Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


9 JUNE 2008

  Q1 Chairman: May I welcome this rather large ministerial team to our proceedings? The occasion is historic, and I cannot remember any Select Committee ever having such a large number of Cabinet and other Ministers. I apologise to Stephen Timms. We were not sure whether he was coming, but we are delighted that he is here, and he will receive a name plate in a moment. I also welcome—I shall not give titles—Yvette Cooper, James Purnell, Ed Balls and Beverley Hughes to our proceedings. Secretary of State, you will orchestrate from your side who comes back and when?

  Ed Balls: Within the realm of the possible.

  Chairman: I will override you if and when necessary

  Ed Balls: I will back down immediately.

  Q2 Chairman: I want to remind you that when you gave evidence to this Committee last time you said that your role and the Department's future would depend on what leverage you could bring to the job in persuading other Cabinet members to agree with you and to work together. Having reminded you of that, I invite you to say a few words to open our proceedings.

  Ed Balls: Thank you, Mr Chairman. As you say, it is unprecedented to have so many Cabinet and other Ministers before one Select Committee. The credit goes not only to you and to your investigation into the Children's Plan from around Christmas, but to Fiona Mactaggart, whose hard questioning at the time led to the idea that we needed to investigate the issues across Departments. It is appropriate that the Committee that looks at the Department for Children, Schools and Families should be the first to investigate the new machinery, and in particular our long-term actions on child poverty. It is central to our new Department to tackle the long-term causes of poverty and to promote the well-being, health and happiness of every child. I am sure that, when the Chancellor appears before the Treasury Committee, he is scrutinised on the details of Budget decisions. It is right that our Department should be questioned by you on the long-term impact of our policies on child poverty and child well-being. It is also the case that, in both the short-term and long-term, this is very much a collective endeavour. The child poverty Public Service Agreement targets are jointly owned by my Department, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury. That is why, when it was suggested that we should have such an inquiry, we thought that it was right to have Cabinet-level representatives from the DWP—we have James here as well as the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, Stephen Timms—the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Bev Hughes, who is Minister for Children, Young People and Families and attends Cabinet for discussions of all matters to do with children and child poverty. This is very much a joint endeavour. As we discussed when I appeared last time, we cannot achieve any of our long-term goals with regard to child health, well-being, happiness and progress without close co-operation with other Departments. In the creation of the new Child Poverty Unit (CPU), we have seen that degree of close co-operation. I know that you will want to talk to us about that today. Also, the document Ending child poverty: everybody's business, which we published on Budget day, was a joint endeavour of the three Departments—Treasury, DWP and DCSF. On re-reading it over the weekend, I have to say that it is really good document and shows the degree of intellectual rigour and policy understanding that is in that joint unit. Because of the joint work, we were able to make the progress that we made at the time of Budget 2008. We are all driven by the fact that the levels of child poverty have been unacceptably high in Britain. In 1997, it was at the highest level of any European country. There had been a doubling of child poverty from the previous 18 years. In the past 10 years, we seen a dramatic fall of 600,00 children living in relative poverty. In the years where we have comparable data, we have seen the largest fall in child poverty of any European country. We were all disappointed when the last published statistics showed a small rise in child poverty. That is why we were determined to redouble our efforts, and that is what happened through our joint work at the time of the Budget. It was a significant step forward in the short-term. Last year's Budget measures[1] will take out 500,000 children from poverty over the next two or three years. Also, the money that was put on the table—again, in a joint way—for the long-term work has been another step. Some £125 million has been made available to finance pilots over the next three years. Those pilots will consider a range of different issues around work, parenting, child support, child development and the take-up of tax credits. The Budget document, both short and long-term, showed the joint work of the three Departments. As the Committee knows, the Households Below Average Income statistics for 2006-07, which include figures on child poverty last year, are due to be released tomorrow morning. We as Ministers are aware of the content of those statistics, but the protocols of the independent national statistics organisation mean that we cannot reveal those numbers to the Committee, much as we would like to. The timing of the release of those statistics tomorrow was made by National Statistics, independent of us and after the timing of today's hearing had been decided. I apologise that we cannot get into that detail, but I hope that we will be able to look at the long-term issues that arise from our track record on child poverty over the last 10 years and the last Budget. As I said, we are determined to redouble our efforts. It is a moral imperative for our country that we meet our targets to abolish child poverty in a generation and halve it by 2010. That commitment is shared across all Departments. We work and discuss those issues regularly and closely and we are pleased that you chose this issue for the DCSF Committee to investigate today.

