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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con):
May I first welcome the Minister for Children, Young People and Families to her newly re-badged but long-standing role, and thank her for giving me prior sight of the statement? There is much merit to it, and much of it sounds very good. Over many years, she has presided
over a plethora of projects aimed at children and young people, but the projects will be judged on effectiveness, quality, and the quality of the outcomes for the young people concerned, not on quantity and the amount of boxes that have been ticked.
I could say that part of the announcement is perhaps a statement of the bleedin obvious: the right hon. Lady said that whether we are talking about sport, music, drama, or volunteering, or being in the Scouts, the Guides or a rap group, it was clear that taking part in organised activities led by responsible adults is how young people develop confidence, tenacity and tolerancewords that could have been spoken by Baden-Powell 100 years ago on the occasion of the foundation of the Scouts, if it were not for the mention of rap groups. It is not rocket science, but we welcome any initiative that at last acknowledges the enormous challenge that we face from an increasingly disillusioned and disengaged younger generation who are experiencing huge and increasing gaps in opportunity and achievement.
As the right hon. Lady said, young people are quick to be fingered by a hostile media as the source of all societys ills. Some 71 per cent. of stories about them are negative, and do not praise the achievements of the vast majority of decent children and young people who face growing challenges, and who grow up in an increasingly uncertain and insecure world. The image is not helped by constant Government announcements about youth crime and antisocial behaviour. The Government treat the fact that a growing number of young people are subject to antisocial behaviour orders, and a record number of children are locked up in our prisons, as a benchmark of success rather than an admission of failure and as symptoms of our increasingly broken society. We have to tackle the underlying causes of those problems.
The Institute for Public Policy Research report, out today, confirmed everything that we said in the social justice report a couple of weeks ago: youths in Britain are more likely to drink, take drugs, have sex, join gangs and get into fights than youths almost anywhere else in Europe. It confirms, too, the findings of Februarys UNICEF report about [Interruption.]
I do not know whether hon. Members want to challenge the findings of the IPPR report, but it confirmed the findings of the social justice report and the UNICEF report that was produced earlier this year. It is no good trying to deny the reality; we have to face up to it, and then tackle it. The Labour party seems to be in denial. We have a problem with obesity. One in 10 of our young people has a mental health problem, and the number is growing. There are 454,000 prescriptions for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drugs, and 212,000 prescriptions relating to depression among children who are sometimes as young as six. There has been a 300 per cent. rise in Chlamydia over the past 12 years, and 8,500 children were admitted to accident and emergency departments last year for binge-drinking and alcohol-related problems. Children are drinking younger, drinking stronger and drinking more often.
All those problems were recognised in the social justice report, under the excellent authorship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith).
We should not shrink from the stark reality of the challenge that we face. We must form proposals on the tough decisions that we will have to make, and we must confirm that we face an increasingly broken society. The opportunity and achievement gap has widened under this Government, and some of the appalling outcomes for young people are the symptoms of that broken society. The truth is that the 10-year strategy should have started 10 years ago. The Prime Minister himself has warned often enough about the seriousness of the situation. In the pre-Budget report of 2005, he said:
we have to do far more where in the past too little has been done, investing in youth and community facilities that are modern, relevant and welcoming for teenagers up and down the country.[ Official Report, 5 December 2005; Vol. 440, c. 613.]
in 2006 a new British youth national community service can galvanise and challenge the energies and enthusiasm of a fresh generation of teenagers and young people.
The Prime Minister recognised the problem a rather long time ago. Today is an announcement of some Government money and a raid on orphan assetswe are not talking about public fundsthat might otherwise have been used to address the pensions crisis.
We need to know about the devil in the detail. We would like to ask some questions about the warm words in the statement; there were a lot of buzz words relating to cutting-edge approaches that the right hon. Lady might like to define. In particular, we would like to know where exactly the money is coming from, and about the sustainability of the funding. She talked about a plan to make one-off hits on orphan assets between 2008 and 2011. Providing the services is not just about building lots of shiny new buildings so as to present photo opportunities for ribbon cutting by Ministers. There are underused halls, schools, church halls and youth centres that could be used far more before we build more. Secure revenue is essential if we are to set up new programmes that put properly trained staff and volunteers in place, and if we are to provide continuity, so can she tell us when the 10-year funding plan will be put in place? We must not return to the three-year cycle in which a new scheme is announced only for a new fashion to come along, the funding to disappear and it is back to the drawing board. Sustainability will be key to the success of the projects.
