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Given the inherent constraints on the number of children in care, if children are put into care who should not be in care—one of my examples was from Haringey—it pushes resources in the wrong direction, so we have difficulties with that. That is a bit of a run through; I could go on for a long time about other aspects, but two
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other Members want to speak, and if I can do another five minutes that would be quite reasonable. [ Interruption. ] They are both smiling.

I want to raise mental capacity and the RP case. It is not sub judice, simply because it has been through all the domestic courts and has got to the first stage in the European Court of Human Rights. That case is absolutely appalling in my view. An expert was appointed who said, “Mum’s too stupid to instruct a solicitor and therefore isn’t allowed to operate her own proceedings.” The Official Solicitor was brought in and said, “Sorry, we’re going to concede this case. That’s it. You’ve had it.” So there was no trial. There was a 10-minute hearing, at which everything said by the local authority was accepted as gospel, and that was it, except for the fact that we have taken it up and said that audi alteram partem—hearing the other side—is a key part of a trial process. Interestingly, although the expert at the time said, “Mum didn’t have the capacity to instruct a solicitor,” another expert has said more recently, “Well, she’s obviously got the capacity to instruct a solicitor.” In fact, she has done quite well at presenting her own case in the Court of Appeal. I have the transcripts of those hearings if anyone wants to read them, and the case is now in the European Court.

Good news from my point of view is that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is showing some interest in mental capacity and what is happening in the Official Solicitor’s office. We have about 180 cases a year where parents are basically excluded from judicial proceedings. They have no locus—something that is not allowed in criminal proceedings, which people have been able to contest since a case in the 1800s. In family court proceedings, it is seen as perfectly acceptable to put parents in a situation where they cannot contest the proceedings.

I have another case, which I call the HP case, in which a lady who does not speak English was given an IQ test in English, did rather badly—whoops—and contacted the Official Solicitor. We went to the Court of Appeal, which said, “Tough.” So that quite appalling case is going to Europe as well.

We have international cases where it is thought more important to ensure that no one escapes the family courts in Britain than to look after the children better. I know of two such cases: the one that is well known from The Times, and another one that is not so well known, where the court’s objective is to get an eight-year-old back to England, away from his or her mother and leave the mother with another baby in situ. When I suggested to the Government that it would be better to put the child first and to transfer the case to the local jurisdiction, the response was, “Oh, no, we can’t do that; the courts have to win,” even though it is better for the child for the case to be transferred to the foreign jurisdiction.

I want to make a few points about Ofsted, which has been very good in this area. It has started to reveal in its reports some of the truth about how the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service operated. It has also revealed the truth about the serious case review. Baby P died in August 2007, and Ofsted started taking responsibility for the sector in April 2007. I do not think that those two things can be correlated. It is a ray of light in an area that has involved people covering up for one another for years.

The problem is that secrecy tends to prevent accountability. In fact, secrecy is often used to prevent Members of Parliament from finding out about such
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cases. Generally, what the Government say should happen is the right thing. I do not think that the Government’s objectives are wrong. The problem is that something quite different actually happens. What is needed is a much wider inquiry, which is independent of people who make money out of the area. Perhaps the departmental Committee can look at that—perhaps the Justice Committee should do so as well—but we need people to look at it who are not interested in sweeping things under the carpet and saying that everything is perfect and that everyone is doing a brilliant job. Some people are doing a brilliant job. Another whistleblower came to me who had faced disciplinary action for telling the truth, which I thought was not very clever. I do not know what has since happened in that case. There are some very good people doing a very good job in difficult circumstances; the problem is that the secrecy has allowed bad practice to develop in an unaccountable way.

I will be happy to meet the relevant Minister and the departmental Select Committee to go through all the details. I met Lord Laming on Monday, although I think the terms of reference of his inquiry are far too narrow. What we need is a wider inquiry, because this matter cannot be kicked into the long grass. Problems arise every day across the country, particularly in England and Wales. Scotland generally has fewer problems, for reasons that I could go into at length, were it not five minutes to the hour—I have said that I will speak for only so long. This is an important issue and both sides of the coin matter. I ask the Government to consider instituting a wider inquiry.

