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T5.  Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab):
A pupil in my constituency was unable to access the local education authority-run educational psychology service because the school had run out of its hours. Last year, those hours were reduced from 42 to 37, meaning that
the school got 2.1 minutes of educational psychology per pupil. Will the Minister please tell me whether she thinks that that is adequate, and, if not, whether she will undertake an investigation into Lancashire county council's psychology service?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): I am very disappointed to hear about the experience of my hon. Friend's constituent, and I will certainly look into it. We greatly value the work of educational psychologists. In the last six months, I have met the Association of Educational Psychologists twice to discuss its role and how best to support it.
T6.  Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): On the subject of the Secretary of State's maths, will he now apologise for inadvertently misleading the House when he spoke about the numbers of people eligible for free school meals who went to Oxford and Cambridge? He got those figures wrong.
Ed Balls: I may have misheard the shadow Schools Secretary when I heard him-erroneously, once again-quote A-level student numbers that excluded those in sixth-form colleges and maintained schools. The fact is that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has form; in recent months, he has regularly quoted figures that he knows to be untrue. We have tried to correct them time and time again. I have no idea whether he got them right or wrong in this case; what I know is that every time he has used them in the past, he has got them wrong.
T10.  Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): As the Minister is aware, Calderdale children's services have recently been classed as inadequate, and failings have been found in that department. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that children in Calderdale are safeguarded and that there is complete trust in the service provision?
The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Dawn Primarolo): When the Ofsted report on the inadequacy of the services for safeguarding Calderdale children was published, my Department's officials were immediately in contact and have been in discussions with Calderdale local authority about the issues, looking into the reasons and the steps it intends to take. I will meet Calderdale local authority this afternoon to hear its proposals before having discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on any further action, including intervention, that needs to be taken in that local authority.
T4.  Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): The Minister's reply to me a few moments ago was quite outrageous. Children are actually going missing in local authority care-the local authorities do not know where they are; the public do not know where they are. UNICEF produced a report last week, which appeared in The Observer on Sunday, specifying three local authorities which said that they were missing and losing children. The Minister cannot just duck out of this, saying that she does not know anything about it.
Dawn Primarolo: With respect, that is not what the hon. Gentleman asked me. He asked whether any local authorities had contacted me, and I said no, as they had not. He then said he was surprised because three had been quoted in a UNICEF report. I then asked him whether, if he had any specific details or concerns, he would let me know of them, and I would pursue them. I was not ducking his question. As he well knows, this Government have taken a number of steps over the last five years to protect and reinforce the rights of all children in care, including those involved in trafficking, by adopting procedures and protocols to ensure that children who go missing are found and returned to safety.
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): I welcome the recent reduction in the number of young people not in education, employment or training. However, if access to education maintenance allowance were to be restricted, would that help or hinder making further progress in reducing the number of NEETs?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): As I mentioned in previous answers, the policy intervention of the education maintenance allowance has had a wonderful effect on improving the educational attainment and participation rates of pupils, particularly of those from lower income backgrounds post-16. We are continuing with that. We have a very clear policy on ensuring that the EMA will continue, but I am afraid that the Conservative party does not.
T7.  Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Following the remarkably frank statement from the Secretary of State about the budget cuts to his Department, will he give the House an assurance that they will not affect rural areas, such as North Yorkshire, disproportionately? How does he respond to criticisms from North Yorkshire schools that the Ofsted inspection does not give even one full day's notice, even when it is inspecting outstanding and highly achieving schools?
Ed Balls: I am happy to give the hon. Lady a clear assurance that front-line school spending, including Sure Start and 16-to-19 funding, will be protected under the present Government. We have funds for real-terms rises during the next three years. What we will not engage in is a free-market experiment that would lead to cuts for existing schools, as well as falling standards and rising inequality. As I have said before, if the hon. Lady wants to ensure that her school budgets are protected, she had better vote Labour.
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): May I ask the Secretary of State to take a second look at one aspect of the Building Schools for the Future programme? Schools with listed aspects to their architecture-classrooms built on concrete, for example-are penalised because they cannot rebuild completely. An element of flexibility is needed, but it does not exist at present.
