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The hon. Gentleman will have noted the significant improvement that we have seen in results over the last 12 years in his constituency and elsewhere. In 1997, only one third of young people managed to get
5 A*s to C, including English and maths, at GCSE, and now it is around a half. That is significant progress. The problem of NEETs is something that we are all focused on addressing, and that is why we have brought forward the September guarantee of a place for every 16 and 17-year-old in school or college, which his party does not support. That is also why we have brought forward the future jobs funds, funded by Government borrowing, which his party does not support. That is why we have brought forward a range of measures, costing £5 billion of Government borrowing, which his party does not support.
Helen Goodman: That might be difficult because of the volatility of the price of fuel. My hon. Friend will realise that in deciding on the level of the cold weather payments and the winter fuel allowance the general level of fuel prices is one of the factors taken into account.
T9.  Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), can the Minister of State tell me how many 18 to 24-year-old NEETs there were in the country last year, and how many east European migrant workers were here during the same period?
Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I asked the same question to Sir Leigh Lewis 14 times and the Secretary of State six times in the Select Committee last week. I unfortunately got the same non-answer that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) got today, although it did indicate that the Government are looking at two thirds of the child poverty target next year. Is there any Minister who will admit what we all know-that the Government will not hit their 2010 child poverty target?
Yvette Cooper: As we have made clear, we set the 2010 target and we continue to make progress towards it. We have measures in place, which are being introduced at the moment, that will reduce child poverty by a further 500,000. It is right that we continue to make progress and work towards the target, because too many of our children are still living in poverty and we want to bring those numbers down.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families if he will make a statement on the appointment of the next Children's Commissioner.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): We established the post of Children's Commissioner to be a fearless and independent advocate for children and young people. Following a rigorous Nolan selection process, the independent selection panel recommended Dr. Maggie Atkinson to me as clearly the most outstanding candidate to succeed Sir Al Aynsley-Green when he steps down in March next year. I accepted the panel's recommendation and wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families on 6 October informing the Committee that I had nominated Maggie Atkinson for the post.
"Maggie is an excellent choice and will fearlessly and independently promote the interests of children in England"-
not my words, but those of Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo's. Sir Paul Ennals, the chief executive of the National Children's Bureau and a member of the independent selection panel, has said:
"Everyone who knows Maggie knows of her robustness, her independence of mind, and her strength of character. The children and young people judged her to be the best candidate for the post, and the interview panel were unanimous in their recommendation."
The Committee held a pre-appointment hearing with Dr. Atkinson last Monday. I received a copy of its report on Friday, which I studied over the weekend, and have set out my response in a detailed letter to the Chairman. The Cabinet Office guidance on pre-appointment hearings states that Ministers will consider any relevant considerations before deciding whether to proceed with the appointment-for example, any new, relevant facts about the candidate's suitability for the post, such as an undisclosed conflict of interest. The guidance also says:
"there may also be occasions where a candidate's performance in front of the Select Committee is considered relevant to the post in question-although this should be exceptional."
"a high degree of professional competence".
However, the Committee raised three specific concerns. The report questions whether Dr. Atkinson will do enough to assert the independence that the role of Children's Commissioner requires. In her evidence to the Committee, Dr. Atkinson said that she would be unafraid to "speak truth to power," and Sir Paul Ennals has said that she was
"the most fiercely independent of all the candidates."
The report also questions whether Dr. Atkinson will challenge the status quo on children's behalf and stretch the remit of the post, in particular by championing children's rights. Dr. Atkinson told the Committee last Monday that she would be vociferous in speaking up for the most vulnerable children, such as
children in young offenders institutions. Anne Longfield, the chief executive of 4Children, has said that Dr. Atkinson
"is renowned for her forthright, straight-talking approach which challenges us all to put the needs of children first. As such she will be a strong defender of children's rights in England against all comers."
It is my duty to appoint the best person for the job, and this should not be about politics, partisanship or personality. The judgment that I had to make was whether any new information in the Committee's report should cause me to alter my nomination and-let us be clear-overturn the independent selection panel's unanimous recommendation, a decision that would have been hugely unpopular with children's organisations across the country. My conclusion having studied that report-it is set out in detail in my letter-is that the independent selection panel is right. The person best qualified to be the strong, effective and independent voice for children and young people in our country is Dr. Maggie Atkinson. On this basis, I have confirmed her appointment as the next Children's Commissioner, and I commend this statement to the House.