4.55 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I rise to speak briefly in support of the new proposals on health and education in the Queen’s Speech and to make a few remarks about the general direction of schools policy.

I endorse almost all the comments that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee made on policy, especially his comments on the structure of the debate. I have been a Member of Parliament for 11 years and I have attended every Queen’s Speech debate in that time. I may be wrong, but my perception is that each year fewer Back Benchers wish to contribute, or wish to spend time sitting in the Chamber, because of the length of time allocated to Front Benchers. If we are serious about involving more Back Benchers and younger MPs in these debates, we have to take a careful look at the dominance of the Front Benchers.

John Hemming: As a member of the Procedure Committee, let me say that the Committee is considering such issues. If any Member were to refer such a matter to the Committee, I presume that it would be viewed favourably.

Mr. Chaytor: I am pleased to hear that. It is an important matter that should be pursued.

Although I do not want to discuss the Haringey case at length, in the context of the comments made by the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, it is striking that in the past few months the important subject of children in care and the position of vulnerable children has moved inexorably up the
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agenda. It does the Government credit that they have prioritised vulnerable children to a far greater degree than has ever been the case before in our country. Let me say this, however: it is easy to discuss such matters when there is a high-profile case in which the whole country is interested; it is less easy to maintain a high political profile for children in care and vulnerable children in the absence of that high level of media attention. I hope that all hon. Members and the Government will sustain their present interest in policy to improve the position of children in care, even when the media interest dies down.

It is an absolute scandal that children in care perform so poorly in our schools, are so neglected and are so overlooked. In the past few months, we have reached a turning point. I hope that we can maintain a high level of interest in those unfortunate children.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a perverse intellectual dichotomy that, every month of the year, detailed information relating to the actions of social workers in children’s services is routinely disposed of under the auspices of Ofsted, yet, at the same time, thousands of DNA records of completely innocent people are kept? Do we not have our priorities completely wrong in that respect?

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. At yesterday’s meeting of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, I was startled to hear the admission by Ofsted’s chief inspector that records were routinely destroyed after three months. The defence offered was that it would be difficult to store such a large number of records, but it seems to me that the widespread use of electronic information storage completely invalidates that argument.

Mr. Kemp: I talked to the head of children’s services in my local authority, and a key point that they wanted to communicate to me is that in some high-profile cases, but not in the case of baby P, those who cause abuse deliberately travel around and move to different areas so that it is hard for the record system to follow them. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider the issue of people who deliberately move around? There are proposals for a tracking system, and we need to speed that up quickly.

Mr. Chaytor: That is an extremely important point, and it highlights the crucial significance of greater co-operation and communication between police, local authorities, and the national health service. Whenever there is a tragic case such as that of baby P, the media routinely decide to target social workers, but they are less aggressive about the inadequacies in some of our policing systems, and certainly about those in some of our health care arrangements.

Finally on children in care, the reluctance of some local authorities to increase the number of children in care is certainly partly a financial matter, but we have to accept that the quality of institutionalised care that our country has provided over many decades has been appalling. That partly explains the reluctance to put more children into care. If we learned the lessons of some of the Scandinavian countries and provided a higher quality of residential care, and could be assured
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that the quality of parenting that children would receive in a residential setting was without question better than that which they had received at home, perhaps we would be less reluctant to put children into care, temporarily or permanently.

On schools policy, in my constituency, since 1997 every primary school, secondary school and GP surgery has had its roof fixed. My local hospital has not only had its roof fixed but has been totally rebuilt. That is to the enormous credit of my party’s Government. In addition, there is the welcome prospect of seven new local health centres being built in the very near future. My local authority is on the verge of being able to rebuild or refurbish all its secondary schools, where necessary.