  Q3 Chairman:  Thank you, Secretary of State. Some of us were on a previous Committee and know quite a lot about the job in terms of the schools part of the remit. We were determined that, with the new Committee covering children and families, we would do it thoroughly right across the piece. We are already well into a major inquiry about looked-after children and children in care, and we will be meeting with some of you during that inquiry. We were determined that, if the Government were correct in establishing the new Department, it should be a lead Department with a remit to cover all children's issues—we are terribly disappointed that there is no one from Health here. That is teasing you a little, Secretary of State.

  Ed Balls: It was not possible to fit them in.

  Q4 Chairman: It was not quite possible. This is an historic day in the sense that we cannot have the stats that you would like to give us tomorrow, but we did have a rather disturbing report—published this morning and leaked in the weekend press—from the Children's Commissioners in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland on this subject. It is rather strange. The Government are committed to ending child poverty and, many of us would say, have started to tackle it in a workman-like way and have achieved very much. I was at a Carnegie Foundation and Sutton Trust seminar in New York the week before last, where many of the American researchers doing international research were full of praise for what the UK has been doing and has achieved. How do you balance the voices that say that very serious beginnings have begun on this matter when compared with what the Children's Commissioners said this morning? How would you answer that?

  Ed Balls: First, I would say that we have made substantial progress but that there is a long way to go. That is true whether you are talking about the raising of school standards or reductions in child poverty. We have probably exceeded our expectations of the progress that we could make in the years that we have had, but there is still further to go. Secondly, this morning the Children's Commissioners made it clear that the creation of the new Department, the bringing together of policies for children and young people into one Department, and the joint responsibilities regarding crime, sports, poverty and children's health are a substantial step forward and a way of integrating policy better. They said that the majority of children are happy, doing well and thriving, and they are right about that. In our society, the danger is that we tend to talk down the achievements of our children and young people, when there are many great things being done across the country by children in school, in volunteering and more widely. It was also pointed out that we still have a high level of children who are incarcerated because of youth crime. That level has stayed stable but is still higher than in some other countries. We are very focused, as a new Department, on improving the quality of children's education, on resettlement when children leave imprisonment and particularly on tackling the causes of youth crime. That is exactly what our Department is all about. We are responding to the concerns that many had, including the Children's Commissioner, in the agenda that we set out in the Children's Plan. We cannot write the headlines or the stories, and I would anticipate that the Children's Commissioners themselves would have been disappointed with some of the negative ways in which their comments were reported. Overall, the picture is very positive for children and young people in our society, but there is still some way to go to make this the best place in the world for children to grow up in, and that is our Department's mission.

  Q5 Chairman: Thank you for that, Secretary of State. May I switch to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions? I was considering the Department for Work and Pensions today. We are very lucky to have this session on the back of a very good report by our sister Committee, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. You gave evidence to its inquiry. May I say that from reading that report, it seems that plunging into poverty is very easy for someone who becomes a single parent unit? That applies usually to a female single parent. How can we ever address that? In the area that we know best, some educational assistants earn £13,815 on average. Retail cashiers and checkout operators earn £11,700. Other educational assistants earn £10,698. Are we ever going to be able to crack poverty if single parents have to rely on such low wages? I am talking not just about people working in classrooms as classroom assistants but about people working at the checkouts in Tesco's or Sainsbury's. Are we ever going to crack this?

