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Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab):
May I ask my right hon. Friend to consider a project that is already assessed as valuable, whereby 18 and 19-year-olds are speaking to young people about their sexual health? We can say all we want, but often there are blocks to young people hearing us, whereas a conversation between
18-year-olds and 16-year-olds is much more effective and committed. I ask her to look at such projects to see how sexual health could be better handled by young people speaking to young people.
Dawn Primarolo: I agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend about the importance of such conversationsfor instance, very young mothers who enjoy being parents, but are prepared to talk to much younger women about the importance of choosing to be a parent at the right time. Discussions in the school, properly structured and led by qualified personnel, especially health personnel, with young people as advocates can go a great deal further than we have been able to go to date in making sure that young people have the right information to make the right choices for them personally, and to resist the pressures that they often feel.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new position. In her discussions with the Secretary of State for Health about the spread of infectious diseases in schools, what discussions has she had or will she have, following the chief medical officers prediction last week of a huge surge in the number of cases of swine flu when children go back to school in the autumn? What is her assessment of the likely number of schools that will be required to close, and is she confident that adequate contingency plans are in place to provide education to children whose schools are closed?
Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important question about ensuring that the Government at all times take the very best advice from the chief medical officer on the potential for infections in our schools; that we clearly follow the expert advice of the Health Protection Agency; and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, in taking part in those discussions in Cobra and other forums, will ensure at every opportunity that our children are protected and that the right steps are taken for staff and young people. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would welcome being kept informed of developments as they progress, because all parts of the House, not just individuals, will share that concern, so I undertake to ensure that he and the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), are kept fully informed.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The increasing prevalence of syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia is not necessarily entirely due to increasing promiscuity or to a lack of safe sex among teenagers; improved diagnostic techniques in the main can also produce apparently higher infection levels in the population. Does my right hon. Friend recall that the only period when the figures headed downwards was many years agoat the time of the major national publicity campaign on AIDS? Are not the figures now so worrying that that type of national approach and national advertising ought to be considered? We cannot continue on our current way.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct when he points to the improvements in the diagnostics of STIs. I hear his point about the importance of a national, high-level campaign, but, having looked in partnership with the Minister for public health at all the
available research, I must say that it is quite clear that targeted and specific information for young people produces the best results. We will continue to follow that strategy, but I shall reflect on my hon. Friends comments and certainly bear them in mind.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): Ministers receive representations on a wide range of child care issues. Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that there is sufficient child care in their area to meet the needs of working parents at all times of the year, including over the summer holidays.
Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he share my concern that, with the rapid fall in the number of child minders over the past five years, there are additional pressures on working parents either to give up their jobs in the summer months or, even, to leave their child home alone? Furthermore, given the Governments welfare programme, will he assure the House that there is close working between Departments to ensure truly appropriate, affordable and quality child care for all those working parents who need it during the summer months?
Mr. Wright: I certainly agree with those last comments, which are crucial: we must ensure that adequate, safe and high-quality child care is provided to reassure parents at all times, including during the summer months. I concede to the hon. Lady the point about the number of child minders having fallen over the past two quarterly returns, but I must tell her that the number of places that have been offered has risen slightly, thus providing a greater supply of child care through child minders. On her point about cross-governmental working to ensure that work pays under the welfare system, I must point out to her that the tax credit system has been a huge success and parents can get substantial help towards the cost of registered child care. Working families can claim up to 80 per cent. of their child care costs through the tax credit system, and that equates to £150 a week for one child and up to £240 a week for two or more children.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position and hope that he will be as enthusiastic as he was in his previous one. Of course, it is quite right that we support parents who need child care. The issue, however, is not only about having enough child minders, but about the persistent and extra help that we can give to parents through the summer months, when they are under pressure at work. Is my hon. Friend in contact with the education authorities to see whether nurseries can open for extra hours and to ensure that there is extra provision, and will he make sure that, if there is a shortage of funding, he tries to ease that pressure, too?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. His key point is about child care places and the wider provision of child care in local areas. As I mentioned in an earlier answer, local councils have a statutory duty to assess and identify what is needed. What my hon. Friend has mentioned certainly is needed, as there could be a spike in the summer holidays. I shall consider the issue and am willing to talk to my hon. Friend about it to see what is available in his area.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Child care is also a problem for working mums of rising fives, who in the first term of their schooling sometimes attend part time and have to go home at 12 oclock. Working mums, who in this economic climate must work to fund the family budget, find it difficult to manage that. Montgomery school in my constituency, for example, takes children only part time for that first term. Will the Minister do more to encourage schools to be flexible and find ways around the problem, so that mums can continue to work?
