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Mr. Sheerman: I thank my right hon. Friend for that; it leads nicely to my conclusion. I want to put my remarks in context. I am trying to be fair; I am Chairman of the Select Committee and I am trying to apportion blame fairly, but I must say that it is a great shame that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who speaks for the Opposition on Department for Children, Schools and Families matters, is not present. I have been Chairman of the Select Committee for some time, so I have been to more schools than most Ministers, as they have not been around for as long as me. I go to about three educational settings a week. Whatever the banter in the Chamber between the two main parties, in the past 10 years or so, I have found that progress on educational standards has improved dramatically in the schools to
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which I go. I go to schools up and down the country, to early years settings, to primary schools and to secondary schools. I can see a real change in our education system. I hate it when The Times, The Sunday Times, and perhaps some of the cheaper newspapers, go on and on as if there was everything wrong and nothing right with the state system of education. I think we have a fantastic state system of education. In The Sunday Times where—I shall be kind—a former chief inspector, has a regular column, there is a pernicious drip, drip, drip, to the effect that any sane, intelligent, middle-class person with the income will send their child to independent private education. That is an insidious message that says that people who send their children to state education are in some way lesser beings.

I find that state education is fantastic. I have four children. They all went to state education and they are all doing all right. I recommend to all hon. Members that they support the schools that the vast majority of their constituents send their children to. It is a very good example. I say that to many vicars as well.

In conclusion, I am a little worried that at a time of recession, we are changing an awful lot of organisation on the ground. In the Select Committee report, we warned the Government. We asked them, at this late stage, to hold off changing again the whole learning and skills structure and the way training is delivered. No sooner do people out there get used to something when some politician tries to change it. The Minister for Schools and Learning, who is having a private conversation, knows that that is the truth.

The Government want employers in small and medium-sized enterprises to endorse the system. I know the Minister spends a great deal of time in his constituency. If he goes, as I do in Huddersfield, to small and medium-sized businesses and asks why they are not taking on apprentices or skilling up their work force, it is because they find the system so darn complicated that it puts them off. I join the Opposition in highlighting the complexity of taking on an apprentice and the difficulty of understanding all the acronyms, which are all about to change, making it even more difficult for the people at the grass roots.

Having evenly shared out my bouquets and my barbs, I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your generosity in letting a Back Bencher speak for so long.

6.32 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), to whose thoughtful contribution I listened with respect. I declare an interest as an adviser to the Priory Group, which owns a number of special schools around the country.

I start by offering strong support to the proposal in the Bill to give statutory recognition to children’s trusts by mandating the creation of children’s trusts boards in every part of the country. It is important in this context to underline that the children’s trust is not some abstract, esoteric philosophical construct divorced from the reality of public service delivery and children and young people’s opportunity. On the contrary, the children’s trust is or should be the embodiment of the local partnership
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between the commissioners of services for children, young people and their families, and the providers of those services.

As such, the children’s trust has a responsibility to spearhead the process of integrated commissioning across education, social care and health services. Necessarily in the process if it undertakes that work, it will bring together and work with local authorities, primary care trusts and social services departments, but it does not end there. Very likely, if the work is done properly, it will involve the children’s trust’s interaction with and learning from a range of other organisations—for example, the Connexions service, youth offending teams, Sure Start children’s centres, the police service, housing services, leisure services and voluntary organisations.

I am not sure that there is adequate recognition of the significance of the children’s trust. The difficulty is that five years ago, for entirely understandable reasons, the Government did not want to invest those trusts with too much formal responsibility. They were susceptible to the criticism if they did so, local discretion would be unduly fettered or constrained. The result is that on the ground there may be a children’s trust, but in many cases there are what are amorphously known as children’s trust arrangements, and they are not as specific or explicit as a children’s trust.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said in his contribution that the track record of the children’s trusts so far had been chequered at best and subject to ferocious criticism. There is no denying that last year’s Audit Commission report is very critical of the work of the trusts so far. It says, among other things, that the trusts are guilty of a failure to distinguish between strategic, executive and operational issues.

The report laments the fact that many of the representatives on those children’s trust boards that exist lack a mandate from their sponsoring organisations to offer a view about policy or, more particularly, to commit resources. It rues the reality, too, that there is often among the members of the trusts little or no experience whatever of the process of joint commissioning, which the Government believe to be integral to the future successful delivery of services to children, young people and their families.

When I undertook a review of speech, language and communication services for children from 0 to 19 for the Government between 2007 and 2008, it was also my sense, regrettably, that in respect of health and education services, all too often there was a tendency to commission separately, based on different understandings, different priorities and different processes. The Audit Commission is justified in saying that so far, over the five years, there is little evidence that the trusts have made a substantial difference to outcomes for children, young people and their families, but the burden of my contention is that that is not of itself an indictment of the notion that there should be children’s trusts or joint commissioning arrangements. Rather, it is a reflection of the reality that all too often those trusts are themselves intangible.