If the programme is not just about buildings, it certainly is about staff. How will the programme fully engage with the 500,000 volunteers in youth work, including the many young volunteers whom the right hon. Lady mentioned? How will it support the many excellent youth organisations in the voluntary sector that already do great work with much expertise, knowledge and dedication? She mentioned some projects in her statement. What about projects such as the Bolton lads and girls club, which I visited with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and others? It has been going since
1889, operates seven nights and days a week, 52 weeks a year, has 3,200 active members, and exists on very little public money. What about the Young Adult Trust, which raises aspirations by bringing together groups of people from different backgrounds? Will she assure us that she will not try to reinvent the wheel, but will work with the expertise found in examples of good practice?
Where will the extra trained staff who are needed to run the facilities come from? In my constituency, there is a waiting list to join the Scouts, which is a tremendous achievement, but one reason why we have a waiting list is the lack of volunteers who are prepared to come forward and give their time. Will she look at streamlining the Criminal Records Bureau checking and vetting systems, so that volunteers are not subject to multiple checks and are not deterred from offering their services in those important areas? Exactly what steps is she taking to invest in youth work of an appropriate quality, and how will that work be linked to the extended schools and the enhanced programme that was announced yesterday? It is not clear how she intends to work with local authorities and local youth services to manage the new investment and make sure that the activities are suitably diverse. They have to appeal to young people, so that we can engage with them constructively. Most of all, local authorities and local youth services have to make sure that they do not replicate existing services, and make sure that they are fun.
The right hon. Lady mentioned working with young people to fashion services, and we welcome that. We also welcome what she said about giving young people control over their budgets. How exactly does she plan to ensure genuine engagement with young people in planning the services? It is a common fallacy that all that young people want is a new skateboard ramp and a pat on the head from a council official, and they will be in a state of nirvana. How will she engage with youth mayorsa post that we have in my constituencythe Youth Parliament and the Youth Cabinet to make sure that the proposals have the full backing and engagement of local people?
Will the services be aimed at the people who are most in need, and who are often the most difficult to access, or will the money be spent too thinly among 11 million children? The right hon. Lady mentioned working with other agencies, which we welcome, especially health agencies, on problems such as obesity, sexually transmitted diseases and substance abuse, yet her Government raided £300 million from the sexual health strategy fund to plug deficits in other parts of the health service. How exactly does she think that the money provided in the next three years will plug the enormous gap in the sexual health strategy fund, let alone the enormous gap in funding to tackle alcohol abuse, as the money will have to apply to all sorts of other things, such as setting up social enterprises and work force reform? How will she provide the counselling services that she mentioned to tackle the underlying problems of unhappiness and mental illness? We need to make sure that the programme is a sustainable, meaningful long-term project and not another poorly planned gimmick like the Connexions cardthe loyalty card scheme for 16 to 19-year-olds run by Capita, which was a costly £100 million failure, with just a 3 per cent. target take-up, and which has now been abandoned?
What will be the measures of the success or failure of these plans? That should not be based only on raw figures such as those that I have mentioned. The schemes success should be measured by whether it results in children engaging more with their parents. The state is a poor parent, as the children in care figures alarmingly show. We cannot deal with children in isolation. It is essential that the Government do not try to displace parents, but work with them and their children, and acknowledge that in the vast majority of cases it is parents who know best how to bring up their own children.
If the Government take that on board, put their money where their mouth has been uttering warm words for too long, and work with the expertise and tremendous enthusiasm of the voluntary sector, they will have our support for the scheme.
Beverley Hughes: I am disappointed that, despite a promising start for about 10 seconds, yet again the hon. Gentleman could not resist the temptation of repeating the latest Daily Mail mantra and in so doing writing off all our young people, as the newspaper does today, as the worst in Europe. He had the opportunity to give the serious response that the issue deserves. He could have accepted the invitation at the end of my statement to be positive about young people, to commit the Conservatives [Interruption.] He started promisingly, as I said, for about 10 seconds before he lapsed easily into his default position.
The hon. Gentleman could have committed his party to challenging the negative stereotypes which young people, in the most extensive ever consultation of them, told us that they detestbut no; he thinks that it will be to the Tories political advantage to trash teenagers. That is what he did today [ Interruption. ] Not only is the picture that he painted untrue of the vast majority of young people, but I do not understand how he thinks it will help his party for him constantly to run down Britain and young peoplethe broken society that he spoke about [ Interruption. ]
Beverley Hughes: I wonder what the hon. Gentleman thinks such talk says to all the young people who are working hard and, on many indices, doing better than any previous generation. What does he think parents in Britain make of Conservatives apparently thinking that they are doing such a terrible job of bringing up their children? Yes, a minority of young people are having problems, and we are very concerned about those, as we have been for the past 10 years. However, those such as UNICEF and the Daily Mail this morning which say that there has never been a worse time to be a young person in this country are dumbing down the real progress that most children, with dedicated help from their parents, families and teachers, are making.