Mr. Wright: I certainly share the hon. Gentlemans concerns. I also declare an interest: my four-year-old son is going through exactly the same stage of life at the moment, and he goes home at midday. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the key point is flexibility. Close relationships between child minders, nurseries, schools and parents are absolutely key in respect of providing information to make sure that the circumstances of each individual household are addressed when taking child care places into account.
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I welcome the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) to his new position and look forward to debating the issues with him. Hopefully, when he has had time to reflect a little more on his brief, he will find out that although he would like to assert that the child care element of the working tax credit is a success, in fact only 20 per cent. of those eligible actually receive it. I am sure that he is finding out that his brief is very difficult in respect of child care.
As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) pointed out, there are now 10,000 fewer registered child minders, and that affects summer child care. Nationwide, however, more child care places are being shut down than new places are opening. Is the new Minister taking a fresh look at why Government policy is squeezing so many trusted child care providers out of the market? Furthermore, will he listen to the findings of the Federation of Small Businesses report, which says that another 200 nurseries could shut before the end of the year?
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words of welcome to the Dispatch Box, but I disagree fundamentally with what she has said. We have seen a revolution in the flexibility and increased supply of early-years provision. In the five years to 2009, there was a 48 per cent. increase in the numbers benefiting from the child care element of the working tax credit. We are providing real help now to hard-working families.
Over the past 12 years, the Governments real commitment and dedication, matched by unprecedented sums of money, have stood in stark contrast to the proposals from the Conservative party, which would cut tax credits, cut provision and cut chances for hard-working families.
The Minister of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Vernon Coaker): Under the Governments attendance drive, head teachers are taking a tougher line on unnecessary time away from school. Many are refusing permission for term-time holidays in all but the most exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, head teachers are increasingly marking pupils absence as unauthorised when term-time holidays are taken without permission. The overall absence rate due to holidays has decreased from 0.7 per cent. in 2006-07 to 0.66 per cent. in 2007-08, a reduction of 0.04 percentage points.
Mr. Hollobone: The vast majority of pupils holiday during the summer holidays. However, some parents in Kettering constituency find it difficult to go away then because of their work patterns, family commitments and other difficulties. Are the Government doing anything across the ambit of their responsibility to tackle the premium pricing that holiday tour operators impose on family holidays? If the premium pricing issue were dealt with, far more families would be able to take their holidays during the summer holidays.
Mr. Coaker: It is for local authorities to determine the best holiday pattern in their own areas; no doubt the local authority in Kettering will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said and will reflect on the various points that people have made, to see whether its holiday pattern is best. However, it is very difficult for the national Government to say what the best holiday pattern is in every area across the country. But let us be clear. We expect our young people to go to school during term time; we do not expect them to miss lessons unnecessarilyand that includes when their parents unnecessarily take them away from school to go on holiday.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Are not some schools guilty of sending mixed messages to parents when, on the one hand, they caution against taking holidays during term time but, on the other, organise ski trips to countries whose language is not being taught at that school? That takes not only children but key members of staff out of education at the same time. Would not such trips be better taken during the holidays?
Again, that is a matter for the individual school. I do not think that any mixed messages are being sent out by schools or, indeed, by the Government. The Government expect young people to attend school, and we do not expect lessons to be missed unnecessarily. Many of the trips that schools take, whether ski trips or other trips, are a fundamental part of the school curriculum.