That flexibility should be there. We are talking about brand-new or fully refurbished school buildings. Over the past couple of years, I have visited many schools that have had to work with the issue of
listed buildings, but it is possible to do so if the planning is right and the resources are there. I know that Coventry has benefited from those resources. I hope that the new schools in my hon. Friend's constituency have reached financial closure, but their funds would be cut by the Conservatives were they to win the election.
T8.  Mr. Shailesh Vara (N. West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Following the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), may I offer the Secretary of State a second opportunity to apologise to the House for giving misleading information about children who receive free school meals and the number who go to Oxbridge colleges?
Ed Balls: I want more children from free school meals backgrounds to go to Oxford and Cambridge. The fact is that time and again in recent months, in the House and in speeches elsewhere, the shadow Secretary of State has wrongly quoted figures about free school meals in which he has excluded those who go to sixth-form or further education colleges. That does down their achievements, but I have not received any apology from the hon. Gentleman for his errors at any stage. Once he starts to admit his errors, we can start to have a grown-up conversation.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I am not going to become involved in the issue of apologies, but I am sure the Secretary of State is not suggesting that the shadow Secretary of State was deliberately misleading the House. I am sure he is not saying that.
Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Leicestershire county council failed to get its BSF bid beyond the Partnerships for Schools process and on to Ministers' desks. Will Ministers assure me that they will explain the reasons for that, and will they join me in urging the council to talk to all who oppose the bid, so that we can achieve a genuine consensus and partnership locally and the bid can be submitted again in the near future?
Ed Balls: I assure my hon. Friend that we will do all that we can to work with his local authority to enable it to complete the process in due course. The Minister for Schools and Learners will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and local officials. What I cannot do, however, is give an assurance that the money will be there. We are guaranteeing Building Schools for the Future for the future, but the Conservative party is not giving that guarantee. Only the re-election of my hon. Friend can ensure that those schools are built for his constituents.
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Why do the Government undermine schools that exclude pupils by sending some of them back to the same schools, thus putting at risk the education of all the children in those schools?
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Mr. Vernon Coaker): We do not do that at all. In a proper system, schools exclude pupils and pupils have an opportunity to appeal. Sometimes it is right for pupils who are excluded to be returned to their schools. That is a proper system, and when I was a deputy head teacher it operated quite well without undermining school discipline.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Given that today is international women's day, will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the partners of deployed personnel who keep the home fires burning, and particularly to Friends and Families of Deployed Units, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year? Although the organisation was born in Plymouth, it now operates in a number of service communities throughout the country.
Ed Balls: I do pay tribute to the families and especially the fathers and mothers of men and women who are serving abroad. I pay particular tribute to those who have lost sons and daughters in recent months. Their commitment to their children is something of which our country is hugely proud, and on international women's day it is particularly important for us to recognise the contribution of the mothers of those serving in our armed forces.
The Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust believes a 13-year-old boy in my constituency who attends a secondary school and who has learning difficulties needs additional support at school, but the education authorities are not prepared to grant that support. What advice can the Secretary of State give me on how to put this matter right and give this young man an opportunity to make progress?
Ed Balls: Obviously, I do not know the details of this particular case, but what I do know is that the Brian Lamb review was set up to try to make sure that parents get the information, support and voice that they need if they feel their children are not getting the proper support that they require. There are variations around the country in the ways in which local authorities support children with special needs, and particularly their parents, but the important thing to do is to make sure they get the support they need. I am sure that, as the constituency MP for the young man in question, the hon. Gentleman will do his best, and I will be very happy to help in any way I can.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor if he will make a statement on the circumstances of the breach of licence conditions by, and recall to prison of, Jon Venables.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I am most grateful for this opportunity to explain to the House the situation relating to Jon Venables. The background is as follows. In 1993, James Bulger, a young child aged two and a half, was the victim of a most horrific murder. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both then aged 10, were convicted of James's murder at a trial at Preston Crown court in November 1993. They were given the mandatory sentence for murder by juveniles, namely detention at Her Majesty's pleasure. The minimum tariff was originally set by the trial judge at eight years. That was increased to 10 years by the then Lord Chief Justice, the late Lord Taylor, and then to 15 by the Home Secretary of the day, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Following a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in December 1999, the final decision on tariff setting was transferred from the Home Secretary to the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, who set a tariff of seven years and eight months.
