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House of Commons

Thursday 24 May 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Looked-after Children

1. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What representations he has received on the Government's Green Paper on looked-after children. [138952]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): The “Care Matters” Green Paper set out for consultation a proposed package of reforms to transform the lives of children in care. Following a comprehensive consultation process, my Department published a summary of the responses that we received on 17 April. Those documents are available on the Government's “Every Child Matters” website. The Government will set out their firm proposals for transforming services for children in care in a White Paper this summer.

Mr. Jones: The Green Paper proposes the appointment of a body of specialist foster carers for children with complex needs. Given that there is a national shortage of approximately 10,000 foster carers, what resources does the Secretary of State propose to make available for the recruitment, training and retention of those specialist carers?

Alan Johnson: As was pointed out by Martin Narey, chair of Barnardo’s, the issue of children in care is—curiously for a political issue—not about resources. Plenty of resources are going in—the problem is that children slip into care too quickly, are moved around too often and are pushed out too early at the age of 16. If we include the proposals that were in our consultation document in the White Paper and subsequently in legislation, we shall need to make more resources available. We recognise that if we are to have a more professional, better-trained body of foster carers, additional resources will be needed.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I am a former chair of a local authority scrutiny panel that produced a report on the services available to young people in care. We found that co-opting young people in the care system was useful. What
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opportunities are there for young people who are currently in care to contribute to the direction and shaping of policy?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend has raised an important point about how we can involve children who are in care, as well as children who have been in care. Twenty-seven per cent. of the prison population were in care as children. As part of our consultation exercise, we have spoken to those people. I think it essential for the final proposals to be drawn up on the basis of the widest possible consultation not just with the public, but with children in care.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) mentioned the chronic shortage of foster carers. Will the Secretary of State study kinship care programmes, such as the one run by Hampshire county council, to try to find ways of increasing the number of people who will offer loving homes to children in this position?

Alan Johnson: That is precisely the sort of scheme that we want to examine. The Hampshire scheme provides a very good service, and there are other schemes around the country whose services are excellent. We should learn from them and ensure that such services are spread more widely. We are taking a comprehensive, root-and-branch look at how we can transform the life chances of children in care, and we are obliged to take account of the very best practice.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): The Secretary of State may be aware that the level of care provided by some companies, such as Green Corns in my constituency, have given cause for concern. What steps will he take to ensure that young people in care receive the level of care to which they are entitled?

Alan Johnson: I do not think we would have been able to embark on this stage of such a radical transformation for children in care without “Every Child Matters”. That was the essential building block, and it is working very well in every part of the country. Local authorities, social services departments and others have done a tremendous job. We are not 100 per cent. there yet, but “Every Child Matters” is the foundation stone when it comes to tackling the problems that the hon. Gentleman has described.

Graduate Debt

2. Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): What the most recent figure is for the average level of graduate debt on leaving university. [138953]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): For students graduating in 2005, the average post-graduate repayment is estimated to be just under £8,000. Under the new system of student support introduced this year there are no up-front fees, and loans are repaid only when the graduate is in employment and earning at least £15,000 a year. We have restored non-repayable grants and introduced new bursaries paid by universities. Under
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that fairer and more progressive system of student financial support, applications for next year are up by 6 per cent.

Mark Hunter: Last summer, the Secretary of State told the Education and Skills Committee that the 2009 review of the tuition fees policy

Can the Minister confirm that the impact of graduate debt will be a major factor in the review? If it is found to be damaging, might the Department reject the policy altogether?

Bill Rammell: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that it is essential that we undertake the review. Our position on the issue has been consistent from the beginning and we will not pre-empt that review. We have to see the first full three years of operation. However, we need some consistency on the issue from all politicians from all political parties. The Liberal Democrats in government in Scotland have been supporting a system of postgraduate repayment that is no different in principle whatever from the system that we have in England.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Given the high level of student debt and the stiff competition for graduate jobs, what are the Government doing to promote and encourage modern apprenticeships as an alternative career path for young people?

