miss McIntosh: Does the Solicitor-General share my concern at the growing antisocial behaviour in market towns such as Thirsk and the fact that few prosecutions
15 Mar 2007 : Column 433
are taken, especially in cases of the breach of an order or contract under the new antisocial behaviour regulations? Does he agree that rather than seek to prosecute, it would be better to intervene to take the children off the street earlier? What are the Government doing to stop truancy in schools, which can lead to antisocial behaviour? Why are there no prosecutions for breaches of those contracts, and what value do they have in the circumstances?

The Solicitor-General: The aim is to change behaviour and therefore the approach taken is to prosecute where necessary. Some prosecutions do take place, but not unless they are necessary to change the behaviour. The Government’s approach is to ensure, through “Youth Matters”, the document that set out the youth strategy, that we put £115 million into developing youth activities, and also identify those young people who need to be diverted from what may well be antisocial behaviour. I know that in my own area in the village of Gouldon, the local community has got together to put in place packages of assistance for young people by creating pods and developing youth activities, and ensuring a greater police presence and CCTV cameras. It is possible for local people to put together packages to reduce the level of antisocial behaviour and ensure that young people are diverted away from criminal activity and directed towards more useful activities.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the successes and failures of the intensive supervision and surveillance programme, which is very effectively managed in Staffordshire? If he has, what implications does that have for youth sentencing at the end of court cases?

The Solicitor-General: Intensive supervision has been shown to have considerable merits in dealing with particular individuals who need that level of intervention. We are likely to see increasing use of that measure. The response by the criminal justice system to antisocial behaviour by young people will increasingly be directed to dealing with particular problems that they have. The more that we can tailor the intervention by the criminal justice system to the particular problems that individuals have, to divert them away from activities that cause difficulties, the better will be our opportunities to reduce the amount of antisocial behaviour.

Expert Witnesses

20. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): If he will review the role of expert witnesses in criminal prosecutions. [127491]

The Solicitor-General: The straight answer is yes. A number of reviews are being carried out of the role of expert witnesses and some have already been published. There have also been several initiatives recently to improve the use of expert witnesses in criminal cases.

Mark Pritchard: Does the Solicitor-General agree that the judicial system, in particular the Crown Prosecution Service, has a duty of care to ensure that expert witnesses are who they say they are? If so, what are his comments in the light of the recent bogus
15 Mar 2007 : Column 434
Dr. Morrison case, which has led to the need to review more than 700 cases? Many people may be in prison as a result of his so-called expert evidence, so what new measures will the Government put in place to ensure that expert witnesses have the qualifications they claim to have?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is right. The Gene Morrison case is of serious concern. The police investigation into any miscarriages of justice is under way and my office is being kept informed about it. I think that case was exceptional, but it is one that underlines the importance to all parties of ensuring that they look critically at the evidence of expert opinion. A number of reforms are being made. New criminal justice procedure rules put in place last November are now coming into play; the post of forensic science regulator has been set up; and the Attorney-General’s review of shaken baby syndrome cases is under way and will have important recommendations. In accord with the view of the Court of Appeal—the recommendations of his honour Sir Igor Judge—new CPS guidance on the use of expert evidence will ensure that, whereas expert evidence has been wholly relied on in the past, it should not be in the future, and that corroborative evidence which is independent of the experts should be sought. That new approach will help to deal with some of the problems with expert evidence we have experienced in a number of cases in recent years.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): At a time when criminal legal aid costs are under close scrutiny, will my hon. and learned Friend consider looking closely at the joint instruction of experts in criminal cases? Huge expenditure is incurred on expert witnesses and it is increasing at a rapid rate.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is right; there is considerable expenditure in relation to expert witnesses. We need to ensure that cases are properly decided and experts are able to give their view, but that it is done in a sensible and cost-effective way. Following the recommendations, part of the guidance on expert witnesses is that they should be prepared to have peer review of their findings and that there should be exchanges between experts on either side of the case about the evidence they bring forward. We should attempt to ensure that, where possible, there is as much consensus as possible about the expert evidence that goes before a court and a jury. In that way, it is to be hoped that we will reduce the amount of time needed for expert witness evidence in court cases.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Is the Solicitor-General aware that real concern remains among both judiciary and practitioners about the length of time it frequently takes to obtain authorisation from the legal aid authorities to commission expert reports; about the delays in commissioning that often occur once authorisation has been obtained; about delays in disclosure of reports between the parties; and then about the Crown being able to instruct its own experts? Will the Solicitor-General discuss with the appropriate Departments and agencies what can be done to speed up the process of obtaining expert evidence, which, as he knows, also has an impact on the listing and expedition of trials?