Going round the country, I wanted to see the trust, to hear the trust, to smell the trust, to recognise the trust in action, and I would often ask besuited individuals of
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great seniority in the commissioning or delivery of local services whether there was a trust in that area, of what it consisted, and what it was doing. I have to say that I was greeted, in a multiplicity of places around the country, with answers of quite the most stupendous and unsurpassable eloquence, at the end of which I was absolutely none the wiser as to whether anything was being done on that front. That leads me to say that at least on the surface there would appear to be a good Government case for changing the arrangement and offering a degree of a lead from the top in saying that there should be statutory recognition.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for making some of the points that he is making. Does he agree that those varied and nebulous organisations are difficult to scrutinise, and that it is difficult for a parent, for example, to challenge a decision that might go back to the children’s trust?

John Bercow: I certainly do agree with that. If there is no obvious point of accountability, it is not clear where people can get answers or services or, in the absence of answers or services, recompense for themselves, their children or their loved ones. The absence of a robust structure is something of a problem.

In the Government’s consultation on the subject, there was substantial—around two thirds—support for the idea of giving statutory recognition to the children’s trusts. If we look at organisations that are daily involved in the provision of children’s services or that are concerned with the well-being of children, we see that there is support for the proposal from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, for example, and from the Children’s Society. I suppose that what I am really saying is that although day-to-day intervention in the minutiae of the local operation of a trust is entirely inappropriate, there is a world of difference between such fussy interference on the one hand and on the other the establishment of a clear structure, for which I am calling and which it seems the Government now propose to introduce. If anything, so far and with good intentions, the Government have been too permissive on the subject; there is something to be said for an element of prescription.

I say that because when we are talking about children’s services, and in particular about the commissioning and delivery of services to children and young people with special educational needs, simply leaving a complex mosaic of disparate and unrelated local organisations, each with its own important agenda, to go about the process of pulling together, is a triumph of optimism over reality. When there is such a laissez-faire approach, the interests and needs of the most vulnerable and potentially marginalised children and young people are often relegated or ignored. That is why I suggest that the process needs to be driven. The joint commissioning that we want will not just happen; there has to be leadership, teamwork and a set of processes that will translate aspiration to fact.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way during what is, as usual, an eloquent and perceptive speech.

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One of the great concerns in my constituency is the number of young people who, despite all the good work so far, are still progressing through primary and secondary education without their needs being identified; sometimes quite profound underlying difficulties and problems are not picked up. Does the hon. Gentleman see a role for the children’s trust boards to be much more proactive? They could, for example, go to the GP sector or the schools themselves, say that such children are slipping through the net in large numbers and ask what is being done about it.

John Bercow: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes. The children’s trust should have the responsibility to assess need, decide on the appropriate mix of services, secure the appropriate resources, commission the services and facilitate their delivery, and judge the quality of the services. There should then be the potential to refine or significantly alter the provision.

I say to the Government and the House that we have had a panoply of important Government statements on commissioning. We now need to move on from those statements to a framework for improvement. We have had the joint commissioning framework, the commissioning framework for health and well-being, world-class commissioning, the operating framework for the national health service and the children’s plan. Each and every one of those important documents bangs on about the need for, and potential benefits to be derived from, joint commissioning. Yet in many cases—most, I fear—such commissioning has stalled on the ground. The Government are right to take the step that they are taking. Children’s trusts can be the vehicle for the very improvement that we all want.

Mr. Willis: As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Five years ago, I suspect that I would not have agreed with him; I would have thought that the local authorities could do most of the work themselves. I now totally agree that there needs to be an umbrella organisation to bring the organisations together.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the drive to pass this legislation and set up the new Young People’s Learning Agency will result in a whole set of transfers of functions to local authorities, particularly in respect of 16 to 19-year-olds and of 19 to 24-year-olds with special educational needs? The need for the trust to be able to develop the young people’s plans is so crucial. In some ways, organisations should be put on hold so that we do not get flawed plans and that there is independent scrutiny to make the plans worth while.

John Bercow: I confess that I am uncertain about whether the overall effect of the organisational changes will be beneficial; I think that the jury is out on the subject. I accept that to some extent I am ducking the hon. Gentleman’s challenge, but I have focused my remarks and thinking very much on the younger end of the spectrum. As far as services for those people are concerned, and given the primacy of making a reality of early intervention, it seems that the statutory recognition route is the right one to follow.

I should also say something in support of the proposal to give statutory recognition to the children’s centres and to require local authorities to establish and maintain sufficient such centres in every part of the country. Although those centres are by no means perfect, it is
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fair to say that they have made a real, positive and lasting difference to hundreds of thousands of people—if not more than 1 million by now—right across the United Kingdom. That is not something at which we should sniff or cavil. The centres are also responsible for securing or advising on the availability of education, health, social care and employment services.