Michael Gove: In his very first statement, the Prime Minister pledged that major public appointments would be subject to scrutiny by this House. He argued that the Executive had too much power and Parliament too little. Why is the Secretary of State now rowing back from that principle? Why is he overruling the unanimous view of a Labour Committee with a Labour majority and a Labour Chairman? The Secretary of State clearly wants to push one particular agenda. It is the Committee's job to provide independent scrutiny. Why exactly is this Secretary of State a better judge than a Committee of this House of who should be an independent scrutineer of the Government?
The Secretary of State has already appointed Dr. Maggie Atkinson to do his bidding in three patronage roles-as chair of a national expert group, as chair of a multi-agency steering and reference board and as chair of a new national work force partnership. In each of those roles, she has consistently supported Government policy in Department for Children, Schools and Families press releases. She has never been in the lead of any critique of Government policy. What evidence is there that she is not just another Labour establishment choice? May I ask the Secretary of State whether Ms Atkinson has ever been a member of any political party? Is it true that every time she has been appointed to a post in local government, the local authority was not Conservative controlled at the time?
The Chairman of the Select Committee has identified a pattern of behaviour from the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has got rid of those who disagree with him, such as Lord Adonis, Cyril Taylor, Bruce Liddington, Ken Boston and Ralph Tabberer, while appointing individuals who are either pliant or conformist. Does he believe that that bolsters confidence in how he discharges his responsibilities? Does he think that it reinforces confidence in his belief in scrutiny when, instead of choosing to defend his decision in this place, his first instinct was to justify himself in a letter briefed out at 10.30 last night? What reassurances can he now give us that when it comes to public appointments and the running of his Department, there is no longer something of the night about the way in which he operates?
Ed Balls: The responsibility for this appointment is the Secretary of State's under the Children Act 2004, which established this post. I fully support the process of pre-appointment hearing and I have explained to the House the basis on which I reached my decision under the 2004 Act. The reason why I set out the issues in detail in my letter to the hon. Gentleman at 10.30 last night was that the Committee itself chose to publish its report at midnight last night, and I followed its lead.
On this particular point, it is a bit rich for me to be answering these questions from the hon. Gentleman, whose spokespeople have failed more than once in recent weeks, including last week, even to confirm that the Conservative party would keep the position of Children's Commissioner at all, let alone appoint an independent person to that position. I do not mind what the hon. Gentleman says about me. I do not mind what hon. Gentlemen in this House, and even some of my hon. Friends, say about me-that is politics. But I do mind the integrity and standing of an independent and highly respected person-Dr. Maggie Atkinson-being impugned in this way, especially when she cannot be here to answer for herself.
I have at no time sought to play party politics with this decision. Nor have I at any time used this process to try to undermine the standing of the Children's Commissioner in the way that is happening today in this House. I have accepted the unanimous recommendation from an independent selection process, which said that Dr. Atkinson would be the best champion for children and young people in our country-that is why I made my decision. I have to say that Dr. Atkinson will be no patsy at all.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): As the Secretary of State knows very well, there is no one in this place-and there was no one on the Select Committee-who sought to doubt that Maggie Atkinson was a highly qualified, highly competent public servant. The question was whether she had the skills, the independence and the championing abilities to act in this particular role. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the advert for this job asked for someone who would be a "campaigner for children"? Will he also confirm that, when Mrs. Atkinson was asked by the Select Committee whether that was how she saw the job, she said, "I am not sure that the Children's Commissioner is a campaigning role. It is a drawing to attention role".
Speaking as a member of a party that accepts the role of Children's Commissioner and wants someone to act in that capacity, may I ask whether the Secretary of State accepts that there are already concerns that the English children's spokesman is already one of the weakest in the whole of the United Kingdom, and probably in the whole of the European Union? Does he also agree that there is a concern about whether this individual is already able to do their job effectively? Concerns have now been raised about the Secretary of State appointing a person who is a very effective public servant but who does not even see herself doing the job that was set down in the advertisement for the role.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the other departmental bodies that require these pre-confirmation hearings are also those that are expected to have a large element of independence from his Department, including Ofqual and the schools inspectorate, as well as the Children's Commissioner's post itself? Does he accept
that what those jobs have in common is that they need people in the top posts who will be ferocious watchdogs with no fear and with some inclination to be willing to bite, including those in his Department? Are we not in danger of getting instead a series of tame poodles to do the Secretary of State's bidding, rather than the independent job that they are supposed to be doing? In future, is not the only answer for the Secretary of State and his colleagues either to accept the reservations of the Select Committees, or to withdraw from the role of choosing these individuals who have a key job in scrutinising the Department's policies?
