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26 July 2007 : Column 1078

I hope that the statement is the welcome start of a departure from some of the language of the Tony Blair era, namely the language of marching children to cash points, the language of dealing with feral youth and the language of imposing dispersal orders on young people, such as the fatuous dispersal order imposed on skateboarders in my constituency this week. I hope that it is a fresh approach that will empower young people.

On money, the Minister’s Department, unlike all other Whitehall Departments, has its comprehensive spending review settlement for 2008 to 2011. Will the Minister say how much of the various sums identified in the statement is genuinely new money, rather than recycled existing money? Specifically, how much of it is Government money as opposed to the money of local authorities, youth offending teams and primary care trusts? How much is expected to be raised on the rather flimsy financial basis of recovering unclaimed assets lying in bank accounts? If investment in youth is really important—I think that it is—is that the correct source of money for that important investment?

The statement mentions that one of the aims is “empowerment”, which I welcome. However, the only example that I could find in my brief perusal of the statement was for young people to have “influence” over 25 per cent. of local authority budgets by 2018, which is not exactly immediate empowerment. I expected the statement to say much more about how we can engage young people in citizenship and how we can ensure that every school and local authority encourages young people to participate in elections to the Youth Parliament. The Select Committee Chairman has left, but the recent Select Committee report, to which I was a signatory, recommends that every school should have a school council. If that were implemented, it would teach young people through practical action the skills of working together. I also hope that at some point we will have another debate about reducing the voting age to 16.

Will the Minister work with the Minister for Schools and Learners in making sure that every school in the country teaches all aspects of the personal, social and health education curriculum and the social and emotional aspects of the learning curriculum without opt-out? Many of the problems that have been caricatured in the Daily Mail and that have been the subject of the crossfire between Government and Conservative Front Benchers could be dealt with positively in schools, if that curriculum were taught without exception.

Investment in youth workers is important. Many hon. Members know that before I became a Member of Parliament my professional career for 17 years was as a tax consultant, but the first job that I was trained to do was as a children’s play leader for the YMCA and for the local authority. [ Interruption. ] It was good training for this atmosphere. I know that by working with young people, one can teach them how to trust and about teamwork. Importantly, one can teach them about risk, too, through games, which is something that has been missing in the past 10 years. Not only are those qualities good for children, but they will stand them in good stead in later life.

The statement specifically mentions £25 million for the work force to attract graduates into youth work, which is worth while, but I wonder whether we can do
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more to encourage community leaders and senior citizens into youth work. People who have lost their jobs in other industries could also be retrained. That point particularly applies to men, because many young, disaffected men need male role models—they may not get it at home, but they could get it through the youth service.

Can we have a statement about detached workers? Much of the language of the statement is about places to go and investment in youth centres, but it is people who will make the difference. Rather than imposing dispersal orders on skateboarders in Bristol, it would have been much better to have sent a detached youth worker to talk to the young people, to engage with them and to tackle what is perceived as their antisocial behaviour.

Finally, the statement mentions “social and emotional skills”. I think that values are important, too. Youth work has a great role to play in teaching young people tolerance and respect for other people in our diverse society. In particular, I would welcome an initiative to make anti-bullying work part of the youth service. I welcome much of the content of the statement, but the approach will succeed only if we engage with young people, rather than demonising them, and if we involve them in the construction of policies, rather than imposing policies on them.

Beverley Hughes: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments and the tone of his contribution. If the Conservative spokesman had made a similar contribution, we would have had a much better debate and, more importantly, we would have sent a more powerful signal to young people from both sides of the House.

The tone of the statement was chosen for a particular reason. That does not mean that we can disavow the important work that we had to do to make sure that if some young people behave badly, there is the wherewithal at a local level to deal with it. Many young people suffer from such behaviour, and we need to protect them and demonstrate to them that they are part of our consideration.

The hon. Gentleman asked about money. The new money from the comprehensive spending review programme is £124 million, plus another £60 million in capital to support the unclaimed assets, when they come on stream. I have not attempted to claim that the baseline funding is new money from the CSR, but it was previously short-term funding, whereas now it has been consolidated, so in a sense it is almost new money. That is a substantial contribution to young people.

The hon. Gentleman asked me what “influence” means. On the basis of our experience with the youth opportunity fund and the youth capital fund, we are saying to local authorities that we expect them to spend those resources in conjunction with young people. Most local authorities have risen to the spirit of that challenge by setting up panels of young people to make decisions about whether bids are successful, and groups of young people, obviously with the support of adults, are submitting bids. The system is suffused with young people’s participation, which is the model that we want to take forward. When the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to read the full document, he will see that there is a lot of discussion about other forms of
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influence. The possibilities include young mayors—we spoke to the ex-young mayor of Lewisham today—young advisers, mystery shoppers and so on.

