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28 Jun 2007 : Column 465

Kitty Ussher: I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and I am glad that a proper evaluation of the impact of children’s centres on families is under way. May I probe her a little further specifically on child inequality? Is there any evidence that areas with children’s centres have greater or less child inequality than similar areas that do not have children’s centres?

Beverley Hughes: As part of the series of reports in the national evaluation of Sure Start, four further reports will be published today. Research in one report shows faster reductions in child poverty in Sure Start areas compared with England as a whole. That research looked at local programmes over five years, and identified improvements which, however, we cannot correlate directly with Sure Start, because a number of other factors in those areas need to be taken into account. None the less, that is encouraging because in Sure Start areas, as I have said, there are greater decreases in the percentage of children living in workless households, and improvements in child health, with fewer respiratory illnesses and severe injuries, which reflects the better integration of services in Sure Start areas.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): While it is undoubtedly true that Sure Start education centres are popular and successful, does the Minister acknowledge the Birkbeck research in that evaluation programme, which clearly shows that the centres do not reduce inequality, because they do not address the differing language skills of different social classes?

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a high level of satisfaction with children’s centres. In another piece of research, 90 per cent. of parents were very satisfied, and 9 per cent. were quite satisfied with them. Parents certainly believe that they are getting what they need for their children from children’s centres. Language acquisition is an important part of the redevelopment of the early years foundation stage which, as he will know, will be delivered in any setting for an early-years child from nought to five. That focus on communication, literacy and language is a vital part of ensuring that children develop those skills and it will enhance their well-being as a whole.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Although the evaluation is important, I am sure that, like me, my right hon. Friend has talked to parents who think those centres have changed their lives completely. However, I wish to pursue the point about those who are most disadvantaged. While the children’s centres in my Loughborough constituency have reached many of the disadvantaged, the most disadvantaged are probably still not being targeted and extra work is being done to bring them in. Can she explain in a little more detail what measures are being taken to reach out even further to those who would benefit most from the vast array of services provided through the children’s centres in Loughborough?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend is right. In tackling inequality, which is the next big challenge for all public services, not just children’s centres, the crucial question for us is how those public service professionals, health visitors and so on can reach the people who are the most disadvantaged, who will not find their way to
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services voluntarily or easily for all kinds of reasons. With reference to children’s centres, we have issued clear guidance on how that outreach work needs to be done. Universal services such as health visitors, which are non-stigmatising and go to every household when a child is born, have a key role to play. Building on that role, we have funded the nurse-led family partnerships, which are using specialist health visitors with first-time very young parents, often teenage parents, to work with them not just for the first few weeks, but from pregnancy right through until children are two years old and more. They, too, will work through children’s centres and provide a strong lead as to how we can develop this important outreach approach.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Minister will be aware of a number of reports out in recent weeks showing that social mobility in the United Kingdom has declined to the point that it is the worst of any developed country where it is measured. Given that there are many advantages to the Sure Start programme, but that a great deal of public money is spent on it, is she prepared to make any claim as to how the Sure Start programme might improve social mobility for our fellow citizens in the future?

Beverley Hughes: First, it is important to put the record straight. In fact, social mobility started to decline in the 1980s and 1990s under the Conservative Government. What we have managed to do so far, which is not enough for this Government, is to halt that decline. That is the first stage in reversing the decline in social mobility, which is our objective. Secondly, the focus on early years, which this—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister should give consideration to other hon. Members who are seeking to speak.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): Local Liberal Democrat councillors have welcomed children’s centres as a part of tackling child poverty, but Tory councillors have said that they would close children’s centres unless they were a proven success. That has caused concern for local parents. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House on what basis councillors would be able to close children’s centres, and give my constituents some reassurance?

Beverley Hughes: Just in case any councils in the future thought they might be able to reverse the trend, we have enshrined the integration of services for the early years though children’s centres in legislation in the Childcare Act 2006, which received Royal Assent in July last year.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Without commenting on the right hon. Lady’s potential for upward mobility later today, may I ask how she responds to the conclusions of the Sutton Trust report, which found that social mobility has declined to its lowest level in the UK for 20 years, and the National Audit Office’s report in December last year, which found that of the children’s centres visited, only nine out of 30 actively targeted the harder to reach? Does she agree that her end of term report will read, “The Government must try harder”?