  James Purnell: I think that, yes, we can. That is precisely why the minimum wage and tax credits are so important—so that there is a floor on wages and so that tax credits can top up people's wages. We believe firmly that getting people into work is their best route out of poverty, but not the only one. We try to get as many people as possible into work but, as we made clear in the document that was referred to earlier, we also have a strategy for getting people who are not in work above the poverty line. We need to do both. The point that you made about New York is interesting. I was there talking to Mayor Bloomberg's deputy mayor about the matter, and they are considering their definition of child poverty. They found the very idea of having a target based on relative poverty quite surprising, because you are effectively always running up a down escalator, but I think that it is right to have that target, even if it means that sometimes, as you say, the headlines are difficult. It means that more children can be lifted out of poverty, because it is a tough target to meet. It is the right target to meet, because we believe that poverty is partly about material deprivation, but it is also about the amount of income that you have relative to everybody else.

  Q6 Chairman: Let us move, then, to the Chief Secretary. Is it not a problem for an incoming government to have such bold aspirations? Are not a Labour Government always going to be criticised, if not crucified, for lagging behind what we said we were going to achieve? You must look at what this will really mean for this country's public expenditure and recoil in horror at the thought of how much money it will take to really achieve the rest of this goal.

  Yvette Cooper: In fact, the money that we are investing in children's life chances and opportunities for the future, and in support for families on low incomes, has immense returns in those children's opportunities in life later on and in what happens to them not just in the next couple of years but in 10, 20, 30, 40 years to come. That is why I think that this is the right target and the right approach for us to have. Yes, it is challenging—make no mistake about that. We know that if we had done nothing for the past 10 or 11 years and simply uprated the 1997 tax and benefits system, we would have seen 1.7 million more children in poverty as a result. We are having to do a lot to address wider economic or social trends, but it is right that we should do so and that it should be a priority across Government. It is far better to have a challenging target that stretches us and everyone in the Government who has to work to it than to have a target that we can meet easily and that, as a result, will not make as much difference to as many families and children throughout the country.

  Q7 Chairman: We talk about raising aspiration. I am not sure that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families totally appreciated the report on Testing and Assessment, although he thought that it was thorough. When we start investing in a particular goal in respect of public policy, we see that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that is easier to do something about. We have some easy, good returns and perhaps some good press releases, but the second and third ways of getting to the more difficult areas of poverty become harder. Will it not just be more and more difficult to get the rest of the children out of poverty?

  Yvette Cooper: In the document to which Ed referred, we set out the need to start working now on how to reach the 2020 target and to look at different approaches, piloting and ways in which to do things. It cannot simply be about tax credits, hugely important as they are. It must also be about addressing some of the causes of family poverty or people being on low income. That is why we want to go further and help more people into work and also look more widely at some of the pilot programmes that the DCSF and the DWP have been working on particularly, so that we can learn lessons to be able to inform the next decade about progress, too.

  Q8 Chairman: Thank you for that, Yvette. Stephen, I refer to one of the things running through the DWP report for me as a Member of Parliament for a Yorkshire constituency. I am picking on you because you are the only Minister here who represents a London constituency. We boast that London is now the leading city in the world. Indeed, people said that when I was in New York. Yet, the DWP report says that, in inner London, the problems of child poverty are the very worst. Why is that? In the richest of cities, why do we have the greatest problem?

  Stephen Timms: It is a very striking contrast. The London Child Poverty Commission drew attention to that in its report a couple of months ago. The number of jobs in London over the past 10 years has gone up by about one sixth, but the employment rate has hardly shifted at all in that period. The employment rate in London as a region is the lowest of all the regions. Bev Hughes and I are working together at the moment on a policy response to what can be done to shift those numbers. It means primarily helping many more people living in London get into the jobs that are being created here. There are barriers and difficulties, but if we look at comparable inner city areas around the United Kingdom, the picture is quite similar. London is not unique in that respect. What is different is the fact that London is a region, and that the scale of the worklessness leads to the figures that you have rightly highlighted.

