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13. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service officials to discuss their work. [235768]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, who has responsibility for children, young people and families, meets CAFCASS regularly, with the next meeting scheduled for December.

Mr. Bellingham: The Minister will be aware that CAFCASS reports often play a vital role in influencing court decisions, but is she aware that aggrieved parties have no right of complaint against CAFCASS, and that there appears to be little, if any, accountability? For example, I know of a case in which an aggrieved parent wrote a letter to his regional complaints manager on 9 January 2008, and eventually got an eight-line reply on 14 April 2008. Surely that is a disgrace. What does she plan to do to make CAFCASS more accountable?

Beverley Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman wants to send me details of that case, I will pass it on to my ministerial colleague, and I am sure that she will be happy to look into it. On the face of it, I agree that waiting three months for a reply is not acceptable. Having said that, in general terms, as a result of recent Ofsted reports, CAFCASS is undergoing a significant improvement programme. There is an issue to do with consistency of practice in different regions, and it is being addressed through the improvement programme. However, if the hon. Gentleman lets me have the details, I will do what I can to pursue the matter.

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School Standards

14. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What recent steps the Government have taken to raise educational standards in schools. [235769]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Since 1997, school standards have risen substantially—I am sure that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) is listening to this, because it refers to his previous question—thanks to a range of measures, including increased investment, excellent leadership and teaching, renewed primary and secondary teaching frameworks, better use of pupil data, and the targets that schools and local authorities have set for their pupils. The national challenge programme launched in June aims to raise standards in schools where fewer than 30 per cent. of pupils achieve five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths, and we have announced the next phase of our secondary school improvement strategy, “Gaining Ground: Improving progress in coasting secondary schools”. There is no sign of complacency.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but what are schools doing to encourage more youngsters to go into vocational education, which, as I am sure he realises, opens up many doors for a lot of young people who are disadvantaged in life?

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend is right that we need to expand vocational education; that is why, through the publication of “World-class Apprenticeships”, we are committed to expanding the uptake of apprenticeships. Our aspiration is that by 2020 one in five young people will be starting apprenticeships. In addition, by creating the diplomas, which are a rich mix of academic and vocational learning, we will provide a different pathway for people to get into vocational learning through their education.

Topical Questions

T1. [235778] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The whole nation has been deeply shocked, appalled and angered by the tragic death of 17-month-old baby P. I know that Members across the whole House will have been contacted by constituents to express their revulsion that a small boy could suffer such abuse in this day and age, and their disbelief that this could happen again in Haringey.

Immediately following the legal verdict last Tuesday, I asked Lord Laming to report to me with an urgent assessment of how the reforms introduced following the Victoria Climbié inquiry are being implemented across the country. On Wednesday at 10 am, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I received the full serious case review. I was deeply disturbed both by the detail of the abuse suffered by baby P and by the failings of practice and management that it highlighted.

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On Wednesday afternoon, and with the agreement of Haringey, I immediately arranged the secondment of the director of children’s services in Hampshire, John Coughlan, to ensure that proper procedures for safeguarding children in Haringey are in place and being applied. I also asked our national inspectors—Ofsted, the Healthcare Commission and the chief inspector of constabulary—to conduct an urgent and thorough inspection of the safeguarding of children in Haringey and to report to me in two weeks’ time. Mr. Coughlan began his work immediately last Thursday morning, and the work of the independent inspectors is under way. They will report to me by 1 December, and as soon as I have studied their findings I will publish Ofsted’s report and the action we will take.

In addition, I met Lord Laming this morning to agree the scope of his review, which will cover the key features of good practice and whether they are being universally applied across the country; the key barriers, including in the legal process; and what specific actions need to be taken to accelerate systematic improvement across the country, including on the issue of the independence of local safeguarding children boards. I am placing copies of my letter to him in the Libraries of both Houses. Tomorrow, I will set out the legislation that we will introduce to strengthen local arrangements to promote the safety and well-being of children across the country through statutory children’s trusts.

Professionals working with children in this country do a tough job, often in very difficult circumstances. However, where serious mistakes are made, there must be accountability, and I will not hesitate to act on the findings of the inquiry into what went wrong in Haringey and of Lord Laming’s review. Our responsibility, working together, is to ensure that children are safe and protected from abuse, and we will not rest until we have the very best possible child protection arrangements to safeguard our most vulnerable children in every part of the country.

