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Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I have experience; a family came to see me who were concerned about the local authority’s involvement in their ongoing case. The case ended up in the family courts and the judge made a ruling that the family should not approach me again while it was in court. In my view, that was not really about protecting the child, which must be of the utmost importance, but about protecting the professionals involved in the case, because I was dubious about their judgment.

Mr. Straw: I accept what my hon. Friend says. We are changing the position so that in future a judge cannot make such a ruling in any case in which a party wishes to approach their Member of Parliament.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I welcome the proposals that the Justice Secretary has announced, although a lot of the details are still to be worked out and I could not quite understand why the previous good work had come to a grinding halt.

One of the biggest criticisms of the workings of the family courts has been the lack of accountability of social workers, Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service workers and expert witnesses, particularly when errors are made that become part of the court record—a problem that is often compounded by the high turnover in those staff. As part of the review, will the Justice Secretary ensure that such errors are not given protection and that reporting will be possible in order to highlight those errors, to ensure that they are not made and to increase the accountability of those with key roles to play in the judgments that can be made?

Mr. Straw: The judgments in such cases are very difficult. Errors may sometimes be made, but I share the view, expressed not least by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), that the greater the system’s openness, including through the scrutiny of public officials, the smaller the likelihood not only that egregious errors will be made, but that they will go unnoticed.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I welcome greater transparency. Wolverhampton, which I represent, will be a pilot area, in which full written judgments will routinely be made. It seems to me that that will have resource implications, because it will take up judicial time, as well as a certain amount of staff time. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be extra resources for pilot areas, to ensure a full validation and to ensure that other cases are not adversely affected by resources being sucked into the pilot cases?

Mr. Straw: We are making appropriate arrangements in the pilot areas.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The notion of written judgments is an excellent idea, given adequate resources, of course. As a practitioner—I declare an interest as a member of the family Bar and I still occasionally practise—I am fearful that bringing in the media when parties to the action are giving evidence will undermine the quality of that evidence, given that it is often highly sensitive and intimate evidence. I am concerned that the proposal will suppress the truth, which is the last thing that anybody wants.

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Mr. Straw: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. There is a balance to be struck. My view, based not least on the experience of the youth courts, is that having the media there will produce a better overall quality of justice and, above all, a better perception of the justice that such courts provide.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Protecting the identity of the child and giving them the privacy that they rightly deserve in cases where it is often the failure of adults that has brought them before the courts is paramount. Will my right hon. Friend be holding meetings with the Press Complaints Commission and the Society of Editors to ensure that there are clear guidelines, particularly for local newspapers, whose reporting is more vulnerable to identifying who the child is and what the family circumstances are?

Mr. Straw: Yes.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The statement has rightly focused on the protection and welfare of children, but the family courts also deal with divorce cases, not all of which involve children. Will cases that do not involve children be subject to the same media scrutiny when they concern what are in effect private matters between the parties?

Mr. Straw: Yes, they will.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I must declare an interest as co-ordinator of the Justice for Families campaign.

One of the critical things that we need to do in this country is improve decision making in respect of children in public law proceedings, especially in view of the number of serious case reviews. Scrutiny in the family courts is key to that, so I welcome much of the statement. I do not think that, in reversing the judgment in Clayton v. Clayton, the Government intend to cause a 17-year-old child to be unable to complain about his or her treatment, but I ask the Secretary of State to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) about second opinions. Will it now be possible for a party to obtain a second opinion without the permission of the judge?

Mr. Straw: I shall have to return to the hon. Gentleman, and to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), on that discrete issue.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I welcome some of what the Secretary of State has laid before the House, particularly his comment about lifting the veil. Given that the Government are conceding more divorce and matrimonial matters to sharia councils, may I ask
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what provisions have been made and what consultations have taken place with the Islamic community, and whether there is any overlap between what he has said today and statements from that community?

Mr. Straw: I have had absolutely no discussions with representatives of Muslim communities about the proposals. Members of the Muslim faith are subject to the law of the land like any other groups, and they are the first to accept that. In so far as the decisions of so-called sharia councils are accepted and enforced in the English courts, that is done according to provisions of the Arbitration Act 1996, which was passed by the previous Administration.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): I welcome the statement, but may I suggest to the Secretary of State that owing to the current level of secrecy, over-zealous social services departments are often not held to account and children are often taken away from their parents for spurious reasons? I have a constituent whose two boys, aged 14 and 16, were taken into care simply because they would not speak to their mother after an acrimonious break-up and wished to be with their father. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the case, if only so that he can see for himself how bad the system can be when cases such as this operate under a veil of secrecy?