Bill Rammell: The Government have tripled apprenticeships in the past 10 years, in stark contrast to the position in the 1980s and early 1990s, when apprenticeships almost disappeared. We are talking up apprenticeships and increasing the numbers, not talking them down, as Opposition Front Benchers consistently do.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The university admissions body, speaking of debt, reports a large increase in suspected student loan fraud. There were 1,500 cases in 2006 and a BBC investigation uncovered fraud involving 200 stolen birth certificates, resulting in the loss of an estimated £1.2 million. The Minister knows that he has failed to respond to my call for a full investigation. I know that he is busy and that he has an excuse—he is calculating the deadweight cost of the train-to-gain scheme; working out how many apprenticeships do not have any workplace element, and making up excuses in case diplomas go horribly wrong. However, it should not be up to the media to investigate such systematic criminal activity. Will he bring to the House details of his internal inquiry, for there must have been one? How much does he expect fraud to be reduced as a result of tighter new rules? I cannot keep making excuses for him.

Bill Rammell: We have undertaken an internal inquiry. The estimate is that the level of fraud is 0.6 per cent. of the total. That level is unacceptable, but it is significantly better than in other areas of the benefit system. We have also tightened up the system. If the hon. Gentleman wants to give the impression that he is opposed to the current system of student financing and
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the system of postgraduate repayment, he may want to talk to his colleague, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who said recently:

I do not think that that message has quite been translated across the Opposition Front Bench yet.

Child Asylum Seekers

3. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): If he will take steps to ensure that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are eligible for free state education until they reach 18 years of age. [138954]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are eligible for free state education.

Mr. Steen: Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and there are 3,000 of them most years, will not complete their full-time education if the Home Office reduces their discretionary leave from 18 to 171/2 before they are deported. What will happen with their exams if they are pushed out six months early?

Mr. Dhanda: As I am sure you will understand, Mr. Speaker, I cannot answer questions on behalf of the Home Office on immigration policy, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing all that we can to support those children within the education system. That means, as I said earlier, ensuring that they have free entitlement throughout their time in schooling, up to the age of 18, including Learning and Skills Council-funded courses at levels 2 and 3, as would be the case for any other child in this country.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Secretary of State referred to the “Every Child Matters” programme in connection with looked-after children. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on his excellent campaign? This is a very large category of looked-after children, yet it seems to be dealt with by the Home Office. What assurances can the Minister give the House that that category of looked-after children are having the best possible outcomes, along with every other looked-after child and, indeed, every other child in this country?

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Lady makes a fair point about the attainment of that group of looked-after children. While 56 per cent. of children typically manage to attain five good GCSEs, as she will be aware, that figure is about 11 per cent. for looked-after children and just 4 per cent. for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, so there is more that we can do, and we are determined to do that. There is the ethnic minority achievement grant, for example, which is worth £178 million and will be targeted particularly at bilingual children. There are things that can be done at local level, too. Devon county council, in which the constituency of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) is located, is producing local literature targeting support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The Department for Education and Skills has
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provided guidance. We are also working closely with the Home Office to look at the interface between the unaccompanied asylum seekers grant and the care leavers grant. Work is ongoing between us and the Home Office.

“Youth Matters”

4. Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): How the Government plan to improve the participation of young people in decisions about local facilities following the Green Paper “Youth Matters”. [138955]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): Legislation introduced in section 6 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 places new responsibilities on local authorities to secure young people’s access to positive activities. The legislation also requires that, in securing access to positive activities, local authorities involve young people in local decisions about what those activities should be. In addition, extra resources of £115 million have been made available through the youth opportunity and youth capital funds, and it is a condition that those funds are spent directly by young people on schemes run for young people.

Kitty Ussher: I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. Does she share my admiration for the fact that Lancashire county council meets on a quarterly basis with the youth council to discuss all issues of policy relating to young people in the county? Is that something that she would like to see replicated in other parts of the country—and, indeed, nationally?

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for her general support for schemes for young people and their participation in them. A number of local authorities are establishing youth councils, as well as young mayors and youth cabinets, which is certainly one important way to involve young people in learning about the democratic process and decision making—and the limits on it—while also acquiring valuable and important experience around team work, co-operation, reliability and representation. Although this is not the only way of doing that, it is an important way, and I would certainly like local authorities to consider doing it more.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Is not the best way of improving the participation of young people in decisions about local facilities to encourage them to vote in and stand for local elections? Will she therefore commend Phil North in my constituency who, at the age of 21, stood for Test Valley borough council, defeated the leader of the Liberal Democrat group and is now ensuring that there is a strong voice for young people in the council chamber?