We have recently announced £13 million to extend social and emotional work to primary schools and secondary schools, which is important.

I do not underestimate the importance of the work force. The strategy is about not only new facilities, but the fundamental reform and remodelling of the work force. The work force will have the opportunity to develop the skills, particularly leadership skills, that they need to develop our young people’s values and capabilities.

When the hon. Gentleman has read the document, I hope that he will have more questions for me, and I am happy to discuss with him how we can work together to take the matter forward.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Given the number of hon. Members seeking to catch my eye, it ought to be possible—it ought to have been possible—to call everyone today, but unless questions, and perhaps answers, are much briefer, a number of hon. Members will be disappointed.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Keighley Cougars rugby league club has for a number of years promoted out-of-school activities for young men and women in various areas, and I have the great honour to be a member of the trust that oversees the organisation of that work. One of the most encouraging events that I have been to was to see boys and girls, white and Asian, training together at Lawkholme lane with a rugby football a year or two ago. Does my right hon. Friend agree that public money should not be going into any youth facility that is discriminatory but into organisations that encourage cohesion and integration between the communities?

Beverley Hughes: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and commend the efforts that she has made to promote cohesion and integration. This issue has come more into our consciousness and understanding in recent years. I can assure her that, through the strategy, we will make every effort to ensure that there is integration in the youth facilities that we want to provide.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I welcome much of the Minister’s statement. However, may I gently say to her that there is a big difference between being positive about children and holding this Government to account for their policy towards children, as did my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)? The strategy fails to address one of the most important causes of educational failure—family breakdown, to which almost every aspect of educational failure is related. What reassurance can she give the House that she recognises that fact, and what long-term measures are in the strategy to deal with it?

Beverley Hughes: Family breakdown can be a cause of compounding disadvantage for many young people.
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In trying to address that, we have worked to provide support, specifically for parents, through a whole range of mechanisms, including children’s centres and extended schools, and through work with local authorities. However, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that the situation would be improved by transferable tax allowances for married people, which would benefit only one in 10 young people and not the most disadvantaged, the Conservatives have to think again about how they address family breakdown.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which was positive, intelligent and thoughtful. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggest that the dispersion between those who are successful educationally and those who fail is wider in Britain than in almost any other developed country, so there is still much to do. However, I applaud the Government for what has happened in the past 10 years. On the evidence of my constituency, much has been achieved and achievement is much higher than it was.

My right hon. Friend will know that the former Prime Minister’s speechwriter recently left Downing street to teach in a London school, and he concluded that two serious problems in primary schools lead to this dispersion—teaching methods and failure to deal with behavioural problems in the classroom. Will she look again at what we can do to get the best teaching methods and to make better provision for those with behavioural problems?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend will know that the Steer report accepted the importance of the issues that he mentions. Closing the gap between the most disadvantaged children and the rest, right across the board but particularly in terms of attainment, is an absolutely key priority. The investment of £1.3 billion that we are making into a much more personalised approach in the classroom to identify children who are at risk of falling behind is specifically designed to address that.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): The Minister referred to the need to provide positive impressions of the contributions that young people make in our society. As she will be aware, the Respect taskforce, which has responsibility for all antisocial behaviour initiatives, has recently been transferred from the Home Office to her Department. That suggests that the Government view antisocial behaviour as a youth issue. What are they going to do to counteract that unfortunate impression?

Beverley Hughes: We are still working through how the transfer of the personnel working in that unit will be achieved. I think I am correct in saying that the most recent statistic is that only 41 per cent. of antisocial behaviour orders were issued to young people under the age of 18, so the hon. Gentleman is right to say that antisocial behaviour is not, by any means, exclusively a young person’s problem. However, the taskforce is dealing with family intervention issues which have been very important in trying to identify
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and address the multiple problems of chaotic families, and it is that work in particular that we want to bring into the Department.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly the £25 million for deprived areas. However, can I caution her against being too structured in terms of how that money is spent? Some of the things in which we have invested in the past, such as Connexions, have not been attractive to young people because the approach has been too structured. Will she encourage local authorities to carry out audits of parks and open spaces to see where they can introduce facilities for young people where they might be able to participate in less structured sporting activities? There is a great deal of goodwill among parents and other people who want to do things for young people, so will she ensure that the adult population are engaged in these facilities as well as young people themselves? Can she ensure that we cover core funding for voluntary organisations that are involved in youth work, because they often find that difficult? Will she undertake to meet me so that I can discuss all the other ideas that I have?

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend, who is a tremendous champion of young people and the facilities that they need. I want local authorities to undertake an audit of everything in their community, including parks and open spaces. Those that have done so have often found that there is considerably more than they thought or that young people know about. They now have a duty to improve their offer to young people and to inform them and their parents more accurately about what is available. Sustainability of good third sector organisations is critical to this strategy, and we are putting resources behind that. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): As an ex-cub scout, venture scout and assistant scout leader, I welcome the recognition of the importance of scouting in its centenary year and hope that funding follows.