Mr. Hollobone rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I usually allow the Secretary of State an opening statement of one minute, but that was well over a minute. A statement should be questioned by the Opposition parties. I therefore expect that some time this week the Secretary of State will come to the House and allow the main Opposition parties to question him, as well as, of course, all Back Benchers who want the opportunity to do so.

Mr. Hollobone: On another subject, the ocarina is an easy-to-play, easy-to-learn, easy-to-teach circular flute, and the centre of the UK’s ocarina industry is in Kettering. My constituents, David and Christa Liggins, actively promote the use of this low-cost musical instrument in schools across the country. Would the Secretary of State agree to meet my constituents and me to discuss how this low-cost instrument might help the Government to teach more school pupils how to play musical instruments?

Ed Balls: I have heard ocarinas played many times, and my ministerial colleague would be happy to arrange a meeting.

On the wider issue, Mr. Speaker, I am happy to answer questions at any time. I thought that it was important to update the House on my meeting with Lord Laming at the earliest opportunity.

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Mr. Speaker: Of course it is important, but a ministerial statement is so important that it must immediately be followed by questions from Her Majesty’s Opposition. We are not able to do that today, and I make that very clear indeed.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Secretary of State has rightly pointed out that after the Victoria Climbié tragedy, Haringey should have been an exemplar authority for child protection. I am sure that he will agree that the Government should show exemplary energy in pursuing concerns about child protection in Haringey. Six months before baby P died, Ministers received a warning letter from a former Haringey social worker. It was passed to the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which held a meeting in which Haringey council promised speedily to improve its policies on safeguarding children. Two weeks later, responsibility for inspecting child protection passed to Ofsted. What steps did Ministers, Ofsted or anyone in the Government take to ensure that Haringey lived up to its promise to improve child protection?

Ed Balls: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the review into Haringey social services that I instigated last Wednesday, and for giving me notice that he would raise the issue today. I sent him and other Opposition spokespeople a copy of my letter to Lord Laming.

A letter came from a lawyer for a former employee of Haringey, which went to the Department of Health. It was passed to the former Department for Education and Skills. It was not seen by Ministers. It was handled in the normal way through official channels. At that time, a reply was written to the lawyer to say that Ministers could not be involved in a particular employment case and that the right way to take the matter forward was through the social care inspectorate. That was done by the lawyer, and that process was followed up by a meeting in which the inspectorate confirmed that it was content that things had been done properly by Haringey in that case.

On the wider issue of Haringey social services, there was a review in 2006, and a further review by Ofsted in 2007, which gave a good report. It did not look at the particulars of the legal case; it looked at matters more widely. An investigation is now going on because I have sent the inspectors in. They will report to me in two weeks’ time, and I will take whatever action is needed to ensure that children in Haringey are safe.

Michael Gove: I am sure that the Secretary of State appreciates that this is a question about the inspection regime. We know that in March the inspectors said that Haringey had to improve, and that in October Ofsted said that Haringey—and this was just after baby P had died—provides a good service for children. That report was based mainly on paperwork and desk research, and the author of that report was a former employee and colleague of the director of children’s services in Haringey. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the systems for inspecting child protection are sufficiently robust when that can happen?

Ed Balls: I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters in more detail, as the House allows. The report in question was not authored by any colleague of the director of children’s services in Haringey
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at all. She was not the author of that investigation. There was an investigation by CSCI into particular allegations; it was content that they had been dealt with properly and closed the case.

Separately from that case, following the 2006 inquiry into safeguarding in Haringey, there was a further, routine investigation in the autumn of 2007, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, gave a good report. It did not involve inspectors’ reports and visits to Haringey—that was not the nature of the investigation. I have now called the inspectors into Haringey to see what needs to be done, and to see whether the issues that emerged from the serious case review are being properly implemented. I want to ensure that there is proper accountability and that we are doing whatever it takes to make sure that children in Haringey are safe. That is the right way to proceed. I will proceed in the right way, and we will ensure that everything is done to make sure that children in all parts of the country are being properly protected.

T3. [235780] Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): I welcome the review by Lord Laming that the Secretary of State announced. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will review the role of local safeguarding children boards? Does he believe that the chairs of such boards should be independent? Will the report also consider the way in which serious care reviews are conducted?

