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Child Employment

3. Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): What steps he is taking to review and update child employment legislation and guidance. [174106]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): Child employment legislation is set out mainly in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. However, that legislation has subsequently been amended and reviewed and we believe that the current law is more than adequate and not in need of review. But I agree that new guidance is necessary to support employers, young people and those advising them in understanding the law. As the hon. Lady may know, we have undertaken to publish improved best practice guidance next year.

Lorely Burt: The Minister will be aware that over the past four years, the number of children injured at work has more than doubled. Although having a job while at school is an excellent way for young people to learn new skills and earn money at the same time, much of the legislation, as the Minister said, dates back to the 1930s, and I would assert that it is now chaotic and unworkable. Will she commit to undertaking a comprehensive review of the legislation to ensure that it protects children properly and is not over-bureaucratic for employers?

Beverley Hughes: There is the rub—getting the balance between the two objectives. Of course the safety of children is of paramount importance, and I am satisfied that the law is strong enough and is workable. However, we need to set out clearly for local authorities, employers and parents themselves exactly how to use the law effectively. Clearly it is unacceptable for any child to be injured at work, but very small numbers of them are injured at work compared with the thousands and thousands of injuries to children aged under 16 who are not at work. It is important to keep the issue in perspective. However, I am happy to agree that next year we will produce the best guidance we can, to make absolutely crystal clear to people what the law is and how they can use it effectively.

Unauthorised Absences

4. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to reduce levels of unauthorised absences from schools. [174107]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): Our focus is on reducing all forms of unnecessary and avoidable absence and on reducing in particular the number of persistent absentees, with very high levels of absence. We provide support and challenge to local
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authorities where these problems are concentrated. Our success is demonstrated by the record low rates of absence last year and by the 10 per cent. reduction in the number of persistent absentees.

Andrew Rosindell: The Minister will understand that this is a very serious and worrying problem in many parts of the country. Will he tell us how many parents have been fined or sent to jail for persistently not ensuring that their children attend school?

Kevin Brennan: I do not have that figure to hand, but there have been prosecutions, as the hon. Gentleman knows. There is also the provision to have parental contracts and, where necessary, parental orders as well, on attendance at school. The recent figures show that those are being used quite widely by local authorities.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Last Friday, I had the privilege of visiting Pelton Roseberry sports college in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the head and staff there, who are taking a zero-tolerance approach to unauthorised absences? Their main weapon is to have tailor-made courses for individual students and exciting vocational training, which is leading to a lot more kids staying in school and not dropping out of education.

Kevin Brennan: I congratulate my hon. Friend on undertaking that visit. By having a stronger policy on unauthorised absence, the principal or head teacher of that establishment may well find that the figures for unauthorised absence go up, because it is not being tolerated. Any Member would congratulate the head teacher on taking that stance. That is why the Opposition should congratulate the Government on doing exactly the same thing, and bearing down on overall absence.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Should a boy who decides to be absent from the school photograph but then turns up four hours later be punished for the unauthorised absence, or rewarded for thinking better of it?

Kevin Brennan: The main problem is that the Opposition deliberately try to use the figures for unauthorised absence as a measure of truancy. I do not think that they actually believe that the two things are the same, but if they do, I wish that they would say so explicitly and publicly, so that they could be subject to the ridicule of every head teacher in the land.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): One of the most widely experienced phenomena in primary schools, in particular, is parentally condoned absence at certain times of year. How do the Government intend to respond to that growing problem?

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend is correct. It is a worrying fact that many children who are away from school and totting up unauthorised absences are with their parents, or absent with their parents’ permission. It is right for head teachers to refuse to grant permission for unauthorised absence in those circumstances. That is why the Department has decided to bear down on the figures for persistent absence and overall absence. I previously told the House that 75,000 more children
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were in school each day than in 1997, but I am afraid that that was slightly incorrect: the correct figure is 76,000.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): We welcome the fact that resources are being put into ensuring that children take up the educational opportunities available to them. However, as persistent absences continue, despite the additional resources and sanctions available to schools and education authorities to deal with them, how does the Minister believe that those who remain absent from school while they are already supposed to be there are going to be enticed into his plans for staying on at school until the age of 18?