The assessment would be that, in the round, the centres have done pretty well so far, although there is scope for improvement. There are no longitudinal studies on the subject, because the children’s centres have not been in place for long enough to allow such. However, if we reflect for a moment on the reports that have been produced, we realise that they have not been insignificant by any means. There is the national evaluation of Sure Start, and there are reports by the National Audit Office, Ofsted and the Public Accounts Committee. They looked at different aspects of the services and provision of the children’s centres and drew important conclusions.

First, the reports were pretty clear that, on the whole, the centres’ services had led to an improvement in the quality of parenting and in the experiences of children—their social development and capacity for self-restraint. We should welcome that significant development. On the negative side, the thrust of the criticism has been that although the children’s centres have had some success—they have done well in providing services to ethnic minorities in areas where there are large concentrations of ethnic minorities, for example—they have done less well in other respects. In areas without large ethnic minority populations, they have struggled to reach those small, vulnerable and needy minorities. That has been a significant challenge.

There has also been the problem of centres being unable to reach out to fathers in local communities, and that also needs to be addressed. The Public Accounts Committee felt that the centres needed to be clearer about the services, or the signposts to organisations that could help, that are offered to children and families with disabilities. There is scope for improvement.

What will result from, or be the benefit of, statutory recognition? The feeling in the consultation, in which 97 per cent. of respondents supported the case for statutory recognition, was that it would confer a greater legitimacy on the centres and that there might be a greater urgency about the consolidation and extension of the services of the centres around the country. A sense of security and a degree of permanence that would otherwise be lacking would be invested in the centres, and that would be conducive to long-term planning, efficiency and effectiveness. We should look seriously at the argument for statutory recognition; having done so, I come down in support of it.

The subject of funding was touched on in an abrasive exchange between the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath. If memory serves me, when these centres were established there was annual funding of £721 million; this year, it is £1.573 billion; and in 2010 it will be £1.941 billion. That is a lot of money and a very concentrated resource. It was music to my ears when my hon. Friend affirmed, in terms which I fear brook no contradiction and avoid any doubt, that the Conservative party, when it comes into government next year, will continue precisely that commitment. That is of the essence, because warm
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words, empathetic gestures and isolated initiatives will not suffice to meet the needs of this case. If we are serious about securing early intervention, tackling social exclusion, furthering opportunity, extending life chances and facilitating social justice, this is a programme the merits of which we have to recognise and upon which we should build.

Mr. Laws: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I thought that what I heard from his Front Bench was a commitment to the total departmental budget, not to any allocation within it.

John Bercow: My impression was that my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State had made a commitment to the centres. However, the hon. Gentleman need not doubt for a moment that I will crawl over the minutiae—every word—of what my hon. Friend said. I hope that he made a commitment. If he did, I congratulate him; if he did not, he needs to make it. These centres are doing excellent work; they need to develop that work, and they require the financial support to do so.

I want to conclude with an unrelated observation concerning clause 84 on the election for apprenticeship scheme. I can see merit in what the Government are proposing, but I have a sneaking dissatisfaction with the terms of the clause as currently drafted. The requirement that to be successful in securing such an apprenticeship applicants should have to have level 2 or level 3 qualifications seems excessively arbitrary and draconian. I ask the Minister to reconsider that, for one simple reason: there will be young people around this country, perhaps on the autistic spectrum—I know of several examples—or with other special educational needs who are not academically equipped to succeed in examinations or whose school careers have been blighted by late intervention, a denial of opportunity and poor treatment, and who therefore have not gained qualifications but would be well suited to such an apprenticeship. They often have a particular interest in a given set of things and a fascination with how they work, as well as a sense of the priorities of the project and an ability to concentrate on it and make a real success of it. I simply say to Ministers that, in the understandable quest to guarantee that certain standards are set and maintained, they should not be arbitrary and give up the opportunity for of some very vulnerable children and young people to gain access to qualifications from which they would benefit.

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is why I hope that his hon. Friends on the Front Bench will withdraw their continued opposition to programme-led apprenticeships that prepare young people in college so that they can make those steps towards work-based apprenticeships. There is some confusion about what we are seeking to do in this respect. He will know that many organisations, such as the Prince’s Trust, work very well with these young people.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman credits me with a level of detailed knowledge of the precise thought processes and current policy positions of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that I do not possess. On that basis, I am inclined to resile from that particular challenge.

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I have calculatedly focused on those aspects of the Bill that I especially welcome, and I make no apology for that. I would like to think that in certain aspects of children’s and young people’s policy we could start to develop a genuine consensus that will endure irrespective of which party happens to be in office at the time. We all talk about trying to do the right thing in the national interest irrespective of party politics, but that is the approach that I am taking. Important parts of this Bill are extremely welcome. I wish them success and hope that they achieve what I believe they can, and what I know Ministers want to see.

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