Ed Balls: On 22 October, we said that we would examine the operation of local safeguarding children boards, including independence and the conduct of serious case reviews. Evidence from the Ofsted reports in June shows inadequacies in some case reviews around the country. In my letter today, I have asked Lord Laming to consider both how to improve serious case reviews and the independence of those boards’ chairs. In my view and that of the children’s Minister, independence is a better way of proceeding. If we need to change guidance or the law to achieve that, we will do so on the basis of Lord Laming’s recommendations.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): We obviously welcome the current investigation into the tragic events in Haringey. However, is not it already obvious from the evidence in the public domain that an inquiry that takes place over a period of just two weeks will be inadequate in getting to the bottom of the issues? Is not it clear that we need a public inquiry to establish exactly what happened in Haringey and why the lessons of the 2003 report have not been learned?

Ed Balls: I asked for an urgent inspection from Ofsted, the Healthcare Commission and the constabulary. I said that “urgent” meant that I had to have a first report in two weeks. If they judge that they need more time to prepare a second report, that is fine, but I want action in two weeks and that is why I have set the timetable. The right thing to do is to examine what happened—the management failures, the problems of process and how that led to the wrong judgment, it seems, being made about the safety of the child. As I said, I am going to do that properly. I will wait for the inspectors and then act on the basis of their first report, which will come to me on 1 December.

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T5. [235782] Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Use of the internet, e-mail and text messaging to bully others is, sadly, on the increase. As this week is national anti-bullying week, what more can the Government do with schools and youth services to ensure that the message is clear that bullying, whatever form it takes, is not acceptable?

Ed Balls: The important thing is that, in every school, parents, teachers, children and young people need to work together to say that bullying is wrong, that it will not be tolerated and that we will do everything we can to ensure that it does not happen. Furthermore, we are announcing today funding to extend the Diana award for two more years so that children and young people who do that work in their communities are properly recognised for their important contribution to the safety and well-being of children in our schools.

T2. [235779] Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Secretary of State is aware of proposals from Chelmsford-based Essex county council to shut two secondary schools in my constituency. If Colchester borough council comes forward with its own option, will the Secretary of State or a member of his ministerial team agree to meet a delegation from Colchester? Will he give that view the same consideration as whatever emerges as the Tory council’s preferred option?

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Thanks to the hon. Gentleman, the issues in Colchester are never far from my mind, and I am grateful to him for passing on clippings from the Gazette. He knows that we need to change in Colchester to improve standards and that Essex county council, the Chelmsford-based organisation to which he referred, will make the organisational decisions. On that basis, if he considers it worth while, I am happy—as ever—to have another meeting with him.

T7. [235784] Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): When the Secretary of State last visited Bristol, we met the seven heads of the local authority national challenge schools. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is even more important in times of economic downturn to produce children with decent qualifications and skills? What does he think that the national challenge will help to achieve to that end?

Ed Balls: As my hon. Friend will know, we have already agreed the plans for Bristol, which will involve a
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further academy, bringing the number up to, I believe, eight in Bristol, and a further £500,000 of funding, to ensure that every child receives the support they need and that all schools are helped to get above our basic benchmark. We will achieve a goal that would have been impossible to contemplate 10 years ago, which is that every school in every community, for every parent and every child, will be a good school. That is our progressive commitment.

T4. [235781] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Will the Secretary of State share with the House what plans he has for correspondence on children in protection and children at risk to be reviewed by his ministerial team?

Ed Balls: As I just said, I investigated the matter last week, as did our permanent secretary. I am assured by him that at the time—this was in the previous Department, the Department for Education and Skills—the correspondence unit took advice from the expert policy team, whose judgment it was that in statute the matter was rightly for the independent inspector, not the Department. However, it is of course the case that at all times officials and Ministers have to make the right judgments to ensure that problems are spotted early and that action is taken. That is what we will do at all times and in all cases.

T6. [235783] Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Given the excellent advice that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), gave earlier, will the Minister tell us exactly what she is going to do to improve the statementing process so that parents believe that it is on their side, rather than designed to defeat them? In doing so, will she avoid the words “best practice”, “facilitator” and “engaging”, which she used earlier? She should just tell us what she is going to do.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman objects to the words “best practice”. I would have thought that we should all be using best practice. Indeed, I believe that schools and local authorities should be looking at it. I have already stated that the Lamb review is looking into how we can get parents’ confidence in the statementing system. We have 10 innovative projects under way throughout the country, so that we can find different ways of getting parental confidence in the system. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed that.

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