Kevin Brennan: We are having some success with persistently absent pupils—in other words, pupils who miss more than half a term of school a year. We have targeted 436 schools in an attempt to reduce persistent absence. In those schools, persistent absence has been reduced by 20 per cent. Overall in secondary schools in England, it has been reduced by 10 per cent. We are having successes. We are also confident that by the time we raise the education leaving age, there will be pathways available to young people, in school or college or via an apprenticeship or other form of training, that will constitute an attractive offer.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Why should anybody believe what the Government say about truancy given that by any measure, including their own, the figures have mushroomed? If they are so convinced that they have done a good job, why did they quietly abandon the truancy targets in the public service agreement targets published in October? Can the Minister explain why the Government’s so-called effective tool of truancy sweeps saw the number of children being stopped plummet from 20,554 to 11,713 between 2002 and 2006, while the number of children playing truant rocketed over the same period?

Kevin Brennan: Of course that is absolute nonsense. The number of children playing truant has not rocketed. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is conflating unauthorised absences and truancy. I could abolish unauthorised absence tomorrow simply by telling head teachers to authorise all absences, and if I did that, he would rightly criticise me. At some stage, he needs to say at the Dispatch Box that he believes that unauthorised absence and truancy are one and the same thing—and if he does that, he will open himself up to ridicule from every head teacher in the country.

Orphaned Pupils

5. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What financial support his Department provides to orphaned school pupils. [174108]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): The Children Act 1989 gives local authorities a duty to provide accommodation for any child under 16 who requires accommodation because no person has parental responsibility for him or her. This is defined as being looked after by that local authority. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of
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children whom they look after. For those aged 16 to 19, my Department provides financial support to ensure that finance is not a barrier to learning. Support for living costs for this age group is provided through the benefits system.

Philip Davies: The Minister is aware of my constituent Kirsty Oldfield, who tragically lost both her parents in quick succession and ended up being unable to afford to stay on in education. As the Government are preparing to spend millions of pounds providing education for people who do not want it, should not people who find themselves in Kirsty’s situation be given direct support by his Department, rather than having to navigate the complicated benefits system, being advised to get pregnant, or relying on the generosity of the general public to fund their education?

Kevin Brennan: I suspect that there are not many things on which the hon. Gentleman and I agree—but one of them is that if his constituent has been advised as has been reported, that is completely and utterly unprofessional and unacceptable.

We are looking at ways of reviewing the support for young people in the position of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent—and I extend my sympathies to her for the personal circumstances in which she has found herself. Of course, during the process of developing the extension of the education leaving age from 16 to 19, we will be looking even more closely at how we can do that.

Sex Education

7. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What plans he has for the future of sex education in schools; and if he will make a statement. [174110]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): As part of the children’s plan, we have given a commitment to reviewing best practice in effective sex and relationship education and how that is delivered in schools. We have listened to young people, principally through the Youth Parliament, and recognise that many feel that they do not currently have the knowledge that they need to make safe and responsible choices about relationships and sexual health. We will involve young people fully in the review, to ensure that future sex and relationship education meets their needs better.

Jo Swinson: When half of young women report that they know of at least one girl who has been pressurised into having sex with her boyfriend, surely the Minister agrees that it has never been more important for every young person to have access to high-quality education about sex and relationships. The review is welcome, but if he agrees that that is important, will he make it statutory?

Jim Knight: I have listened carefully to the arguments that have been put to us, principally by the Youth Parliament and also by others, on making personal, social and health education—the piece of the curriculum through which sex and relationship education is delivered—statutory. Sex education is statutory, but the relationship side is not. Ofsted has told us that too much time and effort have been spent discussing whether PSHE should be a statutory subject. Making something statutory
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does not ensure that it is provided effectively—or, indeed, at all. The focus of the review must be the quality of what is delivered and ensuring that there is consistency. Once the new secondary curriculum is in place—it starts in September 2008 in England—we might be able to revisit the question of the statutory nature of PSHE. For now, however, our focus must be on what both the hon. Lady and I want: better and more consistent sex and relationship education for every child in this country.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Does the Minister agree that sex education should include awareness-raising for young children and young people who are at risk of being groomed for prostitution and the internal trafficking trade? That should be part of the curriculum in every school in this country.

Jim Knight: I find myself in the surprising position of agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. It is important that we raise awareness of those serious issues among young people, through relationship and sex education and through citizenship. Recently, I was privileged to attend an award ceremony that came on the back of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade; it followed a competition that we part-sponsored to encourage schools to do work on subjects relating to abolition. One of the subjects that was talked about was human trafficking, particularly of children and sex workers. I was pleased to see that in some cases—through citizenship, in that case—awareness of those issues is already being raised.