I do not accept the conclusions of the UNICEF report or the Daily Mails interpretation of IPPR research . For us it is important that every young person reaches their potential, but with child poverty decreasing, when it trebled under the Tory Government; with teenage
pregnancy falling, when it reached an all-time highthe highest in Europeunder his Government; and with drug use falling and educational standards rising, life for the majority of young people in Britain is getting much better.
The hon. Gentleman says that this is not rocket science, but I should let him know that we have been working on these issues for the past 10 years. He asked why we did not start 10 years ago. The answer is that we did. If he were answering questions today, I could ask him why that work did not start 28, 15 or 11 years ago. Most of the opportunities and facilities that we are discussing today, including the quality of the youth service and youth workers, all but disappeared under 18 years of Tory rule. That is the legacy that we were left with. Our response since 1997, under Every Child Matters, Connexions, the creation of youth offending teams, the intensive activity programmes that I referred to, the volunteer service, the millennium volunteers, has been progressively to rebuild the infrastructure and the services that allow us today to take the next step for the young people of this country.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of issues, all of which are dealt with in the strategy. When he gets a chance to read it, he will see the proposals for work force development and reform and the importance of the voluntary sector. He mentioned Bolton lads and girls club. That is used as a case study in the document, because we want to build on what the third sector is providing. He mentioned extended schools. The £1 billion that we announced yesterday will assist.
When young people and their parents have the chance to look at the opportunity that the hon. Gentleman has blown by telling us where the Tory party stands, they will ask, like the voters in Ealing, Southall and Sedgefield, what the Conservative party is now for. Young people will know a sham when they see one. The hon. Gentleman said nothing positive at all to them today. It is more of the same and that is nothing.
This Government are serious about addressing poverty and inequality and meeting the distinctive needs of young people. That is what the strategy is about. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support the spirit of it and forge a better appreciation of our young people. He has shown again that the Tories are not up to it.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend realise that not only do I welcome the statement, but that people in my constituency do not think that society or their community is broken? They resent such terms. Indeed, some of them remember a former Prime Minister who said that there was no such thing as society.
I welcome the statement. I particularly like the emphasis on empowerment. We have learned from all the research and work that has been done over the years that we should listen to young people and then give them leadership. My recently failed private Members Bill sought the guarantee of two weeks community leadership training for 16 to 18-year-olds. What is important is not only empowering young people, but the quality of the investment. There is an amazing group of volunteers out there in every community in the country. All they want is a bit more resource and a bit more access. It does not have to be a
shiny new buildings. There are too many buildings in our towns and cities that are not open after 5 pm. What we need is opportunity.
Mr. Sheerman: Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is £62 million languishing in landfill tax, which was supposed to have been used for educational research, that she could get her hands on? It could help the effort that she has announced.
Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Like him, I regret the tone of the comments from the Conservative Front Bench. Interestingly, I wonder what divisions there are between the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) who I understand has distanced himself from the UNICEF report and said that it was unfair. We will see where that disagreement ends up.
My hon. Friend is right to say that empowerment and the involvement of young people is not only important as a principle. As we know, the youth opportunity and youth capital funds that we have been giving to local authorities over the past year to spend on the condition that they spend it with young people are making a demonstrable difference to the quality, relevance and attractiveness of what is on offer to young people. Indeed, my right hon. Friends and I and the Prime Minister had a meeting with young people today in the Cabinet Room. Their single message to us was, Please tell the people to talk to us, to listen to what we have to say, and to involve us in decision making. One young man said, If you give us money to spend, we are not going to buy a PlayStation for everybody in their bedrooms. We are going to spend it on positive things that bring us together and help us to progress. I thought that that was profound.
I welcome the tone of the statement and some of the intentions that lie behind it. As has been said, it has appeared on the same day as the Institute for Public Policy Research report. The Daily Mail coverage is a caricature of the actual reporta Hogarth image of debauched behaviour by young people, which I do not accept and recognise as an accurate picture of young people in society today. I know that many young people participate in volunteering, raise money for charity and achieve in schools.
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