The chief executive and the director of children’s services in Bury are keen to support the bid that they submitted on 20 November to the revised Building Schools for the Future programme. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Family is likely to be in north-west England in early January, and it would be extremely useful if he could find time to visit Bury and talk to the chief executive of the local authority and the director of children’s services about the very good plan that the local authority has submitted to the BSF programme. My constituents could then look forward to the most dramatic schools rebuilding programme that they have ever seen. That is enormously to the Government’s credit.

Also enormously to the Government’s credit is the inexorable rise of standards in schools over the past 10 years. It is unfortunate that each year, when the GCSE, A-level and key stage test results come out, parts of the community, and Members in parts of this House, routinely want to rubbish the improving standards and achievements of our children.

It is unfortunate that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has left the Chamber, because he raised a number of interesting issues, on many of which I could agree with him; there is a good deal of common ground between us. He raised a number of issues to do with micro-managing our schools system. That is astonishing coming from someone of the party that introduced the Education Reform Act 1988, which imposed on a generation of young people the most micro-managed system imaginable, and which resulted in the hugely prescriptive national curriculum, Stalinist forms of testing and assessment, and the unbelievably inaccurate league tables that are routinely published, and which drive the behaviour of head teachers in our schools. It is beyond belief that anyone who supported that legislation could accuse this Government of wishing to micro-manage our school system. One of the most interesting developments of the past 12 months is the recognition, not just by the Government but in all parts of the House, that the era of the ERA—the Education Reform Act—has probably come to an end. We have exhausted the advantages gained from the 1988 Act—and there have been some—and we have to build on that and move on. The shift of direction to a more comprehensive approach to children’s services, with a greater emphasis on children’s well-being and a new focus on the remaining inequalities in our school system and on the importance of social mobility, is welcome, and I look forward to the proposed legislation in the Queen’s Speech significantly advancing that new agenda.

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Annette Brooke: Like the hon. Gentleman, I applaud the movement towards looking at important objectives such as social well-being. However, does he agree that the Government do not appear to have taken on board the fact that there is a great deal of teaching to the test, particularly at key stage 2, which has narrowed the curriculum unnecessarily for many children?

Mr. Chaytor: That is an important point, but I do not agree with the hon. Lady, because the statement by the Secretary of State some weeks ago—in fact, it was made in the week in which she and I were on a Select Committee visit to Canada—made the biggest change to the testing and assessment system since 1988, and fully recognised the damaging effect of teaching to the test. In fact, I was going to go on to praise the Secretary of State for making that statement and changing our testing and assessment system, and essentially getting rid of the increasingly redundant key stage 3 test, and for leaving the door open to future reforms to the key stage 2 test. The progress that we have made in the past few months on testing and assessment is hugely welcome. The progress on curriculum reform, with the publication of the Rose review and the new freedoms for individual schools to be more flexible about the curriculum so that they can tailor it more to children’s individual needs and develop a more personalised approach to the curriculum, is hugely welcome.

A consultation was launched this week, and the notion of a school report card replacing the bog-standard league table is hugely welcome. I hope that there will be adequate time for all hon. Members to consider what ought to go into the new school report card, which I hope will abandon once and for all the idea that raw scores are the only measure of a school’s success. I look forward to the far more sophisticated but easy-to-understand form of a report card that will give full recognition to the complete range of a school’s achievements.

There are two points on which I want to focus in a little more detail, beginning with my annual comment on school admissions. The Secretary of State will know of my interest in the subject, and that the Education and Inspections Act 2006 made significant improvements to the admissions system with the new code. Only this week, the Government published the revised code on school admissions, which will take effect early next year. I welcome it as another step towards a fairer admissions system that is likely to lead us a little further down the road to a better-balanced school intake. As all the international research indicates, countries that have balanced school intakes and that have the least inequalities and the flattest hierarchies between schools by and large perform better on all educational criteria. I welcome the new duty on the admissions authorities to meet the needs of the local area, and I welcome the improvements to admissions forums so that they, too, are more representative, and have to consider the fairness of admissions policies for that area.