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Beverley Hughes: We made it clear from the outset, which is why we have put all the phase 1 children’s centres in the most disadvantaged areas, that we see that as an essential long-term programme focusing on the youngest children, directly reducing child poverty and improving social mobility. We also know that what happens in practice depends very much on the actions of people in those children’s centres. We have made it clear in subsequent guidance that outreach must remain a fundamental element of the children’s centre programme, and that it must be strengthened. Our consultants are working to ensure that that happens in practice.

Specialist Diploma

9. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): How many secondary schools he expects to participate in the delivery of the 14-19 specialist diploma; and if he will make a statement. [146027]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope): Eventually all schools and colleges will offer an entitlement to the diplomas. We will start in September 2008 on a small scale. On 28 March, we announced the first 145 consortiums across the 97 local authorities that have been given approval to offer one or more of the first five 14-19 diplomas from September 2008. Within those consortiums, 800 secondary schools have said that they will be either feeder institutions to other consortium partners or offer diplomas themselves.

Jeff Ennis: In a recent YouGov poll, 65 per cent. of secondary schoolteachers said that they believe that the new diplomas will simply be training programmes leading to low-paid jobs for non-academic students. Will the Minister dispel that view, and does he agree that the prime objective of diplomas must be to bring about a parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications?

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is right that that myth is completely erroneous. I agree with the Edge Foundation, which conducted the survey. It said that

We are investing a lot of money in the new diplomas to allow young people to choose a vocational route that will take them through either to higher education—for example, an engineering degree—or to work. The diplomas will attract talented young people from across the system.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The Edge Foundation also said that

The Education and Skills Committee has considered the matter in detail. It said that

and it doubted whether those in charge have a clear sense of the diploma’s purpose.

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The Minister must know that the doubts referred to by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) are widespread. The House expects him today to give an absolute assurance on the consistency, rigour and capacity of schools to deliver the diplomas—or does he still share the Secretary of State’s chilling view that the diplomas may go horribly wrong?

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman has moved from slagging off the apprenticeship system to running down the diploma system. He must learn that he is not doing himself or his party any favours by running down the education system and the young people within it. We have implemented a gateway of quality: 38,000 students will start those diplomas, and an extra £50 million will go into work force development. Those young people will study towards high-quality diplomas involving a combination of practical and academic learning, which will be the envy of countries across the world.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Law Officers

21. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future role of the Law Officers. [146039]

23. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future role of the Law Officers. [146041]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Questions 21 and 23 are identical, and I can imagine why they were tabled, although I think that today is a little bit early.

The future of the Law Officers will no doubt be decided by the new Prime Minister, and in so far as the Law Officers’ advice to Parliament is concerned, by this House. I understand that the Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently considering those issues, and we will read its report with interest.

Mr. Jones: The Solicitor-General will be aware that in his letter of resignation to the outgoing Prime Minister, the Attorney-General referred to “the host of challenges” that he had faced in that office. Does the Solicitor-General agree that those challenges are and have for centuries been inherent in that role and that the best way to deal with them is to meet them head on and not to use them as excuses for changing the nature of that office? If so, will he communicate that view to the new Prime Minister?

The Solicitor-General: My noble Friend Lord Goldsmith has performed those duties by facing some of the difficult decisions that he has had to make on a series of issues head on. He has dealt with those decisions with a great deal of integrity. He has taken a lot of flak, particularly from those in certain galleries, about those issues, but he has done so with a level of
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integrity. In future, Law Officers will continue to display seriousness about the law, respect for the law and integrity in dealing with the law.

Mr. Robathan: The Solicitor-General believes, rightly, that Law Officers should be accountable to the Houses of Parliament, particularly to the House of Commons, whereas the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has taken a somewhat different view. We have discussed collective responsibility with the right hon. and learned Lady in the past—she was of course the Solicitor-General’s predecessor—and had disagreements. Now that she is deputy leader of the Labour party, chairman of the Labour party and reportedly going to be Leader of the House, whose view does he think may prevail?