  Q9 Chairman: Lastly, Beverley Hughes, can I ask you a brief question about children's centres and the activity in the country in respect of new initiatives and after schools clubs, in particular? It really stabs you in the heart if you read in a report that certain aspects of provisions seem as though they are only for poor children, so they are being stigmatised. Does it worry you that the kind of provision that we are giving to extend the support to poor families could become stigmatised and defeat the purpose?

  Beverley Hughes: First, I appreciate the fact that you have seen—as I knew you would—that those broader policy initiatives are very much part of the Government's approach to ending child poverty. That approach includes the nationwide network of children's centres that we will have shortly, every school offering extended activities and, indeed, giving local authorities a clear role in relation to a local commitment to child poverty—many have now taken up that role through local area agreements and so on. In terms of sustaining whatever approaches we introduce, such as fiscal measures and the like, it is critically important that we get in very early. We know that children from poor backgrounds, who may be very bright cognitively, none the less can fall behind children from wealthier backgrounds by the age of 22 months, so it is important that we have strong early years policies. Children's centres and extended schools, by definition, will be universal services. We will have a children's centre in every area by 2010 and there are almost 3,000 already, starting off in the most disadvantaged areas. Now that the level of provision is substantial and has reached a critical mass in both children's centres and extended schools—half of all schools are now extended; half of secondary schools and three quarters of all primary schools—the challenge is to ensure that in the context of a universal service, the most disadvantaged children reap the most benefit from those services. In relation to children's centres that means that the outreach is strong, that we use health visitors to identify families whose children can benefit, and that we make sure that those families are introduced to children's centre services. I visited a children's centre in a disadvantaged part of Liverpool last week and saw there the work that was being done to make that happen. However, there are certain groups, particularly teenage mothers, who do not easily find their way to children's centres—we know that; it is quite daunting if you are a very young woman. That is why we have provided more funding for two extra outreach workers in every centre. We are working with health staff, who are often already accepted by such families and are the first point of contact. Such staff can ensure that those people get into children's centres and that their families benefit from the services.

  Chairman: I think we have warmed you all up. I am, after all, the warm-up act in this Committee. Let us start drilling down.

  Q10 Mr Heppell: I noticed that in your introduction, Ed, you talked about joint responsibility, joint ownership, joint endeavour. I must say that many years ago, in 1981, I had a bad experience with joint working. We set up a sub-committee called joint education, social services and leisure, recognising that the boundaries were blurred between all of those. Although we probably did some good things in our initial enthusiasm, in the end the director and chair of education tried to protect their little empire; the director and chair of social services protected their empire; and leisure services protected their empire. I will not say that the sub-committee was a failure, but the bottom line is that it ceased to exist. What will be different about your joint working? You have a joint responsibility for the delivery agreement PSA 9. What are the mechanisms for negotiating the policies around that area? How do you come to decisions on those and how do you execute those decisions? A few examples of how that has worked would be helpful—one from your Department and one from the Treasury.

  Chairman: I got a wink from Yvette to say that she wishes to open up on that question. Is that all right with you?

  Ed Balls: Definitely.

  Chairman: I hate to come between the two of you.

  Yvette Cooper: I think that the best example is the way in which we worked in the run up to the Budget. The Child Poverty Unit is in place, which has staff from all three Departments and works on child poverty across the board. In particular, we have the work for the 2010 target and the PSA target, which has a PSA board of officials—every PSA target has a board of officials to monitor progress. That board meets quarterly, includes all three Departments and is chaired by the Treasury. We also have joint responsibility, as you say, for the longer term, for the 2020 target too. So there is a huge amount of close working between the three Departments, both in the Child Poverty Unit itself and in other parts of our Departments that support the Child Poverty Unit and need to work with it. The Budget document that Ed referred to earlier was drawn up very much by the Child Poverty Unit. It was published as part of the Budget documents. Not only were the three Departments so closely involved in drawing up the document but they were involved in the discussion of the analysis behind the position on child poverty and the position for different groups, and drawing up different options too. Therefore, when the Chancellor came to make the final decisions on fiscal and tax measures, which obviously will always be his decisions as part of Budgets and pre-Budget reports, he was informed by the joint analysis and by a series of discussions with other Ministers—DWP and DCSF Ministers—as well as by the kind of official-level work that had gone on.