There is one element in the new revised code that I hope the Secretary of State will speak about in his closing remarks: the school’s ethos. The Department’s press release says that schools will be allowed to advise parents of their ethos during the application process and ask that children respect that ethos. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the issue of ethos will not
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become a criterion for the selection of children? If that does happen, and if children, or parents on their behalf, have to sign up to a particular ethos as an admission criterion, it will be a hugely retrograde step. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State commented on the question of ethos in his winding-up speech.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Would I be right to infer from the hon. Gentleman’s comments that the Labour party is against schools having an ethos of, say, excellence for all pupils in a community? I wonder what the rationale behind his comments is. Is he against excellence? Is he against schools moving forward throughout the community?

Mr. Chaytor: With respect, that is a pretty fatuous question, because obviously I am not. My point is that there is an important distinction between requiring parents to say that their children will accept the ethos of the school and allowing schools to select which children they wish to admit. That is the fundamental distinction I am trying to make.

Allowing time for the final speakers in the debate, I would like briefly to make one other point, which concerns the 14-to-19 phase of education. The Government have made enormous progress in the past two or three years on that issue. They have done so 10 years later than they should have done; we should have been grappling with the 14-to-19 sector as soon as we were elected in 1997. Nevertheless, I welcome the progress that we have made. Two issues emerge, however, from the establishment of this as a distinct sector, and from the development of diplomas as the central part of the curriculum in that sector. The first is the question of funding. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that for many years there has been an enormous discrepancy—as much as 15 per cent.—between the per capita funding of students in the 16-to-19 phase of education and the rest. I welcome the fact that that discrepancy has recently been reduced; I understand that it is now down to 9 per cent. Given the structural changes in 16-to-19 education and the handing back to local authorities of the funding responsibility, is it not self-evident that we must have a uniform funding system, not only for the 16-to-19 phase, but for the 14-to-19 phase? I would be grateful if the Secretary of State commented on equality of funding between institutions in the 14-to-19 sector.

My final point on that sector, and of my contribution, concerns the structures of 14-to-19 education. One of the issues that I found controversial in the 2006 Act was the power of presumption that schools currently without a sixth form could open one. I have raised that point with the Secretary of State before, and I raised it with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. As we move to an era beyond 2011 where the annual rise in public investment will be far less than it has been during the past 10 years, the last thing we want is an enormous explosion in the number of new, small sixth forms. All that will mean is that the cost of educating each student will be disproportionately higher, and we will not get the economies of scale increasingly necessary beyond 2011. It has been a concern to many of us that the academies programme, of which I am a strong supporter in most respects, although not every detail, was originally built on the assumption that every
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academy would have its own sixth form. So, hey presto, there were 400 new sixth forms at a stroke—even though there were not enough young people to fill them. I welcome the fact that that is no longer a requirement of academies and that they can be founded without a sixth form. The majority of our sixth-form colleges perform outstandingly and there has been a rapid improvement in the performance of the overwhelming majority of our further education and tertiary colleges. I am fortunate in having two of the most outstanding colleges in the country in my constituency—the Holy Cross sixth form college and Bury college. I realise that that does not apply to every part of the country, but it must be increasingly self-evident that the most economically effective and educationally advantageous way in which to deliver the new 14-to-19 phase of education is through the college sector, not through the proliferation of small sixth forms.

I confidently predict that if the Government do not take this issue far more seriously than any previous Government, perhaps not by the end of the next Parliament, but certainly by the one after, we will have to close large numbers of sixth forms because the budget will simply not stretch to cover those costs. Again, I would be grateful if the Secretary of State took this on board and perhaps opened up a dialogue with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, because it is an issue that obviously covers both Departments. If we are to make the 14-to-19 sector a success and implement our plan to increase the education and training participation age, it is crucial to recognise that it can only be done by strengthening the college sector and increasing the role of colleges in the delivery of that phase. I am afraid that that means a reduction in the number of independent sixth forms.

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