They make a fantastic contribution to the life of the school and broaden the experience of young people, often in ways that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to undertake.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): The Minister may well remember from his previous position that it is likely that some of these children are being taken out of school to undergo forced marriages in other countries across the world. Will he take more steps than his predecessor did to look into this problem, which affects thousands of young girls in this country, and to try to ensure that it is stamped out?
Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely serious point with regard to young people who go missing in certain circumstances. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs has looked into this issue. None of us can be complacent about forced marriage and the apparent disappearance of some young people from certain communities to be taken back home and entered into forced marriage. I take this issue extremely seriously, and the hon. Gentleman is right to mention it.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): A total of £939 million in school capital funding allocations to schools and to 121 local authorities is being brought forward from 2010-11 to 2009-10 to be spent on school buildings, information and communications technology and other capital items, and to get contracts for local small businesses. It is very disappointing that 27 local authorities chose not to take up that offer, which could have meant a further £183 million in contracts for small businesses in those areas.
Mr. Cawsey: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and encourage him to do more of the same. Last week, I visited Scawby primary in my constituency with some local council officers to look at temporary and mobile classrooms that have been there for 30 to 40 years and are literally falling to bits. The council is trying to put together a strategy to replace them, not just at that school but across all its schools, but it finds that the money that is being brought forward can be allocated only to schemes and projects that have been previously approved. If my local council officers are successful in having a replacement strategy, will my right hon. Friend agree to meet a delegation to see how we can secure some capital funding to get rid of these dreadful classrooms once and for all?
Ed Balls: The money was partly for individual schools and partly for local authorities, and they need to have a meeting with my hon. Friend to see whether there is more that we can do about that issue. However, there would have been school money going through to deal with it. I am also pleased to say that his area was not one of the 27 areas that did not bring forward capital moneyalthough that is quite surprising, because the vast majority had Conservative councils.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Secretary of State encourage his officials, and education authorities, to concentrate on remodelling and refurbishment ahead of demolition and rebuild in order that more projects that can be undertaken, with value for money?
Ed Balls: I will always encourage them to do so. Building Schools for the Future is a great opportunity for school improvement, but it is also an opportunity to ensure that we reconfigure and are more efficient. I know that the hon. Gentleman has concerns about the process that is being followed by his local councila Conservative council, I believe. I am sure that he will raise those issues with local councillors, and he will do so with my full support for greater efficiency.
Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): The funds spent on new schools can provide futuristic buildings such as Woodland primary school in Heywood, which replaces three local primary schools and a special feature of which is extended community provision with a management structure to suit the local community. Will the Secretary of State encourage other primary schools to support their local communities?
Ed Balls: I will do so, and in fact we announced last week more than 100 different projects totalling £200 million, in order to invest in the co-location of services on school sites, which often include health services and wider support for parents. That vision of the 21st century school, with services coming together, is a vital part of our vision for the future of schools. We want to ensure that every parent and every child gets the help that they need, so that children can then learn when they get to school.
Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): What assurance can the Secretary of State give to projects such as Thetford college, in my constituency, that they will not be jeopardised because millions of pounds are being spent on consultants?
Ed Balls: If I heard the question right, the hon. Gentleman asked whether spending on consultants will jeopardise investment. It is vital to ensure that we get the financing right and that the configuration works, which is why there is a charge for consultants as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should keep that to a minimum to ensure that the money goes directly into schools, but the greater jeopardy comes from the £4.5 billion of cuts that his partys Front Benchers propose, which would mean that a number of schools in his constituency would not be rebuilt or refurbished. That is the real threat to his constituents.
The Minister for Children (Dawn Primarolo): There were 3,018 Sure Start childrens centres designated by the end of April, offering access to services to almost 2.4 million children under five and their families. We are on track to reach the Governments target of 3,500 centres by March 2010, one for every community.
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