Mr. Straw: Of course I should be happy to see the hon. Gentleman, but he should bear in mind that social workers and the courts as a whole are between a rock and a hard place. The burden of the criticism in the baby P case is not that the child was taken into care too soon, but that the child was not taken into care at all. There is a really difficult set of judgments that everyone has to make.

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): I, too, declare an interest as a member of the family Bar, although I do not currently practise.

May I press the Secretary of State on the issue of judgment pilots, and on two issues in particular? According to his statement, certain family cases will be piloted as part of the scheme. Has he narrowed that down, and does he know what cases those will be? It also appears from the statement that the written judgment will be a necessary element of all the pilot cases. If that proves successful in the pilots, will it be introduced on a wider basis, or will it be at the judge’s discretion to decide whether a judgment should be made public?

Mr. Straw: Let me make it clear that the pilots relate to the publication of anonymised judgments. The major changes relating to the admission of the media will not be piloted; they will be introduced on a universal basis in the England and Wales jurisdiction once the rules have been agreed. We fully intend the scheme to be rolled out across the country if the pilots are successful.

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Sutherland Inquiry

5.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The delivery of this summer’s national curriculum tests for 11 and 14-year-olds was a shambles. I want to say to all the teachers, pupils, parents and markers who have been affected how sorry I am for all their inconvenience, stress and frustration. What happened this year was completely unacceptable. It was because I was determined to get to the bottom of exactly what went wrong and to ensure that it does not happen again that, in July, I asked Lord Sutherland to conduct an independent inquiry. I laid a copy of Lord Sutherland’s final report before the House at 2.30 this afternoon, and I have already acted to ensure that all his recommendations will be implemented in full.

In this statement, I will set out the Government’s initial response, and the steps that we are taking to ensure that the 2009 test results will be successfully delivered on time. I am grateful to Lord Sutherland for his very thorough report, and in January I will publish a detailed response setting out how we are implementing all his recommendations in full.

Lord Sutherland begins his report with these words:

He finds that

He also says:


In particular, Lord Sutherland finds that

That is why, on 15 August, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority dissolved ETS’s contract. ETS forfeited a significant amount of future earnings and repaid £24.1 million to the taxpayer, which is two thirds of the money due to ETS for the first year of its then five-year contract.

Lord Sutherland then says:

His report

In particular, he finds:

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He finds that

He finds that

and that

I have today written to the new chair of the QCA board, Mr. Christopher Trinick, asking him to implement in full all Lord Sutherland’s recommendations relating to the QCA, and to provide me with a full report on progress by 16 January. In a statement this afternoon, the QCA board has announced that its chief executive, Dr. Ken Boston, and Mr. David Gee, the managing director of the National Assessment Agency, have been suspended pending a full board inquiry into Lord Sutherland’s findings. The QCA board has, with our agreement, appointed Mr. Andrew Hall, currently its director of strategic resource management, as interim chief executive while that inquiry takes place.

Lord Sutherland’s report also makes recommendations covering the procurement process; the role of Department for Children, Schools and Families officials and Ministers; the role of Ofqual; and the procurement and delivery of future tests. On the procurement of the contract with ETS by the QCA, Lord Sutherland concludes:

but he highlights the fact that, despite

of the supplier and two Office of Government Commerce gateway reviews, the procurement

regarding the supplier’s

Lord Sutherland finds that

Although this is not an explicit recommendation of Lord Sutherland’s report, my permanent secretary David Bell has today written to Nigel Smith, chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce, asking him to consider whether there are wider lessons from Lord Sutherland’s report for OGC gateway reviews. We will report on that in January as well.

On my Department, Lord Sutherland finds that

He also says:

the consequence was that

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Lord Sutherland also confirms in his report:

four days before I announced that the tests would be delayed and Ofqual and I launched Lord Sutherland’s independent inquiry. While Lord Sutherland concludes that

he does say that

He also recommends:

That is an important recommendation, and I will report in January on how we can further strengthen and clarify those governance arrangements.

On regulation, Lord Sutherland

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