Respite Care

8. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): What plans he has to increase the provision of short breaks for carers of children with disabilities. [174111]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Our plan is radically to transform the provision of short breaks for disabled children and their families over the next few years. We are setting aside £280 million of revenue funding for short breaks between now and 2011. Last week, under the children’s plan, we announced a further £90 million in capital to provide additional equipment, adaptations and buildings to support short break provision.

Mr. Marsden: I know the passion that my right hon. Friend brings to this matter and I wholeheartedly welcome what he has said, but may I bring to his attention the work of the Family Holiday Association, which takes hundreds of families every year on short breaks to seaside and coastal towns? I suggest that now is the time to consider the 2.5 million children in families who cannot even afford a day trip, and to consider whether some of the measures could be extended to include the FHA and co-operation with other Departments.

Ed Balls: I know that my hon. Friend brings a passion for Blackpool to the Chamber. The local authority in Blackpool—a destination for short breaks and day trips—has been working very hard to improve its provision for disabled children and their families. That is exactly what we want from local authorities, and that is the sort of leadership that we are looking for. In the first year of our funding—more than £300 million over three years—we
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will seek in pilots to support innovative approaches, such as those that Blackpool is taking, to provide the support and respite opportunities that disabled children and their families so badly need.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): With respect, the Secretary of State slightly ducked the question asked by the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden). The money has to be spent; charities such as the Family Holiday Association do brilliant work and they are already there. Will his Department work with organisations such as the FHA, which do brilliant work to help families who are experiencing social exclusion, on spending some of the money to make sure that those families get the short breaks that they need?

Ed Balls: Of course we will, and we will encourage local authorities across the country to make sure that, in using the money, they work closely with the voluntary sector to ensure that families get the support they need. Last week, I also announced an extension of the work of the family fund to 16 and 17-year-olds, with £8 million of extra spending. That will enable those young people to get support, often from the voluntary sector and organisations such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Whether it is a day trip, one day off a week, or more extensive, longer breaks, it is important that we provide disabled children and their families with the tailored support they need. In many parts of the country, the voluntary sector is taking a lead in providing that, and we must make sure that it is properly supported, including with funding, so that it can carry on that important work.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Following on from that answer, the Secretary of State will be aware that there are many good examples of short breaks for families with children with disability, but there are also instances in which parents do not feel reassured that the individuals who will be looking after their children have the necessary training. Will he look into the training of those who will be looking after children with disability and ensure that there is a variety of settings, so that the family can be reassured and the child can be looked after in an appropriate placement?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is quite right. Under her leadership, last year’s consultation with disabled families, which took place before the conclusion of our review, highlighted the fact that, particularly for families with a child with multiple disabilities, often the problem is not the availability of care and respite breaks, but the ability of the respite care setting to meet the needs of the child. Sometimes the issue is capital needs, which is why the extra £90 million will help us to provide the kind of hoists and the support needed for particular children. However, the issue is also the quality and training of staff. It is vital that parents have confidence that the respite care will genuinely give them a break. They can have that break only if they are confident that the staff can do the job for them while they are away. That is why training will be an important part of our work for the next three years.


10. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): What research his Department has carried out on the role of local authority day nurseries. [174113]

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The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): Local authority day nurseries play an important role in our diverse child care market, including delivery of the free early education entitlement and securing sufficient good-quality child care. The Department’s annual child care and early years providers survey collects information from providers, including local authorities, on the number of places, staff characteristics, qualifications and income. The 2006 survey showed that there were 700 local authority day nurseries providing a total of 30,600 child care places.

Dr. Starkey: Parents in Milton Keynes value the council’s eight day nurseries so highly that they have just mounted a successful campaign that forced the Liberal Democrat-controlled council to withdraw its proposals to close some of them. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the parents on their campaign, and confirm that it is entirely for Milton Keynes council to decide on the future role of those nurseries and on the priority that it chooses to give them?

Beverley Hughes: I do congratulate the parents, and my hon. Friend on her role in supporting them. I find it extraordinary that the council considered that. As she knows, from April next year every local authority has a duty to ensure that there is sufficient child care of different types to meet the needs of parents in its area, so every authority should be assessing its supply and the demand from parents for additional supply and working towards matching demand and supply. It is extraordinary to be thinking about closing provision when the council should be assessing whether it has enough.

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