The Minister will be aware that I am concerned that children are inappropriately put into care and that research demonstrates that 70 per cent. of children return to their parents when they escape from the control of the state at the age of 16. I am particularly concerned about deaths of children in care, particularly one that occurred in the Trafford local authority area earlier this year. We must ask why arbitrary bureaucratic rules prevent children in care from making toast for each other but do not allow people to prevent them from acting as youth prostitutes. Will she look into the treatment of children in care, including the activities they are allowed to be involved in?

Beverley Hughes: As an ex-Akela, I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of scouting.

It is very important that children in care are firmly included in the opportunities that the strategy is making available to all young people. In our White Paper, we proposed dedicated sums of money for each child in care to be spent in conjunction with them to
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give them access to extended activities through schools and in the community. The attributes that I talked about are particularly important for the most disadvantaged young people, many of whom end up in the care system.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I, too, welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend, particularly the announcement of the additional £173 million over the next three years for the youth opportunity fund. In my constituency, a panel of young people has been making the awards from the YOF, and that has been very successful. However, there remain difficulties in engaging young people who are not in organised groups and who are often the most disadvantaged and the most at risk, both from themselves and others. Will she ensure that local agencies have proposals in place on how they plan to engage those young people as a condition of receiving YOF funds in future, as we need to equip all young people to face the challenges of a very difficult world?

Beverley Hughes: I want to acknowledge what my hon. Friend does in her constituency to promote such issues; she talks to me about them regularly. Although the strategy is for all young people, I made it clear in my statement how important it is that those who are disadvantaged get access to such opportunities. That is why we put in an additional £25 million, alongside the money for the youth opportunity fund for deprived areas and money for third sector organisations, which are often much better at accessing young people because they are more trusted. The evaluation of the first year of the youth opportunity fund shows that there has been considerable success in accessing disadvantaged young people, but not enough for my liking. We need to go further, and that will be a key criterion against which I judge success.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady prevent any further closures of special schools for those with moderate learning difficulties? I am delighted that she agrees that the vast majority of young people are decent, caring, honest, hard-working kids with integrity whose reputation is spoilt by a few yobs. Will she do nothing to prevent parents from properly and caringly chastising and disciplining their children to stop them turning into yobs?

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman knows that the answer to his main question is that such decisions rest with local authorities, which is exactly right. I will say, though—I made a particular point of this in my statement—that it is crucial that the opportunities we are opening up are open to disabled young people and those with special educational needs. I was at a youth theatre on Sunday watching a performance that included several disabled children and children with learning difficulties. What they got from being involved in that activity was tremendous, and we want to see an increase in such activity.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): While I enormously welcome the strategy, and the extra funds for youth clubs and positive activities, my right hon. Friend, and Akela, will be aware that some young people cannot be reached through clubs or organised activities, either
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because they are non-joiners or because the children at the clubs they go to—not the club staff themselves—are territorial and make it difficult for them. The only organisation in my area that has contact with these non-joiners is the safer neighbourhood teams. Would it be possible to spend some part of that £25 million for deprived areas on creating attached workers with safer neighbourhood teams, who could do things such as set out rules for the use of play areas, and negotiate with neighbouring parents? Those are often the biggest difficulties for children who want to take part in activities.

Beverley Hughes: It may be that safer neighbourhood teams have a role to play. We certainly need to recognise the importance of detached youth workers. There are, however, some really good voluntary organisations making great progress with some of the most alienated young people I have met. I mentioned Fairbridge, and I have visited a number of its projects. It is engaging with young people who have dropped out and are afraid to go on the streets in their communities, and it works with them through a whole series of graduated activities to get them back into the mainstream. I would not want to exclude important voluntary organisations that do some great work.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I welcome warmly the thrust of the right hon. Lady’s statement, but providing for the majority of young people in an area must not be allowed to dilute the responsibility to do more for those individuals, as distinct from areas, whose need is most acute. I politely put it to the Minister that the desperate struggles for funding of both the Nuffield speech and language unit and the Michael Palin centre for stammering children demonstrate conclusively the urgent need to review and bolster the commissioning arrangements and to make available central pots of funding so that parents do not have to wage an absolutely horrific and Kafkaesque battle at local level simply to get what their children need and deserve.

Beverley Hughes: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment, and I genuinely value the way in which he constantly brings this issue to the attention of the House because it is very important. We have a rather terrible phrase, but it describes exactly what he is talking about: “progressive universalism”. Within the context of universal services, we must take an important additional step and ensure that people have the methods and commitment to identify, reach and provide for minorities of young people, whatever their disadvantage, to make sure that they avail themselves of mainstream opportunities just as much as the majority.

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