The Solicitor-General: As I have already said, we are looking forward with interest to the report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee. I think that my right hon. and learned Friend made some interesting and weighty contributions to the debate about the future of the Law Officers. We should remember that the Law Officers have a role in advising this House, and we will look to see what view the House and the new Prime Minister take on what their future should be.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Could my hon. and learned Friend clarify the constitutional conventions and rules of the respective Houses as to which House the Attorney-General should sit in and which House the Solicitor-General should sit in?

The Solicitor-General: There is not really a convention about that—it is a matter of how the Prime Minister decides that he wishes to deal with these matters. I suppose that there are certain advantages in having one of the Law Officers in each House, but that has not always been the case. I remember that when I came into the House in the 1990s both Law Officers were in this House.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Will the Solicitor-General advise the new Attorney-General to give up the seemingly new practice of attending Cabinet as a matter of course? Does not that appear to put the Attorney-General in the position of being too close to the Government to advise objectively on matters such as the war in Iraq and the dropping of the prosecution of BAE?

The Solicitor-General: That will be a matter for the new Attorney-General to consider. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Goldsmith took the view that there were certain advantages in his attending Cabinet because he was then aware of what was happening as it was happening and was able to use the opportunity to talk to other Cabinet members. However, the new Attorney-General will no doubt consider the issues and take a view on whether he should attend.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): May I thank the Solicitor-General and the outgoing Attorney-General for their courtesy at all times during the previous Administration, whatever
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our differences of view on certain issues? Will he accept, and perhaps pass on, a couple of suggestions? First, if, in future, Law Officers give advice that is then prayed in aid in order to influence a vote here, that should become public, not be kept private. Secondly, while responsibility for prosecutions should of course remain with somebody accountable to Parliament, there should be an exemption if the prosecutions are of other parliamentarians or civil servants, because that requires an independent decision, not a political one.

The Solicitor-General: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which I will certainly pass on to my right hon. and noble Friend. Ministers who go to a lawyer for legal advice want to know that that advice will be frank, accurate and confidential, as indeed does anyone. It becomes very difficult for people to go to their lawyer if they think that that advice will be immediately made public. In certain circumstances, it can be made public, but we need to consider that with a great deal of care. As for the role of Law Officers in relation to certain prosecutions, the safeguards in the way in which such decisions are taken will, I hope, prove in due course to be adequate.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): May I first echo the Solicitor-General’s words about the Attorney-General and extend my thanks to him for the way in which he has communicated with me? I have always taken the view that the Attorney-General discharged his duties with integrity and fortitude. I thank the Solicitor-General, too, for what he has done and I hope that we may continue to see him at the Dispatch Box.

Let me consider the future role of the Law Officers. In response to questions on 26 April, the Solicitor-General made it clear that he believed that the Law Officers must be accountable to their several Houses of Parliament, whether they are in the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Does not it follow that, if there were any suggestion that that accountability should be removed, the Solicitor-General, if he is still in post, would oppose it and that, if it were forced through, his position would be untenable and he would have to resign?

The Solicitor-General: The Constitutional Affairs Committee is examining those matters and we will consider its views with great care and listen to the arguments that its members present. Doubtless the new Prime Minister will take a view on the matter in due course. Those views will have to be given a great deal of weight and regard.

Media Reporting (Criminal Cases)

22. Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): What steps he is taking to ensure that media reporting does not prejudice fair trials; and if he will make a statement. [146040]

The Solicitor-General: The Attorney-General has in the past issued advice to the media about reporting proceedings, including specific advice on coverage of individual cases, to help to avoid potential prejudice of fair trials. The right to a fair trial has to be balanced with the qualified right to freedom of expression under the European convention on human rights. The public
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have a right to be kept informed of developments in cases and there must be a substantial risk of serious prejudice to proceedings for there to be any interference with that right.

Lynda Waltho: The Fawcett Society estimates that less than 15 per cent. of rape is reported, and a major influence on whether someone—especially a woman—proceeds with her case is believed to be the prospect of adverse reporting and the naming, and almost shaming, of her past life. What further steps can my hon. and learned Friend take to guarantee anonymity in those cases?

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