Venables and Thompson were granted new identities, which were, and remain, protected by an injunction. They were released by the Parole Board on a life licence in June 2001. Various stringent conditions were attached, and they have been under probation supervision.
During the week beginning 22 February this year, officials in my Department learned of a compromise of Venables's new identity. Subsequently, information came to light that Venables may have committed a serious breach of his licence conditions. He was recalled to custody the same day, and has since remained in prison. A Parole Board hearing will be held as soon as is practicable. Once we had established as much information as we could, we informed the bereaved parents of James Bulger of the recall, under the statutory victim contact scheme. My Department later issued a brief statement to the press regarding Venables's recall to custody.
As the House is aware, we have not provided full details about this case, beyond confirming that Venables faces extremely serious allegations. That is because the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions have advised that a premature disclosure of information could undermine the integrity of the criminal justice process, including the continuing investigation and the potential for a prosecution in the future.
I fully understand the concern of James Bulger's parents and the wider public about this case, and, indeed, the frustration voiced by James's mother, Mrs. Fergus, that insufficient information has been provided to her. As I indicated earlier today, I have been giving further active consideration as to whether it would be appropriate to provide more information, but I have concluded that that would not currently be in the interests of justice. If charges do follow, it is critical that it is possible to hold a fair trial-fair for the defence and
fair for the prosecution. As I said on Saturday morning, our motivation is solely to ensure that extremely serious allegations are properly investigated and that justice is done. No one in this country would want anything other. If any offender on a life licence is charged with a serious further offence, a thorough review of the supervision must be carried out-in any event, I will give the House further information as soon as I can.
Mr. Grieve: I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting the question and for giving, as a result, an opportunity to the Justice Secretary to make a statement. He might on reflection conclude that he could profitably have explained earlier to the House the limits to what can be disclosed at this time because of the risk of prejudicing recall proceedings or a prosecution-nobody wants to do that. Explaining in summary the legal process, the time frame for the parole proceedings and the procedure used, and the grounds of recall, as well as giving a commitment to disclose more information once the relevant parole or prosecution decisions have been taken, in redacted form if necessary to protect Mr. Venables's identity, could all help to avoid the frenzy of speculation that has arisen in this case.
All in this House will have a shared concern with the Justice Secretary to ensure that that speculation does not interfere with the course of justice. He may agree with me that the fact that he and the Home Secretary have given different comments to the media, which appeared somewhat inconsistent, does not help public confidence in the justice system. Will the Justice Secretary please, in response, try to cover at least some of these points now? Nobody needs reminding of the appalling circumstances of the murder of James Bulger-it shocked the country-but the role of Ministers is not to ebb and flow with media speculation.
Can the Justice Secretary now explain what licence conditions were placed on Mr. Venables? Can the Justice Secretary give a commitment to report to the House as soon as practicable on the action that the probation service has taken in response to every reported breach of licence by Mr. Venables since his release, so that the public can be assured that he was properly supervised? The Justice Secretary will be aware that there is now disquiet, including from Mrs. Fergus, that that has not happened. Can he also reassure the House that the grounds for not saying more at this stage constitute a practical need to avoid identifying Mr. Venables, given his new identity and the possible requirements of a trial process, rather than, as some sometimes fear, a broader creeping advance of privacy rights for criminals, which comes at the expense of public transparency? Does the Justice Secretary recognise how important it is for public confidence that justice is not only done, but seen to be done? In discharging what are often very difficult ministerial responsibilities the Justice Secretary is fully entitled to our understanding, but he needs to explain those difficulties to the House if he is to obtain its support.
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