  Q11 Mr Heppell: I am just wondering if there is a different viewpoint from the Departments. Is that how you see it operating?

  James Purnell: That is exactly how it operates. In a way, it would be wrong to pick out any individual examples, because that suggests that this is an occasional thing that happens. Actually, we get joint policy advice and the great virtue of that is that it is based on the same analysis of what the evidence shows and what the implications of the policy are, and then we get advice coming up to us. Some of those issues, as Yvette said, will be decisions for the Chancellor; the rest will be decisions for us to take together. So, with the pilots that we announced alongside the Budget, they are being taken forward by the Child Poverty Unit and we will take collective decisions on how to manage them. So it is a seamless process, not just every now and then if there is a crisis or a particularly high-profile initiative; it is all the way through. Regarding anything that impacts on child poverty, the Child Poverty Unit gives us joint advice.

  Q12 Mr Heppell: May I explore that a bit further? Because there are effectively two Departments and the Treasury in the CPU, is it not the case that the Treasury has almost like two vetoes? You can veto something at the CPU stage or at the Chancellor's stage. Am I reading that wrongly? I mean, if there is a dispute, who would resolve it within the CPU?

  Ed Balls: I think that, in some ways, it is the other way round. The Treasury is responsible for meeting the 2010 and 2020 targets, but it cannot do that unless it also has the support of the DWP getting single parents into work and our Department supporting child care through children's centres and then the long-term education work. So I think that it is as much the Treasury ensuring that we rise to the challenge in terms of our contribution of policy, rather than the other way round. The other thing that I would say is that in different policy areas, you have different ways of doing joint working, but the one thing that does not work is simply having a committee or a Minister with a title and assuming that that will make a difference. As I said when I came to the Committee last time round, we have a number of different kinds of joint responsibility. So, in the case of youth justice and the Youth Justice Board, every policy decision is now being made and signed off jointly by our Department and the Ministry of Justice on the operation of the youth justice system. That is a very intense form of joint working, probably going further than we have ever gone before. On something like children's health, we are closely working on the strategy, involving our Department and the Department of Health, but a lot of the levers will be pulled by primary care trusts around the country and by hospitals and GPs. In the case of child poverty, it is more a case that the Treasury has some powerful levers through tax credits and the way that the system operates; DWP has some in terms of the way in which the Employment Service operates, and we do in terms of the way that children's services and the education system operate. None of us individually can meet our objective, but if all of us do our part then collectively we can meet the objective. There, what actually matters is whether or not there is a common set of goals; whether or not there is a common set of analysis, and whether or not there are accountability structures within Government, which is what the PSA boards are about, and outside Government, which is what this Committee is about, to ensure that if any of us are recalcitrant that becomes quickly known, understood and dealt with. However, it is less about joint decisions and more about ensuring that everybody does their bit, because there is not one lever that meets the objective required; there are a number of different policies from different parts of the policy world coming together.

  Q13 Mr Heppell: The Chief Secretary said that there were representatives in the CPU from the DWP, the DCSF and the Treasury.

  Yvette Cooper: Yes.

  Q14 Mr Heppell: Okay. So what is the logic of having the CPU in the DCSF? Why is that not in the Treasury or the DWP? Is it just convenience?

  James Purnell: It could have been in any of the three. I do not know which of the officials who brief us are originally from the DCSF or the DWP. What Ed says is absolutely right: this happens in many different policy areas. When we did school sports together, we received joint submissions and took joint decisions.