Ed Balls: No, it is my job to consider very carefully the Select Committee's view-and I did-and to make the right decision in the public interest. That is what I have done. The hon. Gentleman raises legitimate questions about the powers for the Children's Commissioner in the 2004 Act, and the nature of the standing of that person and whether they should be appointed by Parliament or by the Government. However, those are issues for the Act; they were not issues for this particular selection process.
In terms of the selection process itself, it was done independently and rigorously, and any question about who was suitable for the job was addressed by the independent process. The conclusion was that Maggie Atkinson was by far the best person for the job, out of all the people who applied. It is true that the Committee Chair asked Dr. Atkinson whether she had had direct public relations experience. She said that she had never been a PR executive, but she had been heavily engaged in advocacy and in making a case, not only in leading a children's service in Gateshead but in representing them all across the country during the Haringey period. To be honest, any of us who know her know that that is why she has been appointed to this post. That is why Barnardo's said that it was "astonished" by the Select Committee report, the Children's Society said that it was "disappointed", and Anne Longfield said that it was "unfortunate". The Association of Directors of Children's Services also said that it was "astonished". That was the reaction.
On campaigning, Maggie Atkinson told the Committee that this was "an influencing role, and a drawing to attention role, but to me the word 'campaigning' smacks of active politics. This is not a political appointment. Rather, this is not a political post." She went on to say, "This role is not an inspector nor a political drum-beater. It is the holder of a very sharp light which is illuminated by the words and the wishes of children and young people and is shone on policy makers. It will seek out areas on which that light needs to shine. That is really important. It is not campaigning in a political sense, but the office of the Children's Commissioner has the right and duty to say to those making policies"-this, that and the other. I will not go through the long quote. The important point is that she absolutely accepts the independent, strong advocacy role. To say that she is a tame poodle is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman, and unworthy of those who make those comments.
Everyone who knows Maggie Atkinson knows that she is the strongest, most fearless, most independent advocate. That is why she has been appointed, unanimously and independently. Those who do not want to abolish the Children's Commissioner should start to support this post, rather than seeking to undermine it.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Select Committee conducted due process in this case in the best possible way? We were, across the parties, reluctant to make the decision and recommendation that we did, because we were impressed by many of the qualities of the lady who was being interviewed for us, but we did not know her and had no in-depth knowledge of her, as the Secretary of State obviously has. We nevertheless made our judgment on the basis of the interview of more than hour in front of the Select Committee. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the letter he sent to me today suggests that there will never be a case where a Select Committee can make any recommendation that any Secretary of State would accept?
Ed Balls: I do not understand that final comment at all, as the guidance is very clear and it is my duty to take account of the Committee's views, which I have done with great care and consideration. I have to say to my hon. Friend that the idea that he or other members of the Select Committee did not know of the director of children's services in Gateshead, who had represented directors of children's services over the previous 12 months, including during the baby Peter case in Haringey-and did not know of her capabilities, her strength and her independence-is baffling to me. I read the paragraphs in the report that referred to the Committee's concerns, and I considered them very carefully indeed. I found no relevant considerations that would lead me to reverse the independent Nolan process, and the choice that I made is widely supported across the country. On that basis, while I took the process very seriously indeed, I did not agree with the Select Committee. I am the one accountable for the post. I made the right decision in the public interest and I stand by it absolutely.
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he has form here, as he was the chief adviser to the then Chancellor when they both brushed aside the Treasury Committee's rejection of the appointment of Christopher Allsopp to the Monetary Policy Committee within hours of the recommendation being made? What is the point of having pre-appointment hearings if Government Ministers are going to ignore them completely?
Ed Balls: It is very important that these things are considered very carefully by the Government in a non-political, non-partisan and non-personal way. It is also very important to approach these issues in a non-partisan and non-political way. My experience of the Treasury Committee suggests that that was always how it approached these matters, so we took its recommendations very seriously. I have to say, however, that Mr. Allsopp turned out to be an excellent member of the Monetary Policy Committee and a great advocate for growth and jobs in our country. I suspect that, in retrospect, the hon. Gentleman probably agrees with me that we were right not to go with the Treasury Committee's recommendation on that day. As I have said, Mr. Allsopp turned out to be an excellent member of the MPC, but we took the hon. Gentleman's views very seriously indeed.
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