15 Mar 2007 : Column 435

The Solicitor-General: It is the case that we need to ensure that court proceedings are speeded up more generally, not just in relation to experts. When we came into office it was clear that the courts system was struggling and unable to cope with the sheer volume of cases before the courts. Things have improved, but there is still a lot more work to be done. There are issues in relation to legal aid. We have to ensure that expert evidence is really needed before legal aid is granted and that there are proper exchanges and disclosure. The new guidance will enable the sharing of expert evidence, and exchanges between experts to take place, and I hope that that approach will result in less delay in the future.

Victim Treatment

21. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the impact of the prosecutors’ pledge on the treatment of victims and their families by the Crown Prosecution Service; and if he will make a statement. [127492]

The Solicitor-General: The prosecutors’ pledge introduced in October 2006 makes a series of commitments about how prosecutors communicate with victims, with the aim of improving performance. At this stage, it is too early to assess the full impact of the pledge. The CPS has implemented management controls to seek to ensure compliance and the witness and victim experience will also provide some feedback on key elements of the pledge.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. He will know that the question was prompted by the experience of a friend of mine whose nephew was assaulted in a street in Slough. The case took more than a year to come to court and the prosecution eventually failed, in part because of a lack of confirmatory identification evidence. That showed me how devastating it is for the families of the victims of violent crime not to know what is going on. Can my hon. and learned Friend assure me that the prosecutors’ pledge will include better information for victims and their families while a case is being pursued and that lessons, such as that about identity parades, are learned and promulgated as a result?

The Solicitor-General: I have had a similar case in my constituency recently. In a manslaughter case the family were not properly informed. There is a need to ensure that the CPS and other agencies deal with victims and families more effectively than they have done. The prosecutors’ pledge has only recently been introduced and it is about changing attitudes and behaviour and improving the way in which the criminal justice system operates by putting victims and witnesses at its heart.

My hon. Friend has let me know of the circumstances of the case that she mentioned. There are lessons to be learned on the identification issues, but the initial charging advice was provided by a Crown prosecutor who advised the police that, given the issues in the case, there was no requirement for a video identification procedure. However, subsequently that advice had to be looked at again. Lessons must be learned when the system has failed victims or their
15 Mar 2007 : Column 436
families, and it is necessary that the prosecutors’ pledge be delivered on. It is about changing and improving the whole way in which our criminal justice system operates.

Fraud Review

22. Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to implement the findings of the fraud review. [127493]

The Solicitor-General: A national strategy to tackle fraud has been published today. We will create a national fraud strategic authority to help co-ordinate efforts to combat fraud. It will include a unit to measure the extent of large-scale and smaller frauds; a working party will develop a costed case for a national fraud reporting centre to take reports from victims and to co-ordinate information and advice on tackling fraud; and it will work closely with the police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

Mr. Jones: I am grateful for that reply. My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that many businesses and trade organisations are concerned about fraud and, in particular, about the growth of internet fraud. Can he tell the House how those businesses and trade organisations can take part in the review with the organisations that he has just announced?

The Solicitor-General: It is important that the private sector and, indeed, the public sector work much more carefully, and with the police, at not just seeking to catch criminals after they have committed an offence, but seeking to prevent crime and fraud from taking place. The fraud review sets out ways in which we can get the private and public sectors to work together with the police and the other agencies in developing a strategy to tackle fraud. The national fraud strategic authority will raise awareness among the public and seek to promote best practice in fraud detection and prevention. Individual institutions need to design systems that make fraud much more difficult to commit. There is a growing body of good practice in fraud management strategies and we have encouraged the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission to look at the strength of anti-fraud controls in the organisations that they audit.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I welcome the fraud review. I hope very much that issues such as plea bargaining and better management of fraud trials can all be looked at very carefully in the course of it. However, in view of the fact that the review is taking place and that it is likely that by next week the Bill that would remove the right to trial by jury in certain fraud cases will be defeated in the House of Lords, can I urge the Solicitor-General to use the fraud review to reconsider the position of wanting to get rid of the right of trial by jury in certain fraud cases? If this fraud review is properly carried out it will make such a measure even less necessary, despite the Government’s attempts at justifying it.

Next Section Index Home Page