  Q15 Mr Heppell: If the targets are not met, who should I blame? To whom can I go and say, "You are responsible"? Where do I look, if things are not working? Is there a joint responsibility? I see James nodding.

  Yvette Cooper: Ultimately, the Government share responsibility for a series of things. PSA targets are set out as part of the Spending Review to ensure results on the key things that the Government have focused on. For example, the Treasury has the lead responsibility for the PSA 2010 target, but the programme and target are shared. Of course, you will hold all of us to account, which is exactly why we are working together. We all need to work together in order to deliver results.

  Ed Balls: It is different between 2010 and 2020. The former is much closer, and the underlying causes are harder to address in a short period. Raising the proportion of single parents in work in 2020 will be very important. Many of those single parents currently will be aged five and upwards and in school. What will matter is what happens in their primary school teaching and secondary schools. Will they stay on at school? Will they get a skill and an apprenticeship? What kind of family and parental support will they get? What will happen when they become parents and try and balance that with work and family life? What will that mean for what they get from the Employment Service and the way in which the child care element of the tax credits interact? Those things will be decisive in determining the teenage parent employment rate in 2020. Whether we get there will depend on whether we make the rights calls for seven-year-olds as well as on whether the Employment Service is delivering for teenage parents in 10 years. In that sense, it genuinely is about holding us to account for the long-term decisions that we make now.

  Q16 Mr Heppell: One last thing—in some respects, this is obvious: if, for instance, you could see that you were not reaching the 2010 target, would the Treasury be willing to release further resources to get you there? I know that that is like asking, "How long is a piece of string?" Would the influence of the two Departments be stronger as a result of the CPU?

  Yvette Cooper: In the Budget, we found an extra £1 billion to support action on child poverty and a series of measures that have come in. That is a time when the fiscal position is tighter than it has been in previous years and comes on top of the measures in the pre-Budget report and the Budget. Those policy announcements and the previous Budget will allow us to help 500,000 children out of poverty. That is a result of making that extra investment and, in part, of being able to use the additional revenues from alcohol duty. We found revenue there to be put into helping out of poverty families with kids. Obviously, you would not expect us to speculate on future pre-Budget reports and Budgets—that is not the way that we approach tax and fiscal measures. However, the Treasury has demonstrated a very strong commitment to investing money in supporting children growing up on the lowest incomes. Giving evidence to the Treasury Committee, only last week, the Chancellor said that we must not be deterred from our child poverty targets. They are hugely important to us.

  Q17 Chairman: We are having to revert to first names because it is too complicated. Yvette, I do not want to accuse you of trying to pull the wool over our eyes, but the evidence of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions is that, according to the DWP, it is intended that the CPU "will make more efficient and effective use of the talents and expertise of the staff in the two Departments to take the Government's child poverty strategy to its next stage of development." Witnesses to the Committee welcomed the CPU, but some expressed concern about its remit and specifically about the "lack of Treasury involvement." Come on, that is not quite how you—

  Yvette Cooper: We have changed the position since that evidence was given, and three Treasury officials are now part of the Child Poverty Unit. They are not co-located in the DCSF, but they attend all the weekly team meetings and are part of the programme of work so that all three Departments can work closely. They were, previously, working very closely with officials in the CPU, but as part of the work that we did in the run-up to the Budget, and given the close working that we had and needed at that time, the Chancellor decided it would be right to have Treasury officials be part of the CPU as well.

  Q18 Chairman: What about ministerial involvement?

  Yvette Cooper: Yes, there was ministerial involvement as a result, because, the CPU and the PSA board—a board of officials that meets quarterly—reports to a tripartite group of Ministers, which includes Ed and James and is chaired by the Chancellor.

  Q19 Chairman: Was that a result, James, of the Select Committee report? Did it have any influence?

  James Purnell: Yes; Ed asked Alistair and Alistair agreed—I was at the meeting.

1   Note by witness: The measures in question are those in the Budget 2007, Budget 2008 and last year's pre-Budget Report (PBR). Back

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