Beverley Hughes: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it would be great to see more young people of that age as proper representatives in our local democracies. I am sure that, whatever party they represent, they will provide a strong voice for young people.


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Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): The hardest to reach young people are not involved in youth or other formal organisations, but they are the very young people who we need to involve. We need to encourage them off the streets and into more positive activities. I am very concerned that they will not reap the full benefit of the youth opportunity funds, so will my right hon. Friend assure me that when she is assessing projects in Greater Manchester, she will take any action necessary to ensure that the funds are used in the way that they were intended to be used?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend, who I know takes a great interest in these issues in her local area. I made it a condition on both the youth opportunity and capital funds that local authorities should work very hard to seek out the most disadvantaged young people, who can gain so much from the sort of positive activities that those funds will stimulate as well as from the process of decision making. We are just about to collate the data on the first year of operation of both those funds and I have asked for evidence of the extent to which disadvantaged children and young people have been involved. I will look at that very closely and will be happy to share the data with my hon. Friend.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): What discussions have the Minister and the Department had with the Department for Communities and Local Government about the Sustainable Communities Bill, supported by the Government, which will ensure that young people have a much greater say not only on facilities provided for them, but on all the services provided at the local level?

Beverley Hughes: The whole question of sustainability and the role of local authorities in promoting it opens up, for me, yet another set of opportunities for children and young people that we are only just beginning to realise and appreciate. It is the question of the importance of place, green spaces and opportunities created around those developments for young people. We need to explore them much more fully and my officials are talking to officials in the DCLG precisely to that end. I welcome the point that the hon. Lady has made. It is important and we should look further into it.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): This is an interesting question. Will the Minister tell the House what sort of facilities young people would like to see made available to them in the local authority areas in which they live? Her response should be interesting; I hope that it will be. Will she also tell us whether the provision of such facilities will attract any central Government financial resource?

Beverley Hughes: What I do not want to do is speak for young people, because adults tend to do that too often. I want local authorities and their local partners to have not just a one-off dialogue with young people about these funds, but an ongoing dialogue to enable them really to explore the local issues and find out what young people want in their area. The projects that have already sought and secured funds from the two pots of money that we have given out have been many and
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varied. They have ranged from young people setting up their own voluntarily run youth centre to getting experience in hairdressing and beauty—those are examples from the Burnley projects that we have funded. There has also been a great deal of interest in media opportunities, art and animation. I urge any Member to go to their local area, ask about these projects and visit some of them. They will see the huge variety of things going on and the difference that they are making to many young people.

City Academies

5. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of local education authorities in East Anglia to discuss the city academy programme. [138957]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): I have no immediate plans to meet representatives of local education authorities in East Anglia to discuss academies. However, I am aware of the two academy projects under development in Norfolk. The schools commissioner has recently visited Norfolk and Suffolk to discuss secondary education provision in those areas.

Mr. Bellingham: Is the Secretary of State aware that Park high school in my constituency is now planning to relocate to a new site as a city academy? That move has the overwhelming support of the community, the governors and the teachers. The mood is very optimistic, particularly as the Royal Society of Arts has now come forward as a potential sponsor. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the proposal his full support? Will he also make it clear that Her Majesty’s Government are as committed as ever to the city academy programme in spite of some of the cautious comments that have been made by some of his colleagues over the past few weeks?

Alan Johnson: We are as committed as ever to the city academy programme. I would like to help the Conservatives, while they are transforming their education policy to match ours, by explaining that the ambition to build more academies has to be matched by funding. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will give great consideration to the school in his area. Establishing 400 academies—one in every area of deprivation in the country—will also require funding. The problem with the Conservatives is that they will not be able to match that funding with their third fiscal rule and their commitment to tax cuts. The best way for the hon. Gentleman to ensure that he gets his academy is to keep Labour in government. Conservative Members have been trying hard to do that over the past couple of weeks, and we are very grateful to them.


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